Putting Stardust in the 70s: David Bowie’s Musical Legacy

Words by Leona Franke

With the aftermath of hippie culture and the blossoming of exciting new technology, the 1970s emerged to be a decade of variety and ideas, and this is no clearer than in the music that rose to prominence. However, no other face impacted the early 1970’s quite much as one, and he came in the vessel of a freakish figure, an instant hero to oddballs everywhere when he made his Top of The Pops debut in July 1972.

David Bowie. He was theatrical, fearless, and bedazzled on the television screens of the nation, a messenger of the stars, with his tangerine hair and mismatched eyes, instantly stamping his identity into the minds of so many adolescents across the United Kingdom. Dressed in an obnoxious multicoloured jumpsuit, with a blue guitar hanging from his thin frame, he was a sharp contrast to the other rock artists at the time. Bowie was a fierce new entry to the music industry – a name only known for his success with ‘Space Oddity’ during the moon-landing, yet here he was, three years later, thousands of light years ahead of anybody else. On this iconic episode of Top Of The Pops, he performed ‘Starman’ – and the nation believed he was an alien sent to visit, some sort of extravagant extra-terrestrial, here to give a message to “let the children lose it, let the children use it, let the children boogie.”

The moment that remains engraved in the minds of the audience is when he points directly at the camera, a dainty finger with painted nails, declaring that “I had to phone someone, and I picked on you, hey, that’s far out – so you heard him too?” nothing had ever felt quite as personal, any viewer felt that David Bowie really had picked them, and he knew how far out he was. He knew exactly what he was doing, he knew he would either alienate those who feared the new and unusual, or he would gain devoted fans. Regardless of his polarising impact, he remained brave and true to himself, and the risk paid off. Overnight, his stardom was sent into the stratosphere.

Following the notoriety of his television debut, Bowie released his glam-rock album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ shortly after. Whilst he had been releasing music since 1967, this was his first album that truly got the success it deserved. He had been experimenting with gender and sound since his 1970 release ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ – an album depicting him with long hair, sporting a dress, on its cover, yet his interest into blurring lines of gender and exploring identity had reached its zenith as he reinvented himself as the sexually charged rock and roll alien messiah Ziggy Stardust. As Ziggy Stardust, Bowie transformed entirely, smeared in glittering makeup and elaborate costume, refusing to conform to gender expectation. His sexuality was also another compelling detail, coming out as bisexual meant he appealed to members of the LGBT+ community through his music, he was unashamed of his identity and paraded it proudly, becoming a hero to millions of young people who wanted to possess his bravery. Bowie symbolised change, excitement, and a previously unseen embracement of all aspects of his creativity. Ziggy Stardust, whilst being a fictional creation, was indeed the hero to adoring fans, hailed as the biggest and most thrilling star in music.

Bowie’s star remained bright as the 1970s progressed, as he realised that to remain relevant, he had to continue reinventing himself in unique ways, to stay a few steps ahead of the game. In 1973, only a year after his Ziggy Stardust debut, Bowie shocked his audience at the Hammersmith Odeon, announcing that the show was not only the last of the tour, but the last show he would ever do. This shock news sent fans into devastation – how could a musician, so creative and so important, suddenly just retire in his prime?

Of course, this was a strategic move, keeping the world waiting with baited breath, Bowie had only made this statement in relevance to Ziggy Stardust – he was killing off this particular persona to make room for a new era in his music. This reinvention has become synonymous with Bowie’s career throughout the 1970s, as he reinvented his image and sound continuously throughout the decade, and into the rest of his dazzling career. Only a year after his Ziggy retirement, he was back in the charts in a totally different guise – this time as The Thin White Duke.

This man’s orbiting success came around in the perfect decade – the decade of new faces and new sounds, and David Bowie’s formative style of image and music will forever be synonymous with the 1970s.  There has never been a creator like him since.