David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars performed ‘Starman’ on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops on 5 July 1972.
They had re-recorded the backing track at Trident Studios on 29 June, in keeping with Musicians Union regulations. Bowie’s vocals were live for the performance, which was filmed at BBC Television Centre in west London.
They had been invited onto the show after Bowie’s manager Tony Defries persuaded the show’s producer Mike Moran to see them play a show in Croydon on 25 June 1972.
Tony Defries had been trying to get us on Top of the Pops for ages, encouraging the producers to come down and see us, but then we did a gig at the Croydon Greyhound and the BBC crew all came down, along with the producer, and that’s when we were offered the show. We had already done a TV spot or two, but this was the big one, this was the show that everybody watched.
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The ‘Starman’ performance was broadcast the following day. The appearance earned Bowie instant stardom in the UK, ‘Starman’ raced up the charts, and paved the way for Ziggy’s success.
The band were augmented with Nicky Graham on piano. Bowie’s new vocals included a nod to his chart rival Marc Bolan: “Some cat was laying down some ‘Get It On’ rock ‘n’ roll, he said.”
The single ‘Starman’ had been getting lots of airplay and was actually climbing the charts and we were asked to do Top Of The Pops, which was recorded on 5 July, to broadcast the next day. You may remember how massive that programme was in the seventies: if you were on it, everyone saw you. It had a huge viewing audience of between ten and fifteen million. This was a real milestone moment for us.
Since deciding to be a musician at fourteen, this was the show I dreamed of appearing on – and now it was actually happening.
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Although ‘Starman’ had clear hit potential, it was Bowie’s demeanour which caused delight and dismay. Rake thin and copper-haired, strumming a bright blue 12-string guitar and wearing a rainbow jumpsuit and bright red boots, the singer looked nothing less than the alien of which he sang.
The ‘Starman’ performance made a deep impression on a number of viewers who would later become famous musicians, each of whom owed a degree of debt to Bowie. They included Boy George, Adam Ant, Mick Jones of the Clash, Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, and Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen.
As soon as I heard ‘Starman’ and saw him on Top Of The Pops, I was hooked. I seem to remember me being the first to say it, and then there was a host of other people saying how the Top Of The Pops performance changed their lives.
In just three minutes Bowie managed to cram in enough memorable moments to ensure that his was the performance of the night, whether it was the arm draped around Mick Ronson as they shared a microphone in the chorus, or the finger pointed at the camera as Bowie, detonating the fourth wall, “had to phone someone so I picked on you”. The Spiders From Mars looked no less alien than Bowie, with their satin shirts and spaceboots, Ronson’s matching gold Les Paul guitar, and Trevor Bolder’s preposterous sideburns.
I remember there was a corridor from our dressing room to the main stages. Status Quo were appearing that day, too, and we found ourselves standing opposite them waiting to go on. We were dressed in all our finery, including full make-up, and they were dressed in their trademark denim. We couldn’t have looked more different. We gave each other nods and laughed when Francis Rossi said, ‘Fuck me, you make us feel really old.’
Bowie played his part to the max, camping it up on stage, and at one point he threw an arm around Mick’s shoulder. It was a bold move and quite a shocking gesture to make at this time, especially considering all the press concerning Bowie’s sexuality.
During the line ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you’ Bowie pointed directly into the camera and from reports at the time and ever since then this became a pivotal moment in his career. The impact of that performance was felt in millions of living rooms across the UK. It also landed the single in the top ten of the UK charts two weeks later.
Although we knew we’d done a good job, I have to admit at the time we didn’t feel there was anything outstanding about that particular TV appearance. But it seems that a generation of future rock stars, too numerous to mention, were inspired and since then I’ve had the opportunity to speak to countless fans who told me of the buzz it created in the playgrounds and streets across the country the next day.
What we did realise was that we were now famous. From then on there were always fans camped outside the flat on the front doorstep, male and female, and we’d have to step over them to get to the shops. If there were too many, we sneaked out the back door and climbed over a wall.
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Also on this day...
- 2002: Live: Horsens Ny Teater, Horsens
- 1997: Live: Festivalpark, Werchter
- 1996: Live: Rock Torhout
- 1974: Live: Park Center, Charlotte
- 1970: Live: Roundhouse, London
- 1966: Recording: I Dig Everything, I’m Not Losing Sleep
Want more? Visit the David Bowie history section.