David Bowie and the Fantastic Looking Mountain
How Uluru triggered a life-long love affair with Australia
Just over 57 years ago, a 12-year-old David Jones stood in a record store, transfixed by the image before him. He’d been here before, buying Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, but this was different – the image of a “fantastic looking mountain or whatever that is” called to him.
David Jones would become David Bowie and the Stravinsky album with Uluru on the front cover, would inspire a life-long love affair with our great southern land.
In an interview in 2004, 35 years after Starman brought Bowie to the world’s attention, he recalled that day in the record shop and the effect it had on him.
“It looked really exciting and subsequently when I read the sleeve notes, I realised it was this place in Australia, and I always wanted to see it because of that.
“I’ve seen it a couple of times now. It’s a childhood image that stays in your mind, and it became an ambition of some kind.”
Fiercely protective of his private life, photos of him at Uluru were never distributed. If you’re lucky you might find a picture of him on one of his other outback trips, but never at the mystical place that drew him back again and again.
Yet he only played on four Australian tours. The first, in 1978, was the largest concert of his career to that point (in Melbourne’s pouring rain). It was also saw the first time he invited an Australian band to play support for him.
A recurring theme of Bowie’s visits was his disappearances. On his first tour he vanished, only to return recharged after a trip to the Perth Zoo. Over time he cruised both the Swan River and Sydney Harbour, and without fail, he would hire a four-wheel drive and explore the outback – the mysterious world that called to him as a child.
When he returned for his1983 Serious Moonlight tour, Bowie filmed two of his most political video clips: Let’s Dance and China Girl. The first highlighted the inequality indigenous people faced in Australia. The second was a sexually charged stab at racism that is just as powerful today as it was three decades ago.
“My idea was to present an indigenous people in a capitalist, white – mainly white – society and the problems of the interrelationships between the two,” Bowie said in an interview at the time.
That year he quietly bought “a little flat … overlooking the bay, overlooking the marina. Really gorgeous” in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, which he would sporadically visit until he sold it in 1992.
“I would come over for a month or so at a time. It was really, really fabulous. I loved being there. It was just a great place to be. I was there a lot more than you’d imagine.”
But the apartment wasn’t where he would stay the whole time, it was mostly used as a base for adventures into the outback and far north Queensland’s rainforests.
His 1987 tour was followed by a secret visit two years later, to record an album with his side project Tin Machine at Sydney’s 301 Studios in Castlereagh Street. A fan recalled being invited in to the studio and heard Bowie say how much he enjoyed recording in Australia because it was much more relaxed and casual than other countries.
So casual, in fact,, he would regularly frequent rock venues around the city, often spotted by journalists who saw him checking out local bands.
Another common trait was how Bowie selected support acts. In each instance, the bands were told that David had specifically requested them. Members of Models, The Angels, Icehouse and Something For Kate all tell similar stories.
Models keyboardist Andrew Duffield said it came as a shock. “We’d just released The Pleasure of Your Company and Paul Dainty called us saying our record got to Bowie and he chose us!”
“It was such an incredible time,” Duffield recalls. “We ended up at a barbecue at Molly Meldrum’s house where on one side of the room was the Australian cricket team, and on the other was Bowie and his band. We all felt a little daunted as to who we could talk with”.
Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey liked the story but wasn’t sure if it’s true.
“The promoter called and said they sent him a bunch of music and he picked us. I don’t know if there is any truth to that, but that’s what they said.”
In 2007, The Angels lead singer, Doc Neeson, recalled the music legend’s generosity.
“Bowie was fantastic. He treated us as his guests. He came down to our very first sound-check and he offered us everything on stage in terms of lighting except for one special one that he wanted to keep.
“He was unreal, hanging out, sticking his head into our dressing room to have a chat, he would watch us sound-check and would shoot the s— for half an hour.
“The funny thing about it was it was so easy to forget you were talking to David Bowie because you were talking to a guy in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap.”
No matter what story of David Bowie in Australia you hear, it carries this underlying theme: he was a down-to-earth man – who happened to be a star.
He even fit in Carinda Hotel in outback New South Wales, where he recorded his Let’s Dance video. The locals are quick to show off the tiled wall that was the backdrop to the song.
So liked was Bowie, when the pub had a recent makeover, each tile was carefully removed and returned to the exact place after the renovation. By doing, future generations can stand in awe, transfixed by the memory of a man who, having been lured here by an enigmatic icon, became one himself.