In 1972, when David Bowie introduced Britain to his new incarnation Ziggy Stardust with a performance of ‘Starman’, for a brief moment, the country stood still. When he returned in 1973 with ‘The Jean Genie’ they all made their way, one by one, to the dance floor.
We’re taking a look back at the special moment David Bowie let ‘The Jean Genie’ loose with a rare live performance on Top of the Pops, 1973.
It was only six months between Bowie’s visits to the legendary stage of the foremost pop music programme in the country but it felt like times had radically changed. When Ziggy first appeared on the show he shocked a nation and moved a generation of teenagers into a whole new world.
Bowie arrived on stage six months later with his same streak of red hair, a glamorous suit jacket, and a band powerful enough to bring any house down. He was ready to take all those he’d given a sense of freedom with Ziggy Stardust on to a brand new journey.
The latest release from Bowie, this time on his new record Aladdin Sane, was an equally powerful call to arms. Bowie later admitted to Beat poet Willliam S Burroughs that “A song has to take on character, shape, body and influence people to an extent that they use it for their own devices. It must affect them not just as a song, but as a lifestyle.”
It’s a lifestyle that swathes of the country’s adolescents picked up almost immediately in 1972 and by ’73 they were ready for the next dose. ‘The Jean Genie’ was the first taste of that particular medicine and Bowie didn’t disappoint with his first chance to showcase the track to the masses.
Written by Bowie in the New York City apartment of model and actress Cyrinda Foxe, ‘The Jean Genie’ is in no small part a fictionalised version of Bowie’s longtime friend, Iggy Pop. The title of the song is a reference to one of Bowie’s favourite novelists Jean Genet, despite many different stories. It adds up to a cracker of a rock and roll song, backed amply by the Spiders from Mars and, most notably, Mick Ronson, the first taste of Aladdin Sane was an intoxicating one.
While the song is an undoubted smash, it was the live performance that added power to the gathering juggernaut of David Bowie’s glam rock. Lasers and smoke, Bowie’s earring, Mick Ronson’s unstoppable swagger, Trevor Bolder’s haircut, Bowie and Ronson sharing the mic—it all added up to an unforgettable moment for all those who watched it.
Unless you were there in 1973, with your face glued to the television set, you wouldn’t have seen the footage until very recently. The BBC, in an effort to save money, wiped the tape and it appeared as though the footage was lost forever. Except for the cunning of John Henshall who had used his unorthodox fish eye lens to film the performance.
It remained unseen for 38 years until he discovered that his copy was the only one in existence. “I just couldn’t believe that I was the only one with it,” Henshall said. “I just thought you wouldn’t be mad enough to wipe a tape like that.” Thanks to Henshall we can still take a look back at this iconic moment in the history of David Bowie.
Watch his live performance of ‘The Jean Genie’ on Top of the Pops in 1973