Watch David Bowie Perform “Starman” on Top of the Pops: Voted the Greatest Music Performance Ever on the BBC (1972)

The Bea­t­les were made for black-and-white tele­vi­sion, as evi­denced by the imme­di­a­cy with which their 1964 per­for­mance on The Ed Sul­li­van Show launched them into per­ma­nent inter­na­tion­al super­star­dom. Though only a few years younger than the Fab Four, their coun­try­man David Bowie arose in a dif­fer­ent era: that of col­or tele­vi­sion, with its vast­ly expand­ed aes­thet­ic range. Bowie is known to have car­ried him­self as if his own inter­na­tion­al super­star­dom was guar­an­teed, even dur­ing his ear­ly years of strug­gle. But it was only when he took full, lurid advan­tage of the tech­no­log­i­cal­ly-expand­ed son­ic and visu­al palettes avail­able to him that he tru­ly became an icon.

“It’s decep­tive­ly easy to for­get that in the sum­mer of 1972 David Bowie was still yesterday’s news to the aver­age Top of the Pops view­er, a one-hit won­der who’d had a nov­el­ty sin­gle about an astro­naut at the end of the pre­vi­ous decade,” writes Nicholas Pegg in The Com­plete David Bowie. But his tak­ing the stage of that BBC pop-musi­cal insti­tu­tion “in a rain­bow jump­suit and shock­ing red hair put paid to that for­ev­er. Hav­ing made no com­mer­cial impact in the two months since its release, ‘Star­man’ stormed up the chart.” As with “Space Odd­i­ty,” “the sub­text is all: this is less a sci­ence-fic­tion sto­ry than a self-aggran­diz­ing announce­ment that there’s a new star in town.”

“It is hard to recon­struct the drab­ness, the visu­al deple­tion of Britain in 1972, which fil­tered into the music papers to form the grey and grub­by back­drop to Bowie’s phys­i­cal and sar­to­r­i­al splen­dor,” writes Simon Reynolds in Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Lega­cy, from the Sev­en­ties to the Twen­ty-first Cen­tu­ry. But to under­stand the impact and mean­ing of Bowie — and in par­tic­u­lar, Bowie of the Zig­gy Star­dust era that had only just begun — we must imag­ine the sheer exhil­a­ra­tion of new pos­si­bil­i­ty a young, artis­ti­cal­ly inclined Top of the Pops view­er must have felt as Bowie-as-Zig­gy and the Spi­ders from Mars over­took their tele­vi­sion sets for “Star­man“ ‘s three min­utes and 55 sec­onds.

“No mat­ter how weird and alien you felt, you couldn’t have been as weird and alien as David Bowie and his band­mates looked,” writes the Guardian’s Alex­is Petridis. The occa­sion is that paper’s new list of the 100 great­est BBC music per­for­mances, whose range includes Bob Dylan, Prince, the Pix­ies, Talk­ing Heads, Pat­ti Smith, and Dizzy Gille­spie. But the top spot goes to Bowie’s 1972 Top of the Pops gig, due not least to the fact that “umpteen view­ers have tes­ti­fied to the life-chang­ing, he’s‑talking-to-me effect of the moment when Bowie points down the cam­era as he sings the line ‘I had to phone some­one so I picked on you.’ ” CNN’s Todd Leopold likens the Bea­t­les to “aliens dropped into the Unit­ed States of 1964,” but as Bowie would vivid­ly demon­strate eight years lat­er, the real inva­sion from out­er space was yet to come.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Zig­gy Star­dust Turns 50: Cel­e­brate David Bowie’s Sig­na­ture Char­ac­ter with a New­ly Released Ver­sion of “Star­man”

8 Hours of David Bowie’s His­toric 1980 Floor Show: Com­plete & Uncut Footage

How David Bowie Turned His “Ade­quate” Voice into a Pow­er­ful Instru­ment: Hear Iso­lat­ed Vocal Tracks from “Life on Mars,” “Star­man,” “Mod­ern Love” “Under Pres­sure” & More

What Hap­pens When Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Cre­ates Images to Match the Lyrics of Icon­ic Songs: David Bowie’s “Star­man,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stair­way to Heav­en”, ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (12)
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  • Scrod Dunis says:

    Great sto­ry! Thank you for post­ing.

  • Alex Nesrallah says:

    We have the BBC’s ban on lip-sync­ing to thank for this live vocal per­for­mance. There are a num­ber of great songs from TOTP which use a taped back­ing track with live vocals from the Rolling Stones, Rod Stew­art, et al.

  • Jim says:

    Most peo­ple in the UK had black n white TVs in 72, Rod’s Mag­gie May on TOTP was much bet­ter than Bowie.

  • Michael says:

    Hah ! that com­ment is hilar­i­ous.

  • Adrian says:

    WHO vot­ed this the great­est ever per­for­mance on the Zbbc? What non­sense.

  • Jacob Freeze says:

    This song is noth­ing but *me me me*, from a sick­en­ing lit­tle jerkoff of a pop star­let.

  • Jaime Hery says:

    Nice song by Bowie, it was nice to see Mick­ie on gui­tar, but David has a lot of bet­ter songs, like Jena Jena , Queen Bitch etc

  • Ivor Jebson says:

    Sex Pis­tols 1977 Pret­ty Vacant!
    Not even in the 100
    Hel­lo pseud mus­so ed.

  • Ian says:

    Yeah.. small stu­dio. Bad sound …lots of lip syncing…and worse…

  • Jules says:

    It’s a close call. I blas­phe­mous­ly believe that Bohemi­an Rhap­sody — Live Aid may just win out by a hair. Either way unbe­liev­able vocals all around. I can get behind this choice when all is said and done! ❤️ me some Zig­gy Star­dust!!!

  • Gman US says:

    It cer­tain­ly is cool, and their look was wild, but who real­ly thinks this is live? (I did­n’t see the string sec­tion any­where on stage) the poor fan with the sweater vest will have to live with that fash­ion choice for eter­ni­ty.

  • Jackie Prigmore says:

    Well Done Davie boy will always love your music thank you so much

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