Starman: David Bowie on TV

Some of Bowie's best televised moments.

If ever there was a star who was born for the screen, it was David Bowie. Across his career, the man born David Robert Jones underwent transformation after transformation—from a slightly fey acoustic songman to moonage daydreamer to a living and breathing Patrick Nagel illustration. No matter how he looked, Bowie always made good television. Below, we’ve collected a few of our favorite televised performances.


“Space Oddity,” 1970
While this video claims to be Bowie’s first appearance on TV, that’s not actually true: he popped up in 1964 as the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, setting his career’s trajectory three years before his first album would appear. But this performance of “Space Oddity” is a fantastic time capsule. Those bell bottoms! That feathered hair!

“Queen Bitch,” The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972
Ah, what a difference a couple of years makes. Only two years after he out-Framptoned Peter Frampton, Bowie showed up on The Old Grey Whistle Test to play “Queen Bitch,” from the previous year’s Hunky Dory. And while the proto-punk chug of the song itself is a far cry from “Space Oddity,” the look shows him to be not a boy, not yet an androgynous alien.

“Starman,” Top of the Pops, 1972
There is very little in this life more delightful than seeing a made-up Bowie toss aside that blue acoustic guitar to put his arm around Mick Ronson in the chorus of this performance of “Starman.”

“Young Americans,” The Dick Cavett Show, 1974
Whole lot going on here. You’ve got the zoot-suited Bowie popping up on American late-night TV to ask whether anyone remembers Richard Nixon (who had resigned all of four months prior), you’ve got Luther Vandross on backing vocals, you’ve got a riotous sax run from David Sanborn. And you’ve got some excellent shoulder moves as the song bops into its home stretch.

“Golden Years,” Soul Train, 1975
Sure, he’s lip-synching. But tell me you don’t want to see a shoulder-padded Bowie telling Don Cornelius about The Man Who Fell to Earth.

(Heroes),” The Marc Bolan Show, 1977
A steadily maturing Bowie’s appearance on the late-night show of T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan feels appropriate; while T. Rex had been doing their thing for a few years before Bowie showed up on the scene, his ability to bring gender-bending barrier bashing to the masses almost certainly opened the door for Bolan to become famous enough to get his own late-night show.

 

“Boys Keep Swinging,” SNL, 1979
This appearance with Klaus Nomi was one of the few times in his career that Bowie was the more conservative one on stage—and this despite the fact that he has a puppet suit hanging from his neck.

“Life on Mars?” and “Ashes to Ashes,” The Tonight Show, 1980
“He’s going to do two songs for us about space,” Johnny Carson tells his audience, before Bowie endows “Life on Mars?” with a level of drama that’s almost as comic as it is cosmic. That Carson didn’t really know what to think about his musical guest is pretty odd given the former’s fondness for silly hats.

“20th Century Boy” with Placebo, The Brit Awards, 1999
While not technically a late-night show, this clip from the turn of the century is hard to resist, if only to see a trench-coated Bowie play a headless guitar. Still, there’s some thematic resonance here; Placebo’s cover of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes‘ fictionalized account of the glam scene that Bowie himself helped to invent.

“Five Years” with Arcade Fire, Fashion Rocks, 2005
By 2005, Bowie had long transcended rock stardom and had fully become the cultural magnate whose cachet elevated pretty much everything he happened to glance at. His hearty endorsement of Arcade Fire shortly after the release of their debut Funeral certainly boosted the nascent band’s profile. Here they repay him the favor, backing him for a particularly stirring take on the Ziggy Stardust classic.

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