Stardust Soundtracks: Bowie, Britain and the Seventies
David Bowie's performance of Starman on BBC's Top of the Pops in July 1972 is one of the most mythologized four minutes in the history of British television.
For those of who grew up in the Seventies, David Bowie represented an escape route from the myths of Britain, and that's why we followed him.
A man in a tight garish suit that looks like he's dressed for ballet practice is prancing around on stage, singing about an astronaut, or an alien of some kind. He looks a bit like an alien himself, his thin face and sharp-looking, almost vampiric teeth framed by a mop of carrot-coloured hair. Clearly not as crazy as he looks, he displays a consummate grasp of stagecraft, looking conspiratorially into the lens of the camera as if confiding in each TV viewer individually; this song is just between you and me, he seems to be saying, and both of us are rather special.
David Bowie's performance of Starman on BBC's flagship music show Top of the Pops on July 6 1972 is one of the most mythologized four minutes in the history of British television. It was the public's first real sighting of Ziggy Stardust, the other-worldly alter ego adopted by Bowie for his new album, released just one month previously The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Countless TV viewers, especially those who went on to become musicians, writers or artists themselves, went on to describe Bowie's Top of the Pops performance as a revelatory moment, a moment that changed their lives, or even a moment that changed modern Britain.
Subsequent commentators have always drawn attention to the way Bowie casually threw an arm over the shoulder of his guitarist Mick Ronson as they reached the song's rousing chorus. It was not the kind of thing that would have raised eyebrows were it not for Bowie's androgynous appearance, and the fact that he had told a Melody Maker journalist earlier that year that he was gay (a calculated publicity stunt, maybe, but also a daring emancipatory gesture). Indeed much of the Top of the Pops performance's mythology rests on the idea that it was a deliberately provocative public coming-out, a calculatedly queer moment in a society that still found such things rather shocking.
Whether the people who claim to have seen Bowie's appearance on July 6 actually saw it on that date (or pieced their memories together on the basis of its subsequent repeats) is very much open to question. People like to re-fashion their personal history around significant pop-cultural moments; especially in Britain, where the idea that we are a country marked by cultural revolutions has become a popular if rather vain and self-regarding obsession. I myself watched Top of the Pops regularly in 1972 but can't remember whether I saw the original transmission or one of its re-runs. I was certainly too young to pick up anything immediately significant about it: all pop-stars dressed weirdly in 1972; David Bowie was just another in a long line.
Bowie had introduced his Ziggy Stardust alter-ego to live audiences in January 1972 and had been touring more or less constantly ever since. A stage show which saw the singer donning outlandish outfits and heavy make-up was a theatrical tour-de-force, followed avidly by a fascinated music press who just couldn't get enough of the pictures. With more and more fans turning up to the shows wearing Bowie-themed clothes and hair-dos, the singer transited within the space of months from being a cult singer-songwriter (responsible for just one previous hit, 1969's Space Oddity) to the biggest rock star in the country.
You didn't need to be an obsessive Bowie fan, have the haircut, or indeed own any of the albums, to be drawn into Bowie's world. Between 1972 and 1974 he was quite simply everywhere. Partly driven by the demands of his record label, Bowie quickly followed the Ziggy Stardust album with Aladdin Sane, the iconic zig-zag face makeup on the front cover confirming him as the one pop star so immediately recognizable that no-one could ever claim to not know who he was. The success of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane led people to rediscover earlier 1971 album, Hunky Dory, whose stand-out track Life on Mars was re-released to become one of his biggest chart hits. There seemed no limit to his musical gifts; he wrote All the Young Dudes for Mott the Hoople, produced Lou Reed's album Transformer, and also co-produced Iggy and the Stooges bitingly aggressive LP Raw Power. Everything he touched turned out to be epochal, a pop-rock moment whose impact would prove lasting. And he was almost constantly on the road. Even after telling the audience at London's Hammersmith Odeon "this is the last show we will ever do" on July 3 1973, he spent barely a year in retirement before returning to the stage for the Diamond Dogs tour in June 1974.
Although the music on Bowie's early albums was rooted in past genres - folk rock, rock and roll, RnB - his on-stage persona represented a conscious break with Sixties pop, psychedelic rock, peace and love, indeed anything that had been seen before. No matter how musically conservative albums like Ziggy Stardust actually were, Bowie still pulled off the trick of appearing to kick away the previous generation and present himself as something new, or something from a different world. He was essentially saying I am unique, the only genre I belong to is Bowie.
Bowie was not entirely on his own in the musical landscape of the early to mid Seventies. Roxy Music initially seemed more musically radical, reinventing rock and roll as a futuristic rush of noise. It's difficult to grasp nowadays what an edgy, enigmatic apparition Bryan Ferry actually was - before he morphed into tuxedo-wearing lounge lizard.
If you asked older kids what they listened to in the mid-Seventies the answer would usually be either prog rock or "Roxy-Bowie". The words Roxy and Bowie just went together naturally, and there was no reason to explain what 'Roxy-Bowie' amounted to as a musical direction, it simply seemed self-explanatory.
