Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:29 July 2022
When The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was released on 16 June 1972 Bowie’s small but loyal London fan base were immediately enthusiastic. The colourful theatricality, the fizzing energy, the entire glam "look" of the band were simply transporting. Soon ever-expanding concert audiences in the UK and the USA got on board.
Yet this was no tale of overnight success. David Bowie had been striving for recognition since he formed his first band, the Konrads, at the age of fifteen. On the way to creating the Ziggy character and a fictional-turned-actual band—The Spiders From Mars—Bowie (born David Robert Jones) had recorded with the Mannish Boys, the Lower Third, The Buzz, and as part of the Riot Squad. And this all before his largely ignored debut LP came out in June 1967. Yet the journey of trial and error, minor achievements and major setbacks, is essential to understanding Bowie’s breakthrough album, a glittering fantasy about life, the universe, and rock and roll.
Bowie watched, listened and practiced his song-writing craft. His natural charm was deployed to win friends and garner support. The public may have been ignorant of his ambition and the music industry skeptical, but the young performer rarely doubted himself nor his ultimate fate of becoming "a regular superstar". Blending "Nijinsky and Woolworths" (to quote the songwriter himself), the persona of Ziggy Stardust helped him do just that.
Aspects of Marc Bolan, Lou Reed and particularly Detroit wild man Iggy Pop were observed and analysed, while Bowie’s passion for 2001 and A Clockwork Orange added to the other-worldly show. Bowie stitched together a character as charismatic and memorable as any previously seen in the pop world, a character that would play out the fantasies of both performer and audience.
Although not conceived as a concept album, a (very) loose story does run through The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, a cautionary tale of planetary and personal destruction. "Five Years" opens proceedings with an unspecified threat to the future of the Earth, after which scenes and settings are presented. The touching "Soul Love" more-or-less segues into a raunchy "Moondage Daydream" before the wistful, haunting "Starman" introduces a cosmic beauty… that is then blasted apart with the stomping rocker "It ain’t easy", the only non-Bowie composition.
The second side offers various perspectives on the character of the frontman, the rockstar, the lead actor. "Lady Stardust", commonly considered a paean to Marc Bolan, "Star", and "Ziggy Stardust" offer glimpses of Bowie’s observations on the journey towards fame. "Hang on to Yourself" launches—and raunches—into the rock life style. As the train heads for "Suffragette City", however, things get messy. "Hey man, my work’s down the drain". Leading to the inevitable, glorious denouement of "Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide".
The record may not be crammed with musical innovation or invention, yet it is deeply satisfying. It so overflows with lurid comic book portraits and silver screen melodrama that one forgets the whole package was not just David Bowie, but his collaborators too. Mick Ronson, in particular, played all the piano parts as well as guitar, and worked tirelessly on the arrangements. Bowie had inputs from Freddie Buretti on style and costume while his hairdresser was a key ally in the transformation from vaguely hippy troubadour to the striking new look. The merging of man and construct, artifice and emotion, was such a heady vision that when Bowie dramatically retired Ziggy Stardust at the end of the Hammersmith Odeon concerts in July 1973 it was not only the teenage Ziggy-clones in the audience who wept.
"You’re not alone, gimme your hands, you’re wonderful".
Ziggy was dead but David Bowie was a star.
© Bruce Jenkins — July 2022