The same day he turned 69, Bowie released Blackstar, his 25th studio album and his best since 2002’s Heathen. A man who bucked, created and followed trends over the course of his impossibly fascinating career, Bowie was a true icon who successfully reinvented his career more times than any other figure in music history.
From his ’70s heyday as a gender ambiguous iconoclast to his icy Berlin period to his time as the Goblin King to his recent career comeback, here are 10 brilliantly bizarre clips from David Bowie.
“Boys Keep Swinging” on Saturday Night Live
Not only did Bowie bring a song about the homoeroticism intrinsic in machismo to network TV in 1979, but he managed to get a marionette with a pretty obvious raging erection (2:05) on American TVs, too. That marionette, incidentally, was Bowie himself. Or at least that’s how it appeared to viewers: A jerky marionette was superimposed over Bowie’s own head, making him seem half puppet, half man, and all weird. The presence of Klaus Nomi — a singer whose gender fluidity made Bowie look like Pat Boone — is a wonderful bonus.
“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”
David Bowie’s strangest clip of all is the one where he tries to pass himself off as an average person to Bing Crosby on the King of Complacency’s 1977 TV Christmas special. After exchanging pleasantries about their respective Christmastime traditions (Bowie avoided mentioning the different kind of snow he reportedly subsisted on for most of 1974), the two legends crooned two separate songs simultaneously. It was later a hit in 1982.
Jazzin’ for Blue Jean
A short film directed by Sex Pistols vet Julien Temple centered on Bowie’s “Blue Jean” single, this movie features Bowie in dual roles. He plays a socially awkward guy trying to get a girl by convincing her he knows a famous rock star, and he portrays the rock star, Screaming Lord Byron, too. The 20-minute story ends with the camera pulling back to reveal the film set, after which Bowie starts to argue with the director about the movie’s ending and whether it’s too “clever clever.”
“Be My Wife”
Music videos where the singer stares into the camera against a white backdrop and sings shouldn’t be this strange, but there’s something about Bowie’s alien movements and gaze — alternately emotional and detached — that makes this Low video a high point in his career.
“The Next Day”
The best video from Bowie’s comeback LP of the same name features Gary Oldman as a priest in a brothel, Marion Cotillard as a prostitute with stigmata and Bowie as his weird self. Despite the lack of actual NSFW content, the controversial religious imagery resulted in YouTube yanking the clip for a bit. It’s back now and worth risking the wrath of God to watch.
“The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”
Bowie and Tilda Swinton play a regular suburban couple getting stalked by a tabloid reporter in this odd clip. The best scene finds modern-day Bowie confronting a younger version of himself to demand the raucous youngster turn down that damn noise you kids call music.
The mini-movie for the title track to his new album is one of the better entries in the Bowie video canon. Melding Pina Bausch-esque dance with Jodorowsky symbolism (religion and darkness factor heavily) with sci-fi tones as a nod to Bowie’s Starman past, the 10-minute clip is one of the most cohesively arty videos in Bowie’s career.
“Ashes to Ashes”
Since this song autobiographically charts Bowie’s first decade, it’s fitting that Bowie himself appears in a variety of disparate guises in this clip. Between wandering the desert with a cadre of strange backup singers, sitting in padded cell and standing in water dressed as the famous pantomime persona Pierrot, none of it makes a ton of sense, but then again, it shouldn’t — it’s art rock posturing. It’s supposed to be oblique.
“I’m Afraid of Americans”
Poor David Bowie runs all across New York City chased by scary American Trent Reznor in this Taxi Driver-influenced clip full of strangely violent scenes, including one where the Nine Inch Nails frontman opens fire on the Thin White Duke. It ends with a Day of the Dead-esque procession lead by Reznor, because… well, why not?
For this single from the Labyrinth soundtrack, Bowie travels through past personas including Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Jareth from the movie. He also interacts with the Labyrinth puppets not as the Goblin King but as blue-suited Bowie, looking more than slightly creeped out by Jim Henson’s creations. Oh, and he also turns into a cartoon at one point, because that’s what people did in the early days of MTV.