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A revolution with Bowie

John Rockwell • The New York Times • 25 December 1980


Only a few years ago, 'rock opera' seemed on the verge of taking over not just the musical theatre, but perhaps even our opera houses as well, what with Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway and Tommy at the Metropolitan Opera. But the form never really caught on. Ultimately, the rock idiom proved too limited to adapt to the longlined expressive demands of conventional opera, and both Broadway and the operatic world itself turned out to be too hidebound to foster such a revolutionary evolution in the first place.

Now, however, rock has found its own form of theatrical expression - quite apart from the operatic theatrics of a singular performer like Bruce Springsteen. That form is the video vignette. Right now, New York's hippest dance-rock clubs are caught up in the video revolution; they compete in the lavishness of their video installations and in the acquisition of the latest video software, which may then be seen flickering on the omnipresent monitors and giant projection screens.

These efforts - which are also shown as promotional shorts on rock television programs and will one day soon be made available on videodiscs - are mostly unimaginative, commercially calculated affairs that all too perfectly match the music they illustrate. Or - when the clubs turn to unsynchronised showings of Japanese monster movies and decadent-looking European high-fashion commercials - the video explosion looks like an eighties update of sixties psychedelic lightshows.

But the new video shorts are far better than that, and really quite extraordinary. Devo made some fine ones a couple of years ago (they were films, actually), and The Boomtown Rats contributed nobly to the cause as well. But the real hero of the rock video revolution so far is that perennial pioneer David Bowie.

Mr Bowie made three video illustrations of songs from his penultimate album, and has done two more from his latest, Scary Monsters.

The footage for his song Ashes To Ashes is a surrealist collage, full of continually intercut images: Mr Bowie as a forlorn clown wandering along an ink-black sea (and talking at the end to an earnestly chatty old British mum), as a spaceman, a deep-sea diver, and so forth. The other, for his song Fashion, alternates a bizarre assortment of folk standing in a soup-kitchen line, a dance class, various characters who look as if they had stepped from fifties British commercials and Mr Bowie in performance.

What is remarkable about these spots is not so much the images as the brilliant way they are edited and how they expand on the music itself, rather than merely accompanying it or even contradicting it. These little shorts are genuine music theatre in a new and modem guise, and they deserve to be seen by anyone interested in either, rock or opera.


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this page updated January 17, 2020