Prior to the aboriginal rights theme championed by Midnight Oil and years before the outback Australian theme of Crocodile Dundee was the video to David Bowie's 'Let's Dance'.
an un mistakenly Australian cast, the video featured a series of themes
from both rural and urban Australia - aborigines, Sydney Harbour and outback
By taking a lateral spin on the song's lyrics to bring forward the cause
of Aboriginal rights, it offered the first evidence of a hands-on
sociopolitical role from Bowie. The principal locations were Sydney and
the sheep farming outpost of Carinda.
In the following article courtesy of Rolling Stone magazine, we look back to the time that was 1983.
In Australia, David Bowie was a man without masks. Open, jokey, very . . . warm is the only word. Back home - which for Bowie these days is Switzerland, March is an unmistakably wintry month; but halfway round the world in Sydney, even as autumn arrived, a brilliant sun still bathed the beaches at Bondi and Manly, and in the clear, caressing night air, the stars seemed like so many crushed diamonds strewn across the antipodean sky. It was a paradise perfectly suited to Bowie's new menschlich mood, his gathering thaw.
....Escaping from LA. probably saved his life, he says. Another turning point came in December 1980, three months after he released his last album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). He was in New York at the time, on Broadway, winding up his well-received tour with the Elephant Man. He still remembers the night-it was very late-that he got the awful news from May Pang, John Lennon's former secretary. Lennon had been murdered.
...."The handful of performances after that," Bowie says, "were absolutely awful. Just awful. A whole piece of my life seemed to have been taken away; a whole reason for being a singer and songwriter seemed to be removed from me. It was almost like a warning. It was saying: we've got to do something about our situation on earth."
....Bowie put his musical persona on low-profile and set about making a real home for himself and Joey in the pristine countryside near Geneva, He grew reflective. "Having a child to care for points up one's purpose, it really does. To see him grow, and be excited about the future-and then you think: 'Oh, shit, the future, yes. I'd forgotten about that, old son. Um ... I'll see what I can do.......
IT IS THIS SEA CHANGE, OF SORTS, THAT HAS brought Bowie back to Australia.
He first came here in 1978, on his last concert tour, and at each city where he did a show he would rent a Land Rover or some similarly rugged vehicle and clatter off into the outback, the parched and haunting bush.
He was hypnotized: here was a country the size of the United States with a population of some 15 million people. Culturally, it had the upbeat, can-do character of America in the Fifties, before so Much went so wrong there; but physically-with its idyllic coasts and endless arid plains, and its singular wildlife - it was unlike any place else on earth.
....But, like America, Australia had an ugly racial secret: the policies adopted toward the native Aborigines by the European settlers who began arriving on the continent in the late eighteenth century-many of them convicts and their keepers-could most gently be described as genocidal. On what is now the island state of Tasmania, Bowie learned, the indigenous Aboriginal population had been utterly extinguished.
...."As much as I love this country," he says, "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."
....So Australia was ideal for what Bowie now had in mind. "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 cliche, but I feel that now that I'm thirty-six years old, and I've got a certain position, I want to start utilizing that position to the benefit of my . . . brotherhood and sisterhood." He winces, but continues. "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."
....In February, Bowie brought David Mallet, the London-based director with whom he collaborates, to Switzerland to help work up the story boards for the two videos he wanted to do: "Let's Dance," the title track from his new album, and another song on the LP called "China Girl" (which Bowie had written with his friend Iggy Pop in 1977, and which had previously appeared on Pops album The Idiot).
In less than a week, they were in Sydney with an English producer and cameraman, and an Australian crew numbering about a dozen people. Bowie had also secured the services of two students from Sydney's Aboriginal-Islanders Dance Theatre and a young Chinese woman from New Zealand named Geeling, and soon had them racing all over town.
