“Starman” is David Bowie’s Christmas carol. It offers a promise of deliverance, that the human race has been redeemed by greater powers, with a chorus built for a crowd to sing it. It’s the song that finally broke Bowie, whose performance of it on a July 1972 Top of the Pops made him a nationwide, and soon worldwide, pop star. So while the Ziggy-era Bowie is remembered today for his outrageousness, the song that made his name is warm, reassuring and most of all familiar.
The latter’s key. For the average UK pop listener of 1972, David Bowie was still the weirdo who had had the song about Major Tom back in the ’60s, and suddenly, here he was back again with another astronaut song. It finally connected. And “Starman” seems like a revision of “Space Oddity”—“Space Oddity” had placed a frail human figure against the unfathomable expanse of space and cast him loose to drift into the unknown. It was submission to the void, the human race reaching its limits. In “Starman” the unknown is domesticated: the alien comes to visit us, in our homes, whispering through our radios, speaking softly, promising release. The stoicism of “Planet earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do” is replaced by “he’s told us not to blow it/’cos he knows it’s all worthwhile.” The human race, or at least its children, turn out to be essential after all—the earth, once again, is the center of the universe.
Variations on this theme were common in the Seventies, from the popular Erich von Däniken theory that mysterious aliens had helped guide the progress of human civilization, to the benevolent star-children of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to even Doctor Who, where in the early ’70s the cosmos-traveling Doctor was exiled on present-day Earth and freelanced for the military.*
“Starman” is also a pop song about pop music. Bowie’s alien appears only as a voice on the radio (he’s basically a cosmic DJ), whispering secrets to a teenager listening late at night—it’s how pop music can instantly create secret societies, break up the tedium of your life, liberate you from your parents. And “Starman” the track seems fused from a pile of old records. The octave-leap opening of the chorus is a lift from “Over the Rainbow” (so much that Bowie cheekily merged the two songs during a ’72 concert at the Rainbow, linked to above), the guitar-keyboard hook linking the verse to the chorus is taken from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” or The Five Americans’ “Western Union” (Nicholas Pegg suggests Blue Mink’s “Melting Pot”), while the long “LA-la-la-la-LA” outro is pure T. Rex, particularly “Hot Love.” It’s a greatest-hits compilation in a four-minute song.
For all its familiarity, “Starman” begins ominously enough, opening with an eleventh chord and slowly moving through eight bars in which Bowie hums along to his acoustic guitar, all ringing open strings. This intro keeps listeners on edge, getting them to wonder just where the track’s going, until a fill by Woody Woodmansey (just two toms and the snare) kicks off the verse. Bowie sings the two seven-bar verses softly, in a near-whisper in places, keeping to the middle of his range. He barbs a few vocal hooks (the four-note dips in the second and fourth bars (‘were low-oh-oh,” “di-oh-oh-oh”)), while a bar of fast acoustic strumming fills a gap.
The chorus starts with Bowie’s octave leap (F to F), much like the chorus of “Life On Mars,” but listeners were prepared for the “Mars” chorus via the build-up of its extravagant bridge. The “Starman” chorus just erupts after two bars of the “Hangin’ On” guitar-keys hook. Ronson’s solo (which repeats in the long outro) is typically melodic and crafty. I’ll let Jesse Gress, author of “10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Mick Ronson,” describe it: [it’s] a perfect example of how to build a strong, memorable melodic line over a simple IV-I-V-I progression (Bb-F-C-F). The idea is to target the 3 of each chord on every downbeat and connect them with adjacent F major scale tones, while “playing” the strategically placed rests and making the melody more guitar-y by adding bends and finger vibrato.
And like “Hot Love” or “Hey Jude,” the song seems unwilling to stop, its outro extended for over a minute while Ronson throws in some additional lead playing and Bowie leads a chorus in a circle.
After ‘Starman,’ everything changed.
Woody Woodmansey, 2008.
