David Bowie and Klaus Nomi’s Hypnotic Performance on SNL (1979)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Klaus Nomi: The Bril­liant Per­for­mance of a Dying Man

Klaus Nomi’s Ad for Jäger­meis­ter (Cir­ca 1980)

David Bowie and Cher Sing Duet of “Young Amer­i­cans” and Oth­er Songs on 1975 Vari­ety Show

David Gilmour & David Bowie Sing “Com­fort­ably Numb” Live (2006)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (18)
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  • Moeskido says:

    The arms of the mar­i­onette weren’t over­sized, Bowie was. He was chro­ma-keyed in from off­stage, wear­ing a cos­tume that did­n’t extend down his full height.

  • Jeff Blanks says:

    We’re still liv­ing in a punk rock world today, and no one even thinks (much less dares) to ques­tion its under­ly­ing assump­tions. OTOH, that “old guard” not only did­n’t fade away, they’re gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged as hav­ing made bet­ter music than those who sought mere­ly to dethrone them. The cre­ative class made some bad deci­sions in the mid-to-late ’70s, and we’re still liv­ing with their effects now.

  • R.A.L. says:

    I own that gui­tar that Stacey Hay­den is play­ing. I bought it after the tour. Strange to see it on this site.n

  • Amanda says:

    Thanks for this. That last song is “Boys Keep Swing­ing.”

  • Alexander Laurence says:

    Map­plethor­pe on Key­boards.

  • lgny says:

    Did SNL bleep “oth­er boys check you out” on Boys Keep Swing­ing? That’s pret­ty fun­ny con­sid­er­ing the extra pup­petry penis thang at 8:30…nAnybody have the sto­ry? Did Basil Twist do the pup­pet? Did Klaus Nomi get the plas­tic tux from Bowie, or is it the oth­er way around? Call­ing Joey Arias…

  • tohu777 says:

    “…enter­ing anoth­er high pop phase.“nnnnWell, I dun­no — Scary Mon­sters (and Super Creeps), which was record­ed in 1980, has some pret­ty edgy stuff on it…nnnI saw this SNL the night it was broad­cast, at age 13. This was Klaus Nomi’s big year: I also remem­ber see­ing him in the movie Mr. Mike’s Mon­do Video (at the drive-in!)…blew my fuck­ing mind. I had the notion fixed in my head that Nomi was actu­al­ly an alien–not unlike Bowie’s New­ton in The Man Who Fell To Earth…

  • Rainbucket says:

    In “Boys Keep Swing­ing” the vocal is silenced for “Oth­er boys check you out” though you can see Bowie sing it. Was that line real­ly too much for ’79 late night broad­cast TV? It could be refer­ring to hotel clerks ya know.

    • tohu777 says:

      I’ll nev­er for­get when SNL’s cen­sors total­ly missed that part in Red Hot Chili Pep­pers’ “Stone Cold Bush” when Antho­ny Kiedis says “smoke that rock/and suck that cock” haha

  • Lt o3o says:

    Amaz­ing touch­stone moment. It’s actu­al­ly Jim­my Destri on key­boards — synth.

  • StevoPearce says:

    love devo­tion

  • StevoPearce says:

    love devo­tion

  • Madeline Bocaro says:

    I was there in the stu­dio that day! You can read my sto­ry here:

  • Bevin says:

    I remem­ber this appear­ance on SNL like it was yes­ter­day.
    I was stoned to the bone and Bowie’s per­for­mance was elec­tri­fy­ing!

  • Vanessa says:

    When I saw this per­for­mance for the first time on SNL I not only was riv­et­ed by the music and of course by David Bowie him­self but by the two back up singers Klous Nomi & Joey Arias. All I could think about was, “Where can I find that red dress and I want the black one too!” . New Wave was at that moment shock­ing, artis­tic, the­atre art. Arias’ reveal­ing bulge was no deter­rent for me, I could­n’t see the men, only the dress­es. Love this video!

  • Christian P says:

    Gui­tar from Bowie per­for­mance on SNL — Stacey Hay­den. Hi — Is that a Mighty Mite or a Charvel? It is very typ­i­cal of ear­ly late 70’s South­ern Cal­i­for­nia gui­tar mak­ers. I am inter­est­ed in the sto­ry, not try­ing to buy it, would just like to know more about it. Any­thing you could share would be greatvThank you — Chris­t­ian

  • Madeline Bocaro says:

    I was there at the Sat­ur­day Night Live rehearsals with Bowie, Klaus & Joey!!! You can read my sto­ry all about it here… http://madelinex.blogspot.com/search?q=klaus+nomi+riding+the+new+wave

  • Fearless fraser says:

    Watched Bowie’s SNL Per­for­mance in’79 and amazed when at the very end of “oth­er boys keep swing­ing” the pup­pet, dressed as Bowie was, sud­den­ly popped an erec­tion (live human fin­ger prop)with cam­era close- up on pup­pet. Wait­ed for next tele­cast lat­er that year.Soooooo dis­ap­point­ed to find it had been cen­sored.

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