20 essential David Bowie performances
Not long after fans learned that David Bowie died after an 18-month battle with cancer, social media was transformed into The Bowie Archives, an endless trove of favorite Bowie clips from decades past. Just as it’s impossible to choose which Bowie you love best (Ziggy Stardust? The Thin White Duke? The Goblin King?), it’s silly to even try& to rank the best ones. There’s just too many. So instead, we’ve gathered 20 memorable live moments to get you started on your own YouTube deep dive.
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David Bowie’s first TV interview, from the BBC program Tonight, 1964
Okay, so this isn’t technically a musical performance. But before you can fully appreciate the full outer-limits brilliance of Bowie’s on-stage personas, you have to watch his first public rebellion: an interview with Cliff Michelmore, in which a 17-year-old Bowie (or “Davey,” as he was called then) serves as an earnest spokesman for the Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Long Haired Men.
“Space Oddity”, from Hits A Go Go, 1969
The giant afro. The Age of Aquarius visual effects. Watching a young Bowie on this European show, it’s hard to imagine that David Jones would soon leave these hippie affectations behind to become a space-age visionary.
“Space Oddity” from the Ivor Novello Awards in London, 1970
Bowie accepted the Special Merit Award for Originality after this performance. He might look like other 1960s musicians here, but in hindsight, his pink bellbottoms and a puffy floral shirt look freakier on him than any signature outfit he wore afterward.
“Starman,” from Top of the Pops, 1972
This is Bowie in classic Ziggy Stardust mode. Backed by the Spiders from Mars, including Mick Ronson on guitar and backing vocals, Trevor Bolder on bass, and Mick Woodmansey on drums, he’s smiling strangely into a camera, looking eerie as hell, and happy as ever.
“Five Years,” from The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972
One of Bowie’s best songs, and also one that’s best suited to this day of Bowie-mourning, when so many news guys are weeping.
David Bowie puts on his Ziggy Stardust costume, from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture, 1973
Watching a rail-thin, red-haired Bowie slip on his alien attire, right before going on stage at Hammersmith Odeon, is every bit as magical as watching him take the stage afterward.
“Jean Genie,” from The 1980 Floor Show, 1973
A performance so deliciously glam, you’ll wish the green hands hugging his fishnet top were yours.
“Young Americans,” from The Dick Cavett Show, 1974
He performs three songs on Cavett, including “1984” and a medley of two covers, “Foot Stompin” and “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” But “Young Americans” shows him at his most soulful, especially with R&B legend Luther Vandross as one of his backing singers.
“Stay” from The Dinah Shore Show, 1975
Not only did he demonstrate some fantastic dance moves for Shore, he also taught her how to do karate.
“Golden Years,” from Soul Train, 1975
One of the few white artists to appear on the program, Bowie used the opportunity to showcase the “plastic soul” sound of 1975’s Young Americans, which he described as “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white limey.”
“Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy,” from Bing Crosby’s Merrie Old Christmas special, 1977
Bowie initially refused to perform “The Little Drummer Boy” with Crosby, so a team of composers and writers retooled the song moments before it was recorded, turning what might’ve been an awkward duet between two mismatched talents into what’s now a holiday classic.
“Funtime,” from The Dinah Shore Show, 1977
Written by Bowie and Iggy Pop, who perform together here, this single reflects the duo’s shared obsession with the German music scene and also their odd-couple chemistry. A sweaty, shirtless Pop gyrates around Bowie, who looks quite conservative by contrast, calmly seated in a suit and tie at the keyboards.
“Boys Keep Swinging,” from Saturday Night Live, 1979
Puppet David Bowie sports a NSFW trouser bulge in one of the weirdest and best things he ever did on late-night TV.
Scenes from The Elephant Man, featured in an interview from Friday Night Saturday Morning, 1980
Any collection of Bowie’s performances isn’t complete without a nod to his Broadway debut as John Merrick, a man from the Victorian era who was known for his deformed body. It was the perfect role for an artist who championed those who lived on the edges of society.
“Life on Mars,” from The Tonight Show, 1980
Johnny Carson introduces Bowie as an “innovator” and calls his new album, Scary Monsters “nothing short of remarkable,” before insisting that “he’d better be good after this [intro]!” Luckily, he was.
“Hallo Spaceboy,” from the Outside Tour he co-headlined with Nine Inch Nails, 1995
Proof that Bowie’s influence on future generations can’t be underestimated. Fans of Nine Inch Nails might’ve assumed that Trent Reznor’s sound came out of a fusion of metal and goth, but in truth, it probably owed just as much to Bowie’s experimental sonic sci-fi.
“Drive-In Saturday,” from VH-1 Storytellers, 1999
Great performance, but the best part might be the intro, in which he explains that the song was written as a follow-up single for Mott the Hoople, who rejected it. “I was so annoyed,” Bowie recalls, “that one night in Florida… I got very drunk and shaved my eyebrows off.”
“America,” from the Concert for New York City, 2001
Recorded for a benefit concert held in response to the 9/11 attacks, Bowie’s beautiful, haunting cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” has been yanked from YouTube. But you can watch him sitting cross-legged, playing a tiny keyboard, and capturing the melancholy spirit of the city here.
“Changes,” from the Black Ball fundraiser in New York, 2006
This video footage of him performing with Alicia Keys might be grainy, but it’s also legendary, capturing one of his last live performances.
“Lazarus,” from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, 2015
Yes, it’s Michael C. Hall, not Bowie, performing this elegiac title track from Bowie’s off-Broadway play. But Hall captures Bowie’s voice so perfectly, you can imagine Bowie using him as a conduit, especially when he sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven.”