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“John, I’m Only Dancing” — the video (1972)

This is my first in a sub-series of posts about Bowie’s videos as videos. The series is not intended to be a comprehensive recounting of the history of the videos but simply my personal impression. The videos have appeared elsewhere in this blog to accompany my commentary about the songs themselves, but don’t tell me you didn’t want an excuse to watch them again…

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I’m not sure how many people, or at least how many Americans saw this Mick Rock-directed video in 1972, when it was originally created. But it certainly adds to the iconography of the Ziggy era.

“John, I’m Only Dancing” does not appear on any original Bowie studio album (though it appears on compilations and reissues). I’ve read that it was banned from U.S. radio stations because it was too sexually suggestive. This video might be part of the reason why.

Seldom if ever does Bowie come off as more androgynous or seductive than he does here (yes, yes, he dressed in drag in “Boys Keep Swinging”). The anchor tattoo somehow makes Bowie’s rear-lit, heavily made-up youthful face seem… sexier? Raunchier? Maybe not a face that parents of 1972 wanted their sons and daughters admiring.

To me, the Mick Rock videos are like living photographs. Though the camera does move off Bowie, Bowie never moves from his spot. It’s like he’s captured within a frame. His face and hands are expressive, but he doesn’t go anywhere. There’s almost a Harry Potter quality of animated newspaper pictures, or like the imagination ignited by a still photo come to life.

The few shots of the other band members are also fixed, however someone is dancing and moving about in the video: two lizard people, who were dancers from Lindsay Kemp’s mime troupe, one of whom would serve as the model of a similar character that appears in the fake-but-real video for “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon,” used in the fictionalized movie about Bowie, Velvet Goldmine.

The song itself is usually interpreted as being a kind of anthem to bisexuality, however there are other ways to interpret the words alone. But the video, while hardly explicit seems, somehow, to establish what’s now become the common way of thinking about the song.

On top of all that, Rock’s play with light and shadow makes the whole thing more compelling and artistic than many of the mini-movie story videos (which often convey a different story than the songs they feature) that would become commonplace later.

“John, I’m Only Dancing” is sometimes identified as Bowie’s first promotional video, however that’s not accurate — the “Love You ‘Til Tuesday” compendium came earlier. But it’s fair enough to say this is an early one, and it did its part in establishing Bowie as a sexy, mysterious and very weird spirit.

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