How David Bowie Became the ‘Starman’
Rob Sheffield’s new book, On Bowie, is a celebration of the late, great rock legend’s life and career, from the longtime Rolling Stone columnist. It looks at all the ways David Bowie kept innovating throughout a 50-year career. In this chapter, Sheffield revisits the moment Bowie conquered the U.K., with his classic 1972 performance on Top of the Pops.
Ziggy Stardust finally made Bowie the massive rock & roll scandal he had always desperately wanted to be. “Five Years” sets the scene, as those apocalyptic drums fade in: acoustic guitar, piano, strings, the end of the world. Bowie walks through a city in chaos. He sees people wandering the streets in shock and fury, kissing and fighting and weeping and breaking every social taboo. Panic on the streets of London. A crowd begins to sing. The song ends with these strangers standing in the rain together, chanting “Five years! That’s all we’ve got!” as the city burns and quakes around them. A few hours ago, they were all home watching the news on TV, bored out of their heads. Isn’t this more exciting?
After “Five Years,” Bowie could have spent the rest of the Ziggy Stardust album making gnome jokes and he still would have scored a hit. But he wanted the entire LP to be a sensation. When he put the final running order together with producer Ken Scott, there was a song on Side One that didn’t make the grade: a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round.” It fit the concept – the kind of oldie the Spiders from Mars would have covered – but it was redundant, given that Side Two was already full of Chuck Berry rips. Side One needed something different, something bigger and loftier. An anthem. So Bowie rushed out one more tune at the last minute. He called it “Starman.”
“Starman” turned into the fabled Top of the Pops performance of July 6, 1972 – the moment where Bowie truly conquered Britannia. He strums a blue acoustic guitar, with tangerine hair, a rainbow catsuit and astronaut boots, casually draping an arm around Mick Ronson. In just four minutes, he went from a plodding folkie to England’s most infamous rock sensation. Every future legend in the British Isles was tuned in. Morrissey was watching. So was Johnny Marr. Siouxsie was watching. Robert Smith was watching. Duran Duran were watching. So were Echo and the Bunnymen. Dave Gahan. Noel Gallagher. U2. Bauhaus. Jesus, Mary, and their Chain. Everybody. It’s no coincidence that there was a boom of English rock stars born between 1958 and 1963 – these were the kids stuck at home on a Thursday night in 1972, watching an otherwise depressing hour of Top of the Pops. As Bono told Rolling Stone in 2010, “The first time I saw him was singing ‘Starman’ on television. It was like a creature falling from the sky. Americans put a man on the moon. We had our own British guy from space – with an Irish mother.”
One Dead After Storm Collapses Roof at Morbid Angel Show in Illinois
- 'Absolute Chaos'
Flatbush Zombies' Zombie Juice Releases 'Dizzy' With Spitfire Delivery
- 'Brutally Candid'