Despite being one of the most commercially successful artists of all time, David Bowie made a point to always be transgressive. Even as he was absorbed into the mainstream, Bowie was never far from a left turn, and when he felt himself get too comfortable in a persona, or too middle of the road for the insatiable experimentalist that was at his core, he went in another direction.
In its early years, Saturday Night Live had a similar ethos. Presenting an anarchic blend of sketch comedy, prerecorded video, standup, surrealism, and music performance, the SNL of the ’70s was a television programme on a major network that gleefully subverted any and all expectations of what should be presented on a major television network. SNL still pushes boundaries, even if it’s more of the establishment than ever, but that’s only because it’s impossible to replicate the ‘Big Bang’ years of its initial run.
These two atypical entities first crossed paths in 1979, when Bowie was tapped to be the musical guest on the December 15th episode hosted by Martin Sheen. To buck the usual conventions of the show, Bowie brought along underground artists Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias as backup singers and insisted on creating a performance art piece live on stage with the help of various digital special effects, the most prominent of which involved Bowie’s superimposed head on a marionette doll.
Of course, these effects have aged horribly, as all special effects are destined to do. But what hasn’t faded is the go-for-broke weirdness that Bowie brought to the stage. He wasn’t just peddling a new single: he was making art for art’s sake. All the while, he’s giving classic performances of soon to be legendary songs. It was a major deal to see Bowie bust out ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘TVC15’ in front of the entire country, never once blinking as the at-home audience undoubtedly sat confused at how strange Bowie was acting.
The real highlight, though, is the performance of the recent UK single ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. Bowie’s initial choice for a lead single, RCA vetoed his decision and promoted ‘Look Back In Anger’ instead. Bowie decided to play ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ anyway, and this is where the marionette comes in. All wild gesticulations and ridiculous proportions, Bowie certainly gets marks for doing something no one had done before on SNL. Even better, he included a little surprise.
You see, SNL was planning on censoring the line “other boys check you out” due to the homosexual implication of the lyric (even SNL was only willing to so far in terms of transgressiveness in 1979), so Bowie and the puppet designers included a hidden feature that they kept secret from the show. As ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ crashes to an end, the marionette bounces around wildly before stopping and unleashing a rolled up party favour from its crotch.
The obvious phallic implication was not caught in time by the live editing team. Even better, it wasn’t edited out upon further rebroadcasts. SNL has no qualms deleting certain sketches from the internet, but it’s relatively easy to find Bowie’s performance of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, complete with party favour phallus intact.
Check out the performance down below.