Following the end of the Stage tour in December 1978, Bowie entered the longest period he had yet spent away from the concert arena. Over the next five years he would make only a handful of live appearances, most of them on television.
First came a little-documented appearance in March 1979, when David appeared on stage at New York's Carnegie Hall to play viola alongside Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Cale in a performance of the latter's "Sabotage". The following month saw David's appearance on The Kenny Everett Video Show, miming to "Boys Keep Swinging" in a performance which marked the beginning of a long and fruitful working relationship with the show's director, David Mallet.
On December 15th 1979 David recorded a trio of songs for NBC's Saturday Night Live (not an accurate title on this occasion, as the sequence was broadcast nearly a month later on January 5th). He was joined by Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray, together with Station To Station tour guitarist Stacey Heydon, Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and a pair of extraordinary backing singers in exotic make-up and three-quarter-length dresses. One was the cult German artist Klaus Nomi, making his first mainstream appearance after being "discovered" by David posing as a human mannequin in the window of New York boutique Fiorucci's. His fellow vocalist was Joey Arias, another Fiorucci acolyte, but it was Nomi whose career subsequently took off. He secured a recording deal with RCA who released his extraordinary debut album in 1981. He died only two years later, one of the first celebrity victims of AIDS.
Now firmly entrenched in the avant-garde new wave posture of his Scary Monsters/Elephant Man period (he first saw the Broadway production of the latter during the same trip to New York), Bowie had devised a striking sequence of routines for Saturday Night Live. For "The Man Who Sold The World" he was carried downstage by the backing singers in a rigid wasp-waisted morning suit which left only his head and forearms free, and having completed the number he was duly carried away. The costume, he later revealed, was inspired by the Edwardian cabaret artist Hugo Ball, who would be carried on stage in a tube at Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire. "I combined the tube device with another Dada costume, that of a highly stylised men's evening dress with huge shoulders and bow tie," he explained many years later, referring to an outfit worn by the avant-garde poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara in productions of his Dadaist plays in the 1920s. For "TVC15" David reappeared in a blue jacket, pencil skirt, stockings and high heels, resembling a cross between an airline stewardess and Rosa Klebb, while a toy dog sat at his feet with a television screen in its mouth. Finally, "Boys Keep Swinging" saw David's head superimposed over a dancing rod-puppet body which he operated himself (even producing a cheeky membrum virile at the song's climax), the whole overlaid by chromakey onto the background shot of the band. This was based on an act he had seen in German fairgrounds: "the performer, dressed in black, would attach a small body puppet...below his chin. This gave the effect of a human-headed marionette." The Saturday Night Live set stands as one of Bowie's finest television appearances, the excellent renditions of the songs themselves in no way subordinate to the brilliantly eccentric staging. "The Man Who Sold The World" and "TVC15" were arguably never bettered live.
On December 31st 1979 both The "Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?" Show and, in America, Dick Clark's Salute To The Seventies, featured mimed studio performances of Bowie's new acoustic version of "Space Oddity". The Kenny Everett performance, again directed by David Mallet, is of particular interest in that it used images later developed for the following year's "Ashes To Ashes" video. It was also the scene of an unhappy incident according to Gary Numan, a Bowie fan who had followed his career with something akin to hero-worship since the mid-1970s (speaking many years later, Numan admitted that during the Station To Station tour "I dyed my hair orange with gold sprayed in the front and wore a waistcoat with Gitanes cigarettes in my pocket, even though I didn't smoke. I don't think I looked very cool. When I managed to get to the front, I was holding one of those glowing green sticks that you used to get at gigs. I lobbed it at Bowie during "The Jean Genie" and caught him in the chest - probably the greatest moment of my life at that point). In the wake of Numan's success in 1979, Bowie had made disparaging remarks about an artist regarded by many as little more than a tribute act, describing him as a "clone" in Record Mirror and adding that Numan had "not only copied me, he's clever and he's got all my influences in too." Numan later claimed that he had already recorded his own performance for the same Kenny Everett special when, spotted across the floor by Bowie during the taping of the "Space Oddity" sequence, he was taken to one side by David Mallet and asked to leave the studio. A few days later Numan was informed that his own segment would be held back for use in a later edition of the show, a turn of events he attributed to Mallet's need to appease his most lucrative promo client. In 2000 Bowie described this story as "apocryphal", telling Q that "If he were asked not to come onto the set, it would have been during rehearsals. I do remember having told the studio people that he was welcome to come in for the actual shoot. He never appeared."
David returned to American TV on September 3rd 1980 - in between his own performances of The Elephant Man in Chicago - to perform superb versions of "Life On Mars?" and "Ashes To Ashes" with members of the Scary Monsters band (plus Hall & Oates guitarist G E Smith and The Rumour's drummer Stephen Goulding) on an edition of NBC's The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. It was Bowie's only major promotional appearance for Scary Monsters, and indeed his last live performance until 1983. After the closing night of The Elephant Man on January 3rd 1981, his only other appearance of note before retreating from the public eye came on February 24th when he attended the Daily Mirror's Rock And Pop Awards ceremony in London, collecting the "Best Male Singer" award from Lulu. Later in the year he was invited to perform at The Secret Policeman's Other Ball at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but despite his initial enthusiasm the plan would not reach fruition.