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Why David Bowie’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ Starman Performance Changed The World
In Depth

Why David Bowie’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ Starman Performance Changed The World

One of the most famous TV broadcasts in history, David Bowie’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ performance of Starman changed the course of music forever.

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Few television broadcasts have been as epochal as David Bowie’s 6 July 1972 appearance on Top Of The Pops. Performing what was then his latest single, Starman, on the BBC’s flagship music show, Bowie not only added rocket fuel to his own career, but he also effectively launched the 70s – and inspired a whole host of future icons to pursue their dreams of stardom.

In just three and a half minutes, Bowie changed it all with his Top Of The Pops performance of Starman. Here’s how…

Listen to the best of David Bowie here.

The song: “It was an obvious hit single!”

Starman could have been the song that never was. When Bowie first delivered his album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, to his record label, the company bosses felt that it lacked a single. Heading back into the studio on 4 February 1972, Bowie pulled out a new song he’d written, Starman, and recorded it with his band, The Spiders From Mars, who immediately saw its potential.

“I think Mick [Ronson, guitarist] and I went out in the car after David played it for us the first time, and we were already singing it, having only heard it once,” Spiders drummer Woody Woodmansey later told The Quietus. “It was an obvious hit single!”

With Bowie’s record label also convinced, the Ziggy Stardust album was complete. And yet, in the weeks immediately following its release as a single, on 28 April, Starman flew closer to the ground than anticipated.

The challenge: “David could be very controversial… and people were fearful”

Speaking for the liner notes to the Ziggy-era box set, Rock’n’Roll Star!, Anya Wilson, a record plugger who worked Bowie’s releases in the early to mid-70s, recalled the efforts Bowie’s team had been making to get him media exposure. BBC radio had become a home of sorts for Bowie throughout the first half of 1972, while a pre-recorded performance of Starman aired on ITV on 21 June during an episode of Lift Off With Ayshea, as hosted by actress Ayshea Hague. But the BBC’s Top Of The Pops was the coveted booking, despite hesitation from the show’s producers.

“David could be very controversial in press interviews, very ‘gender bending’, and people were fearful,” Wilson explained. But serendipity stepped in, and Bowie was called up at short notice: “There was a cancellation, they needed an act, and so yes, they put him on.”

On Wednesday, 5 July 1972, Bowie and The Spiders From Mars entered Studio 8 at BBC Television Centre, in White City, London, to record the performance that would change his career forever.

The ‘Top Of The Pops’ Starman performance: “That ambiguous sexuality was so bold and futuristic”

Musicians’ Union regulations stipulated that any Top Of The Pops performance had to be mimed to a newly recorded backing track, allowing only for lead vocals to be sung live during the show’s taping. To comply, a whole new version of Starman, complete with strings and backing vocals, had been laid down at Trident Studios on 29 June, and, with The Spiders From Mars – augmented by pianist Nicky Graham – miming beside him, Bowie sang along in the BBC studio, writing himself into rock history as he did so.

Right from the off, Bowie’s debut Top Of The Pops performance was different from anything that had come before: even the black-and-white TVs of the era would have registered the Technicolor explosion of his red, blue and gold quilted jumpsuit, his burnt-orange spiky mullet, and his cherry-red boots. Flanking him, in peroxide-dyed hairdos and shiny satin catsuits that shimmered under the studio lights, The Spiders looked every bit the intergalactic infantry to Bowie’s otherworldly space invader. But it was Bowie’s singular presence that drew the cameras – and the eyes of thousands watching when the performance was aired the day after filming, on 6 July 1972.

Tossing his head to the side, smiling as if he had a secret the audience simply needed to know, Bowie strummed his bright-blue guitar as he set the scene: “Didn’t know what time it was, and the lights were low-ho-ho…” With a nod to his glam-rock rival Marc Bolan, whose T.Rex song Get It On had become an anthem for the glitter children (“Some cat was laying down some get-it-on rock’n’roll”), Bowie claimed the pop crown for himself as he casually draped an arm around the shoulder of guitarist Mick Ronson during Starman’s chorus, his white-painted fingernails on full display. Securing his ascent to the throne, he pointed to the camera – and out into homes across the UK – as if singling out every individual adolescent watching beside their perplexed, even flatly outraged, parents: “I had to phone someone, so I picked on you-oo-oo.” A generation of transfixed adolescents eagerly received the call.

“I just couldn’t believe how striking he was,” future punk icon Siouxsie Sioux, then only 15, said later. “That ambiguous sexuality was so bold and futuristic that it made the traditional male/female role-play thing seem so out-dated.”

The legacy: “The most famous three and a half minutes of music television in British history”

It had been less than six months since Melody Maker ran Bowie’s headline-grabbing declaration, “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” That may have been an acceptable thing to print within the confines of a music magazine, but now Bowie’s camp theatrics were on mainstream television, and teenagers were rushing to put on make-up, regardless of their gender or sexual preference. “I loved how odd it made me look, and the fact that it upset people,” The Cure’s Robert Smith would recall. “You put on eyeliner and people started screaming at you. How strange, and how marvellous.”

“My mother’s intense disapproval make me think, Well, there must be something great going on here,” music critic Mick Wall reflected years later. And for budding songwriter Gary Kemp, who watched Bowie’s Top Of The Pops Starman performance in a friend’s council flat, the experience went beyond sexuality to open up a pathway that would ultimately lead him to form New Romantic idols Spandau Ballet. “My reality was so far removed from this guy’s place, that my journey from that moment on was to get there,” Kemp affirmed. “And I think the same applies to most of my generation.”

He was right: Smiths co-founder Johnny Marr, Echo And The Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch and members of Duran Duran were all tuned into the BBC that night. As Bowie beamed into their homes, a world of creative possibilities lit up inside each of them.

Whether establishing himself as one of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ icons of the era or simply showing nascent hopefuls how to manifest their dreams, Bowie’s debut Top Of The Pops performance ushered in a future no one had seen coming. Bumping into Bowie and The Spiders backstage at Studio 8, Status Quo’s Francis Rossi voiced what would soon be the dominant reaction from rock’s old guard: “Fuck me, you make us feel really old.”

Fifty years later, The Guardian would declare Bowie’s Top Of The Pops Starman appearance to be the greatest BBC music performance of all time, with Alexis Petridis calling it “the most famous three and a half minutes of music television in British history”, resulting in Bowie’s “successfully recruiting an army of suburban misfits”.

“After David’s Top Of The Pops performance it was like being on a different planet, everything opened up for him,” label staffer Anya Wilson said in the Rock’n’Roll Star! liner notes. Yet while all the children lost it around him, Bowie “remained the same throughout”, Wilson observed, as if his years of hard graft had paid off in ways he always knew they would: “These were hard-won victories… He was of course pleased, but he took it all very much in his stride.”

Buy the ‘Rock’n’Roll Star!’ box set and more at the Dig! store.

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