Happy New Year everyone.
I was excited in December by the news that a copy of David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars performing ‘Jean Genie’ live on British chart music TV show Top of the Pops had been found. ‘Jean Genie’ had been released as a single and featured on Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane. It was thought that this clip – first broadcast on January 4 1973 – had been erased by the BBC many years ago. Many classic TV programmes met the same fate. It turned out that cameraman John Henshall had asked for a copy and kept it.
What was special about this performance was that it was genuinely live. Almost all Top of the Pops performances during its long history were either completely mimed to the original backing track, or part-mimed (i.e. lead vocal was live) to a backing track re-recorded by BBC TV musicians and the band. It has always irritated me the way the BBC have constantly devalued the meaning of the word ‘performance’ when describing old TOTP clips by applying it to entirely mimed or mostly mimed appearances – which of course were cheaper and safer for both the TV people and the singers / bands – but are not music-making.
In the case of Bowie’s January 3rd 1973 performance of ‘Jean Genie’ everything was live. If you look closely at the two half Marshall stacks the band are plugged into you can see their lights are on and there are tell-tale mikes in fromt of the speaker cabinets. The result is a glam-rock classic delivered deliciously raw and punchy, and conveys a thrill no mimed version could match. It departs from the studio version in various ways and has the odd mistake (Trevor Bolder on bass switches to the chorus too early toward the end), as well as a wilder Mick Ronson solo and more harmonica from Bowie – including what sounds like two blasts of the Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ harmonica riff toward the end.
You can see the clip on youtube.