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‘The 1980 Floor Show’: The Full Story Behind David Bowie’s 1973 TV Special
In Depth

‘The 1980 Floor Show’: The Full Story Behind David Bowie’s 1973 TV Special

Filmed as a special for US TV, ‘The 1980 Floor Show’ found Bowie in transition, waving goodbye to Ziggy as ‘Diamond Dogs’ came into view.

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Broadcast in the US in November 1973, The 1980 Floor Show is often pegged as David Bowie’s final goodbye to Ziggy Stardust. Over 50 years on, however, it’s clear that the one-off special said as much about what was to come as what had been. With performances of some rock and pop hits of the 60s, plus guest appearances from two of that decade’s biggest names, it certainly saw Bowie glance back at rock’n’roll’s past; but from the show’s opening moments, he also previewed a new sound he was working up – one which would be developed further over his next few albums.

This is the story of the The 1980 Floor Show, and how Bowie transitioned into a whole new era. Expect Broadway ambitions, outrageous costumes and a battle against the censors…

Listen to the best of David Bowie here.

The concept: “I was already putting together notes for a musical theatre piece”

When Bowie played his final Ziggy Stardust concert, on 3 July 1973, he sought to draw a line under the alter ego that had brought him fame in the glam-rock era. With stateside fans still clamouring for a third US leg of that lengthy, exhausting, mania-inducing tour, Burt Sugarman, producer of the NBC music show Midnight Special, pitched the idea of a filmed production that would draw on the theatricality of the Ziggy Stardust shows and which could be broadcast in the states.

“As I had ‘retired’ Ziggy earlier that year I decided to expand the thing a little,” Bowie later recalled in the book Moonage Daydream, a collection of photos from the era taken by Mick Rock and annotated by Bowie himself. “I was already putting together notes for a musical theatre piece that revolved around George Orwell’s 1984, so without giving everything away I wanted to include a couple of elements of that in this TV thing.”

Just as his Pin Ups album was hitting the shelves, Bowie, his current band – his Spiders From Mars cohorts Mick Ronson on guitar and Trevor Bolder on bass, plus drummer Aynsley Dunbar, second guitarist Mark-Carr Pritchard, a three-piece horn section and a trio of backing vocalists named The Astronettes – along with a film crew, a host of guest artists, a troupe of male dancers, rotating groups of fan-club winners and a wardrobe stuffed with new and outrageous costumes crammed into London’s Marquee Club, from 18 to 20 October, for a three-day shoot that would result in an hour-long show to be exported across the Atlantic the following month.

The guests: “I thought it might be appropriate to include some off-the-wall and forgotten artists”

Bowie’s enthusiasm for Pin Ups, a record comprised of covers of 60s songs he had grown up with, spilled into what, in a pun on his planned 1984 adaptation, would be called The 1980 Floor Show. “To expand it even more,” Bowie explained, “and because I was very excited by the Pin Ups old songs album I had just recorded in France, I thought it might be appropriate to include some off-the-wall and forgotten artists.”

Of these, The Troggs were given a chance to remind 70s rock fans of their proto-punk credentials, with a three-song allowance that made space for their career-making hit Wild Thing, along with I Can’t Control Myself and Strange Movies. In the “off-the-wall” category sat Carmen, whose unlikely fusion of flamenco and rock music had been committed to tape by Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, who had recently produced the group’s debut album, Fandangos In Space.

Hardly forgotten, though taking a hiatus from her music, Swinging 60s icon Marianne Faithfull was also called upon to perform her breakthrough single, As Time Goes By, as well as a stylised rendition of 20th Century Blues, a 1930s jazz tune penned by Noël Coward, and a closing duet with Bowie on Sonny And Cher’s pop chart-topper, I Got You Babe. More German ice-queen Nico than Californian flower-child Cher, Faithfull was dressed in one of two costumes Bowie would give “top prize for silliness”: a backless nun’s habit which preserved just enough modesty to get past the NBC censors. “Because of her convent background, I felt Marianne would carry the moment superbly,” Bowie said. The other prize-winning costume was Bowie’s own for the duet: “As we had lots of vinyl lying around, I opted for a shiny red Angel Of Death, with black feather wings on the chest.”

The costumes: “Daft? You bet”

Bowie’s costume changes had become a crucial part of not only his Ziggy Stardust persona, but also of his wider flair for reinvention. While some Ziggy tour classics were retained for The 1980 Floor Show – including the metallic black, blue and red jumpsuit that had been ripped from him after each night’s opening number – the event inspired Bowie and his team to come up with some of their most outrageous designs yet.

“I have always loved Tristin Tzara’s stage clobber,” Bowie said of the Romanian Dadaist poet and performance artist, one of whose costumes in the early 1920s production La Cour À Gaz informed the half-leotard with a large keyhole motif in the centre, which Bowie wore for Dodo, one of two new songs included in the TV special. As well as the Angel Of Death design – “Daft? You bet,” Bowie would later joke – and a perfectly tailored white suit worn during a performance of the Pin Ups highlight Sorrow, Bowie’s regular designers Freddie Burretti and Kansai Yamamoto would also fashion a controversial new outfit that would cause a minor furore.

