Bowie's Free For All
October 27, 1973
by Chris Welch
"David Bowie in action at The Marquee (where it all began) was just one of the many rare and knee-trembling sights to be enjoyed within the noise-battled walls of the old clubhouse last Saturday afternoon.
David, Spiders and friends were in the throes of filming a spectacular that will never be seen in Britain. For three days an NBC film-crew had been at work, capturing the full glory of Bowie madness for America's TV show "The Midnight Special".
They especially wanted the atmosphere of Soho's Marquee, which with the curious logic of movie makers, involved ripping out all the club's identifiable features and building a new stage and anonymous backdrop, much to the chagrin of club manager Jack Barrie.
David was joined in the spectacular by such sixties stars as Marianne Faithful and The Troggs, hence the sudden appearance of a slightly bemused Reg, adrift in a sea of celebrated transvestites, glamorous gays and what is known in the trade as "kids off the street." If it all sounds faintly horrifying, in fact the overall atmosphere kept reminding me of the Youth Club Scene in Cliff Richards "The Young Ones" with David as The Mystery Singer.
In a fascinating cross-section of modern society, grumbling British workmen with "everybody out brothers" trembling on their lips, rubbed thighs with tittering school children, harassed American technicians, furtive journalists and illicit photographers.
The star, in high spirits, was remarkably patient. For technical reasons, such classics as "Space Oddity" and "The Jean Genie" had to be performed endlessly, often cut short after a few bars. This was a frustrating situation and David fled the stage only once after Mick Ronson snapped a string.
There were "three shows" - one on Friday night when Marianne Faithful sang "As Tears Go By" and two on Saturday, with a different audience of 200 souls for each, drawn from the Marquee Club and Bowie fan club members by democratic ballot. Time was of the essence but seemed to be running out fast. My sojourn at Saturday's session lasted from midday right though to 9pm and during that time, Bowie and the Spiders got through four numbers, and slightly more costume changes. There was a queue of fans down Wardour Street but not the fighting hordes it was feared that would be aroused by advance publicity.
Sweeping into our midst was no less a personage than Wayne County, the friendly neighbourhood drag queen who recently graced the front pages of MM. Face caked in white makeup, Wayne swished around in a red negligee purchased in Piccadilly and a wig that looked like a ball of candy floss. She was regarded with total awe and confusion by the British contingent, until David's PR Cherry Vanilla with a voice like from the Laugh-In, grabbed Miss County's fake bosom and shrieked in delight "Are they silicone, my dear?" "Wayne - they are so firm and - Wayne, those shoes are fabulous." Wayne curtsied and modestly replied "I've been doing my exercises."
But those "kids off the street" were far more interested in Angie Bowie, chattering loudly and signing autographs. It was very much a family affair, even baby Zowie putting in an appearance. An incredibly beautiful child, he swore innocently at us arousing the spectre of infant revolution.
Showbiz romantics of the year, Lionel Bart and Dana Gillespie made their dramatic entrance while Mary Hopkins strode hither and thither, and the cessation of hammering on stage announced that the music was about to commence.
"Oo's on second guitar?" demanded a gaggle of music lovers upfront. "It's Mark Pritchard - he's David's neighbour", proclaimed an expert. Cripes this was going to be exciting. A huge cheer went up as the musicians appeared for a sound check. There was Aynsley Dunbar, late of John Mayall, and Frank Zappa; clad in black and methodically testing his tom-toms. There was Trevor Bolder on bass and (shriek) Mick Ronson, starman in his own right, clutching guitar, zip partly undone and ready to sign autographs. But still no sign of David, believed to be lurking in the dressing room. The first number attempted was a spirited version of the old Mojo's hit "Everything's Alright" from PinUps, obviously familiar to the drummer, himself an ex-Mojo.
The producer appeared and in best military briefing style explained what was happening. Mick Ronson reappeared this time in a fetching white costume, and then at 3.15pm Bowie cantered into view, red hair aflame, a bejeweled earring glittering, and yellow pants, sawn off below the knee, pulsating. The assembly stamped into "Everything's Alright" only to be signaled to an abrupt halt.
"Frustrating ennit?" grinned Bowie, his blunt London accent oddly at variance with such sophisticated garb. "Well these are the Astronettes" he said indicating a trio of dancers and congo players. "And you all know The Spiders.
