He was a rock ‘n’ roll alien sent from the stars to herald the man who would save the world. He was the definitive rock star, wild and sexy and out of his goddamn mind.
He was also a young musical visionary called David Bowie, five albums into his career, determined to cause a real stir this time around.
Bowie’s previous record, ‘Hunky Dory’, had caught everybody’s attention with inventive, engaging songwriting. Now he wanted to take that all-important recognition and run with it. He’d already met Vince Taylor, a burned-out rock star who thought himself a cross between a god and an alien; he’d spotted the Ziggy’s tailor shop; he’d heard of his label-mate Norman Carl Odam, ‘The Legendary Stardust Cowboy’. The record was practically naming itself by now.
He didn’t waste time; recording sessions for ‘The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars’ started but a few weeks after ‘Hunky Dory’s release. The output was prolific, with more songs recorded than the record had room for. ‘All The Young Dudes’, originally meant to follow the news of a doomed earth in ‘Five Years’, was instead given to Bowie’s friends Mott The Hoople, as a plea for them to stay together. Chuck Berry and Jacques Brel songs were recorded and subsequently set aside as original material poured out of Bowie and the creative playground that was The Spiders From Mars.
The Spiders had been with Bowie in one form or another for a couple of years. By late 1971, they were a tightly wound three-piece. Mick Ronson, session and solo multi-instrumentalist, played lead guitar, piano and arranged all the strings contained herein. Trevor Bolder played bass guitar, as he would later on in his career with progressive and heavy rock acts such as Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash. Mick Woodmansey was the man behind the kit, as he had been since ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
His drums are the first we hear of these mad genius melodies; that insistent beat pattern is our mainstay through ‘Five Years’ layers of pianos and strings and electric mayhem, wailing and howling at the thought of no future for anyone on planet Earth. Bowie paints scenes of chaos in the streets and quiet contemplation alike, as girls attack tiny children while cops kiss the feet of priests. It’s the apocalypse come true, and we’re not even four minutes into the record.
‘Soul Love‘ seems to be some kind of denial; the human race dances and boogies on as if nothing has happened, but the façade soon slips, as our singer cries out for lack of inspiration, giving himself over to ‘idiot love’ – a mere love of loving.
‘Moonage Daydream‘ is our first beacon of hope, as Ziggy is born in the depths of space, to the sound of a thunderclap guitar riff. It’s the best case we’ve heard so far for those bold instructions on the back cover: TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME. Ziggy reaches out for Earth and its doomed youth, Mick Ronson bringing this psychedelic freak-out to slow fade-out, his guitar solo teasing and pulling us further into it all without ever really letting us go.
It’s all a run up to ‘Starman‘, a message of peace and love and boogie rhythms. Fittingly enough for a song about reaching out to the whole world, it became Bowie’s first widespread hit single since 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’. The influence of T.Rex’s Marc Bolan shines bright, calling on his trademark dreamy strings, handclap beats and guitar hooks to die for. Add a ‘la la la la la’ chorus and you have yourself an instant dancefloor-filler.
A shimmery echo leads us into ‘It Ain’t Easy’, a Ron Davies cover expertly alternating between claw-tap harpischord notes and bursts of swaggering wah pedal guitar. If ‘Starman’ was Ziggy’s flashy show opener, this is surely the traditional solid follow-up number, to let the audience know you really mean business.
Bowie pays further tribute to his glam rock hero Marc Bolan with ‘Lady Stardust‘. He challenges this world’s frightened rejection of androgyny; their inability to see past the long hair and glittery makeup to the depth and power of his ‘songs of darkness and disgrace’.
‘Star’ sees Ziggy at the height of his fame and prowess. He’s completely in love with life in the fast lane, still believing he can change himself, change the nation, change the world with rock ‘n’ roll. The arrangement is brash and ambitious, just the way it should be, shifting pace, switching time signatures more times in two and a half minutes than most prog rock bands manage in ten.
Breathless, relentless and strangely un-dated, ‘Hang On To Yourself’ manages to be a glorious Eddie Cochran ‘50s throwback and a proto-punk pre-Clash headbanger and still has room to foreshadow Ziggy’s coming fall from grace. By now our space invader seems more desperate to stay edgy, indulging himself in strange antics. He sings of funky thigh collectors, of moving around like ‘tigers on vaseline’. The end is near, but he doesn’t want to believe it.
For many, these last three songs are what this record is really about. ‘Ziggy Stardust’, an anthem and an elegy for a fallen star, is one of David Bowie’s crowning musical achievements. Vicious and affectionate by degrees, we get the glory and the tragedy of stardom wrapped up in five uniquely lyrical verses. There’s no exaggeration necessary for this song; it writes its own legend and gets away with it.
‘Suffragette City’ is rock ‘n’ roll. A simple enough statement, but try to imagine everything that defines the genre rolled up into one runaway radio-bait guitar/piano riff. One of the less obvious links in the conceptual chain, it nevertheless carries Ziggy’s story on past his death. It happens to this day, as we’re offered ‘unreleased material’ from the record companies of Hendrix, Cash or Jackson, long after they’ve gone. Think of this as Ziggy’s ‘bonus track’ tribute: it sounds like them, but you struggle to see any substance to it. Still a real belter of a song, though.
‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ explores this fascination with death and legacy properly. These are the vain, paranoid worries of a rock ‘n’ roll star nearing the end – did I matter? Did I make a difference? Will they remember me? What begins as quiet, acoustic introspection quickly turns into arch soliloquy, a lamentation and a celebration of what this man could have been, if not for himself. Bowie has Ziggy face his onstage death with a potent mixture of fear and acceptance, trying to appraise his own lifelong performance: ‘You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair/You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care…’
It’s quite clear why these tracks won out over so many others recorded in the very same sessions. They’re a signpost; a statement of intent for one of the most ambitious musical concepts ever attempted. Bowie wasn’t just singing about Ziggy’s rise and fall, he was living it. With help from Suzi Fussey, Pierre Laroche and Kansai Yamamoto, the Ziggy character was given a face, a silhouette and a shock of fiery red hair.
We remember Ziggy today because he lived beyond this album, wearing a lightning bolt on his brow for ‘Aladdin Sane’, reviving the simply incredible ‘Life on Mars?’ with a new single release in ’73 and, finally, dying to that final encore in D.A. Pennebaker’s concert film at Hammersmith.
This was more than the first danceable concept album; this was David Bowie’s first persona of many to come, his first step towards the status of superstardom that he holds to this day, beloved as a singer, a songwriter, an actor, an icon of British music.
All because Ziggy played guitar.