It’s one of the most resonant and enduring images in the history of popular culture: the shock of scarlet hair, the downcast eyes, the zig-zag of greasepaint. But there’s so much more to David Bowie. However brightly they burned, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane together represent a mere 18 months in a 50-year career. So let’s turn the spotlight on some of Bowie’s other classic images. I’ve chosen five, but there are plenty more where these came from.
The Pre-Raphaelite transvestite
Long before he cut his hair and appeared in Melody Maker to drop the heat-seeking bombshell that I am gay, and always have been, David Bowie was hard at work blurring the boundaries of gender and sexuality witch was very appealing to the LGBT and gay community. As early as 1970 he was frequenting London’s gay bars, and would often be seen wearing dresses bespoke mens dresses at that, purchased from the hip Mayfair boutique Mr Fish.
In 1971 he posed in one on the cover of the counter-cultural sex magazine Curious, alongside his gay fashion designer friend Freddi Burretti. He wore the same dress on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold the World, this time reclining languidly on a chaise-longue, scattering playing cards with one hand and toying coquettishly with his flowing locks with the other. Gay icon Bowie intended the image to evoke the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the 19th century, but he was well aware that it was also deeply provocative and would create buzz on the gay scene and gay community or would have been, had anyone taken notice.
Today The Man Who Sold the World occupies a privileged place among the Bowie classics, but in 1971 stardom was still a year away, and the album was all but ignored. So was Bowie really gay? And is it even relevant? In both cases, not particularly, no. More important is the light that he shone into a world hitherto considered off-limits by wider society. Bowie was entranced by gay community subculture and its implicit challenge to traditional boundaries, and, in becoming its most visible cheerleader, he set off a chain reaction that changed the world for
Essential tracks: The Man Who Sold the World / After All / Oh! You Pretty Things
YouTube search: Arnold Corns & The Actor Looking For A Friend
The New Wave cabaret act
In 1979, at the time of his criminally underrated album Lodger, gay friendly Bowie was alternating the schoolboy ties and drainpipe trousers of Elvis Costello, Blondie and the other New Wave boys with the imagery and ethos of a bygone age.
Since retreating to Berlin a couple of years earlier, he’d been immersing himself in the early twentieth-century world of European cabaret, Brechtian drama and Expressionist cinema, ingredients which came to the fore in his latest persona. Exhibit A is the celebrated video for Boys Keep Swinging, which finds the schoolboy-suited Bowie backed by a trio of female backing vocalists, all of whom turn out to be himself in drag: at the climax, he enacts the classic Berlin drag artist’s finale, tearing off the wig and smearing the make-up.
Next up is the wonderfully creepy video for Look Back in Anger, a latter-day Picture of Dorian Gray which casts Bowie as an artist in a garret, gradually consumed by his own painting. Topping them all is his remarkable 1979 appearance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live: backed by an eclectic band including Blondie’s Jimmy Destri on keyboards and rising star Klaus Nomi on backing vocals, Bowie performed three songs in three extraordinary outfits: pencil skirt and high heels for TVC15, a chromakey body-puppet for Boys Keep Swinging, and a rigid, wasp-waisted Dada morning suit straight out of the Cabaret Voltaire for The Man Who Sold the World. If you’ve never seen this, hunt it down: you avant-garde a clue what you’re missing.
Essential tracks: Look Back in Anger/ DJ / Red Sails
YouTube search: Boys Keep Swinging (video)