Bowie: The First Time (Or Loving The Alien)

How David Bowie exploded into the public consciousness on a shit children’s TV programme

The Age of Bowie by Paul Morley, a sublime and personal account of the life and work of David Bowie written shortly after his death, eschews straight biography but is a superb forensic analysis of what was and is Bowie’s genius. What was it that drove this chameleon-like maestro and how did he constantly keep the listening (and viewing) public on its toes with such decadent ease? Although hugely subjective, (what biography worth its salt isn’t?) it highlights many of the key moments in Bowie’s career putting them into context with regards to superstardom, musical genius, amazing collaboration and inspired PR brilliance. His role within 20th and 21st century culture is plotted intriguingly and the final chapter will bring tears to a glass (spider’s?) eye.

Any such consideration of Bowie’s multi-faceted career will inevitably have Bowie fans (like myself) quibbling about certain aspects and moments from his career that, arguably, should have been included, but this is not only a compliment to Morley but to Bowie also. How could any one person’s opinions on Bowie be definitive? Although not a quibble, I felt Morley maybe missed a trick by only referring to Bowie’s monumental appearance on Top of the Pops in June 1972 performing ‘Starman’ but I would argue his first TV appearance introducing this classic song three weeks previously was just as fascinating but for very different reasons, and deserved analysis. Not only was this performance bizarre, provocative and utterly compelling, it was also the first time I had set eyes on Bowie and I remember the moment so clearly and vividly as if it was a flashback in a Nic Roeg film.

One’s childhood memories in the adult’s mind is usually a series of snapshots, albeit vivid snapshots with some more vivid than others. ‘Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination’ has become a cliche for the over 60s. Although certainly aware of it, I remember Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing better, although Kennedy’s funeral remains clear in my memory. Maybe because it was broadcast live in this country in the middle of the afternoon. A very rare event in those days. For the over 50s, however, ‘Where were you when you first set eyes on that other-worldly creature David Bowie?’ is probably a more relevant question and certainly one I could answer with a high degree of accuracy. 

Since his death we have been bombarded with TV programmes and publications detailing his life and work in extra-fine, forensic detail. Something I’m not complaining about. Keep them coming! But, for me, it all began one dull tea-time in the summer of 1972 when my attention was drawn to something on the screen which seemed utterly alien to me. That’s because it was.

The date was Thursday 15 June 1972 and ( as I have since found out thanks to that wonderful thing they call the internet), pre-dated his seminal appearance on Top of the Pops by three weeks.

The lovely Ayshea

Lift-Off with Ayshea was an ITV alternative to BBC’s Top of the Pops. It was inferior in almost every way and it did occasionally get some decent guests but mainly it was dedicated to the up-and-coming and going nowhere artist. They were cheaper and more available and ’cheap and tacky’ were words which ran through Lift Off like the writing in a stick of Blackpool rock. And at this time Bowie was cheap, he’d have done it for nothing, and he was certainly available. But, unknown to my 11 year old sensibility, something strange and momentous had begun to happen here…

Lift Off was a children’s programme, unlike TOTP which had a slightly broader target audience and went out later in the evening at around 7pm. It was produced by the doyenne of the ITV children’s TV department, Muriel Young. As well as Lift Off she produced similar pop-oriented tea-time kids shows throughout the 60s and 70s such as The Bay City Rollers’ imaginatively titled ‘Rollers’, carbon copy vehicles for Marc Bolan, Moondogs (!?) and Arrows. With the exception of the Rollers who had hit the peak of their success at the time, few of the bands amounted to a hill of beans. Moondogs came from nowhere and swiftly returned there, although Arrows had a couple of minor hits in the charts including ‘Touch Too Much’ but are remembered mainly for writing the anthemic ‘I Love Rock and Roll’, eventually picked up by Joan Jett and the rest is, of course, royalty history. Certainly this song will have kept the only still-living member of Arrows, Alan Merrill, in a fairly comfortable lifestyle for his remaining tenure on this earth. 

Not exactly a stellar line-up that week, not even with Len and Rita.

And who (of a certain age) could forget Young’s other music show operating on a budget of old pennies, the mind-numbing awfulness of ‘Get It Together’? Sadly not me though I’ve tried. Starring Roy North, Mr Roy, early sidekick to the great Basil Brush, its theme tune had the excruciating effect of a stick insect burrowing its way into the brain. ‘Get it together, all together, yes we’ll have a good time…Lady Grinning Soul it wasn’t. 

