David Bowie is
David Bowie showed us we could be who we wanted to be. In the 1970s he promoted individualism and freedom of sexuality, and over six decades he thrilled, surprised, and delighted audiences with incomparable sound and vision. His work continues to inspire artists, designers, musicians, and many followers with its distinctive persona and style.
Bowie’s death in January 2016 shocked and saddened many millions of admirers. From the British prime minister and the president of the United States to the German government and the Vatican, the variety of tributes underlined Bowie’s influence and impact, and confirmed the extent to which he has permeated popular culture.
This exhibition tells this story through costumes, ?lm, photography, and set designs, as well as more personal items such as musical scores, storyboards, lyrics, and even diary entries. The exhibition reveals the breadth of Bowie’s in?uences and explores his creative processes and, in turn, his in?uence on our world.
This exhibition has been organized by the V & A with unprecedented access to The David Bowie Archive.
All objects are lent by The David Bowie Archive except where otherwise indicated.
Your sound experience starts here.
The David Bowie is exhibition constitutes a stunning technical and artistic success that charts the trajectory of an artist who defies all categorization.
Working closely with the exhibition’s designers and curators, Sennheiser has been a key partner on the project. Through its extensive technical expertise and leading-edge audio solutions, Sennheiser has helped to make the exhibition a momentous cultural event. The guidePORT system provides each visitor with a seamless immersion in David Bowie’s music and world with exceptional audio quality synchronized to the exhibits, while 3D audio experiences allow visitors to be totally submerged in sound and vision, capturing the sensations and emotions of a live concert. Supporting David Bowie is goes to the very heart of Sennheiser’s identity: since 1945, the company has been a force for innovation and continuous improvement in audio, proudly serving creators and artists around the world.
Sound experience by Sennheiser
David Bowie is a Face in the Crowd Growing Up
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones in the south London neighborhood of Brixton on January 8, 1947. By 1953, he had moved with his family to the suburbs, near Bromley. There, his older half-brother awakened David’s interest in jazz and the new Beat poetry.
By 1963, sixteen-year-old David was fascinated by pop music, American culture, and fashion, and he played in local bands. He left school to work in a Mayfair advertising agency, but within a year he had left that job and decided to pursue being a professional musician full-time.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and a wave of other bands revolutionized the United Kingdom’s popular music industry. From 1963 to 1969, David played, wrote songs, recorded, learned to perform, and became “David Bowie.” A significant commercial breakthrough, however, eluded him.
David Bowie is Floating in a Most Peculiar Way Breakthrough
January 1969: Newspapers printed the first color photographs of Earth from space. Bowie wrote, “Planet Earth is blue / And there’s nothing I can do,” in a new song about an astronaut—Major Tom—alone in space. He titled it “Space Oddity”—a pun on Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The single was released in July, shortly before the launch of the Apollo 11 moon mission. On July 20, the BBC played it over footage of the moon landing. By October, “Space Oddity” was No. 5 on the UK record charts. David Bowie had achieved his dream of reaching a national audience.
Major Tom, one of Bowie’s first song characters, is not only a heroic astronaut but a vulnerable, alienated everyman as well. Throughout his career, Bowie described characters in his songs and sometimes performed in their guise onstage. Major Tom returned in the songs “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), the single version of “Hallo Spaceboy” (1996), and “Blackstar” (2015).
David Bowie is Thinking About a World to Come Astronaut of Inner Space
Beamed into homes through television sets across Britain, red-booted, red-haired Bowie sang “Starman” on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in July 1972. Television audiences had rarely seen anything like it. The next day at school and work, it was all anyone discussed.
Alluding to the patterned textiles of the iconic London design house Liberty, Bowie called his look “ultra-violence in Liberty fabrics.” Admiring the visual style of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, he made it his own, remaking the silhouette in a bold, colorful pattern. He was constructing a new identity, plucking ideas from everywhere, because he thought that pop needed an overhaul. And through his experimentation, through his questioning of gender and social norms, Bowie became a glamorous pioneer of invented identities.
David Bowie is Using Machine Age Knife Magic Creative Influences
All artists take ideas from the world around them, but few spread the net so wide or create something so new with what they find.
Bowie’s work was influenced by art, architecture, books, costume design, film, avant-garde performance, conversation, and all kinds of music. The catalyst for his creativity might be a title or the cover of a book, or a pose of an actress in a film, or a philosophy, or the “oblique strategy” of chance.
Bowie’s energy in seeking out new ideas, and his skill in filtering them to find exactly what he needed, was a hallmark of his success. His work never bowed to record company expectations or repeated a winning formula. Bowie was always moving on to something else.
