Before there was Ziggy Stardust, there was Arnold Corns…

Thanks to a legendary performance on Top Of The Pops 50 years ago, “Starman” became Bowie’s first hit since “Space Oddity” and proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. In this episode, we dig into the history of this song and the origin of Ziggy Stardust.

“Starman” (David Bowie) Copyright 1972 Chrysalis Music Limited, EMI Music Publishing Limited & Tintoretto Music/RZO Music

Here’s a few more Bowie episodes for your listening pleasure:


Are you freaked out in a moon age daydream? Well, you better hang on to yourself, because here comes another episode of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast on the Pantheon Podcast Network. I’m your host, Brad Page, and on this show, I pick one of my favorite songs and we listen to it together to discover all of the nuances and elements, those special moments that make the song work.

David Bowie is one of our favorite subjects here on this show, because he’s one of my favorite artists. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the song that introduced Ziggy Stardust to the world, and launched David Bowie into stardom. So let’s celebrate the release of that iconic single from April 28, 1970, 250 years ago. This is David Bowie with “Starman”.

By 1971, David Bowie had been making records for eight years. But critical acclaim eluded him. He had tried being a blues singer. He had tried being a folky. He finally had a taste of real success with “Space Oddity” in 1969, but he was on the verge of being a one hit wonder.

As a teenager, he worked for an advertising agency in London. He only lasted there a year, but he was there long enough to pick up some basic advertising and marketing skills that he would later put to good use. He knew how to present an image, and he believed he had finally landed on the right product: the ultimate rock star. He just needed to do some market testing.

In 1971, along with his own recording contract, he was also working as a songwriter for a publisher, trying to write hit songs for other people. He had recorded a couple of demos that he wanted to release, but because he was under contract to a different record label, he couldn’t release the songs under his own name. So, he invented a character and a band to go along with it. But it’s not who you think.

The name of this band was Arnold Corns, and their lead singer was named Rudy Valentino. Neither Arnold Corns nor Rudy Valentino really existed. Bowie had met a 19-year-old fashion designer named Freddie Burretti. Bowie thought Freddie had the look of a rock star and would be the perfect guinea pig and front man for this new fake band. The fact that Freddie couldn’t sing, that was no problem– Bowie would provide the voice.

So David gave Freddie the stage name of “Rudy Valentino” and created the fake band Arnold Corns to back him up. Bowie hyped them up in the press, saying that the Rolling Stones are finished and Rudy would be the next Mick Jagger. So Arnold Korns released two singles. One of them was “Moonage Daydream”, backed with “Hang On To Yourself”. Here’s a little bit of Arnold Korn’s version of “Moonage Daydream”.

And here’s some of the Arnold Korn’s version of “Hang On To Yourself”.

You can really hear the Lou Reed influence in that version. Well, fortunately for the Rolling Stones, Arnold Corns was no threat. Both singles flopped and sunk without a trace.

This experiment was not a success, but Bowie would learn from it and revisit it later. In the meantime, Bowie released the “Hunky Dory” album in December 1971. Still, I think one of his best albums, “Hunky Dory”, was a leap forward in his songwriting and another rung up the ladder of success. But Bowie still had bigger ambitions. He revisited his concept of the ultimate rock star and drew inspiration from Elvis Presley to Howard Hughes, from the legendary Stardust Cowboy to the self-destruction of Hendrix and Joplin, and from novels from Van Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” to “I Am Still The Greatest, Says John Angelo” by Nick Cohn.

He wrote new songs and resurrected old ones like “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On To Yourself” to create the album that would finally make David Bowie a legend, “The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”.

The Ziggy Stardust album has been called a “concept album”. Fair enough… It has a concept, but not much of a coherent story. Essentially, it’s the ascent and decline of a rock star who may or may not be an alien. Bowie, of course, plays Ziggy Stardust, and in doing so, he’s commenting on the role of the rock star in our culture and challenging the ideas of authenticity.

The album was released in June 1972. Before the album was released, “Starman” was issued as a single on April 28, 1972. “Starman” was the introduction of Ziggy Stardust to the world.

“Starman” was one of the last songs written for the album. It’s a classic example of a record label executive saying “I don’t hear a hit” and forcing the artist to go back and write something new for a single. Luckily, Bowie delivered.

It’s possible Bowie might have been inspired by science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s book “Starman Jones”. Bowie’s real name, after all, was David Jones. Musically, he drew inspiration from a few sources, and we’ll explore those. “Starman” features the Spiders from Mars, Trevor Boulder on bass, Woody Woodmansey on drums, and the great Mick Ronson, one of my real guitar heroes, on guitar and backing vocals; David Bowie played acoustic guitar as well as lead vocal, and Mick Ronson also played mellotron and wrote the string arrangement. The song was produced by David Bowie and Ken Scott.

The song opens with Bowie’s twelve string guitar.

All right, let’s get into it. David’s twelve string guitar is in the right channel. There’s also a keyboard, probably that Mellotron holding a single note, one bass guitar note, a single strum of another guitar and guitar and bass again. David is singing there, but it’s just nonsense syllables. Though he did take the time to overdub a harmony on the first one. Then Woody Woodmansey’s drum fill kicks off the first verse.

Listen to how dry that drum sound is. No reverb on that at all. The instrumentation is pretty spare on the verse, just bass, drums and two acoustic guitars panned left and right.

Woody Woodmancy is laying down a nice groove on the drums. Let’s check that out.

