1979 was a strange year in music. A year of endings, in a way. Sid Vicious died, Ozzy Osbourne left Black Sabbath… an old guard faded away. On the other hand, U2 went into the studio for their debut, Kate Bush went on her first tour, and new wave emerged from punk’s end. It was also the year, notably or not, that Berlin/New York cabaret performer Klaus Nomi broke, sort of. Nomi had been performing Wagner and Vaudeville in New York, and David Bowie, always on the make for unusual traveling companions, invited him to appear as a backup singer on Saturday Night Live. Bowie himself was in transition, leaving behind his high concept work with Brian Eno on his Berlin Trilogy (Low, ”Heroes,” and Lodger) and entering another high pop phase. It was an abrupt, but natural, shift for Bowie; tapping into Nomi’s art-pop affectations may have seemed a perfect way to bridge the two.
Bowie, Nomi, and flamboyant New York performance artist Joey Arias do three songs, reaching back to Bowie’s folkier times for “The Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie launches next into Station to Station’s “TVC 15” in a skirt and heels, while Nomi and Arias drag around a pink plastic poodle. For the last number, Lodger’s “When You’re a Boy,” Bowie perhaps invents the look of 80s new wave videos to come—from Peter Gabriel to the Pet Shop Boys—while wearing a life-size marionette costume. Some amazing mechanism, puppeteers offstage or Bowie himself, operates the oversized arms, and the whole thing takes SNL musical performances to a place they’d never been. Nomi was so impressed with the costuming that he adopted the huge plastic tuxedo Bowie wears during the first song as his own, wearing one on the cover of his first album and performing in it until his death from AIDS in 1983. The broadcast above took place on December 15, 1979.