"So what have you been up to?" enquired Bowie impudently, rather like Alexander the Great having conquered the East, asking Mr and Mrs Alexander how they enjoyed their weekend. While elders chuckled, fans ignored this frivolity, and pleaded "David, David - oh why doesn't he look over here?"
"Oh shut up and look at his trousers" advised one maiden her face set in grim concentration as she chewed her gum (then for good measure she yelled "Donny!" just to show that even teenyboppers have a sense of humour).
As inner anxieties ebbed away, a bold new spirit filtered through the psyche. I decided to buy Wayne County a drink. David was intoning that doom-laden statement "Ground control to Major Tom" when Wayne appeared at the bar ready to hold court.
David was now sporting a lurex suit of red and gold stripes, the press were lured away by the eye-searing vision of New York Culture. "Tell us about your career Wayne" demanded a keen young music reporter.
"Well you know I used to sing in churches in Georgia (gasp) and later in drag shows. I'm here to record an album which will be coming out in March, but its very hard to find musicians who are drag queens. I'd like to live in London. I came here two years ago with Andy Warhol's Pork. That's when I met David. The only instrument I play is mouth harp. But I refuse to play it because it messes up my lipstick. I'm trying to find a special lipstick that's harp-proof." She could try to find one that's people proof, as practically everybody on the premises bore traces of a County kiss.
"I'll be talking to David about my LP, and we'll get some musicians off the streets. I'll be writing all the songs. I like him. Look I've got to go now..." We all laughed a little hysterically.
At this point I requested that a young Swedish photographer of startlingly good looks be allowed to snap a quick camera study of Miss County in her finery. The lady suddenly abandoned her threat to leave, her arm in red organza streaking out to grab the startled youth's hand. "Honey, you're beautiful. What are you doing after the show? - Do you want my room number?" Having prised the photographer free and smuggled him out the back door, we left Wayne chatting to the young keen reporter, whose laughter became more hysterical by the moment.
Meanwhile Mr B. was undergoing yet another costume change. Feeling as confused as Jack Lemon in Days of Wine and Roses, I peered past the blazing lights and laughing heads, at Bowie, now apparently in a red, fur-trimmed frogman's suit and shiny black PVC boots. He announced "The Laughing Gnome" and instead went into "I Can't Explain."
Voices babbled in my ear: "You should have seen David on Friday night. He had ten men dancing about in black wings. It was fantastic!" My head was reeling. "Fun and games all day" said the barman, his voice echoing.
Suddenly, real horrors began to set in as the deadly "heaven and hell" drink took effect. Despite rubbed eyes, a new version of Bowie refused to go away. Now he was attired in a fish net of a type usually employed in catching small whales with disembodied gold hands attached to his torso. Apparently there had been a third hand. But American television would not stand for that. Nor would American television stand for the sight of David's black jockstrap. Glimpses of underwear are taboo and had to be removed. Pubic hair is considered less tasteless. Even some of the lyrics had to be changed - one base word transmuted to "swanking."
"The Jean Genie" rocked again and the band developed tremendous power. And although the PA equipment was minimal, there was no doubting the authority of David's singing.
"We've written a musical" he announced "And this is the title song called 1984. We'll be doing the show in March next year." There were constant interruptions to "1984" with yells of "15 seconds David" from the producer. "Hold it. Ok when you are ready."
David: "But we are ready."
After a number of false starts, they began to dig into the tune, and David ripped off his black and red striped garb to reveal a tight, green suit with a keyhole emblazoned on the chest. It represents the moment in George Orwell's story when Winston is entrapped by a giant television screen - I guess.
Unfortunately Ronson's guitar which had been steadily dropping out of tune, was afflicted by a broken string, and David finally ran off the stage, his first sign of pertulence. It seemed a good moment to leave this exhausting but entertaining glimpse into Babylon, and advance to the nearest supermarket to collect the weekend groceries. Except by this time they were all shut.
The rock and roll pantomime tinseled on, with another show to complete, 'ere midnight. It occurred to me that possibly the best way to effect entry to any such future burlesques would be to don the hind legs of the Pantomime horse. Or perhaps in view of current trends - the front legs."