“All this about Ziggy being Starman is bullshit”
A concept album by reputation, if not in actuality, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars gave obsessive Bowie fans – and there was no other type in the early 70s – enough to pore over to ensure that that the Ziggy Stardust character would dwarf even his creator’s expectations – and threaten to consume his psyche in the process. But while only a few of the album’s songs directly addressed the storyline of an extraterrestrial rock messiah come to save Earth from destruction, Bowie initially intended for Starman to have a wider message. It could, he said at the time of its release, have been taken “at the immediate level of, ‘There’s a Starman in the Sky saying Boogie Children,’ but the theme is that the idea of things in the sky is really quite human and real, and we should be a bit happier about the prospect of meeting people.”
Two years later, with Ziggy Stardust having taken on a life of his own, and Bowie’s natural theatricality leading him to begin work on a Ziggy-themed musical, the song was repositioned as a tune that Ziggy himself had written to alert humans to the arrival of a race of starmen “called the infinites… black-hole jumpers… who will be coming down to save the Earth”, as Bowie put it in a conversation with William S Burroughs, conducted for Rolling Stone magazine in 1974. Somewhat echoing his own complicated relationship with Ziggy, Bowie added, “Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples… It is a science-fiction fantasy of today.”
But while producer Ken Scott would write in his memoir, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, “All this about Ziggy being Starman is bullshit. It was a song that was just put in as a single at the last minute at the record label’s insistence,” the song would inspire Bowie’s growing legion of fans to conflate the star with the Starman, not least when he seemed to directly call upon viewers at home during an epochal TV appearance that would cement his legend overnight.
“It connected with me in a way that no other record ever had”
Despite its interstellar inspiration, Starman’s lyrics had a conversational intimacy that felt as though they were letting listeners in on a secret. Riding in on a late-night radio broadcast, a mysterious singer lays down some “hazy cosmic jive” that inspires the kind of excited phone calls teenagers around the world would soon have about Bowie himself. With just a frisson of rebellion (“If we can sparkle he may land tonight/Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright”), Bowie perfectly set the stage to beam himself into unsuspecting viewers’ homes across the UK.
Ready to “blow our minds”, Bowie took to the BBC stage on 5 July 1972 to record his Top Of The Pops performance of Starman. Broadcast the following evening, it was accompanied by the sound of dinnertime cutlery dropping to the table in every household across the country as Bowie, in full make-up, burnt-orange mullet and multicoloured-jumpsuit Ziggy regalia, casually but oh-so-knowingly draped his arm around Mick Ronson while he sang the song’s first chorus. When he audaciously pointed and waggled his finger at the camera as he “picked on you-oo-oo”, he might as well have reached into the souls of every schoolkid waiting for their life to start, and tickled them into euphoria. Future Smiths stars Morrissey and Johnny Marr were watching, as were a host of New Romantic musicians waiting to come of age, Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp and members of Duran Duran among them. A 12-year-old Ian McCulloch, later to become Echo And The Bunnymen’s frontman, was immediately “hooked”. Talking to Paul Trynka, he recalled: “It connected with me in a way that no other record ever had. I was impressionable and naïve – and at that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”
Marc Bolan may have taken glam into the charts with T.Rex, but with his Top Of The Pops performance – what Trynka called “his bid for immortality” – Bowie, arriving just before the glam-rock clock struck midnight, pulled all its threads together for a watershed moment in pop culture: here were LGBTQ+ sensibilities openly displayed on prime-time British TV, wrapped up in a character-play that opened kids’ minds to the possibility of constructing their own identities however they pleased. If, sonically-speaking, Starman didn’t quite sound like the future, it set in motion decades of creative explorations that are still being played out today.
“A self-aggrandizing announcement that there’s a new star in town”
Bowie would acknowledge some of Starman’s source material in live performances of the era, nodding to T.Rex’s earlier hit Get It On when he sang “Some cat was layin’ down some get-it-on rock’n’roll”, and, while touring the Ziggy Stardust album in August 1972, singing “There’s a starman/Over the rainbow/Where I fly” during choruses.