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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