David Bowie’s performance of Starman may not have changed anything, but it’s still an extraordinary piece of television. On Thursday 6 July 1972, halfway through an edition of Top of the Pops, David Bowie performed his new single, Starman. Dressed in a multicoloured lycra jumpsuit, he put his arm languidly round his guitarist Mick Ronson and looked seductively into his eyes. Now, exactly 40 years later, Dylan Jones has written a 200-page book, When Ziggy Played Guitar, all about those three-and-a-half minutes of television. “It was thrilling, slightly dangerous, transformative,” writes Jones, who was 12 at the time. “For me, and for those like me, it felt that the future had finally arrived.”
Jones is not alone. It would almost be quicker to list the pop performers and writers of his generation who have not cited this broadcast as a watershed in their musical and sexual education. “Basildon was a factory, working-class town,” Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode once recalled. “Bowie gave me a hope that there was something else … I just thought he wasn’t of this earth.” The radio presenter Mark Radcliffe, then a 14-year-old pupil at Bolton School, thought that Bowie and Ronson had “arrived from another planet where men flirted with each other, made exhilarating music and wore Lurex knee socks”.
In 1972, less than 5% of British homes had more than one television. Most teenagers avidly watched Top of the Pops, as the only chart music show on TV, but so did their parents, most of whom had grown up before rock’n'roll – and something unfolding unexpectedly on the living room set could uncover a troublesome issue that would ordinarily remain unspoken.
Just before he launched his Ziggy persona, in January 1972, Bowie had told Melody Maker he was bisexual. And on 1 July, about 700 people walked from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park in the first Gay Pride march. The world was changing, but not fast enough. While a pop star putting his arm round another man on television might not look very revolutionary now, it seems to have been a liberating moment for young people coming to terms with their sexualities. The crime writer Jake Arnott, then aged 11, recreated the Top of the Pops performance in his back garden with his best friend Pete, who had hennaed his hair like Bowie, “feeling a strange sense of excitement as he put his arm around me”.
But did this moment really “create havoc in millions of sitting rooms all over Britain”, as Jones suggests? We do not know, because no fossil record of its contemporary effect on viewers remains. In 1972 there were no Twitter hashtags to collate an instant collective response, and it was only in the 1980s that newspapers, faced with declining readerships, really began to cling parasitically to the younger medium of television as a source of comment and gossip. So Bowie’s performance inspired no press coverage or public reaction at the time, simply vanishing into the ether to make way for The Goodies at 8pm.
All we have are people’s memories of the event, and viewers often misremember what they see on television, an inherently evanescent, momentary form – especially in those days before domestic video recorders. Perhaps these people are remembering having seen it repeated, because it is one of the few Bowie broadcasts around this time not to have been wiped – although there was much excitement last December when a retired BBC cameraman came forward with a lost recording of The Jean Genie on Top of the Pops in January 1973. Despite the TOTP Starman being repeated often, people still misremember it. When Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, recalled seeing “Mick Ronson on 10-inch platforms, bending over, giving the guitar fellatio“, this must be a case of the wish fathering the thought. Bowie did simulate fellatio on Ronson’s guitar in concert, but it would have got him taken off air at primetime on BBC1.
One of the traits of popular collective memory is that it likes to fasten on landmark moments when everything was transformed and after which nothing was ever the same. But the truth is always subtler and historical change always more of a continuum. The turning of Bowie’s Starman performance into a seminal moment probably has something to do with nostalgic regret for the seemingly lost capacity of multichannel television to create these shared, cataclysmic moments. But all those who saw the performance repeated again on TV recently can surely agree on one thing. Even 40 years on, it remains an electrifying piece of television.
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