5 Iconic Bowie TV Performances
Posted on: 12/06/2015
Long before reality TV made a spectacle of wannabe music superstars, performers harnessed the power of the airwaves for promotion and provocation. From Countdown to classics like The Ed Sullivan Show, television was often the first place the public saw the artists they loved.
In the '50s the dreamy crooners exploited the novel medium to ensnare legions of teenage fans, trading on their clean-cut style and good looks to sell records, but by the end of the ‘60s, those button-downed matinee heroes evolved into dangerously sensual counterculture idols like Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison.
Then, in 1969, David Bowie soared across the airwaves like an intersexual comet. Though he initially came in the guise of his contemporaries, Bowie wouldn’t last long as any incarnation and his constant transformation was captured on television, a medium he utilised more artfully than anyone before him (except maybe Elvis).
In honour of the cosmic chameleon, we take a look at his best TV performances.
Hits a Go Go – Space Oddity
David Bowie’s first TV performance wasn’t on American or even English television, but the Swiss series Hits a Go Go. Filmed in black and white with a kaleidoscopic shadowing, Bowie lip-synchs his break-through hit “Space Oddity”. Sporting a spectacular afro while he strums an acoustic guitar, there’s little indication of the direction Davie Jones would take his image by the early 70s, apart from his stellar lyrics and playful smirk during the refrain, ‘Can you hear me Major Tom?’.
This is a bit of a cheat, but it’s also worth checking out this 1970 performance of “Space Oddity” at the Ivor Novello Awards in London. In pink bellbottoms and a floral puffy shirt, Bowie accepted the Special Merit Award for Originality after the performance. Again, he looks like most young ‘60s musicians here and only the award denotes the direction he’d eventually take.
Also worth mentioning, Davie Jones and The King Bees had performed on The Beat Room in 1964, but we’re counting down David Bowie performances.
Starman – Top of the Pops 1972
In three short years, Bowie had reinvented himself by the time Starman landed on Top of the Pops. The long hippie hair was usurped by a towering red mullet and the bellbottoms traded in for a multi-coloured spacesuit (which you can see in the exhibition), revealing Ziggy Stardust in all his astronomical lunacy.
Despite the earlier success of “Space Oddity”, this was the first time many people had actually seen Bowie and the performance ushered in the Ziggy-era, earning Bowie his legion of fans (and a few detractors for the high camp factor). Author David Buckley noted in his book Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definite Story, "Many fans date their conversion to all things Bowie to this Top of the Pops appearance".
Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch was one of those fans, remembering, “All my other mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops? He’s a right faggot, him!’ And I remember thinking, ‘You pillocks’… It made me feel cooler”.
Also check out the even more outrageous performance on The Floor Show in 1973, where Bowie appears completely genderless in his glittering, groping fishnets (also in the exhibition) as he thrusts his way through “Jean Genie”.
Soul Train – Fame and Golden Years
On track to becoming the Thin White Duke, Bowie’s appearance on classic music program Soul Train demonstrated the new ‘plastic soul’ direction his music took on 1975’s Young Americans and 1976’s Station to Station. Gaunt, almost jaundiced (could be the filter) and with short, swept back red hair, Bowie sways dreamily through the funk-infused “Golden Years” and “Fame”, two legendary tunes that defined the mid-70s for the superstar.
The Dick Cavett Show – 1974
This is awesome mainly because of Cavett’s introduction of Bowie, which demonstrates the difficulty people had categorising the rising star. Not only that, but he performs a number of songs, including “1984” from Diamond Dogs and “Young Americans”. It’s also a hearty show from Bowie, who isn’t lip synching and is more lucid, engaged and animated than most of the clips we’ve chosen. The backing band is also exquisite.
Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes – The Tonight Show (1980)
To promote the release of Scary Monsters(and super creeps), Bowie remerged on US television on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. He’s come out of the Thin White Duke period at this point and appears uncharacteristically well-fed, decked out in a red jacket and slicked back hair, channelling James Dean for the cheering American audience.
Not only is it interesting to see Bowie bring in the 80s clean, but you get two classic songs in one hit. Also, if anything else, you can enjoy his signature two-step shuffle dancing. As one YouTube user commentated, ‘… holy cow, David really can’t dance. I guess nobody does everything well.’
What are your favourite David Bowie TV moments? Tell us in the comments below and maybe we'll make them into a blog!
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David Bowie on Top of the Pops in 1972 performing Starman