It was October 1973 and three months earlier David Bowie had stood before his fans at the Hammersmith Odeon and announced--to the surprise of his band--that he was effectively ending Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His alter-ego was done, and he had to break up the band.
But there would be one final swan song, a live special featuring Bowie, set in a futuristic cabaret, to be called The 1980 Floor Show (a pun on Orwell’s 1984, which the singer was trying to adapt into a concept album, and which would later morph into Diamond Dogs). The location would be the famous London nightclub the Marquee, but the show would be shot for American television and a late-night rock and pop variety show called The Midnight Special, airing on NBC Friday nights after Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.
British fans who couldn’t make the filming were annoyed, and to this day, the full broadcast has not been shown in the UK, and is still not officially available.
Invitation only, the audience comprised members of the David Bowie fan club, the rock press, musicians, and other lucky people. This would turn out to be the very last time that Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder would play with Bowie as the Spiders. Joining the band was pianist Mike Garson, who had been a part of the Ziggy tour and the recently released Aladdin Sane, and whose sound is unmistakable here. Bowie also has three black back-up singers, a first sign of the sounds he would explore in Young Americans. And he invited The Troggs to play their hit, “Wild Thing.”
Unlike a concert run-through, the three days of filming featured each number rehearsed separately and filmed multiple times. For one thing, it allowed Bowie the chance to change costumes for each song, wearing some of the most outlandish outfits of his Ziggy era, designed by Freddie Burretti.
By 1973, Marianne Faithfull had gone from Mick Jagger’s girlfriend and pop chanteuse to a heroin addict, but Bowie’s invitation to join him helped her on her road to recovery. She sang “As Tears Go By” solo for the show wearing an angelic white dress and then “20th Century Blues” dressed in a red dress, wearing a towering purple feather hat and backed by male dancers.
For the finale, Bowie joined her onstage. (You can watch their ultimate performance here.) Dressed as decadent nun with a fully exposed back, Faithfull stood next to Bowie, dressed as “the Angel of Death” according to him, and had a go at the 1965 Sonny and Cher song “I Got You Babe.” The two really hadn’t rehearsed the song until that day. Faithfull’s voice was already heading towards the low, Nico-esque tones she’d develop later in the decade. The video contains two full rehearsals of the song, a non-”Wild Thing” number from the Troggs, and once again Bowie with “Space Oddity” and “I Can’t Explain.”
Also on the tape are introductions from one Amanda Lear, a velvet-voiced blonde who had a very intriguing career--Salvador Dali protege, Rolling Stone groupie, David Bowie lover, Italo-disco star, nude model, possible transsexual. So yes, a perfect host for what was at that time both a high-water mark for glam rock and a visit to the future.
As we approach the one year anniversary of David Bowie's death, which seemed to send the Grim Reaper on a killing spree, there's plenty of the Starman's career to discover and re-discover...and to be released.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.