A new David Bowie was born on a beach near Hastings in the summer of 1980. Bowie was on location filming the video for Ashes To Ashes (opens in new tab), the song that would become his second no.1 single, when something happened that profoundly changed him.
Director David Mallet was filming Bowie as he walked up the beach dressed in the pierrot outfit he wore on the cover of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) album, when an old man and his dog walked into shot. The director and the crew yelled at the old guy, asking him to get out of the way. The man – who probably walked there every day – was unfazed: "Screw you,” he said, “this is my beach".
So Bowie took a seat next to Mallet and waited for it to blow over. Eventually, the old man walked past. Exasperated, David Mallet said to him, "Do you know who this is?"
The old guy looked Bowie up and down. "Of course I do,” he said. “It's some cunt in a clown suit."
Bowie thought it was hilarious ("That was a huge moment for me,” he said later (opens in new tab). “It put me back in my place and made me realise, yes, I'm just a cunt in a clown suit") but it had a wider impact. When he told the story years later, Bowie said that the incident “profoundly changed” him. The "whole facade,” he said, “came crumbling down".
Bowie did change. The album after Scary Monsters was Let's Dance. Gone was the theatricality of his 70s albums. He'd split with his long-term manager Tony DeFries, signed a new multi-million deal with EMI and there was the suggestion that he wanted to keep the record company happy: when he hooked up with guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers he told him: “I want you to do what you do best. I want you to make hits.”
When he emerged with Let's Dance in 1983, he looked healthy – and more heterosexual – than ever before with a golden tan, blonde quiff and dangerous white teeth. To the disappointment of many, in an interview with Rolling Stone he disavowed his past: “The biggest mistake I ever made [was saying] that I was bisexual,” he said. “Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.”
With all those sexual ambiguities out of the way, the door to the mainstream was kicked open. Let’s Dance became Bowie’s only single to go no.1 in the US and UK. The parent album went on to sell 11 million copies and turned Bowie into the international star he had wanted to be.
It was estimated that he earned around $50 million in 1983 alone. Not such a clown after all.
The full story of Let's Dance is one of many stories included in Bowie: The Complete Story, a new special issue from Classic Rock out now and available direct from Magazines Direct. (opens in new tab)
Comedian Adam Buxton turned the "cunt in a clown suit" story into an animated short in 2021.