I saw him first, sort of. After Bowie’s hit in 1969 with Space Oddity, he chose a song called The Prettiest Star as his follow-up, featuring Marc Bolan – months before T.Rex broke through to huge success with Ride a White Swan – on guitar. Apparently the recording session had gone well until Bolan’s wife June told Bowie “Marc is too good for you, to be playing on this record.” Despite airplay on the Kenny Everett Show (where I heard it), it is said to have sold fewer than 800 copies. Space Oddity had been opportunistically released to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Bowie was still seen as a novelty act. Strange to think that for nearly three years he was a one-hit wonder. But I thought, and think The Prettiest Star is a beautiful plaintive love song, much enhanced by Bolan’s fluid, wailing guitar. (A brittle, metallic version was later to appear on Aladdin Sane) So before you could say K.WEST I had ordered a precious copy from Strawberry Fields in Rickmansworth.
But Rob was the true fan. He had spent many Saturday nights that year with his friends Nigel, Jill and Steve, pursuing Ziggy Stardust around Dunstable, Aylesbury, Hemel Hempstead and divers other places to your writer unknown – this was, they think, the sixth time he and Nigel had seen Bowie. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Hunky Dory had taken a pounding on our turntable in the previous six months, and I loved what I heard: sharp, edgy rock songs mixed with quirky slower songs, flavoured by this exotic androgynous creature. Can little brother tag along, please?
Our evening didn’t get off to the best start. Rob had put a dent in the Daf on the way back from Watford, and had to square that with Dad. But my spirits were high: it was Christmas Eve – I was still young enough to find that wildly exciting – our cousin Jonathan was staying with us over Christmas, and we were going to see David Bowie.
Bowie had just spent nearly three months touring the US with the Spiders from Mars. In his absence Ziggy Stardust sold strongly, fans were beginning to seek out his earlier albums and his reputation was soaring. The Jean Genie, recorded in New York City two months earlier, had just been released and was flying up the charts. After an amazing year there was a huge buzz around his triumphant return to London, to play the prestigious Rainbow Theatre at the start of a short British tour.
It being Christmas Eve, Bowie asked the audience to bring in toys – his father, who had died three years earlier, had been a public relations officer for Dr Barnardo’s childrens’ homes. Rob stepped up and bought a toy, which was added to the huge pile in the foyer, and a whole lorry-load was reportedly distributed to grateful children the following morning.
(Returning, if I may, to the vexed question of ticket prices, you might remember that it was 75p to see Led Zeppelin at Wembley Empire Pool thirteen months earlier. Of course £2 was still astonishingly cheap to see a legend like Bowie breaking through, but even allowing for the prevailing 7% inflation rate, this seems quite a step up, considering Led Zep’s huge established reputation. By now, rock music fans were starting to earn grown up money, and the spectacular rise to modern ticket prices was tentatively underway.) Sorry. Anyway…
Possibly because of the incident with the Daf, we arrived late, and the show had got off to an unpromising start. Stealers Wheel (featuring Gerry Rafferty) gave us no clue to how soon they would break through with the Dylanesque cowbell classic and radio perennial, Stuck in the Middle with You, or to the songwriting talent that gave us the sublime Baker Street. It was just an aural battering.
But things picked up when at last they stopped playing, and by the time the lights went down again some in the audience were near hysterical. After playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – perhaps a cheeky nod to Elvis’s opening with Also Sprach Zarathustra – the band launched into the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together (shortly to appear on Aladdin Sane), followed by a pulsating rendition of their regular opener Hang on to Yourself . The set was fast, tight and electrifying, and Bowie surfed the wave of adulation.
NME writer Charles Shaar Murray reported the frenzied audience reception. “Just for the record, they’ve started screaming at David Bowie,” he wrote. “At the Rainbow on Christmas Eve young girls were reaching out for our hero’s supple limbs and squealing in the customary manner. Whether it’s Bowiemania or Ziggymania or a combination of the two is not yet apparent.”
Earlier Ziggy Stardust gigs had included an acoustic set in the middle, but that had gone. Murray wrote: “That American tour has really honed the Spiders to perfection. The show is tougher, flashier and more manic than it’s ever been before.”
The set included tracks from four different Bowie albums, from The Man Who Sold the World through to Aladdin Sane. The message was clear: if you were a true fan, you had to get them all. I was fascinated by the strobe lighting during Mick Ronson’s solo during The Width of a Circle, and stunned by the pitch at which Bowie kept the audience for the whole show.
I remarked to Rob and Jonathan that as well as being an exciting performer, he seemed like a nice guy. They weren’t so sure. Perhaps I had mistaken his knowing, satisfied grin – at having his audience where we wanted them – for affability. As always with Bowie, there was an element of calculation, his careful choreography mocking the usual spontaneity and wildness of Rock’n’roll. The show wound up to its climax with The Jean Genie and Suffragette City, but it was the melodrama of Rock’n’Roll Suicide (seen here, again Hammersmith Odeon footage) that stirred the audience to frenzy. Bowie prowled the stage screaming “Gimme your hands…cause you’re wonderful” – written for this very purpose – reaching out his healing hands to fans like the god he had become that night.
Here is the set list from that fantastic evening:
Ode to Joy (Beethoven)
Let’s Spend the Night Together
Hang on to Yourself
Life on Mars?
The Width of a Circle
John, I’m Only Dancing
The Jean Genie
Someone was bold enough to smuggle in their cassette recorder that night, because here, believe it or not, is an audio of the entire set. Never mind the quality (which is terrible), let’s just celebrate the fact that it exists.
When we went back into the cold night air, Jonathan and I were surprised to see Gerry Rafferty crossing the road in the opposite direction, headed for the Rainbow – presumably to pick up his stuff. Perhaps he preferred going to the pub to seeing the headline act. Mate, you can get a drink any night of the week.