In 1972 I’d get girls on the bus saying to me, ‘Eh la, you got a lippy on?’ or ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Until [Bowie] turned up, it was a nightmare. All my mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops? He’s a right faggot, him!’ And I remember thinking ‘you pillocks.’…With people like me, it helped forge an identity and a perspective on things, helped us to walk in a different way, metaphorically…
Ian McCulloch, in David Buckley’s Strange Fascination.
“Starman” wasn’t meant for Ziggy Stardust. Bowie went into the studio in early February ’72 to cut the song as a single, but RCA’s “contemporary music” VP Dennis Katz loved “Starman” so much he mandated its inclusion on the LP (a sign that RCA’s US operations were calling the shots, as American labels always had been baffled by the UK practice of keeping singles off the album). Released in April, “Starman” had a slow journey up the charts but thanks in part to Bowie’s touring, it reached the top 10 by late June. Two television appearances by Bowie and the Spiders to support the single did the rest.
The first was Granada TV’s Lift-Off With Ayshea on 15 June, but the one everyone remembers is the Top of the Pops performance, recorded on 5 July and broadcast the following day. For a generation of British teenagers, it was nothing short of the revolution, televised. Marc Riley, later of The Fall, recalled his grandmother shouting insults at the TV while Bowie performed (“something she usually saved for Labour Party broadcasts” he told David Buckley). The 15-year-old Susan Ballion, soon to call herself Siouxsie Sioux, watched Bowie’s Top of the Pops while in the hospital recovering from colitis; the 15-year-old Gary Numan watched it, stunned, in his East London living room; in Liverpool, the 13-year old Ian McCulloch stared at the TV and “thought maybe I was Ziggy Stardust all along,” as he told Marc Spitz.
The performance isn’t just about Bowie, though he’s striking with his copper-colored mullet, his leotard and his effortless charisma (twirling his finger at the camera while singing “picked on you-ooh-ooo”, and connecting with every susceptible kid in the UK). The essential moment comes when Bowie starts to sing the first chorus and Ronson tentatively approaches the mike. Bowie notices him and sweeps his arm over Ronson’s shoulder, pulls him to the mike. It’s a sweet moment of inclusion, the alien embracing the rocker, and, by proxy, all of the nation’s misfits. “Starman” left community in its wake; its promise came true.
“Starman” was recorded on 4 February 1972 and released in April (RCA 2199) c/w “Suffragette City.” It hit #10. “Starman” wasn’t a regular feature of the Ziggy tour; Bowie stopped playing it by the end of 1972 and there are some other signs (such as its odd exclusion from the greatest hits LP ChangesOneBowie) that Bowie didn’t think much of it at the time. He wouldn’t play “Starman” live again until his greatest-hits tour of 1990, though it became a standard in Bowie’s early 2000s shows.
* An indulgent, long footnote on Bowie and Doctor Who. Bowie’s career has many parallels with the history of the UK’s finest SF show (let alone the fact that Bowie’s best chronicler, Nicholas Pegg, is a Dalek operator in his spare time). Bowie’s recording career begins soon after the start of Who in late 1963, and the odd psychedelia of his late ’60s work is something akin to the whimsy of Patrick Troughton-era Who (cf. “The Laughing Gnome” with “The Mind Robber”). Bowie’s glam era coincides with the Pertwee years (the back cover of Ziggy Stardust even has Bowie standing in a police box!) (well, no, this is a cock-up of a statement—see comments), his most ambitious, influential work with the Tom Baker years (Low and the great Baker Season 14 are synchronous), Bowie’s MTV-era reign with Peter Davison’s. And Bowie’s fall into mediocrity is matched by Who‘s own descent into the pit (and cancellation) in the mid- to late-’80s. Oddly enough, Bowie’s current exile from performing and recording started just as Who was successfully revived in 2005.
Top: Jon Pertwee banters with Nicholas Courtney while an engrossed Katy Manning pays them no mind (Day of the Daleks, January 1972).