Have you heard of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men? If not, you can’t say you know all of David Bowie’s groups. Fifty years ago, in his very first television interview, Bowie appeared in the capacity of its spokesman, as well as that of “President of the International League for the Preservation of Animal Filament.” “I think we’re all fairly tolerant,” says the 17-year-old then known as David (or even Davey) Jones, “but for the last two years we’ve had comments like ‘Darling!’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now.” Cliff Michelmore, host of the BBC program Tonight where this all went down in November 1964, asks if such behavior surprises him, because, “after all, you’ve got really rather long hair, haven’t you?” “We have, yes,” replies the proto-Bowie Bowie. “I think we all like long hair, and we don’t see why other people should persecute us because of this.”
The “we” to which he refers comprises all the equally mop-topped young dudes flanking him. Together, they would later appear on another BBC program, Gadzooks! It’s All Happening, as the group — this time musical — the Manish Boys, performing their big number, a cover of Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool.” But according to the David Bowie FAQ, producer Barry Langford had, for that appearance, previously “insisted that David cut his 17″ long hair,” resulting in the brief formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men and, consequently, “numerous newspaper reports… of course it was all a scam for some free publicity.” Whatever his style — and he’s had a few — Bowie has clearly always known how to work the ever-reengineered publicity machine. Sometimes he’s done it by going with the flow, but only partially, as we see here, where he and the Manish Boys sport roughly nine-inch hair rather than cuts to the harsh early-1960s standard. Bowie, never one of rock’s dedicated longhairs, can’t have found this too terribly oppressive in reality, although when he returned to the BBC 35 years later for a chat with the more strident Jeremy Paxman, he did so with a look that might have done the old Society proud.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.