On Bowie, ‘Starman’ and Top of the Pops

Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield's new book, On Bowie, arrives today.

July 6, 1972. That’s when David Bowie performed “Starman” on the BBC-TV show Top of the Pops, a seminal moment revisited by Rolling Stone executive editor Nathan Brackett and contributing editor Rob Sheffield on this week’s magazine podcast.

Sheffield’s book about Bowie, written quickly and intensively following the performer’s death from cancer in January, is out today. Here’s Sheffield, from the podcast:

“It’s weird how David Bowie was so obscure going into this. He was the guy who had a one-hit wonder record, kind of, three years earlier, Space Oddity. Which has been completely forgotten in the three years…”

“He goes on Top of the Pops to do his new song, “Starman,” which is the last song he wrote for his album. It’s called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. And he gets up there, wearing his platform boots and his rainbow-colored jumpsuit, and his blue guitar, and his two different colored eyes. And his crimson mane of hair. And he does this song about an alien…”

“Starman” was very different from the Top of the Pops norm. The appearance was watched, at the time, by just about every future major British music star, from Bono and Morrissey to others, many of whom have said that taking in Bowie that Thursday summer night was a “touchstone.” Per Sheffield, the performance burst through the tube, appropriately, like a “complete thunderbolt.”

One moment of the performance in particular. Here’s how The Guardian’s David Hepworth put it in a piece a few days after Bowie’s death:

I went to YouTube just now to see if the memory I’ve kept in my head for more than 43 years is correct. When David Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972 performing “Starman,” did he really point at the camera on the line “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-oo”?

He did.

In the glory days of Top of the Pops you couldn’t watch things again. You retained them in the archive of your memory. People watched hungrily, believing it would be their only chance. It’s only slowly, in the years since 1972, that I realized that I wasn’t the only one for whom this was a key moment. The way Bowie pointed that finger, smilingly draped an arm around Mick Ronson and looked beyond the camera to engage the audience sitting at home, stickily hemmed in by disapproving members of their immediate family, seemed of a piece with the new Ziggy Stardust persona we’d been reading about. It felt like an arrival long delayed.

Previously on FishbowlNY
A Great Description of David Bowie
Bryan Adams’ First Concert Was David Bowie

Jacket cover courtesy: Dey Street Books