How performing Starman on Top of the Pops sent Bowie into the stratosphere

The moment he pointed down the camera during his appearance on the BBC in July 1972 was also the precise moment that Bowie became a major star

I went to YouTube just now to see if the memory I’ve kept in my head for more than 43 years is correct. When David Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972 performing Starman, did he really point at the camera on the line “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-oo”?

He did.

In the glory days of Top of the Pops you couldn’t watch things again. You retained them in the archive of your memory. People watched hungrily, believing it would be their only chance. It’s only slowly, in the years since 1972, that I realised that I wasn’t the only one for whom this was a key moment. The way Bowie pointed that finger, smilingly draped an arm around Mick Ronson, and looked beyond the camera to engage the audience sitting at home, stickily hemmed in by disapproving members of their immediate family, seemed of a piece with the new Ziggy Stardust persona we’d been reading about. It felt like an arrival long delayed.

People had been tipping Bowie for much of the previous year. His album Hunky Dory had come out just before Christmas 1971, with glowing reviews and a big marketing push from his new record company, but it hadn’t really taken. The New York Times called him “the most intellectually brilliant man yet to choose the long-playing album as his medium of expression”. In truth, Bowie was like everybody else, just trying to get a hit. The last time he’d been on Top of the Pops was playing piano behind Peter Noone on the latter’s hit version of his own Oh! You Pretty Things. Bowie’s people were furiously working the machine. His first release of 1972, Changes, was not a hit, despite being single of the week on Tony Blackburn’s Radio 1 show.

When Bowie first came up with the Ziggy Stardust material, during a three-week trip to the US in February 1971, his idea had been to have it fronted by Fred Burrett, a young clothes designer he and his wife Angie had met at a gay club called El Sombrero and decided to rechristen Freddie Burretti. Bowie saw himself as the behind-the-scenes puppetmaster in that setup. Maybe he worried that his teeth disqualified him from frontman duties. Bowie at the time was an ideas man, pitching songs to everyone, including the horror actor Christopher Lee. His publisher was one of the many people in the business who were backing Bowie, but it wasn’t clear that his future was as a performer.

Whereas Hunky Dory had been extravagantly melodic, like the Beatles album that everybody was trying to make now there was a gap in the market, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was influenced by the Stooges and Velvet Underground records Bowie had been impressed by on his visit to the States. It also owed a lot to the hit singles with which Marc Bolan, a fellow refugee from the obscurity of late night radio and the Arts Lab circuit, was tearing up the singles charts in 1971. “It’s going to be lots of guitars,” Bowie told his producer Ken Scott. “You probably won’t like it.”

Bowie had already recorded and sequenced Ziggy Stardust before Hunky Dory was released. Such was the speed people moved at in those days of two albums a year. “There was no time for second guessing yourself,” Scott recalled. The only change made to the album was the replacement of a cover of Chuck Berry’s Around and Around with Starman, a radio-friendly single made at the request of the boss of Bowie’s new record company, RCA. Bowie had no problem doing him this favour, once he had finished the heavy lifting involved in recording the album.

In the early months of 1972, before Ziggy Stardust came out, he and his new band were starting to appear on stage wearing the clinging space suits they had cribbed from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which had opened in cinemas in January. On 8 February, they played the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, the albums-centred programme that had been launched late the previous year. Bowie stirred the pot further by turning up to an interview with Michael Watts from the Melody Maker in a camp playsuit and announcing that he was bisexual. Everything was primed so that when Ziggy Stardust appeared in June 1972, the market would be ready.

All of that investment in outrage and edginess paid off when Bowie appeared on Top of the Pops singing Starman. That was the moment Bowie went above ground and nationwide. The hype may have led us to expect something edgy and challenging. The record was as simple and hummable a radio hit as you could possibly desire. For the post-Beatles generation coming into their albums-buying majority, the record wasn’t really the point. The point was the way he looked at them.

  • Never a Dull Moment, David Hepworth’s book about music in 1971, is published in April


David Hepworth

The GuardianTramp

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