‘Suffragette City’ performed live at Imperial College London

Rare footage captures Bowie and the Spiders on their first ever tour of the UK

Just two shows into their first ever tour and the pressure was on: Bowie and the Spiders would make their London debut in front of a few hundred bemused students, a handful of cynical rock hacks and – perhaps most daunting of all – a TV film crew from France.

Claude Ventura, director of France’s leading ‘Pop Deux’ music programme, was flitting in and out of London throughout the first few weeks of 1972, capturing various touring prog and art-rock acts on film. The previous night, Ventura and his two-man crew had filmed and interviewed Detroit’s legendary MC5 at Aylesbury Friars. And on this Saturday night, the team travelled to Kensington to catch a very young and still rather raw Ziggy Stardust in action. Not a bad weekend’s work…

Some 20 minutes of the set was filmed on 16mm colour stock, but only one song appears to have made it to broadcast on French TV screens – ‘Suffragette City’

Apparently, the remaining footage suffers from badly-distorted sound and was therefore unsuitable for airing. It remains in the vaults.

In the mid 00’s, though, several archived editions of Pop Deux were made available online through the French video archive house, INA. It gave many Bowie fans a first tantalising glimpse of a young Ziggy and the Spiders with a bit of a way to go still in terms of confidence and finesse.

In this clip, Bowie and Ronson look and sound great together, though the lyrics are almost entirely fluffed and Mick mistakenly drops out completely just before the final chorus. But the interplay between the two, and the spectacle of the sparkly and spangly stage clothes (Bowie in high-topped wrestling boots, white satin trousers and the black and white cropped satin top that would later be immortalised on the reissued ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ cover) shines through the single-point camerawork in spades.

David Bowie and Mick Ronson perform 'Suffragette City' at London's Imperial College in 1972

David Bowie and Mick Ronson perform ‘Suffragette City’

It’s raw, but impressive. And belies the difficulty that Bowie had in getting going this particular night. In his excellent autobiography “Apathy For The Devil”, early fan Nick Kent (then a reviewer for Frendz magazine) recalls a power cut striking just as the band are about to launch into their opening number. The tune aired by French TV was close to the end of the set – which might well have proved just as well. Reviews from the time indicate a difficult start to the show.

Technical hitches aside, the reasonable crowd and energetic performance proved a score for Bowie and the Spiders. Though one final gesture, shamelessly copied from Bowie’s then hero Iggy Pop, almost fell flat… literally.

In emulation of the famous clip where the lead Stooge is shown walking on audience members’ hands and smearing peanut butter on his chest, David also tried to summon a few willing strong arms to the front. A grubby still shot from the time, taken by Ray Stevenson, shows Bowie trying to get to his feet atop some shoulders – but sadly there just weren’t enough bodies to make it happen, and he slipped to the floor.

David Bowie crowd surfs at Imperial College London

David Bowie crowd surfs at the Imperial College gig

An unnamed audience member at the gig commented that the lights were particularly impressive. There was a bright red spotlight on one side and a bright green one on the right, and at an appropriate moment both would focus on Bowie’s face, so he would be lit half in one colour and half another, with the beams joining right down the middle. No doubt very impressive for the time.

Imperial College London – Set list

The set is reputed to have included Queen Bitch, The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud, Space Oddity, Amsterdam, Andy Warhol, I Feel Free, Round And Round, Suffragette City, Waiting For The Man and Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.

Caught in the act

Melody Maker review, published on 19 February 1972

As the band played on and sang “You’re Wonderful” in Edith Piaf emotion-drenched voices, David Bowie stepped down from the stage into the audience until they picked him up and carried him out in the spot light. No bibbity-bobbity hat, but shimmering white satin trousers and shirt ripped open……….Clothes by Liberty, boots by Michel, as the man said……..

But this was no fag show, a drag act full of lisping gestures and limp hands. Don’t expect Danny La Rue or any Alice Cooper rubbish with boa constrictors and electric chairs. The costumes – and there were several changes – are the gilt on the lily, but they’re not the substance.

The music is muscular, the performances witty and assured. What other group would dare to do “I Feel Free” before a London audience, complete with Cream rip-off solo – so calculated as to be a thing of glorious absurdity? Because Bowie and his band are nothing if not superb parodists, right down to the way in which Ronson walked to the front of the stage and invited the front row to caress the body of his guitar. It plucked the heartstrings, friends, the pathos of that moment.

Bowie has a tremendous sense of pace and timing. He varied things by slotting in a 15-minute acoustic piece, where he did “Port of Amsterdam”, “Andy Warhol” and “Space Oddity”, then threw in rockers like “Reeling and Rocking”, and then highly abstract pieces such as “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud.”

The harmony singing between Bowie and Ronson was brilliant. “Space Oddity” was as perfect as the record.

Not surprisingly, there was references to the Velvet Underground. There was “Queen Bitch”, dedicated to Lou Reed, and even a version of “I’m Waiting For The Man”. Later on, in the dressing room, two chicks were saying they’d see Bowie at his next gig in Brighton. They’d seen all his others so far.

Dedicated to bringing theatrics back to rock music, David Bowie swirled and captivated at London’s Imperial College on Saturday, queening his way through old and new songs, before a house packed to the door. And they hung on every word that dropped from his lips.