The template for each subsequent Muriel Young pop series was invariably the same:

  • A never-changing set festooned in stars and tin foil. (They probably used the same set for all of the above-mentioned shows.)
  • A small studio audience of fans whose shouts and screams sounded hollow within the cavernous studio. Occasional cutaways tried to make out there were hundreds of them rather than the 50-60 that were actually there.
  • Three to four minute sections comprising lip-synched songs and awkward ‘comedy’ routines.
  • Animated sequences of fans shouting and clapping to separate the live sections.
  • A special guest, usually someone occupying the lower regions of the charts or some unchallenging has-been like Vince Hill or Clodagh Rodgers, followed by a scripted ‘informal’ chat with the stars of the show. Even greater awkwardness ensued.
  • A ‘big’ closing number in which the small band of fans had their sound amplified to suggest excitement. A few, only a few, were allowed to run on to the stage to ‘mob’ their heroes.

With the exception of Lift Off, purely because it occasionally featured some interesting guests, the only other Muriel Young series to pass muster was the 1977 series ‘Marc’ starring Marc Bolan, sadly in decline from his early seventies zenith. His quirky and spaced-out personality just about carried it through. The final section of the 1977 first and only series featured Bolan duetting with his great pal David Bowie, who had just performed his new single, a ditty entitled ’Heroes.’ This closing section is notable for two reasons. Firstly, during the duet, Bolan became entangled in his guitar cord and fell off the stage to Bowie’s great amusement. It went against the predictable nature of the series that they kept this moment in. Which was nice. And secondly, it turned out to be the last performance Bolan would ever give, dying tragically in a car crash a few days later. Bowie had flown in from Berlin specially to record the show. The planned second series, of course, never happened.

Lift Off ran from 1969 to 1974 and each episode featured three or four live acts plus a couple of cover versions by Ayshea herself. She was probably the first and only Asian woman to feature in her own TV series during the 70s. At the time she was desperately trying to be a pop star and had been taken under the wing of Roy Wood, no less, who was doing a little more than just producing her, as rumour had it. As well as being a backing singer on Wizzard’sI Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ she eventually went on to appear in Space 1999 and a few other series without ever repeating the success she enjoyed with Lift Off, where she was a household name, at least with da kids.

Don’t ask…

Other than the Bowie episode I have only sketchy memories of other acts on Lift Off. To be honest, I was only slowly becoming interested in pop in the early 1970s. I did watch TOTP most Thursdays, mainly because it preceded Tomorrow’s World which my dad liked. I had also discovered BT’s (or whatever they were called then) Dial-A Disc service. The Spotify of its day, it required the listener to dial a particular telephone number and listen to a single specific track from the current top 10 which was played on a loop for 24 hours. God knows how much it cost to listen to but luckily itemised phone bills were a few years off. I had also bought my first single with my own money, ‘Theme From Shaft’ by the legendary Isaac Hayes. A record I am hugely proud of, still possess and still love. My second single purchase was ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ by Lieutenant Pigeon.

One band who appeared on Lift Off With Ayshea and I have a very clear memory of was Slade, unmercilessly taking the piss out of Ayshea as she attempted to interview them. Dave Hill kept brandishing his guitar during the interview shouting ‘Super Yob!’ For the first time I quite warmed to Slade, hitherto finding them to be a little bit scary. And a mirrored top hat was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

But I digress… Back to Bowie. 

Thursday 15 June 1972 is a day notable only for Ulrike Meinhoff of the Bader-Meinhoff Gang being arrested in West Germany and the ‘new’ Bowie’s first appearance, to my knowledge, on British TV . Very seventies. I didn’t always watch Lift Off because even at the impressionable age of 11 I found it a little bit patronising and a big bit amateurish. But here I’m sitting in our living room, alone, at our house of the time in Relugas Road, watching what will have still been a black and white telly and the opening credits begin to roll. I have no idea who else appeared in this episode because my mouth almost fell open when Bowie suddenly flashed up on the screen. The opening to Lift Off showed each of the artists appearing looking at the camera for a few seconds. Like a cross between a Warhol screen test and the closing credits to Hi-De-Hi, they would stare awkwardly and vacantly at the camera. ‘Who’s that weirdo?’ I thought, narrowing my eyes. A tentative Bowie looked straight at me. Dark spiky hair, makeup, crooked teeth, oddly inappropriate name for such a bizarre looking creature. And what was so strange about those eyes? Even in black and white his exotic-ness, though that’s not the word I used at the time, screamed out from the screen. But the artlessness of his demeanour, uncharacteristically not quite knowing what to do when the camera was suddenly pointed at him, looking vacantly out at the viewing public, seemed utterly at odds with the body he inhabited and image he projected.  With a little trepidation I decided I had to see this. 

