David Bowie is one of the biggest names in pop history – and 40 years ago this week he brought his magic to a very unlikely venue. Jayne Dawson reports.
It was the year the IRA brought its bombs to England, Last of the Summer Wine began on the telly and boys you knew started wearing earrings.
In June, Slade were at No 1 in the charts with Skweeze me, Pleeze me, which was pretty strange spelling. But in Leeds that month, something even stranger was happening. On Friday June 29 1973 an alien landed in Leeds, and treated the teenagers of the city to their first ever sighting of – a man in a leotard.
David Bowie was in town, and he was being Ziggy Stardust. What’s more, he was being Ziggy Stardust in the unlikely setting of Kirkstall Rolarena, a former ice-rink on Kirkstall Road that had been converted to roller-skating. Everything about this concert was strange and exciting. For a start, it was cancelled. Twice. The show had been intended to happen at Leeds University a few weeks earlier, but it had been called off – just three hours before Bowie was due on stage – because “the stage was too small”.
This was probably news to the Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and Pink Floyd, who had all played there without mishap but, hey-ho, David Bowie was a proper artist.
Bowie made it to the city eventually, four weeks and one more cancellation later, to perform two shows in one day, so many in Leeds saw superstar Bowie as a matinee performance. Tickets were £1.25 each. Among the audience was – me, but a bit more of that later. Also crammed in there was Paul Carroll, now an author and PR consultant, but then a 17-year-old Bowie fan living with his parents and five brothers and sisters. Paul said: “It was one of the strangest couplings of performer and venue in rock and roll history.”
Paul managed to sneak a cassette player into the Rolarena and recorded segments of the show which he subsequently played to death, despite the terrible sound quality. “I can only imagine I was saving the battery by recording some rather than all of the gig!” he said. “It was fantastic right from the start. The Spiders came on to the Walter Carlos’ version of Beethoven’s Ninth from the film Clockwork Orange, and went straight into Hang On To Yourself.
“The crowd, even without skates, moved like tigers on Vaseline and never stopped until the end of the encore – White Light, White Heat. What I’d give for that crackly audio cassette tape now. All these years later, it’s still one of the most memorable gigs I’ve ever attended.”
Another Leeds boy at the early concert that day was Ian De-Whytell. Now he is a 55-year-old record shop owner who runs Crash Records in Leeds. He has seen David Bowie around 40 times but back in 1973 he was a 15-year-old watching his first concert. He said: “I think I walked out of that gig with my mouth wide open, it just blew me away. It was amazing, I had never seen anything like it before. Originally I was just going to stand outside the university gig, because I hadn’t got a ticket, but when he cancelled I got a second chance.”
But the Yorkshire Evening Post review of the concert was a little ambivalent about Bowie. Referring to the kerfuffle leading up to the concert, our man on the scene said, rather sniffily: “Pretty boy Bowie paid his dues and in turn the fans took him back and laid themselves at this feet – some literally.
“This man, who induces the same sort of apoplexy in parents that Mick Jagger did in the Sixties, stalked and strutted about the stage dressed in gowns most women wouldn’t have been ashamed to be seen in. Between numbers, girls came on to the stage and stripped him, first to a toga and later to several leotards. Oh, I almost forget the earrings.”
As for me, what can I say? There he was: gorgeous, exotic, David Bowie, sharing the same oxygen as the rest of us. The building was dirty and ramshackle, my going-out dress was never the same again, and it was a ludicrous setting for such an ethereal character. But none of it mattered because Ziggy Stardust was up on stage, and me and my friend Helen were in heaven – even if we didn’t quite know whether it was alright to scream at a man who looked a lot like a girl.
We lived in a world where boys wore Doc Martens and shaved their heads, so he was a shock, but a bold, brilliant, beautiful shock.
The acoustics weren’t the best, the Rolarena not being really wired for sound, but we knew the songs by heart already so it didn’t matter.
Hammersmith, and Bowie’s last ever show as Ziggy, was to follow only four days later. The Starman was dead, but those who saw him in Leeds caught a fleeting glimpse of pop genius.