It’s 40 years ago today since David Bowie unleashed the seminal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars and took us on a musical and conceptual journey with his starman. Here David Marren gives us a retrospective view of the album and what it meant to the musical landscape.
Opening innocuously enough with a fade-in drum beat it hardly seems likely that the eleven tracks which house this landmark album -forty years old this June whilst Bowie reached the pensionable age of sixty-five in January- would usher in the seventies proper, inspire several generations, permanently change the landscape of rock and roll and make its creator an international superstar all under the guise of an intergalactic rock messiah on a fast burn out.
The opening track in question ”ËFive Years’ didn’t retain its innocuous stance for long as Bowie’s post apocalyptic lyric housed an escape for the disenfranchised, alienated and ”Ëother’-the gay, the blacks and disabled for starters- all the while his nuanced vocals eventually reached a hysterical pitch before breaking down in dismay ,despair and frustration.
Here for the first time was a lyric which reversed certain roles with, for probably the ÃÂ first time, a homosexual able to express his disgust rather than being the object of scorn and disdain; ”ËA cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that’. Here was a record which finally kissed goodbye to the sixties and its failed hippy propaganda which clouded the opening two years of the new decade like a particularly bad hangover which just wouldn’t shift.
Here was a rock star with vision and style ÃÂ replacing flares, afghan coats and a sea of washed out denim with a slim silhouette of body sculpting catsuits, spiky hair and thick soled patent boots like some space age storm-trooper beamed in from Tokyo as a rock and roll interpretation of the Anthony Burgess droogs from A Clockwork Orange. Here was not only the here and now but the future as well.
What the forthcoming disaster is in ”ËFive Years’ we are never made aware of but, in hindsight, five years hence was 1977 and the year punk rock took the nation by the throat and terrified the old guard. Many of the main protagonists of this uprising had originally found the path which led them into creating this cultural phenomenon and expression of youth and individualism via Bowie and, in particular, this album.
The hysterical posturing and eventual meltdown of the opener gave way to the soothing space age lullaby tones of ”ËSoul Love’ as a means of brief respite after the shock value of the opening track before the crunching opening chords jolt you back into being and straight into ”ËMoonage Daydream’ with its world of alligators, pink monkey birds and a desire to be ”Ëa rock and rolling bitch for you’.
This classic Bowie track was followed by lead off single ”ËStarman’ and a legendary television performance which probably more than anything else consolidated Bowie’s place in rock history and positioned him as a genuine superstar.
Top of the Pops in 1972 was a dull place awash with denim and alternatively a few pop bands struggling with their satin and tat. Marc Bolan was at the forefront of this new generation and had a strong brace of singles as well as the ”ËElectric Warrior’ album ”âand a long standing friendly rivalry with Bowie- to settle his place as the pop star du jour. The friendly rivalry was about to be replaced with open hostility as Bowie seriously threatened Bolan’s throne however and the moment that occurred was with this much discussed showing of ”ËStarman’.
Incidentally, Marc never hit the top of the charts after Bowie’s performance despite having reigned supreme over the previous two years but his music had become formulaic and image wise he was still struggling with his feather boa and satin flares. Then Bowie emerged with spiky orange hair, androgynous features, skin tight jumpsuit and red patent boxing boots.
In effect, Bowie swept in and stole his fan-base who were more than ripe for change. The sheer chutzpah of this performance was someone making the most of their allotted time slot-this was a pre-video and Youtube age where one shot at the prize was all you had- and Bowie makes the most of his appearance with a smug, satisfied and knowing smile almost permanently on his face then when he casually and coquettishly draped his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulders ,drawing him into his orbit, he instantaneously queered pop and stuck two fingers up at the cock-rock, macho posturing which had previously prevailed.
This was the moment David Bowie became a star for the next generation introducing sexual ambiguity in a confrontational stance which would have been unthinkable five years previously. Interestingly the song which did it, in typical Bowie plagiaristic style, musically inhabited the same universe as T.Rex and was the bridge between the Supremes You Keep Me Hanging On and Over the Rainbow.
The first half of the album closed with a cover of Ron Davies’ It Ain’t Easy before side two’s opening Lady Stardust again references Bolan before Star burst in with Bowie’s very own statement of intent ”ËI could make it all worthwhile as a rock and roll star’.
Hang onto Yourself is a neat rocker one part The Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane to three parts Eddie Cochrane’s Summertime Blues whilst featuring a slyly sardonic, sensuous lyric about ”Ëtigers on Vaseline’.
It also contained a sweet irony in the line ”ËThe bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar’ as Steve Jones and Paul Cook soon to be of the Sex Pistols allegedly stole the equipment after Ziggy’s last stand at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 and used their ill gotten gains to steal the riff from this song, beef it out and re-fashion it for their very own establishment shaking God Save The Queen in 1977 in yet another prescient reference to the five years concept of the album’s opener.
