Revisit David Bowie’s game-changing performance on SNL singing ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, 1979
We’re dipping into the Far Out vaults to bring you a stellar performance from one of the greats of the music industry. Below, David Bowie wowed the audience as part of a game-changing showing on Saturday Night Live back in 1979.
David Bowie is an inspirational figure—it’s hard to disagree. Whether you’re an avid fan or an occasional foot-tapper, the Starman’s work as an artist is truly astounding. From his high concept work to his pop power prowess, the art of expression is always at the top of Bowie’s list of priorities. When he was invited to perform on Saturday Night Live on December 15th, 1979, despite the mainstream audience, art remained the only driving factor of Bowie’s night.
In 1979, as he was welcomed to take a spot on the hallowed late-night show, David Bowie was in a revealing moment in his career. Long gone were the days of the flame-haired rock star from outer space; Ziggy Stardust. Now, Bowie had morphed into a whole new artist far removed from any ‘pop star’ moniker—his Berlin trilogy Low, Heroes, and Lodger proved that. But as ever, Bowie liked to add a degree of punctuation to his statements.
As the eighties approached, the future was about to go pop again as he descended into the alluring fragrance of ’80s pop. But before that, he had one more high art performance in his locker and the opportunity to showcase it to millions presented itself with SNL’s invitation. He would usher in the eighties the only way he knew how, by inspiring a generation and leaving open-mouthed gasps across the entire nation.
Bowie arrived at the famous studio 8H at 30 Rock with a trio of tracks under his belt and a new accompanying artist in tow. The inimitable Klaus Nomi, the notable movement coach and artist, and the flamboyant New York performance artist Joey Arias arrived with Bowie equipped with some avant-garde costumes and a performance unlike anything America had ever seen before. It was about to get a little strange.
Ever the changing and supercharged force of creation, Bowie refused to sit still after his stint as the blue-eyed funk and soul master of the mid-seventies. His pursuit of performance had led him down some strange roads. A musical magpie, the singer had become intensely intrigued by Nomi, who, while performing Wagner and Vaudeville in New York, had caught Bowie’s unwavering eye, and was duly signed up as a backup performer.
The hallowed musical performance called for three songs and Bowie was keen to delve into his back catalogue to usher in the new decade. He settled on performing the iconic ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, arriving at the microphone carried by Nomi and Arias with Bowie unable to move in his oversized plastic tuxedo.
The Starman was also keen to explore the limits of mainstream androgyny and performed his Station to Station hit ‘TVC 15’ in a skirt and heels, likely stirring up the murky waters of middle America. Bowie ups the ante on his final performance of the night, though, as he dresses up as a puppet for his Lodger album track ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, utilising green screen to create a performance art piece worthy of any gallery let alone Saturday night entertainment.
Joey Arias later told Out Magazine of the project: “Bowie was amazing — cool, no-bullshit, super engaging, interested to know who we were. He told us he had three ideas for costumes: One was going to be this Bauhaus outfit [for “The Man Who Sold the World”]; the next was going to be a Chinese airline stewardess with a pink poodle [for “TVC 15”]; and the third one was going to be puppets [for “Boys Keep Swinging”]. ”
“The night of the performance, the vibe was so intense it felt like all of New York was standing still. It was the end of the ’70s, and it was a moment that was so far ahead of its time that nothing will ever match up to it because there’s only one Bowie, there’s only one Joey, and there’s only one Klaus. We didn’t have to do anything but be ourselves that night. People still come up to me on tour and say, “You changed my life.””
It was a performance deeply set in theatrics, artistry and a sense of self that flagrantly declared that individuality was a cherishable piece of oneself. It was a clear and potent method the singer often grabbed with both hands.
This kind of performance is something that Bowie produced time and time again. Much like when Ziggy Stardust emerged on to the National scene with his performance on BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1972, Bowie would again inspire a generation with this performance.
Following his untimely death in 2016, Fred Armisen of Portlandia fame, dedicated an episode of SNL to the great man himself with these words: “When I was in high school and living in Long Island, I stayed up to see David Bowie play on Saturday Night Live. Watching him, for me, was a life-changing experience. David Bowie transformed whatever space he was in, whatever medium he was using, and that night for me, he transformed live television.”
Watch those incredible performances from David Bowie as he performs on the Martin Sheen hosted Saturday Night Live back in 1979.