With the sudden announcement of David Bowie’s passing from liver cancer at age 69 on Sunday, much is being written about his immense influence on music and culture. Bowie was a pop innovator, a musical pioneer, and perhaps most importantly a role model for all those who didn’t quite fit into “normal” categories of mainstream society. If Bowie represented a positive example of how being a freak or a weirdo could be reclaimed as “cool”, at a certain point later in his career he started to feel like his detached engagement with the surface world of pop wasn’t quite enough. This political awakening was intrinsically connected to his relationship with Australia.
David Bowie’s fascination with Australia stemmed from a painting of Uluru, which he saw as a young boy.
"The first time I had seen Ayers Rock was as on the cover of a Stravinsky album. And I bought that particular one — I was only about 12 — because of the picture on the front and I thought — what a fantastic looking mountain or whatever that is. It looked really exciting and subsequently when I read the sleeve notes, I realised it was this place in Australia and I always wanted to see it because of that."
Bowie eventually made it to Australia in 1978 for the Low/Heroes tour and returned many times. In the early 80s he purchased an apartment in the Sydney suburb of Elizabeth Bay and lived there on and off for the next ten years. Bowie became good buddies with TV personality Ian “Molly” Meldrum - even offering him a place to stay at his chalet in Switzerland when the Countdown host’s house burnt down. Bowie also recorded the second album for his late 80s rock band Tin Machine at 301 Studios in Sydney.
Bowie travelled around Australia visiting the outback and rainforest, and in his travels he learned of the plight of the Aboriginal population, the genocide in Australia’s recent past and the dispossession of indigenous communities. He also learned of white Australia’s refusal to engage this collective history and it’s insistence on assimilation as the only way forward.
In 1983 Bowie and director David Mallet simultaneously shot the videos for two of the singles from his album Let's Dance. The "China Girl" and "Let’s Dance" videos saw Bowie utilising his international pop star status to make an overtly political statement for the first time. MTV in the early 80s was becoming powerful cultural force and Bowie was eager to push the limits of the medium.
As he explained to Rolling Stone at the time about the videos:
"They're almost like Russian social realism, very naive. And the message that they have is very simple – it's wrong to be racist! But I see no reason to fuck about with that message, you see? I thought, ‘Let’s try to use the video format as a platform for some kind of social observation, and not just waste it on trotting out and trying to enhance the public image of the singer involved. I mean, these are little movies, and some movies can have a point, so why not try to make some point. This stuff goes out all over the world; it’s played on all kinds of programs. I mean-you get free point time!”
"China Girl" was shot in Sydney and featured New Zealand model Geeling Ng, who Bowie had met through her job as a waitress in Sydney. "Let’s Dance" was filmed around Sydney and in Carinda, rural NSW. The video portrayed Joelene King and Terry Roberts as a young Aboriginal couple attempting to assimilate into white Australian culture and their eventual rejection of this loaded struggle in favour of their own way of life.
Speaking to MTV journalist Kurt Loder who was on set for the "Let’s Dance" shoot, Bowie remarked.
"As much as I love this country, it's probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa. I mean, in the north, there's unbelievable intolerance. The Aborigines can't even buy their drinks in the same bars – they have to go round the back and get them through what's called a 'dog hatch.' And then they're forbidden from drinking them on the same side of the street as the bar; they have to go to the other side of the road."
Bowie’s decision to engage with issues of racism directly in his music came as a stark contrast to his previous work. It’s sobering to note that at the time of his death 33 years later, the situation for indigenous communities in contemporary Australia are not that dissimilar, with many of the issues raised in the "Let’s Dance" video still current and of crucial concern. As Bowie said of his decision to confront these topics:
“It occurred to me that one doesn't have much time on the planet, you know? And that I could do something more useful in terms of … I know this is very cliché, but I feel that now that I'm 36 years old, and I've got a certain position, I want to start utilising that position to the benefit of my … brotherhood and sisterhood. I've found it's very easy to be successful in other terms, but I think you can't keep on being an artist without actually saying anything more than, 'Well, this is an interesting way of looking at things.’ There is also a right way of looking at things: there's a lot of injustice. So let's, you know, say something about it. However naff it comes off."
Miles Brown is a Melbourne writer and musician. Follow him @M1le5r0wn