In July 1972, David Bowie made a legendary appearance on the British music show Top of the Pops, doing a version of “Starman” that took glam rock mainstream and inspired a generation of U.K. teenagers to shoplift gender-bending clothes. Six months later, in January 1973, Bowie returned to Top of the Pops for a victory lap: a triumphant performance of “The Jean Genie.” Promoting a new album, Aladdin Sane, Bowie was still dolled up in his Ziggy Stardust persona, with a crepe-style plaid jacket over his bare chest, a chain around his neck, and a shock of bright red hair. The Spiders from Mars emphasized the single’s martial stomp and Bowie wailed on his harmonica like he was worried the BBC might take it away from him.
“I wanted to get the same sound as the Stones had on their first album on the harmonica,” Bowie once said. “I didn’t get that near to it but it had a feel that I wanted – that Sixties thing.”
For five minutes, the Top of the Pops performance showcases the power of the interplay between Bowie and Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson. When they lean into the microphone together and sing “let yourself go,” it’s a command that band and audience both obey.
The music to “The Jean Genie” was inspired by Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”; Bowie wrote the song’s lyrics in the New York City apartment of model-actress Cyrinda Foxe, then a publicist for his management company and later married to David Johansen of the New York Dolls and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. But the actual subject of the song was Iggy Pop, or at least a fictionalized version of him, Bowie said. The lyrics were about somebody who “sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile.” The title of the song was an homage to French novelist/dramatist Jean Genet – Bowie has told different stories over the years whether the reference was unconscious or deliberate – while the line “He’s so simple-minded, he can’t drive his module” would, in turn, inspire the name of the band Simple Minds.
Bowie regarded “The Jean Genie” as a manifesto, not just a 45-rpm single. The following year, in a Rolling Stone interview with William S. Burroughs, Bowie said, “A song has to take on character, shape, body and influence people to an extent that they use it for their own devices. It must affect them not just as a song, but as a lifestyle.”
Bowie’s Top of the Pops performance of the song gave viewers a wide range of lifestyle choices, from his shiny earring to the lyric “strung out on lasers and slash-back blazers” to the alarming haircut of bassist Trevor Bolder. But at some point after the broadcast on January 4th, 1973, the BBC wiped the tape to save money. The performance would never have been seen again – except that cameraman John Henshall had employed an unusual fisheye lens of his own invention. Wanting the “Jean Genie” footage for his professional reel, he had retained a videotape copy. It remained in his personal collection, unseen for 38 years, when he discovered that his copy was the only one in existence. “I just couldn’t believe that I was the only one with it,” Henshall said. “I just thought you wouldn’t be mad enough to wipe a tape like that.”