David Bowie is Never at a Loss for Words or Poses Song Creation
For Bowie, songwriting integrated words, music, production, and imagery. Just as he layered influences from music, theater, and art, his songs build up meaning, “so that you see something new each time.” In the 1970s, he was fascinated by chance as a catalyst for creativity. Alongside conventional songwriting methods, he used “cut-up” techniques and, in the 1990s, a random word generator. Seeing the visual as part of the process, he also used painting to test musical textures.
Bowie’s songs rarely offer a straightforward or unified meaning. “I like the idea that they’re vehicles for other people to interpret or use as they will,” he said. Nonetheless, poetic phrases— “a gazely stare” or “hot tramp”—and anthems, such as “we can be heroes,” are unmistakable Bowie and help to make him one of the most influential songwriters.
David Bowie is Surprising Himself Recording Studio
Between 1967 and 2016, Bowie released twenty-seven studio albums, in addition to more than 150 singles, live albums, and music videos. He recorded in studios around the world, including London, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Berlin, and Montreux, and though the locations and technologies changed, the recording studio was the scene of Bowie’s most intense work.
During these fifty years, advances in sound recording transformed Bowie’s possibilities—from mono to surround sound, from four track to multitracking in the digital age. But recording still required total focus: silence, the mic, the musicians standing by, and the producer looking on from the control desk.
Bowie revised his studios and techniques to meet his ambitions. Occasionally everything was planned in advance; usually he would get together with his musicians and work in the studio from ideas gathered in notebooks. Whatever the process or the external pressures, Bowie was renowned for his concentration, skill, and speed. He was ultimately always in control of his catalogue—conceiving, making, then filtering the final tracks for release.
David Bowie is Taking Advantage of what the Moment Offers Collaboration
Bowie always personally controlled every aspect of his work, from the music and album covers to the costumes and stage sets to the merchandise on sale during his tours. His vision always derived from his collaborations, not only with musicians and producers but also with choreographers, artists, photographers, filmmakers, and the designers responsible for graphics, costumes, sets, and lighting. Over his career, he continually sought out collaborators, mainstream or avant-garde, famous or unknown, and always showed a particular talent for finding the right voice to express what he wanted to say. What didn’t work, he consistently left out.
Bowie had a long-standing creative relationship with Tony Visconti, who produced thirteen albums, from Space Oddity in 1969 to Blackstar in 2016. Other significant but briefer collaborations included those with fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, makeup artist Pierre La Roche, set and lighting designer Jules Fisher (all in the early 1970s); producer Nile Rodgers (Let’s Dance, 1983, and Black Tie White Noise, 1993); and fashion designer Alexander McQueen (in the 1990s).
David Bowie is Making Himself Up Characters
In 1967, at age twenty, Bowie discovered the stage and the possibilities of delivering his ideas through the creation of extraordinary characters.
In the 1960s, rock was about authenticity, but Bowie saw the future for the 1970s elsewhere—in acting, play, masks, makeup, costume, kabuki, mime, imagination.
He was continually creating and borrowing—Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke, detective Nathan Adler, the Minotaur.
But there was also “David Bowie” himself, a character-artist who, like the artist Marcel Duchamp in 1923, found that you can perform by not performing and that, in a celebrity-soaked world, a character offstage could remain onstage.
David Bowie is Moving like a Tiger on Vaseline Impact
Bowie was adventurous both artistically and personally. Being in the public eye gave him a platform to surprise and shock with his often androgynous appearance, sparking open conversations about gender roles, the sexuality of clothing, and sexual preference.
This bold and refreshing stance challenged the status quo. Bowie’s pioneering stage shows, costumes, album covers, and music videos were censored at times. But knowing the press value, he enjoyed a playfully subversive relationship with both the truth and the media. In 1972, he told the British music weekly Melody Maker that he was gay and always had been. At a time when few public figures openly discussed being gay, Bowie offered an unfettered perspective that prompted discussions and changed mind-sets.
David Bowie inspired his audiences to dress up for his concerts, and his fans all over the world to express their sexuality—though still a challenging endeavor in many communities and societies. The BBC documentary shown here reveals Britain in 1973: the skepticism of the establishment, but also the adulation of the fans.
David Bowie is in the Best-Selling Show “Life on Mars?”
