Joel Ryan/Invision/Associated Press
LONDON – When did the modern era begin? With the Renaissance? With Elvis Presley?
For a generation of music-loving Britons, it started on July 6, 1972, when David Bowie performed the song “Starman” on the TV show “Top of the Pops.”
Viewers had never seen anything like the androgynous orange-haired figure in a jumpsuit, singing about aliens while draping his arm teasingly around guitarist Mick Ronson and offering a lyrical benediction – “let all the children boogie.”
Lonely teenagers in suburban bedrooms across the land were entranced, and, in many cases, inspired.
The ripples from that moment help explain why a major new multimedia exhibition about Bowie at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is the fastest seller in the institution’s history, with 50,000 advance tickets sold – and why Bowie is topping music charts once again at the age of 66.
The “David Bowie Is” exhibition, which opens Saturday, marks the first time Britain’s leading museum of decorative arts and design has devoted a show to a pop star.
“Bowie is no ordinary pop star,” co-curator Victoria Broackes said Wednesday. “He has seeped into every area of our culture” – music, fashion, performance and design.
“In the last couple of years, the fashion references have been non-stop,” Broackes said. “Jonathan Saunders, Miu Miu, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gucci – all reference him. It seems that the creative directors of those companies often are of a certain age, and perhaps they first came across David Bowie in the ‘70s and have reached these positions of authority now.”
Bowie is arguably music’s greatest chameleon, a performer who has adopted and discarded personas with abandon as he moved through musical styles from folk-rock to glam to soul to electronica.
As a teenager, he transformed himself from plain old David Jones – born in 1947 and raised in the drab south London suburbs – to exotic David Bowie. Then he went on to create a series of larger-than-life stage characters – astronaut Major Tom, alien rock star Ziggy Stardust, troubled Aladdin Sane, the enigmatic Thin White Duke.
It’s that eclecticism, the show argues, that makes Bowie uniquely influential – he has mixed up sounds and styles, genres and genders, to come up with something all his own.
The show includes glimpses at Bowie’s wide range of influences, from British musical theater to Berlin cabaret; from German Expressionism to Japanese Kabuki; from surrealism to Andy Warhol.
Bowie gave curators access to his personal archive, although he was not directly involved in planning the show. The 300 items on display include film clips, photographs, handwritten lyrics, storyboards for videos and drawings of costumes and sets.
There is plenty to thrill Bowie fans, from his first single (“Liza Jane,” by Davie Jones and the King Bees, released in 1964) to film footage of the only meeting between Bowie and Andy Warhol – an awkward 1971 encounter – to a painting by Bowie of Iggy Pop in a wintry 1970s Berlin.
In contrast to the hushed halls throughout the rest of the museum, there is plenty of sound and vision, including performance footage from Bowie’s large-scale tours and inventive videos for songs like “Ashes to Ashes.”
Above all, there are extravagant costumes, including the multicolored quilted jumpsuit from that pivotal “Starman” appearance, designed by Freddie Burretti. Bowie wore it with red patent leather boots, calling the look “ultraviolence in Liberty fabrics.”
Fashion always played a major part in creating the Bowie mystique, and he chose designers carefully, from the late Alexander McQueen – whose Union Jack coat adorned Bowie’s “Earthling” album cover – to Kansai Yamamoto, a key 1970s collaborator.
The show includes several flamboyant Yamamoto outfits, including a knitted cat suit that Bowie wore as Aladdin Sane. The exhibition reveals, endearingly, that a knitting pattern was published so fans could make their own versions.
The David Bowie who emerges through the exhibition is a canny businessman and hard-working innovator as well as eclectic artist.
Bowie has released 27 studio albums, and performed 1,000 gigs in 12 tours between 1972 and 2004. Along the way, he sold shares in himself with the issue of “Bowie Bonds” and set up the website and online community Bowienet.
And then he stopped, seemingly retiring for good in 2004 after suffering a heart attack.
Exhibition co-curator Geoffrey Marsh argues that retiring from public view was yet another example of Bowie’s genius.
“He’s been famous for 10 years by doing nothing,” Marsh said.
Then, earlier this year, Bowie startled the world by announcing he was releasing a new album. “The Next Day,” with its melancholy backward glances at Bowie’s time in divided Berlin in the 1970s, has received largely positive reviews. Fans are even starting to dream there could be some new live shows.
And there is little sign of Bowie’s influence waning.
“When we started this exhibition, we thought we were reaching ‘peak Bowie,”’ Broackes said. “But we’re opening in a week when he has an album that is No. 1 in 40 countries.”
“David Bowie Is” runs at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum until Aug. 11, and at the Museum of Image and Sound in Sao Paulo, Brazil, from January to April 2014.