“He’s gonna be a star!”

David Bowie's January 1972 interview and photo shoot for Melody Maker was a landmark moment in popular music, marking the launch of Ziggy Stardust, and featuring the enduring quote “I'm gay and I always have been”. Photographer Barrie Wentzell remembers that moment.

 

This was a pivotal moment in David's career – he'd remodelled himself in multicolour catsuits just a few days before, and of course as the tape rolled, he told you all “I'm gay, and I always have been.” So how did you feel, photographing this apparition?

“ It was bloody freezing, somewhere on Regent Street – and there was this technolcour character. And he's still going – what a unique character, just for existing. He was a total hoot.

 

“As for what I thought, my first job in Soho, 59 or 60, I was working in a display arts studio in Soho and the artist there was the later legendary character, Quentin Crisp. The first day I turned up for work there he was with this beautiful lilac blue hair and wearing a Japanese kimono shirt or dress. black leotards and bare feet. There would be afternoon soirées in the studio and many creative extraordinary and colourful characters would come by for tea or a game of Scrabble. Soho was becoming an incredible Bohemian place – so I was being primed to meet David Bowie.

 

“It must have been early afternoon when we arrived, it was dark and cold, a small office, I can't remember much about it, and then suddenly – there was this character. Mick was a bit taken aback. David was very humorous and funny, very easy, chatting way. He was very friendly, flirtatious – a bit effeminate, but he was an actor, so I could also get this Vaudeville comedian vibe. I guess he was really the first to dress up fully, with the glam thing. Really it was fantastic, how the underground became the overground.”

 

David and his crew had specifically picked out new writers to cover him, like Mike Watts and Charles Shaar Murray: new people for a new message.

“Absolutely. Because there'd been a revolution at the MM. Jack Hutton, our previous editor decided to go off and start Sounds Magazine taking half the writers with him. I remember turning up in the MM office one day and there was only a few of the old crew left, [editor] Ray [Coleman] had taken over. Chris Welch, Max Jones and a few more. So Ray went through all the letters people had send in over the last year who'd written for university or local papers – Richard Williams, Michael Watts, Ray Hollingsworth and Chris Charlesworth were in the office the next week and started up a whole new regime. Suddenly it took off, Melody Maker outsold the NME and was making a profit for the first time in years.”

 

Seeing him, dressed like that, hearing him talk, and knowing that he'd been previously dismissed as a one hit wonder – did you think he was going to make it?

“I didn't see how he could fail. In England it was the act and the songs, that was the good thing. We thought, this was brilliantly outrageous, perfect, he's gonna be a star no matter what.”

 

How did you feel when he said, “I'm gay and I always have been, even when I was David Jones”?

“We were always open-minded, probably a good thing, and we didn't freak out at all . It was like, anything goes. When he goes, I'm gay, even when I was David Jones, I remember looking at Mick and going okay, whatever, either he's putting us on or it's true, so what. He always left a question mark - he was a mystery character. Not as much as Syd Barrett. Because David knew exactly what he was doing.”

 

That was Michael Watts' summary of the interview to me.

“Exactly. He'd been to the Factory and all that, that's where he got the theme from I guess. Then there's been this film, Privilege with Paul Jones, although it was terrible, which had some of that style, and PJ Proby had done the dressing up, and Vince Taylor too.”

 

Was there excitement that you'd got a scoop?

“Not really at the time. Because every week was a scoop - there was no other paper [to rival Melody Maker]. Good on Mick & the gang those guys were real news hounds, they were all out hunting, every week was a scoop of something. And it created a great publicity bubble.”

 

The photos are naturalistic, they capture a young man, with ambition, style – and a fair bit of cheek.

“I wanted it to be .. for everybody to be there in that moment. That immediacy. You are there. So you get that feel .. put the record on and you are there. Reality. Not posed. Not paparazzi, but real. Let Mick do the interview, load the camera up, put the camera down again... then pick up the camera and ease into it..

 

“But now I look at the photos... He's not dressed for the weather, that's for sure. Where did he come from ? A time warp from another planet? Is Dr Who responsible? Bet you wouldn't wear that in England at any time. . It was totally new. Visually. A treat. Brilliant. Back then, we never would have thought anything would have meant any more than it did at the actual time. But on reflection a lot of amazing stuff happened.”  




www.barriewentzell.com