“Life on Mars?,” one of Bowie’s best-loved, most influential, and most frequently reinterpreted singles, first appeared as a track on the album Hunky Dory in 1971. BBC session musicians provided the orchestral strings for an arrangement written by Mick Ronson, and Rick Wakeman embellished Bowie’s original piano part to great effect. In 1973, the album cut was released as a single on the back of Ziggy-mania, alongside a stunning promotional film created by Mick Rock. The song spent thirteen weeks on the British singles chart in 1973, reaching No. 3, and again in 2007 during screenings of the BBC series Life on Mars. It has been covered by numerous artists, including Barbra Streisand, Phish, Seu Jorge, and Lorde.
David Bowie is a Picture of the Future
“It has to be three-dimensional,” Bowie said in 1974. “I’m not content just writing songs.” His pioneering music videos, created in collaboration with talented directors and artists, set benchmarks for creativity and innovation.
Musicians made promotional music films decades before MTV. In the 1940s, short music films preceded features, and in the early 1960s, film jukeboxes (the Scopitone) offered “live” performances by Neil Sedaka, Johnny Hallyday, and Brigitte Bardot, among others. The 1960s saw The Beatles and The Rolling Stones embrace both long and short forms—not just as a marketing device but as an extension of their overall art.
The iconic “Ashes to Ashes” video of 1980 was storyboarded by Bowie and then filmed in part on Hastings beach, on the south coast of England, with extras plucked from London’s trendy Blitz nightclub. It was followed by many influential videos throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which became an effective vehicle for Bowie’s artistic expression and ever-evolving roster of character types.
David Bowie is Watching You Diamond Dogs
Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour of 1974 was “a combination of contemporary music and theater . . . several years ahead of its time. . . the most original spectacle in rock I have ever seen.” So a writer for Melody Maker told its readers back in the UK.
The tour’s dystopian cityscape aesthetic was inspired by George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. To bring his ambitious vision to life, Bowie assembled, alongside outstanding musicians, a stellar lineup of theatrical collaborators quite unlike that of any previous rock tour, including designers Jules Fisher and Mark Ravitz, and choreographer Toni Basil.
After the first two months of touring, Bowie began to record the Young Americans album in Philadelphia. When he returned to the tour, he abandoned the elaborate set and revised the set list to include new songs (such as “Win”). The Year of the Diamond Dogs tour became The Soul Tour, sometimes referred to as “Philly Dogs.”
Despite the spectacular artistic success of the tour (in both versions), no official film was shot. Footage from Philadelphia (where Bowie recorded the live album David Live) is shown in this exhibition for the first time.
David Bowie is Famous Young Americans
During the Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie began to record music for his next album, Young Americans. Influenced in part by the music emerging from Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, the musical explorer Bowie turned in a new direction. The “Philadelphia Sound,” as it became known, was engineered by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell and featured large sections of strings and horns—a precursor to disco.
Sigma Sound Studios was one of the first US studios to offer twenty-four-track recording. Bowie recorded much of the complex arrangements for Young Americans there, creating what he described as “plastic soul.” His new collaborators included vocalist Luther Vandross, drummer Andy Newmark (from Sly and the Family Stone), and guitarist Carlos Alomar—the last of whom would continue to work with Bowie for more than twenty years. A swift redirection from the theatrical songs of Diamond Dogs, Young Americans became his breakthrough album in America, yielding the title track and the No. 1 hit “Fame.”
David Bowie is Wearing a Mask of his Own Face Ziggy Stardust
Bowie wanted “the music to look like it sounded.” His creation Ziggy Stardust added to his personae, whom Bowie seemed truly to inhabit, not just to act.
The life story of the otherworldly Ziggy followed his rise and fall from fame. The character was loosely based on many influences, including eccentric rock ’n’ rollers Vince Taylor and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, as well as Bowie’s idol Little Richard. Along with his distinctive bright red haircut, Bowie wore fabulous and ever more flamboyant costumes, resulting in an increase in “costume changes” during the tour.
In July 1973, at the height of Ziggy’s popularity, Bowie chose—characteristically—to surprise his fans (and some members of his band). Just before the song “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide,” he announced, “Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”
David Bowie is Wearing Many Masks Stage and Screen
In the 1950s, when Bowie was growing up, his greatest idols were film stars. Pop singers—whose careers were often brief—sometimes transitioned to second careers in film and entertainment, as exemplified by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Seeing diversification as a key to a long career, Bowie trained with actor and mime artist Lindsay Kemp and began to audition for film and stage roles.
In Bowie’s lifetime, he acted in more than twenty films, as well as on television (Baal) and in theater (The Elephant Man). His role in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth inspired the musical Lazarus, which he created with Enda Walsh in 2015.
