Bowie was eventually made the huge rock & roll scandal he had always desperately wanted to be by Ziggy Stardust. “Five Years” sets the scene, as those apocalyptic drums fade in. Bowie walks through a city in turmoil. Panic on the streets of London. A crowd starts to sing. “That is all we’ve got!” As the city burns and quakes around them. A few hours before, they were all house watching the news on TV, bored out of their heads.
But he desired the whole LP to be a sensation. When he set the final working order jointly 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 theory – the sort 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 desired something different, something bigger and more exalted. An anthem. So one more tune was rushed out by Bowie at the last minute. He called it “Starman.”
“Starman” turned into the fabled Top of the Pops performance of July 6, 1972 – the minute where Bowie really beaten Britannia. He strums a blue acoustic guitar, with a rainbow catsuit, tangerine hair and astronaut boots . In only four minutes, he went from a plodding folk to England’s most notorious rock ace. Morrissey was watching. So was Johnny Marr and Duran Duran. So were Echo and the Bunnymen. Dave Gahan. Noel Gallagher. U2. Bauhaus. Everybody. It is no coincidence that there was a boom of English rock stars born between 1958 and 1963 – these were the children stuck at home in 1972 on a Thursday night, seeing an otherwise depressing hour of Top of the Pops. As Bono told Rolling Stone in 2010, “The very first time I saw him was singing ‘Starman’ on television. It was like a creature falling from the sky. Americans place a man on the moon. We had our own British man from space – with an Irish mother.”
Seeing the clip now, in our jaded video-drenched world, it is still straightforward to see the beans of a nation were spilled by Bowie on toast. The most shocking detail is not his hair – it is that beatific grin, particularly when he waggles his finger at the camera for that “you-hoo hoo.” He loves being this guy. Bowie wasn’t up against heavyweights – the remainder of the show included Gary Glitter, Sweet and the Partridge Family – but he confronted the finest pop had to offer in 1972 and turned them all into backdrop scenery.
Bowie hit the road and toured like a madman, distributing the glitter gospel in a rock scene full of interchangeable flannel-and-denim sincerity pimps. English children responded with a fervor that must have stunned him – they began dressing up like him and walking the Ziggy walk. He dressed the part full-time, offstage and on. “I like to keep my group nicely dressed, not like some other folks I could mention,” he declared. “I am out to bloody well entertain, not just get up onstage and knock out a few tunes.”
By the time the tour reached London on July 3, 1973, for one big climax at the Hammersmith Odeon, Ziggy’s crowd was an even more out-of-control rock & roll creature than he was. Documentary director D.A. Pennebaker was on hand to film the final performance. “It was so different, more energetic than anything in the States. I was astonished at how he had the entire goddamn crowd singing back-up for him. I thought: ‘How did he organize that? Did he have instructional Saturdays where everybody came and rehearsed?
What nobody could have predicted was that Bowie was already intending to entomb Ziggy. Onstage in London, he surprised everyone – including the long-suffering lads in his band – with the statement, “Not only is this the last show of the tour, it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.” The crowd wailed, “Noooo!” It was a theatrical twist worthy of a master, and the “Bowie Quits” headlines that followed demonstrated it was a marketing coup. The star who killed the Sixties was killing the Seventies. Bowie was not retiring, of course, merely his alter ego with a wham bam, thank you ma’am. It was the first time he had destroyed his audience’s heart – but hardly the last. He had other hearts to break and other jobs.