David Bowie in black and white

Over the years many musicians and commentators have noted the significance of David Bowie’s performance of “Starman” on “Top of the Pops” in 1972. I remember Gary Kemp in particular discussing how powerful it was for him. It came up in a BBC documentary about Mick Ronson, and then in the run-up to the Bowie exhibition at the V&A in 2013. Boy George and Morrissey have also said how important it was for them.

On Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show last week one of his callers described the performance as “the Gay Moon Landing”, as significant for young gay men in Britain as Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk had been for the world as a whole three years earlier.

Last weekend, on Johnnie Walker’s show, Paolo Hewitt talked about it, and gave the date, “June 6 1972”. D-Day, we’d have remembered that. But David Hepworth’s article from the Guardian last week names it as 6 July 1972 (and you can work out that 6 July was a Thursday, “Top of the Pops” day, so that looks more likely).

I worked out last week why it was less significant for me. Part of it was age. I am a few years younger than Gary Kemp, for example. I was 9 rather than 12 when “Starman” was in the charts. Seeing Sex Pistols on TV when I was 13 was much more striking. More important though, I didn’t see it in colour. We didn’t have a colour TV until 1978, so everything I watched before that time was in black and white. The most arresting performance that I recall from “Top of the Pops” in 1972 was Alice Cooper singing “School’s Out”. In black and white that was much more shocking, to my 9 year old eyes, than Bowie singing “Starman” and putting his arm round Mick Ronson’s shoulder. (And I hadn’t heard the song; I assumed that Alice Cooper was a woman.)

If I hadn’t worked it out before, Joe Elliott’s “Tracks of my years” segment on today’s Ken Bruce show would have helped. He describes it well, “a moment in time”, “one pivotal moment”, and he mentions Morrissey, Gary Kemp, Boy George, himself, all around 12 or 13, and watching in colour. It was so different, he said, from watching Gerry and the Pacemakers or the Beatles in black and white in the 60s. Bands like Slade and Sweet (“bricklayers in drag” – I always loved that description) competing, “peacocking”, there on colour TV. For now the clip is here, at 2:13:52.

I finally saw that performance in colour in the 1980s, just a clip of it on the BBC1 show “Pop Quiz”. But that was enough. I can still remember the time and place: a Saturday evening in 1984, that small colour TV we had in our kitchen back then. And at the Bowie exhibition at the V&A in 2013, which I visited many times, I would stop by the screens showing the performance and watch it again and again, copying that little circular movement of his index finger when he sings “I had to phone someone, so I picked on you-hoo-oo”.


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