One morning, he'd have the Aboriginal pair-a boy named Terry Roberts and a girl named Joelene King - clambering up a hand-built "hilltop" on a promontory overlooking Shark Island in Sydney's spectacular harbour; in the afternoon, the whole company would tear across town to a machine shop in the sweltering suburb of Guildford, where Terry would be filmed toiling at a big steel milling machine amid stifling clouds of artificial smoke. (A few days earlier, Bowie'd had Terry actually pulling the machine down a major Sydney thoroughfare while Joelene, on her hands and knees, scrubbed down the intersection with soap brush and water - much to the audible dismay of an army of Saturday drivers.)
|Image from the David Bowie: Serious Moonlight Tour 83 tour booklet.
....Geeling was also exotically occupied, one day "Making love" with Bowie on the beach, another romping through Chinatown in a gray silk Mao uniform and red-star cap. Aside from Bowie and Mallet, no one could figure out what the hell was going on.
....Both videos, of course, were about racism and oppression. "Very simple, very direct," Bowie explained one afternoon. "They're almost like Russian social realism, very naive. And the message that they have is very simple - it's wrong to be racist!"
He can't help laughing at the sentiment so baldly stated.
"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!"
IT IS, AS BOWIE SAYS, A PLACE OF "FRANKLY brute character."
Town of Carinda, a close-to-the-ground sheep-country settlement some 400 miles out over the Blue Mountains and down into the sunbaked bush west of Sydney.
There's been no useful rainfall in these parts for four years, and the sun beats down with an incendiary power. At 10:30 in the morning, crew members are already estimating the temperature at around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
....As a hard-scrub fantasy of a frontier outpost, Carinda might seem overdrawn even to Sergio Leone. There's no one on the main street except a fly-bitten dog and a town drunk ' and at any moment, one expects to see Clint Eastwood stepping out into the glare with a bulge in his poncho, gunning for Lee Van Cleef.
Inside the one-room pub in the Carinda Hotel, several large-bellied locals are already lined up at the bar, swatting down schooners of Tooths beer,- leathery men in the bush shorts, T-shirts and sweat-stained slouch hats that are a kind of uniform among the good old boys of the outback. There isn't much to do out here beyond drinking and fighting, and these geezers, apparently, are getting an early start.
....No one pays too much attention when Bowie walks in. He's wearing his usual gray shorts, bush boots, short-sleeve shirt and a kind of semi soft fedora known locally as a Snowy River. Even though he lacks the pendulous gut that makes for authenticity in these matters, he's not conspicuous. He looks around at the linoleum floor, the dart board and pool table, the overhead fan, the dust-caked cricket trophies above the bar, the wallboard menu offering chicko rolls and meat pies, and he smothers a chuckle. "I love this place," he says in a discreet whisper.
....The locals soon realize that something's up: a lot of impossibly pale-looking people are starting to haul in Arriflex cameras and klieg lights and stun-size audio speakers. They're tacking glare netting over the open doorway, and one of them's starting to squirt smoke around, which is really stinking the place up. They've also brought a pair of Abos with them, which must be some kind of unwished-for first. "Where'd you get the dark couple?" asks one tippler in a flat, chilly tone.
....By this point, the entire adult population of Carinda seems to have squeezed into the pub, along with several wild boys who are in town for the feral-pig hunts. (Wall posters offer fifty cents a kilo for boar meat, but according to one well-oiled sport, it's "pretty rank" stuff, given what the beasts are forced to feed on these days; what the hell, though-it's mostly shipped to Germany anyway.)
|Image from the David Bowie: Serious Moonlight Tour 83 tour booklet.
....As the smoke thickens and the temperature inside the pub hits ninety-four degrees, a walloping funk beat comes leaping out of the speakers. It's "Let's Dance," the first single off Bowie's new album. Co-produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, and featuring various Chic members in the band, the song and the rest of the album are not exactly what fans might have expected from the man who helped inaugurate the Current wave of synthesizer based dance pop- At least Bowie hopes not.
...."I think that's what this record came out of. I was sort of disappointed with the way synthesizers have bullied music into a kind of cold place. So much of the music that's being made at the moment is very earnest. It doesn't have that quality of necessity that music used to have; it's become style over content. So in a natural progression, I just went back to the kinds of music that really excited me when I started. I was listening to people like Buddy Guy, Red Prysock, Alan Freed big bands. Stuff like that has such a dynamic, enthusiastic quality; it's the enthusiasm that I actually was looking for."
