David Bowie @ the V and A

I have been asked to repost this because of my updates about the international tour schedule of this exhibit and inclusion (by request) of the videos I mention in paragraph five of the article.


I was so glad to be in London before the record-breaking V and A ‘Bowie is’ exhibition closed on the 11th August. I have always loved David Bowie. I saw him for the first time when I was about 11 on the South African version of MTV, which was called Pop Shop. They played his 6th July 1972 Top of the Pops performance of Starman.

I fell in love with him instantly. I would have had a giant crush on him whether he was a man or a woman. My father almost choked on his brandy when he saw this apparition appear on our TV.  He did the  ‘Is that a girl or a boy? That’s not music, it’s just noise! That outfit is indecent!’ as Bowie strutted around in heavy makeup and dyed red hair, wearing a glittery outfit that was so tight it displayed his formidable package to the world. When he almost canoodled (not once but TWICE) with the long-haired lamé-clad guitarist, Mick Ronson, the TV was turned off immediately and I was probably sent to confession the next day.

Soon I had his posters all over my walls. I loved his snaggle teeth – to this day most of the people I find extremely attractive have those fangy teeth. I had a Pineapple Cut to emulate his hair (not a good look on curly hair I am afraid. I looked horrendous!) and bought his records. After he appeared on TV in a dress by Mr Fish, I was banned from watching him but still allowed to listen to him on the radio and on my record player.

I have continued to be a great fan of Bowie and in his later years he has given many brilliant interviews – extremely funny.  He has become a very open interviewee (which he was not in the earlier years). I have another post on my blog about his many hilarious interviews and quotes. For someone who has been so successful for almost 5 decades and has literally written rock history, he is remarkably down to earth and able to laugh at himself, though his intelligence and talent comes across in every word he says.

Proof of his greatness is that you can go to YouTube and look at completely different footage –  like a live version of  Moonage Daydream from the Hammersmith Odeon on the night of 3rd July 1973 (when he killed off Ziggy). Or a made-for-tv video of Rebel Rebel with Bowie as Halloween Jack – and he still looks like he comes from the future. Not many things from 40 years ago stand the test of time like that. (links to these videos are below)

So I was very keen to see this exhibition and I was not disappointed. I actually went twice because there was a lot I missed the first time due to the crowds. I would recommend going two and a half to three hours before closing because they stop letting people enter and the crowds will thin out around the first displays so you can go back and see what was over-crowded when you came in. A good night is Friday night when they have late closing (10pm) because the crowds disperse by then. The online tickets are all sold out and they are often sold out at the museum but if you wait until about 2pm there are often more released for the late afternoon or early evening. Just leave yourself enough time to see everything.

This exhibition was not curated by Bowie, but he did give the V & A access to 7000 items in his enormous archive, in order to create this fantastic retrospective. On display are  instruments, lyrics, designs, costumes and diary entries – all in original. There are also banks of monitors playing videos, film clips which play in a tiny theatre, and a huge video display just before the exit. Sennheiser (which are my favourite earphones) did the sound and it is epic. You wear headphones and as you pass displays you hear music or discussion of what you are passing. Depending on which square you are standing on in certain parts, different music and videos play for you. All the mono and stereo clips have been redone in full surround sound. When you enter the exhibition you are given a booklet explaining how exactly Sennheiser created the sound for this show.

For me the best part was the four-storey high screens in the penultimate room which played different videos on each huge screen and intermittently displayed the costumes behind the screen. You can see the scale of this by looking at the life size costumes on display.

When you are finished with the exhibition you end up in the shop, where they have Bowie badges, t-shirts, biographies, albums and DVDs, bags,  calendars, posters, magnets, pencils, notebooks and many more.  These can also be ordered from anywhere in the world in the V and A web shop. I can recommend the companion coffee table book to the exhibition (now reduced to £20 in paperback version), several of the biographies and the special edition dvds available of all his hard-to-find films.

There is also a David Bowie café and lots of lectures, workshops and events related to this exhibition. Some of the workshops were amazing.

On 13 August there will be a cinema event of this exhibition. Read more about it here.

When that is over, the exhibition will start to tour the world. It is a must see!  At the V & A it broke all records for advance ticket sales, and since then has broken all attendance records for the museum and the online tickets are permanently sold out. Here is the first list of cities it will visit. This list will be updated as new venues are announced.

I learned a lot, such as:

  • Bowie was the first artist to have a web presence with an interactive website
  • He has sold more than 140 million albums
  • He has played to 80 000 fans in New Zealand – the largest audience per capita anywhere
  • He established Bowie bonds – securities collateralized by future earnings of singer David Bowie’s song catalog. Issued in 1997, Bowie Bonds established a new category of securitized debt in which entertainers sold future royalties to investors
  • He plays electric and acoustic guitars; saxophone; keyboards including piano and synthesizers; harmonica, xylophone, stylophone, drums, percussion, cello and viola
  • He has designed stage sets, album covers (most notably Diamond Dogs) and has complete control of projects
  • Apart from acting in quite a few films, he was also a hit in Elephant Man on Broadway. He played the Elephant Man, John Merrick and did not use makeup or prosthetics – just speech and bodily movements – to portray the character. He was actually extremely good. Clips are shown in the exhibition
  • He is trained in mime and cabaret. Clips are shown in the exhibition
  • He was one of the first people to use McQueen as a designer
  • He turned down a knighthood in 2003
  • He started a society called ‘The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men’

Click on the images below to see bigger pictures and cycle through them.

These are some of the videos they show:

and one of the exhibition

and, as promised above, links to two of my favourie Bowie clips:

First, Moonage Daydream live from the Hammersmith Odeon on 3rd July 1973. This is probably my favourite Bowie song and video of all time.  It shows Bowie’s showmanship, his fantastic voice, his songwriting talent, his ability to be simultaneously masculine and feminine, the chemistry between Mick Ronson and Bowie and the great extended Ronson guitar solo (which allowed Bowie to disappear for a costume change for the next song). This was the last time Bowie appeared as Ziggy. He announced his retirement at the end of this concert -surprising both the band and the audience, who knew nothing about it. Bowie later said he was absolutely exhausted and utterly tired of Ziggy. But you would not say it by looking at his energy and chemistry with Ronson and the audience in this clip. The 2 simple silver bracelets Bowie always wore on his left arm seemed at odds with the over the top costumes but they were wedding bracelets – worn by him and Angie Bowie instead of  traditional wedding rings. Read more about them here. You can buy a DVD of the whole concert – I can recommend it.

And second, Rebel Rebel from 1974. This was the last glam rock single Bowie made, and this made my dad totally apoplectic – the lyrics, Bowie’s androgyny, the outfit (complete with signature Bowie Bulge) and his suggestive guitar stroking and facial expressions. To this day I love it – and it has not dated at all!

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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