I guarantee you David Bowie did not talk like that in real life. He’s channeling a character here.

Now, at this point, there’s a short transitional piece of music that links the verse to the chorus. Sounds like Morse code, or an old telegraph. It evokes the idea of messages being beamed through space. Could be the Starman letting us know he’s here. It paints an audio picture. Bowie actually got the idea from another song, “You Keep Me Hanging On” by The Supremes. Here it is.

Now let’s go back to “Starman” and hear how this section joins the verse and the chorus together.

That one, no DJ. That was high as it cosmic time.

Mick Ronson and David are singing the harmonies. The instrumentation is still just bass, drums and acoustic guitar, but the string section is added on the chorus and it’s filling in a lot of empty space.

“Let the children boogie”. Around this time, Mark Bolan and T Rex were probably the hottest act in the UK. T Rex were known for playing their own brand of boogie rock. Bolan was definitely bigger than Bowie at this point. They were friends, but they were also competitors, and Bowie clearly had Bolan in his sights when he made this album.  After Bowie says “let the children boogie”, the band goes into a riff that would have been right at home on a T Rex record. It’s a nod, a tip of the hat to Mark Bolan, but it’s also a little bit mocking and somewhat ironic too, as “Starman” marks Bowie’s ascent, the point where Bolan had plateaued and Bowie was about to eclipse him.

Notice the hand claps after the guitar boogie section, we have the second verse. The electric guitars disappear. It’s just the acoustics again. And Bowie turns in a restrained, almost delicate vocal as compared to the chorus. Where he’s really belting it out.

Trevor Boulder plays a nice bass part during the verse, so pay some attention to that.

The chorus begins with some vocal gymnastics by Bowie. From the word “star”, his voice leaps a full octave to the word “man”. Generations of songwriters have used that technique, as it immediately adds a sense of drama, both a literal and a figurative rise in the song. And Bowie was particularly inspired here by this classic song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, performed by Judy Garland and written by Harold Arlin and Edgar Harburg for “The Wizard of Oz”. I mean, it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. Of course, Bowie as a songwriter would be inspired by that. Here’s that same octave leap again.

Now, you might think that this is all speculation and that Bowie could have come up with it on his own, or he borrowed it from somewhere else. But listen to this version of Bowie performing “Starman” live at the Rainbow Theater in August 1972.

So there you go. In fact, you could add Judy Garland to the list of those who inspired the creation of Ziggy Stardust, another star whose rise and fall mirrors that of Ziggy. Judy Garland died of an overdose in 1969, less than three years before “Starman” was written.

They repeat the chorus here.

The boogie section is the only time electric guitars are featured in the song. There are two electric guitars here, the solo and the rhythm part in the left channel. And there’s still one acoustic guitar on the right.

 Here’s where everybody gets to sing along, where the listener becomes part of the experience.

Mick Ronson plays some lead guitar in the background and we begin a long fade out, which makes it feel like this sing along could go on forever.

In July 1972, Bowie appeared on the British tv show “Top of the Pops” to perform “Starman”. It was a watershed moment. Watching it now, it all seems so tame, but at the time it was almost revolutionary. Bowie, dressed in a multicolored outfit and that flaming red hairdo that is so identified with Ziggy now, but that was a brand new ‘do at the time. He never mugs for the camera in this performance, but he smirks and grins and just looks like he’s having a great time. When Mick Ronson approaches to share the mic with him, Bowie throws his arm around Mick and pulls him close. And that one move sent a shockwave across England. It seems so innocent now. It’s hard to believe something like that could ever be controversial, but for parents across the UK, the gay subtext was just too much. They were shocked. But for millions of kids watching at home, they saw something liberating. They saw freedom.

When he sings that line in the second verse, “I had to phone someone so I picked on you”, he points into the camera, and all those kids watching at home felt like he was singing directly to them. Robert Smith of the Cure, Bono, Gary Newman, Siouxie Sioux, Mick Jones of the Clash, Boy George. Adam Ant, Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Johnny Marr… seems like everybody who formed a band in England remember seeing Bowie on “Top of the Pops” and consider this a pivotal moment in their lives. If you’ve never seen this clip from “Top of the Pops”, go watch it now. Bowie is absolutely magnetic in this performance. He’s every bit the ultimate rock star.

Thanks for listening and for being a part of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. You can continue the discussion on our Facebook page. Just search for the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast and you’ll find us.

You can listen to our previous episodes on David Bowie, as well as the dozens of other songs and artists we’ve discussed on this show, on our website, And there are plenty of other great music related podcasts on the Pantheon Podcast Network, so check those out too.

We’ll be back in two weeks with another show. Thanks for joining us for this episode on David Bowie and “Starman”. And remember to support the music you love by downloading it, streaming it, or buying it from wherever you find great music.


David Bowie

Hunky Dory album

Space Oddity

Robert Heinlein

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album

Chariots of the Gods by Erich Von Daniken

Judy Garland

Top of the Pops

You Keep Me Hanging On” by The Supremes

Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland

With this song, David Bowie practically invents the Goth-Punk-Cabaret genre.  It’s an epic song with brilliant piano by Mike Garson.  Let’s explore the track and see what makes this masterpiece tick.  And if you like the podcast, please share!

“Time” (David Bowie) Copyright 1973 Tinoretto Music (BMI) administered by RZO Music Inc Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc (BMI), Chrysalis Songs (BMI)  (phew, that’s a mouthful.)