TV appearances

David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars first performed ‘Starman’ on television on 15 June 1972, for Lift Off With Ayshea.

The children’s show was filmed in Manchester by Granada for the ITV network, and ran from 1969 to 1974. Presented by Ayshea Brough, it showcased new music requested by viewers, either performed in the studio by musicians, Ayshea herself, or a dance troupe.

For the ‘Starman’ performance, the Spiders were joined by Nicky Graham on piano. It was first shown six days after the recording, on 21 June.

The promotion continued with us performing ‘Starman’ on a show for Granada TV called Lift Off With Ayshea on 16 June [sic]. We were all getting changed in the dressing room before the show started when Bowie did something we hadn’t seen him do before. He took out a bag containing make-up!

We watched in disbelief as he applied various strange substances to his face . . .

‘Aren’t you putting make-up on?’ he asked.

The answers from us varied from ‘Fuck no’ to ‘No fucking way’.

‘It’s a shame,’ he said. ‘You’re going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people and your faces are going to be green under these TV lights.’

He played us brilliantly: we looked at each other and we didn’t even have to speak or discuss it. None of us wanted to look green!

He then asked us to get made up for the live shows, too, and we didn’t like that at first – but as Bowie himself later put it, once we found out the effect the make-up had on the girls, we had no problem with it.

Mick Woodmansey
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie

Lift Off With Ayshea was often considered to be ITV’s answer to Top Of The Pops. With viewing figures of around 15 million, musicians knew that to get a place on TOTP would provide priceless exposure, and a memorable performance would be a guaranteed discussion topic in pubs and playgrounds across the nation for several days.

Bowie and the Spiders were invited to perform ‘Starman’ on the show after their manager persuaded the show’s producer Mike Moran to see them play a show in Croydon.

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.
Trevor Bolder
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

The ‘Starman’ performance was filmed on 5 July 1972, and 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.

As on Lift Off, the band were augmented with Nicky Graham on piano. Bowie had recorded a new vocal over the studio backing track, which 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.

Mick Woodmansey
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie

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.
Ian McCulloch

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.

Mick Woodmansey
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie