Here’s a clip of androgynous musical brushfire-starting alien pin up David Bowie, and his soon-to-be-erstwhile Spiders From Mars. It’s the recently discovered clip of his 1973 performance of “The Jean Genie” on the British music program Top of the Pops.
The song is taken from the album Aladdin Sane, a record released that very year in April. This song was the lead single, actually released earlier in November of 1972. This was the height of the glam-rock period, when colourful costuming and gender-bending stage personas met the vintage Chess blues ‘n’ boogie sound.
This particular clip was discovered recently, and broadcast on the Top of the Pops 2011 Christmas special. Bowie and TOTPs go hand in hand, particularly in this phase of his career. His performance of “Starman” in the summer of 1972 galvanized rock fans all over the country and nourished the seeds of British punk, post-punk, and New Romanticism. But despite all that, Bowie had his own preoccupations, namely making sense out of America, the fascination and disorientation he felt about it, and then putting it into his work.
So, how is that revealed in this tune?
Like many growing up, buying records, and starting bands in ’60s Britain, Bowie had been heavily influenced by Chicago blues. Indeed, one of his earliest bands was The Mannish Boys, a direct reference to Muddy Waters’ tune “Mannish Boy” on the Chess label, and a platform on which to perform in the spirit of the London R&B boom into the mid-60s.
But, Bob Dylan was another influence around that same time, when threading together language and imagery to create an overall lyrical impression with open-ended meaning was becoming an important artistic path to follow. Bowie did so on this front as well, and one of the best examples of Chicago blues meets Bob Dylan lyrical mercury is this song. It reads like a collage of images, a caricature of the American landscape, with decidedly American characters (the titular one purportedly based on Iggy Pop) as filtered through Bowie’s British sensibility. The song is the aural equivalent of passing by billboards on a freeway, with the chugging engine of the blues carrying you onward.
By the time of this song and this performance, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona was winding down, even as he’d made inroads to breaking the States. But, it would be this incarnation that would bring British glam-rock to North America in a way that Slade, Marc Bolan, Roxy Music, and others hadn’t been able to do quite as successfully, although they would have their own influence on emerging British groups as well. It was a key era in Bowie’s career, and in the trajectory of where rock music itself would end up by the end of the decade and into the next.
Thankfully, a cameraman on the show decided to copy the video tape of this performance and keep it during a time when the BBC routinely wiped used tape so that it could be used again. At the time, this practice at the BBC was an effort to maximize resources in the form of public money, since that’s how the Beeb is funded. But, the historical significance of this performance, and others, would later become of more concern to the higher-ups, not just in saving resources, but in balancing that with efforts in preserving events of cultural significance.
And this is certainly one of them that we’re lucky to have been able to see at all.
Take a look here for more information on David Bowie’s 1973 tour of America, which made him an international star, changing the rules and expanding the pallette of rock style and performance forever.
If you haven’t seen it, D.A Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars film is an essential reference point to this phase in Bowie’s career as well.
And speaking of historic significance, as of Sunday, January 8, 2012, happy birthday, David – he’s 65!
5 thoughts on “David Bowie Sings “The Jean Genie””
I’ve got that DA Pennebaker movie on LaserDisc. How old does that make me?
Lovely clip. It prompted me to revisit my main tracks on that album, Panic in Detroit & Watch That Man, 2 desperately important & meaningful songs back in the day which made absolutely no sense to me last weekend. Anyway, they still sound great.
It’s perhaps a safe bet that the songs are about either Iggy Pop or Lou Reed. 🙂
Lovely article and great clip!