The album’s protagonist Ziggy Stardust makes his first full appearance in the song of the same name and much speculation has been made of the origins of the character with many believing it to be Jimi Hendrix although Bowie has subsequently claimed it is about the long forgotten Vince Taylor and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and despite his denials Ziggy is clearly an (almost) name steal from future cohort and collaborator ÃÂ Iggy Pop who, at this juncture, was largely unheard of in mainstream circles.
Suffragette City rocks out on a Stones vibe and maintains the Clockwork Orange theme by claiming ”ËDroogie don’t crash here’ interspersed with a series of effete ”ËHey Man’s’ and the crashing crescendo kiss off ”ËWham bam thank you man’. The album concludes with the cabaret stylings of Rock and Roll Suicide where Bowie addresses his audience in the making-and by album’s end firmly in his enthral- ”ËGimme your hand and you’re wonderful/ Turn on with me and be wonderful / You’re not alone’.
The impact of the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars does not lie wholly in the music which is superior pop/rock but ultimately quite conservative-even at the time- but also in the attitude and look which came with it.
Here was a musician placing himself as a rock star before he had even had a hit-discounting Space Oddity three years earlier which he had been unsuccessful in following up- and introducing re-invention and in-authenticity as major concepts for stardom. The image, especially as 1972 wore on, was proto”âpunk and although his own stardom was clearly on the agenda he still found time to assist those he admired producing albums for Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople. The latter benefited greatly from his intervention as he gifted them the gold plated classic All the Young Dudes taking them to the higher echelons of the chart.
Many doubted his wisdom in giving away such a song but a demo version featuring his vocal over the Mott version revealed his voice was simply too effete to lend the song the rawness Ian Hunter’s granted it. Lou Reed also made it into the top ten with the Bowie produced Walk on the Wild Side despite its overt references to transvestism, oral sex and drug taking, all considered taboo subjects at the time. It would be a mistake to consider Bowie as simply a benign benefactor or a rock and roll sister of mercy though as these collaborations assisted his image and raised his profile as much as that of those he was helping. They did, however, assure and solidify his legend which saw his DNA coursing through the decade and his fingerprints all over 1972 in particular.
The Ziggy character was one which permeated Bowie’s work for the next few years. As he morphed into the fractured psyche of the unsteady follow up Aladdin Sane- really just an Americanised version of Ziggy- his visions and ideas simply grew more toxic culminating in 1974’s pre-punk statement Diamond Dogs and the track Candidate where he showed how he had acclimatised his reaction to this demi-monde in the line ”ËHaving so much fun with the poisonous people’.
The snaggle-toothed ragged creatures-”Ëpacks of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love Me Avenue’- which rum amok all over yet another post apocalyptic outing could quite easily have the names Rotten and Vicious applied to them, so it is little surprise that when punk reared its rabid fangs and denounced most of what had gone before many of them still championed Bowie as a fore-father.
After Diamond Dogs however Bowie more or less abandoned Britain and set out to seduce the big bucks in the States which he did with huge success but restless, as ever, the rock/funk hybrid Station To Station saw him with a yearning to return to his European roots and this he did with, his artistically cathartic and two fingers to the corporate record company aesthetics inspired, Low released at the dawn of 1977.
Fittingly both of its time whilst simultaneously ahead of it and an inspiration on the fall out of the post- punk brigade, providing them their next angry fix, Low-and its equally impressive follow up Heroes- featured a blank chill and detachment prevalent in post-punk and a drum sound which pre-figured the eighties where in bastardised, diluted and sanitised form it was omni-present.
Artistically Bowie never scaled such heights as 1977 ever again. Alongside his own two albums released that year he also had a major hand in bringing Iggy Pop’s two solo masterpieces The Idiot and Lust for Life both to fruition and the public consciousness. 1979’s Lodger was disappointing but 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps saw him reach new commercial peaks and the decades opening year saw him never far from the top of the charts. It was artistically a nostalgic glance back and over what he had inspired with a knowing eye and renewed vigour that occasionally read as ennui.
However he was not to regain this momentum and as the eighties rolled on it became clear that Bowie was something of a spent force. His heir apparent, a certain Stephen Morrissey, was waiting in the wings ready to grab the baton, as a younger generation sought a spokesperson to articulate their despair and disenfranchisement but whereas Bowie used outer space as a metaphor for alienation Morrissey concentrated more on inner space. His dwelling place was not the exotic outreach of far off galaxies and the stars but the confines of the bedroom.
However Bowie’s legacy ensures that those vibrant heady days of 1972 when he showed his audience anything was possible will always be how he will be most fondly remembered. Forty years on the album itself has lost little of its potency-the conservative nature of the mix sealed it’s longevity rather than as simply a period piece- and the message on the back album sleeve instructing the listener to play the contents at ”ËMaximum Volume’ serves as a constant reminder that whilst Ziggy is in our orbit ”ËYou’re not alone’.
Happy Birthday Ziggy in all your space age regalia!
All words by David Marren.ÃÂ