Bowie’s Starman: The Music And The Myth

Was Starman’s Top Of The Pops Debut As Seismic As Has Been Claimed?

MOJO 344 cover, featuring Ziggy Stardust

by David Buckley |

Yesterday, Parlophone Records released a new version of David Bowie’s first single off the album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. Starman (Top Of The Pops Version – 2022 Mix) crisp and punchy, was remixed by the original co-producer, Ken Scott, the man who worked so successfully with Bowie in the early ’70s. It also includes a cheeky interpolation by Bowie at the very beginning of the song as Bowie alters the intro words, sung quietly but perfectly audibly – “Hey now now / Hey brown cow.”

The broadcast of Bowie singing Starman on BBC TV’s Top Of The Pops on July 6, 1972 has been heralded as a seismic moment in UK pop culture or “four minutes that shook the world” as writer Dylan Jones put it in his 2012 book, When Ziggy Played Guitar. After his performance, the single apparently would “shoot up the charts as though propelled by Stardust and Bowie himself.” The reality, however, is quite different.

Starman, the single, was recorded by Bowie on February 4 and was a last-minute replacement for a cover of Chuck Berry’s Around And Around on the Ziggy Stardust album. It was a determined attempt to cut a hit, and to remind the public that this was the guy who almost three years earlier had enjoyed success with another space-age anthem, Space Oddity. Bowie himself never seems to have cared for the song very much. It was not performed live on any tour from 1974 to 1987 and only sporadically in ’72-’73.

Released on April 28, 1972, Starman initially made no impact on the UK charts whatsoever. It took eight weeks for its first appearance, charting at Number 49 (only a Top 50 was published back then) on June 24. The single had in fact been on heavy rotation in the UK courtesy of DJ Johnnie Walker on Radio 1. Bowie had played the song for Johnnie Walker’s Lunchtime Show on May 22, 1972 and this had been repeated four times from June 6-9. Then on June 15, Bowie and the Spiders performed Starman on the ITV kids’ pop show, Lift Off With Ayshea, broadcast on the June 21. Those in the Granada region coming home from school may well have had their ‘Starman Epiphany’ then, as BBC Radio 6 Music’s Marc Riley recalled: “I was absolutely gob-smacked. My gran was shouting insults at the TV (which she usually saved for Labour Party political broadcasts), and I just sat there agog. I was experiencing a life­changing moment. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really did knock me for six.” (That footage – said to exist in a degraded form – has never been in popular circulation.)

It was three weeks later that Starman popped up again on BBC TV’s Top Of The Pops. Ian McCulloch, later the star man in Echo And The Bunnymen was likewise mesmerised: “All my mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top Of The Pops? He's a right f----t, him!’” And I remember thinking, ‘You pillocks,’ as they’d all be buying their Elton John albums, and Yessongs and all that crap. It made me feel cooler.”

Bowie’s performance would certainly have unnerved members of Riley’s gran’s generation, and felt liberating for Bowie’s new “gang” of fans, a constituency that would grow and grow as 1972 progressed, with Starman’s parent album taking root in the UK Top 20. But which broadcast of Starman did those who ‘remember’ it, actually see? Although many UK viewers will have witnessed the July 6 debut, they could easily have had first exposure two weeks later when it was re-broadcast on the TOTP of July 20. Complicating matters, Bowie expert Andy Barding claims there was not one but *two live performances of Starman – with Bowie and the Spiders returning to the Top Of The Pops studios for a second run-through – but only the first performance survives.

“I asked Woody [Woodmansey, drummer and only surviving member of The Spiders] that specific question: whether there were actually two TOTP performances,” says Barding. “He thought about it long and hard and then came up with the answer the next day: ‘Yes.’ There was a second trip to Manchester for Top Of The Pops. Something was wrong with the previous week’s so they had to do it again, he thought.”

Barding thinks he’s found further corroboration of the “Double Starman” theory in the recollections of Top Of The Pops house photographer Harry Goodwin.

“Harry Goodwin recalls shooting Bowie and the band performing on Top Of The Pops,” says Barding. “Indeed, his images are out there. He sold some of these to one of the Sunday papers. MainMan [Bowie’s management company] were displeased. The story was about Bowie’s alleged bisexuality and they didn’t like Goodwin’s pics being in the paper. Goodwin was banned from photographing Bowie the following week, he recalls, but he says he climbed up to a lighting gantry to get some overhead shots of Ronson. I’ve sadly not yet been able to find any of those pics. Just Goodwin's comments on it.”

There is no denying that the broadcast of the Starman performance was significant, and yet, did it single-handedly, as implied in many a narrative, turn Bowie from outsider to pop superstar? Not really. The single reached a creditable Number 10 in the UK charts. Singles certainly sold in much higher numbers back then, but it was a long way from being a really big hit. The big hits for Bowie came later, starting with The Jean Genie and Drive-In Saturday in 1973. It is the afterlife for Starman that has propelled it to familiarity, as new generations of music lovers have taken it to their hearts in a way the public, or its writer, at the time, never quite did. At the time of writing, it’s Bowie’s second-most-played track on streaming platform Spotify, after “Heroes”.

We have a third appearance of Starman on Top Of The Pops to thank for its existence today at all. This is undoubtedly when a really large audience saw the performance. By the end of 1973, Bowie was genuinely huge, having stoked the public frenzy by controversially retiring that summer – leading to six of his albums being in the charts the following January, 1974. Crucially, more viewers had by now bought, or more likely rented, a colour TV, a crucial factor in seeing Bowie and the Spiders in their full peacock glory. On December 27, 1973, at 5.45pm (after Tom & Jerry and before a showing of Chaplin’s Modern Times) BBC 1 aired Top Of The Pops: Ten Years Of Pop Music, 1964-74and included the Starman performance. The version we see now, on retro TV shows, documentaries and YouTube, is this repeat of the original.

Hosted by Jimmy Savile, the programme itself is never likely to be reshown. The first two shows in July 1972, containing the earlier broadcasts of Starman, we assume have been wiped, along, incidentally, with Bowie’s appearance in 1969 performing Space Oddity, and on piano, accompanying Peter Noone, for Oh! You Pretty Things in 1971.

Thank goodness for Christmas repeats after all.


Special thanks to Paul Kinder, owner of the Bowie Wonderworld website for his help with this article. A shortened version appeared in MOJO magazine, Issue 344, July 2022.

That issue, with its in-depth Ziggy Stardust cover story, is still available online, and on newsstands in the US and other territories. Find it here.

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