It was the Roxy-Bowie kids who read cool books and were interested in art, personal style and dressing up. At a time when "serious" rock fans carried albums by Yes, ELP or Pink Floyd under their arms, claiming that these vacuous exercises in cultural pretention represented real grown-up music, hanging out the Roxy-Bowie crowd was like finding oneself in a life-raft at a time when the musical tastes of everyone else were sinking.
My own Roxy-Bowie phase started in 1974,when I received a cassette tape recorder for my birthday and David Bowie's Diamond Dogs was the first thing I recorded. I had been too young to be taken by Ziggy, but Diamond Dogs suddenly represented everything I wanted from music, its scratchy energy-rush guitars melding with anthemic Motown soul and atmospheric film-soundtrack sketches. Despite being put together from the leftovers of abandoned projects (one of which had been a musical version of George Orwell's 1984) the album had an edgy post-apocalyptic logic, perfect for a Seventies Britain characterized by economic stagnation, industrial unrest, energy crises, violence in Northern Ireland, and an inescapable sense of imperial fade-out.
Bowie became part of this British dystopia himself, telling journalists in 1975 that Britain needed a fascist dictator to sort things out, and even that Adolf Hitler was the first true rock star. We were shown a warts-and-all portrait of Bowie the incoherent rambling coke addict in Alan Yentob's penetrating BBC documentary Cracked Actor. By the time punk rock came along, many of us thought of Bowie as just another old rocker who had had his time, ready to be swept away by the latest revolutionary tide.
But punks never harboured entirely negative feelings about Bowie - on the one hand he represented what had gone before and therefore might have to be retired - on the other hand, as the champion of punk precursors such as Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, he legitimized punk by showing that it too had a heritage, a mythology, and a sense of purpose.
What Bowie achieved during the next four years - recording a remarkable trio of albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger) that appeared to meld together Velvets-style rock and roll, electronica and avant-garde noise - reinforced his position as one of the rock scene's most remarkable innovators, setting out a new series of musical signposts that pointed the way to towards pop's possible futures. Equally as remarkable were the two albums he co-wrote and produced for his on-off best friend Iggy Pop over the same period, The Idiot and Lust for Life. Not only had he reinvented the career of one of punk's great prophets, he had also laid down a new sense of direction for all those who came out of punk looking for new horizons to explore. Edgy and woozy though it was, the pulsing electronic landscapes of The Idiot provided a template for much of the music that emerged in the 1980s. Bowie's own Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, released in 1980, seemed to announce the new decade by reinventing glam rock for a new generation. And for the boys, it was time to dress up and wear make-up again.
Heaven and Hell
At the cusp of the new decade, fashion tribes like the Futurists, the New Romantics and the Goths were yet to appear as distinct groups. However they could all be found in their primordial state in clubs like Heaven and Hell, the nightclub on Leeds's main street that famously advertised itself by putting a coffin in the window. We would go there after the pubs shut to stand in corners gloomily and listen to Joy Division, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, the Human League, Siouxsie and The Cure. The DJ was Marc Almond, who dressed in black robes with crosses round his neck, like an Orthodox priest. And what did he play most often? David Bowie.
Bowies's hold over the popular imagination from 1970 to 1980 owed a lot to the fact that he was constantly, frantically working. Between 1970's Man Who Sold The World and 1980's Scary Monsters, he recorded twelve studio albums, two live albums, and released one chart-topping compilation, reinventing his image with almost every release. He also found time to play the lead role in Nicholas Roeg's Man Who Fell to Earth, his best cinematic appearance and one that seemed to transform the confused, cocaine-addict Bowie into a cool if unsettling contemporary icon. No wonder he had such a huge influence on the decades that followed.
Bowie went on to enjoy more global success and bigger record sales in the 1980s. Although ageing with unique grace and remaining a creative force, he ceased to be the weather vane that showed you which way the wind was blowing. Bowie's long-term relevance was in a way secured by the way in which the British creative industry attached itself to his legacy, and made a national icon out of a man whose relationship to the nation had never been fully articulated. Bowie did wear a Union Jack coat on the cover of his 1997 album Earthling (an oblique nod to the Britpop generation?), but otherwise avoided identification with the national, indeed anything that might put his brand at the service of someone else's.
Bowie's key influences during that intensively creative Seventies were Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, American soul, American funk, and Krautrock. Although he had a deep appreciation for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (and enjoyed friendships with John Lennon and Mick Jagger), one of his great services to music was to kick them out of the picture. He also showed us - and this is very important in the context of the 1970s - that the rock album could be developed as a sophisticated art form without the bloated pretentions of prog rock. Bowie's creative surges had more to do with time spent in America and Europe than at home, making him more of a musical traveller than someone rooted in English soil. It was however natural that the British heritage industry would co-opt Bowie in the development of its own myths, most notably the idea that it is Britain that produces the individualists, the mavericks, the iconoclasts, that Britain is the genius little island that keeps on giving. For those of us old enough to have grown up in the Seventies, of course, Bowie represented our escape route from the myths of Britain, and that's why we followed him.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list's Svijet kulture cultural supplement in July 2022.
© Jonathan Bousfield