It’s difficult for people who didn’t watch the original airing of David Bowie’s appearance on Top of the Pops in the summer of 1972 to fully understand its significance. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and the lead single “Starman” had been on shelves for about a month, but they had yet to generate much heat and most people dismissed Bowie as the one-hit wonder who sang “Space Oddity” three very long years ago.
That all changed when this episode of Top of the Pops hit the airwaves on July 6, 1972 and people all over England first encountered a fellow wearing a rainbow jumpsuit and sporting a red mullet. He called himself Ziggy Stardust and the eclectic musicians around him were the Spiders From Mars. This was a time when Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” was Number One on the Hot 100 and teenage girls were swooning over Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. To many of them, Bowie seemed like a genuine space alien.
The song, which borrowed liberally from “Over the Rainbow” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” was undeniably great, but that wasn’t what people were talking about the next morning. It was a moment right around the one minute mark, where Bowie casually puts his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder and pulls him closer as they join voices on the chorus. “All my other mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops?’ He’s a right faggot, him!,'” said Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen. “And I remember thinking, ‘You pillocks.’…It made me feel cooler.”
Many adults shared the opinion of McCulloch’s classmates. Homosexuality was still extremely taboo in England and even something as innocent as two flamboyant men singing with their arms around each other was scandalous. But Bowie knew exactly what he was doing. He grabbed the hearts of kids all over the country that felt like freaks and outcasts. Ziggy Stardust began flying off the shelves and crowds began pouring into his shows, many of them dressed like Bowie. The glitter rock scene had reached the masses. T. Rex’s Marc Bolan was still the movement’s leader, but he suddenly had some very intense competition.