by Stephen Pitalo, The Golden Age of Music Video
The modern conceptual music video owes a debt to the artist/director collaborations of music icon David Bowie and British music video director David Mallet. Beginning with a version of "Boys Keep Swinging" on the Kenny Everett Video Show, the two merged surrealism with performance in a way that was unprecedented in this format. Mallet directed ten Bowie videos — if you count the Mick Jagger collaboration "Dancing in the Street"— and Bowie emerged as a video-savvy pop star in the 1980s, due to Mallet videos such as "Ashes to Ashes," "Let's Dance" and "China Girl."
With the music world elated at the recent announcement of a new Bowie song, video and forthcoming album, we grabbed a few words from Mr. Mallet – currently still shooting live shows for AC/DC and others – on his Bowie experiences, as well as his impression of the new Tony Ourseler-directed music video for Bowie's "Where Are We Now?"
Stephen Pitalo: So when you started working with David Bowie, how was that? He comes across as someone who would bring a lot of ideas to the table.
David Mallet: He would bring a lot of specific ideas to the table, but it depends on which clip you are talking about. I’d either add more, or develop his.
SP: People cite "Ashes To Ashes" as important in showing what you could do with a music video. You’re not confined to a stage, and as in many of these Bowie clips, they seem to be taking place in this other world. What do you recall from that process, and where did those ideas come from?
DM: In all cases, he’s so clever, he came up with the idea of the clown and the modern romantic. I think I came up with the bulldozer and the beach. I’m not sure how it worked, but in the space of a half-hour, we had something all mapped out. Also, that weird look was something I’d come up with by accident. It was something I’d come up with when I was doing the Kenny Everett Video Show, and I’d put it in the back of my mind – the look and how to do it. Then "Ashes to Ashes" came about, and it was perfect for that.
SP: Do you recall the initial concepts for "Let's Dance" and "China Girl"?
DM: The concepts on both of those were David, not me, or let me say much more David than me. I hadn’t heard the album. David rang up and said, "We're off again. We want to do two new videos from this new album. Come out to the house. And at this time, he was living in this castle. So I went out there for a couple of days, and the first thing he said was that he wanted to go to Australia and shoot it because the light’s different, and this that and the other, the crews are great, etc. It was the first one we’d shot on 35mm film rather than 16mm.
SP: How did you get a budget that could afford 35mm?
DM: I think after "Ashes to Ashes,", we did whatever we did and they stayed out of our way. And David was a very powerful being, and the record company weren’t exactly going to tell him what to do and what not to do.
SP: "China Girl" is pretty wild. Was there any concern that you wouldn’t get aired with the nudity?
DM: We did two versions, one clean and one pretty raunchy. We did "From Here To Eternity," the beach scene.
SP: Was that a trend, to do two versions, one Rated R and one for broadcast television?
DM: People were playing with it. They were trying to make a porn video within a music video. [Directors] Kevin [Godley] and Lol [Creme] tried it with "Girls on Film." They had a slightly different approach. We did it with a naked China girl.
SP: You did a little homage to David's "Boys Keep Swinging" lipstick smear.
DM: The drag act in "Boys Keep Swinging," and it’s something I think they used to do at the end of the drag acts in the Hamburg nightclubs. If there was a big drag act on, I think they used to do that. David Bowie had seen it, I hadn’t.
SP: Any thoughts on the new video for "Where Are We Now?"
DM: As usual he has done something bold.
interview and intro by Stephen Pitalo, The Golden Age of Music Video