....The album was recorded in three weeks ("I must try to better that next time," Bowie cackles), and simplicity was the keynote all the way. "John Lennon once said to me, I Look, it's very simple - say what you mean, make it rhyme and put a back beat to it.' And he was right: 'Instant karma's gonna get you,' boom. I keep comin' back to that these days. He was right, man. There is no more than that. There is no more.
....Simplicity and directness of expression have become a passion for him now, he says. "I've never admitted this before - because it's never been true before - but this album is kind of tentative. I mean, I only kind of touched the edge of what I really want to do. I want to go further, much further, with the next one.
....And what will that be, then?
...."A protest album, I Suppose."
AS THE CAMERA PANS PAST TERRY AND Joelene, who are dancing on the smoke-filled floor, and then sweeps down the bar for a panorama of sweat-plastered faces, Bowie, wearing freshly pressed cream slacks, a lightly striped shirt and green tie, a pair of delicate white gloves rolled at the wrists, and carrying a cherry-red Stratocaster, takes his place against the front wall, next to an extra who's thumping away on a stand-up bass.
By now, some of the locals, seized by the beat, are rolling around on their bar stools, and the owner of the place has waded in to actually take a stab at dancing with the two Aboriginal kids. Smoke is swirling all around, beers are scudding across the bar at a record rate, and not five feet from where Bowie stands mouthing something about "this serious moonlight," the wild-pig boys are wondering what to make of it all. Is it a toothpaste commercial? An advert for little white gloves? Or could it be ... some kind of celebrity?
...."'Ere," says one of the boar stalkers, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at Bowie and the prop bassist, an idea dawning in his sun-soaked brain. "'Ere, who's the group?"
|Images from the David Bowie: Serious Moonlight Tour 83 tour booklet.
ON THE FINAL DAY OF SHOOTING, THE crew sets out from its motel base in Coonabarabran, on the banks of the Castlereagh River, for the Warrumbungle range, a national preserve located thirty-odd kilometres away. It is a place of surrealistically spectacular sights: rock-topped hills rising in eccentric formations against the enormous blue sky, heat-shattered glim trees clawing the air or keeled over in droves on the arid plains, puff Mushrooms bigger than baseballs, meat ants the size of termites and march flies that can chew right through your clothes to the flesh and blood below. There is Much rendering of the 'Australian salute" in an effort to fend off flying pests, and the heat is an autonomous and oppressive presence.
...."What a ridiculous bird!" Bowie shouts delightedly, as an emu - a kind of bizarre, humpbacked turkey - goes trotting off through some nearby scrub.
....There've been stranger sights out here in the bush, though: Aborigines carried off in helicopters; Geeling in her little Mao Suit running back and forth across the dusty plain with a big red banner; Bowie standing tall in i black top hat and tails, muttering in the heat, "I feel like a well-dressed Arab." It's almost a wrap now.
THE BRIGHT RED FEVER BALL OF THE SUN has finally set behind the craggy hills, leaving galahs and ground parrots to flap about the gum trees, and the night-loving kangaroos to hop forth in search of food.
Seen up close - and in the gathering dark you can get within three or four feet of them in a car - the kangaroo would seem to be among the world's gentlest creatures. To the totemistic Aborigines, it was always a kindred spirit, but to the sheep men who now occupy the ancient tribal lands, the 'roos are just another unwelcome mouth to feed in a time of brush fires and browning grass.
At night, the wild boys sometimes come in their clapped-out bush buggies, roaring up alongside the startled creatures and lopping off their heads with axes, all for the simple sport of watching the great bloody beasts stagger off, Spurting, into the scrub.
..Filming has wrapped. It'll be good to get back to Sydney, now, back by the sea. Bowie calls it "the great sparkling city of the New World.
Museum / Gallery Exhibition: 2006
In 2006, the video for 'Let's Dance' gained official recognition Australian art history when it appeared at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
The video was a special video installation at the 23rd Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Art Award.
The exhibit ran from 11 August 2006 to the 22nd of October 2006.
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