I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t heard of this guy, not even Space Oddity, and suddenly he’s thrust before an audience of children at Thursday tea time. When one thinks of Bowie’s sexually charged image during this Ziggy period, felating Mick Ronson’s guitar for example, it was an audacious choice for the morally buttoned-up Ms Young to foist before a youthful audience. But 60s and 70s telly was like that. Didn’t Scott Walker sing Jacques Brel on the Frankie Howerd Show, didn’t Dizzy Gillespie play Be-Bop jazz on The Golden Shot, didn’t Jimi Hendrix force It’s Lulu to overrun, cutting into The Black and White Minstrel Show? Strange days indeed.

When Bowie eventually performed ‘Starman’ it was (another) revelation. His music wasn’t ‘way-out’ after all. It was actually….brilliant! And that bit when he looked into the camera and pointed his circling finger straight at you-oo-oo. It was a watershed moment. I had been brought up to believe long-haired, dirty weirdos were exactly that (even though I loved The Beatles, but they were different) and here’s this alien on telly and I love this song. I still found him a little bit scary but what the hell.

Three weeks later he appeared on TOTP. I don’t have the same vivid memory of watching this at the time but I think I did. He seemed much more confident performing here than in the garden shed studio of Lift Off. Here there was a proper audience, a more professional setting and much livelier vibe.TOTP has been criticised for many reasons but it did generate a tangible feeling of excitement, an urgent and immediate tone which may not have come across in the studio but certainly came across through the cathode ray tube. Bowie and his band unsurprisingly seemed much more energised and at ease here.

Watching this performance back on YouTube one has the feeling that this was one of TOTP’s most significant moments. However, it was always an amusing experience as a viewer just to watch members of the TOTP audience, particularly if the artist featured was crap. The ones who are really ‘getting down’. The ones who think they may be spotted by a TV producer or Model Agency and might be thrust to superstardom overnight. And, of course, the ones who just liked seeing themselves on telly. In this seminal performance by Bowie and The Spiders it’s worth looking out for a lad dancing at the back of the stage in a tank top. Little does he know he is witnessing the genesis of one of the major artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. An artist so ground-breaking, innovative, imaginative and influential, announcing his arrival to the world in a performance that will remain iconic and totemic to this day. But all this lad wants to see is his own ba’-face in the monitors above them so he slides back and forward along the stage, at one point suddenly emerging in-between Bowie and Ronson’s deliberately ambiguous embrace during the chorus, grinning from ear to ear having achieved this feat of media manipulation and self-aggrandisement. For me, this is all part of that phenomenal moment. The idea that this anonymous lad in his tank top was present at, possibly, the most memorable TOTP of all time and was blissfully unaware of what was happening in front of his upturned eyes (as most of us were) just adds to the impact of the experience. Where is that lad now? He will now be in his mid-60s and, if still alive, what must he recollect of that night in June 1972? I think we should be told.

I had no idea if this alien was going to be successful. I had no idea he was the writer of the wonderfully jaunty ‘Oh You Pretty Thing’ sung by the wholesome and toothsome ex-Hermit Peter Noone, a hit in the previous year. I had no idea Bowie had even played piano on that record. But a few weeks later ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ was released and it was clear this extra-terrestrial was no flash in the pan.

For many years it was thought that the footage of Bowie on Lift Off with Ayshea had been wiped like so many other monumental TV programmes in regular acts of cultural vandalism by TV companies. Recently it was announced that this footage had been unearthed, as a viewer, quite unbelievably for the time, had recorded his performance from the TV using computer tape. How could he have known? Although in a very degraded state this footage is, allegedly, in the process of being restored. If successful, for me, this is the most valuable of all Bowie films being the first performance of his breakthrough song and on a children’s TV show to thigh-length boot. Although the TOTP performance a few weeks later is, quite rightly, seen as his calling card to the world it’s that moment tucked away on a children’s TV show that, I believe, is the most pivotal and I feel privileged to have witnessed it and even remember it. Popular music ch-ch-changed from that day on. (Sorry..) 

So I picked on you-oo-oo…