If it wasn’t for the crowd resembling a sell-out concert, we could be groupies with a backstage pass to this unprecedented glimpse of the David Bowie archive: the V&A’s headlining exhibition, ‘David Bowie is’.
Is there anything that David Bowie isn’t? Ironically, yes, according to this world-first retrospective of the serial reinventor’s five-decade career. “David Bowie is not David Jones,” protests a sign at the beginning of the exhibition, where a typewritten letter dated to 1965 from Bowie’s manager, Ralph Horton, advises “that I have now changed Davie’s name to David Bowie”. No Monkee business going on here.
Today, 48 years after he took American frontiersman Jim Bowie’s name to distinguish himself from teen idol Davy Jones, David Bowie is – very much in the present tense – also not a has-been. Earlier this year he released The Next Day, his first studio album in 10 years, and if the queues outside the V&A and inside the exhibition are any indication, London is in the grip of Bowie fever again.
The exhibition of 300-plus objects seems far more dense, layered with video installations and an integrated audio tour. A music loop of catchy tunes runs the gamut while we crawl along in the queue that snakes around the exhibition.*
Charting the rise of the boy from Brixton to the Top of the Pops, the exhibition includes a black-and-white photo of a 16-year-old Bowie (then a trainee paste-up artist for an ad agency) when he had his first band, The Kon-rads. It’s a reminder of his longevity in the industry. Camera-ready and primped to within an inch of his young life, Bowie would later sing, “When you’re a boy other boys check you out,” cutting a fine figure as a drag queen (or three) in the exhibition’s screening of the video clip for Boys Keep Swinging.
As the exhibition progresses, the teenage Bowie’s blond rockabilly coif morphs into a Mick Jagger-esque ’do on the cover of Bowie’s 1967 debut album for Decca (Bowie was openly fascinated with Jagger) and the shock of red hair he sported as Aladdin Sane in 1973 (a look immortalised on the Brixton 10-pound note).
There are outrageous costumes that immediately scream “Bowie” – the 1973 Tokyo Pop vinyl bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto is a standout – and then there are unexpected objects and references that raise a chuckle. The framed diploma that Bowie received for entering the 2nd International Song Festival in Malta in 1969 (the year he released Space Oddity) resembles an encouragement award, while there’s nothing too cool for school about his song choice for his first BBC audition: Mary Poppins’ Chim Chim Cher-ee.
What is cool, though, is the way Bowie’s record covers are displayed, inviting us to riffle through the album sleeves as if in a vintage record store (or, for some of us, through our own vinyl collections).
Incidentally, no harm was done by Mary Poppins, with Starman launching Bowie onto the BBC’s Top of the Pops and into living rooms across England in 1972. The video of his performance, which caused a stir at the time, is displayed on a floor-to-ceiling screen behind a mannequin dressed in the Starman’s two-piece quilted suit.
The exhibition offers rare insights into Bowie’s creative process, documenting everything from the people who inspired his overt theatricality (including avant-garde mime artist Lindsay Kemp) and use of the cut-up technique (Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs), to his handwritten lyrics, album artwork sketches and costumes. Influenced by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Bowie’s early costumes for Ziggy Stardust take the short bodysuit and platform boots to new heights.
Channelling the glamour of 1940s Hollywood screen siren Lauren Bacall on the cover of his 1971 album, Hunky Dory, Bowie also unwittingly took imitation to its unflattering end, incurring the annoyance of Andy Warhol with his eponymous song about the pop artist on the album. The two met just once, that same year. Watching their awkward encounter on video, I can only imagine what Warhol would have made of Bowie wearing the dead man’s wig and glasses to play him in the film Basquiat in 1996.
Acknowledging Bowie’s many collaborators and co-conspirators, the exhibition features the Union Jack coat designed by the late Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover (1997); Bowie’s diary entry about co-writing his first US hit single, Fame, with John Lennon (1975); and Bowie’s painting of Iggy Pop from the musicians’ Berlin years (1970s).
In addition to Bowie’s handwritten lyrics to Starman, there’s a simulation of the Verbasizer computer program and a video of Bowie demonstrating how he uses it to write his songs. “In the ’70s he becomes fascinated by chance as a catalyst for creativity,” explains the accompanying information about Bowie’s songwriting methods. By the ’90s, Bowie’s use of the Beat-inspired cut-up technique culminates in the electronic word generator known as the Verbasizer. So random. So Bowie.
We leave the exhibition via a larger-than-life video of Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1973. We could almost be at a live concert. “It’s the last show that we’ll ever do,” Bowie announces to an unsuspecting audience before performing the final encore.
We’ve heard that before, so should we be concerned? Let’s hope David Bowie is a doing word.
*Starman, Ashes to Ashes, Heroes, Rebel Rebel, Under Pressure, Changes, Fashion, Let’s Dance, The Jean Genie, Space Oddity, Life on Mars?, Young Americans and John, I’m Only Dancing. You can thank me for the song worm later.