Classic Album*: David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars


A more recent picture of David Bowie (via Wikimedia Commons)

Forty years ago, the world was a very different place.

1972 was the year of Bloody Sunday, the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and Watergate. The last smallpox epidemic happened in Europe. It was the year when the first handheld scientific calculator was introduced (it cost $395!) and Atari launched Pong, pretty much inventing the video game.

It’s almost as hard to believe as a four-hundred-buck calculator, but back in 1972 one David Bowie (né Jones) was considered something of a novelty act. He’d had a hit in 1969 with ‘Space Oddity’ but his subsequent two albums, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, were largely commercially ignored. That all changed, and rock music changed too, with the invention of Ziggy Stardust.

David Bowie as Ziggy (via Wikimedia Commons)

Concept albums are a bit of a dirty word these days, immediately conjuring aural pictures of nine-minute guitar solos about elves, but David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character was something else entirely.

Ziggy was an androgynous alien who landed on a dying earth, along with his band, The Spiders from Mars, to save its inhabitants. Ziggy starts to believe his own hype and wholeheartedly embraces sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. He finishes up getting ripped apart by other aliens on stage. It’s a bit elf-y, but who cares about the story when the music is this good?

The album opens with ‘Five Years’  a melancholic meditation on the dying earth. It’s always important to remember that every piece of art made between 1945 and 1989 was done so against the backdrop of the Cold War. This glam-rock piano ballad is an eerie reflection of a mad society, which constantly teetered on the brink of annihilation. The dark lyrics reek of despair in a cold world that has driven its inhabitants to madness.

Unlike in our download age, albums were made to be listened through in 1970s, and one of the best things about Ziggy Stardust is the careful progression made between songs. ‘Five Years’ segues effortlessly into ‘Soul Love’  a study of various types of love. The guitar playing by Mick Ronson on this song, and the album as a whole, added to the production of an album which was both sparse and lush where it needed to be.

‘Moonage Daydream’ is one of my favourite songs on the album. The dramatic guitar riff, which was lovingly ripped off, I mean, homaged, by Green Day inAmerican Idiot’s  ’Homecoming’, launched the persona of Ziggy, who has come to save earth. Upping the tempo of the album, it’s a dramatic exhortation to ‘freak out in a moonage daydream’. Several former Spiders have said it’s their favourite track as it was one with the most ‘feeling’.

Mick Ronson who played guitar on Ziggy Stardust (via Wikimedia Commons)

Just as we’re recovering from ‘Moonage Daydream’, we’re straight into ‘Starman’, the most famous song from Ziggy Stardust. The insanely catchy chorus and the Morse code interlude between chorus and verse, as well as the excellent arrangement, guitar and Bowie’s incredible vocals make ‘Starman’ justifiably one of his most famous songs.

‘It Ain’t Easy’ is a cover and for this reason, seems a little out of place in the album. All the same, it’s still a song capable burrowing into your brain, and Bowie’s version is probably the definitive one.

Back in the day we’d be changing the side now and there is a definite change of pace here. ‘Lady Stardust’ begins with a melancholic, slightly atonal piano line. The song traces the beginnings of Ziggy’s exhaustion at the endlessness of  his rock ‘n’roll lifestyle; it’s also a fine example of Bowie’s gender-bending alter ego (“People stared at the make-up on his face… Lady Stardust sang his songs/ Of darkness and disgrace”). ‘Star’, a pretty straightforward fast number, ups the pace again. This song was initially offered to a band called Chameleon in 1971, and as such it’s not really linked to the Ziggy story.

‘Hang onto Yourself’ is another fast-paced song, which was used to open gigs on the Ziggy Stardust tour. If that guitar riff sounds very familiar, it’s because the Sex Pistols borrowed it for ‘God Save the Queen’.

‘Ziggy Stardust‘ is one of the real highlights of the album. Covered notably in Fr Ted (which Bowie reportedly found hilarious), the real song typifies everything we expect of the ‘live fast, die young’ motto. It tells the story of Ziggy’s rise and fall. Ziggy is a composite of several stars Bowie considered to embody the ultimate rock god; Jimi Hendrix, Vince Taylor, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. Everything you need to know about being a rock star is in these lines: “He took it all too far, but, boy, could he play guitar.”

After the famous “Ziggy played guitar” climax, we’re straight into ‘Suffragette City’. The penultimate track on Ziggy Stardust is one of Bowie’s own favourites, and it’s easy to see why. Everything about it is perfect, from Bowie’s vocals (“Wham, bam, thank you Ma’am!”) to the full production and playing. Guaranteed to get stuck in your head,  it was also the song on the Ziggy Stardust tour where Bowie pretended to give Mick Ronson’s guitar a blowjob. (Back when that was seen as shocking, of course).

The album closer, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, is a melancholic look at the death of youth. At the time, Bowie was terrified of dying on stage, and this song represents the death of the rock ‘n’ roll dream.

Bowie genuinely feared he was going insane after the release of Ziggy Stardust and the subsequent tour. He had become Ziggy to such an extent he could no longer separate himself from the persona: ” [Ziggy] wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity,” he said later.

Ziggy had to be killed off, and he was in 1973.

David Bowie in 1974 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the release of Ziggy Stardust, and this July will make the 40th anniversary of Bowie’s seminal appearance on Top of the Pops, where the androgynous alien figure of Ziggy Stardust was beamed into British living rooms far more used to Donny Osmond and the like. Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen has said what an eye-opener that performance was as a budding musician, and he isn’t the only one who felt changed by that performance.

David Bowie paved the way for a slightly stranger world. Everyone from Morrissey to Lady GaGa cite him as key influence (let’s not hold Lady GaGa against him though). He was both influenced by and influenced several genres of music, and his mark can be seen in artists as diverse as Madonna and Placebo. Bowie’s fluid sexuality paved the way for many gay artists in a music world which was previously only open to men who liked to shag a lot of (sometimes underage) female groupies.

If it wasn’t for David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, pop culture would be a lot less interesting and, frankly, a lot more normal. And I don’t know about you, but I get enough normality in my everyday life. Music and art is supposed to take you to strange places. If you haven’t listened to Ziggy Stardust before, seek it out (it’s been remastered for the 40th anniversary) and give it a spin. It’s not only a great album but it’s one that changed music forever.

 *Author’s note: These selections are purely subjective. If you think I have terrible taste in music, say so, but be kind!

This was the first of a series on classic albums for and appeared on June 9 2012. I’ve since left the website but there will be classic albums very soon, here on randomdescent and a new top-secret website. (Shh!)

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