“The rebellion of the longhairs is getting underway,” cautions presenter Cliff Michelmore, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, wisps of hair side-parted and slicked upon his balding head. The year is 1964 and he’s hosting a special BBC Tonight segment dedicated to the burgeoning social phenomenon of men growing out their lengths. And there to speak on behalf of the newly formed Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men is 17-year-old David “Davy” Jones of Plaistow Grove, Bromley, otherwise known as David Bowie.
“I think we’re all fairly tolerant,” says a mop-topped Bowie, amid a swarm of shaggy pals. “But for the last two years, we’ve had comments like, ‘Darling!’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now.” When Michelmore insinuates the young men are asking for it by letting their lengths go unrestrained in the first place (“Did you get this off The Rolling Stones?” he accuses), Bowie responds in true iconoclast fashion. “I think we all like long hair, and we don’t see why other people should persecute us because of this.”
Due in no small part to Bowie’s pithy one-liners and devilish smirks, the society’s cheeky tone is palpable. And that’s because, in reality, their formation and subsequent appearance was a publicity stunt dreamed up by the singer’s then-manager Les Conn. At the time, Bowie was feuding with a producer on Brit music series Gadzooks! It’s All Happening, who was insistent that he trim his hair before performing on the show. The teenager’s act was dropped when he allegedly told them, “I wouldn’t have my hair cut for the prime minister, let alone the BBC!”
But while ulterior motives were, indeed, at play, Bowie shed even more light on the cause in a follow-up interview conducted by the London Evening News. “It’s really for the protection of pop musicians and those who wear their hair long,” he explained, noting that the society was still in the process of enrolling members. “Anyone who has the courage to wear their hair down to his shoulders has to go through hell. It’s time we were united and stood up for our curls.”
In the mid-’60s, Bowie was surely having a gas at the expense of the tightly-wound conservatives, but in retrospect his long-hair-don’t-care mentality was clearly a harbinger of what was to come—particularly amid lockdown as many embrace longer, more lived-in hair. Transcending gender with a cast of different out-of-this-world characters throughout his career, Bowie challenged the status quo and reshaped the cultural landscape at dizzying speeds. From his flame-hued Ziggy Stardust mullet to his swoopy Thin White Duke ’do, Bowie’s shape-shifting coif may have been cropped more often than not, but things came full circle for the rocker when he appeared on BBC Newsnight in 1999, predicting the “unimaginable” impact the internet would have on society while sporting a chin-grazing shag. Further proof that Bowie’s radical foresight knew no bounds. . . .