Sharing its DNA with the costumes worn by a pair of dancers in Bowie’s John, I’m Only Dancing promo video, a stringy piece featuring three stuffed hands – two over his chest and one over his crotch – was deemed too controversial by NBC execs, who demanded that the third hand be removed, inadvertently exposing even more of Bowie in his spangly gold leggings, as he and Mick Ronson strutted their way through the Aladdin Sane track The Jean Genie. “I believe on one shot you could even see his pubic hair, it was so low cut,” Bowie’s then producer, Ken Scott, later noted. “Musically and recording-wise, this particular sequence worked well, but NBC wanted to do it again, so they made David sew up the garment a bit. Well, David did just about everything he could to keep the original take and proceeded to do his best to mess up the retakes. I think in the end they had to intercut between the two.”

The filming: “I tried hard to keep spirits up”

Bowie had come up against US sensitivities before. Blanching at what’s now regarded one of the best David Bowie album covers, his overseas record label had banned him from releasing The Man Who Sold The World in its original sleeve, because it pictured him wearing a dress. And for The 1980 Floor Show, at least one lyric had to be changed – in the song Time, “wanking” became “swanking” – while “other words were blanked out entirely so that I ended up mouthing them silently”, Bowie said.

Other limitations affected the shoot as a whole. Bowie had originally wanted to film the production at Hammersmith Odeon, where he’d played his final Ziggy Stardust gig just three months earlier. Financial constraints led him to the small Marquee Club – in the event, a fitting venue for a production that paid homage to the 60s. One of the most sought-after bookings for up-and-coming bands in the middle of that decade, the intimate club had been a crucible for London’s rock scene, playing host to everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Yes and Jethro Tull, with Bowie himself making regular appearances, both as a punter and as a performer in bands such as The Manish Boys and The Buzz. By settling on using The Marquee Club for The 1980 Floor Show, he was acknowledging its part his in own rise to fame while also showing how far British rock’n’roll had come since its birth.

A basement club kitted out for sweaty gigs, the Marquee struggled to accommodate a shoot of the scale Bowie had in mind. “Owing to its size, we could only use one or two cameras for each play of a song,” Bowie later said. “Producing a piece that had all the shots and camera angles that were necessary for a professional-looking TV show meant that some songs had to be played and replayed up to four or five times.” Over the three days of filming, with shooting taking up to eight hours or more each day, Bowie found himself in the roles of both performer and fan liaison officer. “I tried hard to keep spirits up and spent every available non-singing minute chatting with the kids and signing their books and albums,” he recalled.

The performance: “This was the end of Ziggy Stardust”

Supervising the sound mix, Ken Scott was set up in the control room of a recording studio situated behind the Marquee Club, where Bowie and his cast of characters would change costumes in between numbers. In the role of old-time variety-show host, Amanda Lear, a model who had recently appeared on the cover of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure album and whom Bowie had rechristened “Octobriana” for the shoot, after a Russian comic-book character, introduced each new “Bowie now presents” turn. She would also be serenaded by Bowie himself during Sorrow, then in the charts as the only single released from Pin Ups.

Further Pin Ups tunes made for part of Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show performance, including energetic runs through The Mojos’ Everything’s Alright and The Who’s I Can’t Explain, drawing a direct line from Bowie’s latest album to the Marquee Club’s legacy. And though two of the best David Bowie songs to date, Space Oddity and The Jean Genie, would also receive airings, giving fans a final chance to live out their Ziggy Stardust fantasies, Bowie’s decision to open the special with a medley of two new songs, 1984 and Dodo, proved that The 1980 Floor Show was no mere rock’n’roll revival show. It would be, photographer Mick Rock noted, “the last time that David and Mick Ronson were on stage together in the Ziggy period. This was the end of Ziggy Stardust.”

The legacy: “Very impressive”

Drenched in wah-wah guitar, and with The Astronettes providing soulful backing vocals, 1984 would soon find its way onto Bowie’s next album, Diamond Dogs, a record whose dystopian vision carried traces of the Orwell musical Bowie had initially set out to develop. With his vocal trio often sharing stage space and performing dance moves with Bowie up front while the band were positioned further in the background, The 1980 Floor Show, which was broadcast in the US as a Midnight Special exclusive on 16 November 1973, reveals Bowie moving beyond the strictures of the rock concert.

The special’s all-male dance troupe, too, carried hints of what was to come. Though their costumes featured spider-web designs, in a visual nod to the disbanded Spiders From Mars, the dancers’ very presence – whether shaping their bodies to spell out the show’s title for the opening credits, or performing choreographed routines during songs such as Time and 20th Century Blues – signalled the arrival of the larger-scale production, half concert, half Broadway show, that would mark out Bowie’s Diamond Dogs/Soul Tour shows of the following year.

Ronson and Bowie would eventually reunite two decades later, for Bowie’s Nile Rodgers-produced 1993 album, Black Tie White Noise. But with The 1980 Floor Show complete, Bowie’s future had yet to be written – though he was about to speed into it with stunning confidence, maintaining his place as one of the most important musicians of the 70s as he shaped the decade in his ever-changing image.

“When I broke up the band we all wandered off to our futures, not really knowing what would be in store,” Bowie later said of the end of the Ziggy Stardust era. “With Woody [Woodmansey, drums], Trevor [Bolder, bass] and Mick [Ronson] I had found one of the more symbiotic structures that I would ever be associated with… That’s what it all looks like from way over here. Very impressive.”

Buy the ‘Pin Ups’ half-speed-mastered vinyl at the Dig! store.

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