Sound and Television

David Bowie was – among other divinities – a consummate self-promoter and it’s for this reason alone I feel justified in exploiting a niche in the market of Bowie obituaries; his appearances on television. Looking back at what Bowie has done on and for TV, it’s all too clear that his genius – like Elvis before and Madonna after him – was in breaking down barriers of genre and generation. His TV – see one thrive:

 

Top of the Pops (1972)

Though in retrospect Bowie only ever flirted with LGBT imagery and shed his public bisexuality as quickly as he did all his other personas – including the one at the root of his sexual ambiguity, Ziggy Stardust – his performance of ‘Starman’ on British chart countdown Top of the Pops in 1972 was a watershed in the visibility of gender and sexual fluidity in the mainstream culture of Britain. Bowie’s androgynous dress and appearance was one thing, his suggestive embrace of guitarist and collaborator Mick Ronson entirely another. Viewers may have been reading between the lines, since Bowie had recently come out as gay (or possibly bisexual) in rock magazine Melody Maker. That this risqué – and risky – display had such an impact is due as much to the three-channel limit of TV viewing in the UK in the early seventies which meant it was seen by most of the country’s television audience as it is to the content of the performance. But that doesn’t diminish the power it had on those who were awakened and liberated by Bowie’s gesture, including future British pop legends Boy George and Ian McCulloch, nor does it make this surreptitious statement of social change less significant.

 

David Bowie and Bing Crosby (1977)

Despite being constantly innovative and revolutionary in his music, Bowie was never one to shun tradition, as evidenced by his affection and appreciation for the cabaret singers and crooners who were the pop sensations of their eras. Bowie seemed to have a particular fondness for American pop music, and became a fully-fledged part of it in the seventies and eighties when – inexplicably – he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the  most legitimate funk and soul artists in the USA. If you take all that into consideration, the awkward chemistry and textbook-illustration culture clash of David Bowie singing with Bing Crosby on his Christmas show in 1977 disappears into thin air. If the lacklustre banter about the irrelevance of a  generation gap in musical tastes doesn’t convince you of their parity – and it won’t – then the complimentary idiosyncrasies in their duet medley of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Peace on Earth’ makes a compelling case for their historically inextricable legacies as pop stars.

 

The Snowman (1982)

As a recent orchestral performance of the British animated feature based on Raymond Briggs’ beloved children’s book I witnessed reminded me, the live-action introduction featuring David Bowie as an adult version of the main character remembering his childhood experiences is more often omitted from showings than it is included. It’s not really surprising as the appearance of a clean-cut, bleach-blond Bowie is the only aspect of this timeless film that dates it as a product of the early eighties. But this appearance unlocks a history of extraneous and bizarre movie cameos that is as much part of Bowie’s place in pop culture as his music. The Snowman is aired every Christmas Eve on British TV station Channel 4 and I suspect that in future years the melancholy of this beautiful film about loss and transience will have as much to do with Bowie as it does the Boy.

 

Extras (2006)

Speaking of extraneous and bizarre cameos…Though celebrity appearances like Bowie’s would eventually spell the end of Ricky Gervais’s credibility as comic actor and writer, his industry-set sitcom Extras created a self-contained world in which celebrity sightings were eminently plausible. The irony of Bowie’s appearance in the second episode of the sitcom’s final season is that a music star of his ilk is the last celebrity sitcom actor Andy Milman is likely to run into. It’s not much of a leap to suggest that this might be a sly reference to Bowie turning up in projects he didn’t need to be in. It’s one of the few occasions that Gervais had the humility to credit someone else with his success. Gervais’s self-effacing ode ‘Little Fat Man’ is styled so perfectly for Bowie, it acknowledges the extent to which Gervais’s physical and vocal mannerisms which have won him international adoration – especially as David Brent – are informed by the late performer.

 

 

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