David Bowie returned to the United Kingdom on 2 May 1976, to continue his world tour. He arrived at London’s Victoria Station to be greeted by ecstatic crowds.
His return was well publicised and highly anticipated. Bowie arrived standing in an open-top Mercedes limousine, waving at fans. Unfortunately, however, he was photographed appearing to give a fascist salute.
That didn’t happen. THAT DID NOT HAPPEN. I waved. I just WAVED. Believe me. On the life of my child, I waved. And the bastard caught me. In MID-WAVE, man. And, God, did that photo get some coverage… As if I’d be foolish enough to pull a stunt like that. I died when I saw the photo. And even the people who were with me said, ‘David! How could you?’ The bastards. I didn’t… GOD, I just don’t believe in all that.
Melody Maker, 29 October 1977
The moment of the alleged salute was captured by NME photographer Chalkie Davies.
David Bowie hated flying, so when he returned to the UK for some concerts as the Thin White Duke in 1976 he arrived by a special train. It pulled into Victoria Station in the middle of a quiet Sunday afternoon, that’s if you call a bunch of girls screaming at the top of their lungs quiet. He walked a few yards from the train carriage to a waiting open topped Mercedes which then whisked him to another platform where the car reversed towards the hordes of screaming girls. It stopped near us photographers, David stood up in the back of the car and waved to the crowd, then he sat down and was driven off to an undisclosed location.
Unfortunately because of the gloomy late afternoon light at Victoria Station I used fill in flash on the four or five frames I managed to rattle off before he split.
When I showed the image to the NME the following day they decided to enhance his left arm by drawing a hand on the image, because of the flash it was partly missing. But when we saw the paper on Wednesday it looked very much like he was giving a Nazi salute.
The press picked up on this and put it together with some quotes on fascism he had made in Europe and lo and behold David was vilified as a Nazi. I feared it might harm our relationship but he shrugged it off saying it wasn’t my fault, that I’d just caught a wrong moment and that he was indeed waving at the crowd. Nobody believed him of course and the Victoria Station Incident became part of Bowie folklore.
Davies’s image was printed in the NME with the headline ‘Heil and farewell’. The accompanying article made no mention of a salute.
If Bowie’s wave was more misfortune than intent, the timing was regrettable. Bowie had for some time been flirting with fascist imagery and references. The previous month he had been detained at the Russia-Poland border, following a trip to Moscow, and customs officials confiscated some Nazi literature and memorabilia. Bowie insisted the books had been for research purposes – “I’m working on a film on Goebbels and they found all my reference material,” he later said.
Then, on 26 April, he made some grandiose remarks to a Swedish reporter which suggested his interest in fascism was not entirely dispassionate.
As I see it I am the only alternative for the premier in England. I believe Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism.
Also on this day...
- 1978: Live: Civic Centre, Ottawa
- 1973: Travel: Moscow to Paris
- 1967: Live: David Bowie and the Riot Squad, Bossard Hall, Leighton Buzzard
Want more? Visit the David Bowie history section.