As an actor, Bowie played an eclectic cast of characters, both historical and imagined: Andy Warhol, Pontius Pilate, the Goblin King. Often preferring the cutting edge over the mainstream, he collaborated with international directors— from the Americans Tony Scott and David Lynch and the British American Christopher Nolan to Germany’s Uli Edel and Japan’s Nagisa Oshima.
David Bowie is Quite Aware of what he's Going Through “Black-and-White” Years
David Bowie first saw Berlin from a train: he had completed his 1973 tour of Japan and hopped on the Trans-Siberian Railway en route back to England. It was West Berlin then, part of a divided city with an infamous past. Bowie was curious to see this city that had spawned many of his artistic touchstones: the films Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the art group Die Brücke, and the musical Cabaret. When Bowie moved there in the mid-1970s, Germany was also the site for new music: Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Giorgio Moroder. Berlin became the anchor point for his groundbreaking triptych, Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979).
At 155 Hauptstrasse, Bowie left behind the pressures of celebrity in Los Angeles and relished anonymity in an older, grittier, war-torn, and divided city in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, “die Mauer.”
These were the “black-and-white” years (black-and-white suits, black stage sets with white lighting), which included fourteen months of intense musical and artistic experimentation with Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and Tony Visconti. In 2013, Bowie returned to the idea of an “undivided” Berlin in the song “Where Are We Now?”
David Bowie is Saying You're Wonderful Give Me Your Hands Touring
“What a show . . . Bowie still manages to project more charisma during one song than most modern-day stars manage in a career.”
—Maurice O’Brien, Irish Independent (Dublin), November 24, 2003
David Bowie was a radically innovative live performer. In more than a thousand live dates in thirty-one countries, during twelve international tours between 1972 and 2004, he fused rock music with performance techniques from mime to street dance: “I could never consider putting something on the stage that doesn’t owe something to theater,” he said.
He always attracted record audiences: eighty thousand people at a New Zealand gig in 1983, the largest crowd as a percentage of the population anywhere in the world that year, according to the Guinness Book of Records.
He devised new ways to reach them, too: one of his gigs was beamed in 5.1 surround sound to more than fifty thousand viewers, in eighty-six cinemas in twenty-two countries in 2003. Through countless websites and BowieNet, the first Internet service provider launched by a musician, he continued to tour the world in virtual form.
David Bowie is Where We Are Now
David Bowie was and continues to be an inspiration for musicians, performers, radicals, and artists. He channeled avant-garde influences into music and performances with mass appeal, and he had an uncanny ability to anticipate and define the direction of popular culture. His understanding of his audience, alongside a tendency toward bold and unpredictable steps, means that his artistic integrity remains uncompromised. For thousands, he is a conduit for new ideas and a visionary icon.
Bowie’s death on January 10, 2016, just two days after his sixty-ninth birthday and the release of Blackstar, his acclaimed final album, evoked a phenomenal global outpouring of grief and marked the end of a golden era. To adapt a phrase coined by his record label in the 1970s, “There’s old music, there’s new music, and there’s David Bowie.”
David Bowie is a Success in New York Stage and Screen
Beginning in 1971, Bowie was frequently in New York City, promoting albums, performing on tour dates, recording new music, and visiting nightclubs. His sold-out performances of Aladdin Sane at Radio City Music Hall are legendary. Following periods of living in Los Angeles and Berlin, Bowie lived in New York for extended periods, and in 1992 made New York City his permanent residence.
In 1979, he was invited to be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Typically, a guest performed two or three songs with their band. Atypically, Bowie conceived of three distinct performance “events” for his appearance. Each was met with astonishment and applause.
Soon after, Bowie prepared and performed The Elephant Man, also in an unconventional manner. Rather than using a prosthesis as in David Lynch’s film version, Bowie relied on his mime training and modulated his body to evoke John Merrick’s physical disabilities. Promoted as the first rock star on Broadway, Bowie drew big audiences for many months.
David Bowie is Teaching You that Things Always Change
Space imagery and exploration have been continuing themes in David Bowie’s visualizations of music. Since “Space Oddity” in the late 1960s—the same period when astronaut William “Bill” Anders photographed Earth from outer space for the first time—Bowie cast himself as the astronaut Major Tom. His experiences as an astronaut were reprised in “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), “Hallo Spaceboy” (1995), and finally “Blackstar” (2015).
Like a film, a Broadway show, or a television program in which the lead actor is closely associated with a particular role, Bowie wrote stories and characters that will forever be known as his. Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, and the Thin White Duke were each so distinctive and thoughtful that the music, words, and images he assigned to them will always remind us of David Bowie.
Here I am floating ‘round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
—David Bowie, excerpt from “Space Oddity” lyrics