Ziggy Stardust is one of the most iconic albums ever released. A generation has pored over its nuances for decades but what does it sound like and mean to a teenager in today’s fast forward culture. Milly Whyles is a 15-year-old who is steeped in pop culture and yet again provides a brilliant insight into a classic album from a fresh angle (she did the same with the Cure here and then the Banshees here )
Released in 1972, this monumental Bowie album is not only an amazing album musically, but also a concept and a story with importance and meaning. I sincerely hope I’ve done it justice in this review because it is one of my all time favourites. Please feel free to let me know your interpretations also!
The album opens on an apocalyptic announcement of the demise of humanity, presented through a bittersweet chord progression. Bowie shows us a world in despair – even the newsreader can’t keep it together – with a strange undertone of hope and love (“I kiss you, you’re beautiful” etc). The song itself gradually builds up until it explodes in a crescendo of wailed vocals and visceral emotion, backed by the old, nostalgic piano sound. It presents us with an intriguing opening to the story woven through the album.
Backed by a regular, swaying rhythm, this story of the brutality and strange nature of love features an emphasis on Bowie’s fantastic saxophone playing. Lyrically it flits between themes of grief, the giddy feeling of new love, and religion. Particularly poignant is the phrase “all I have is my love of love, and love is not loving,” emphasising our dependence on love, and the way it hurts us despite this dependency. It feels like an almost cynical look at the way we are hopeless (linking to the aforementioned apocalypse) – shown in the kneeling before a grave, love’s descending on the defenceless, and the thought of being underneath a God of love. The song seems cheerful, even celebratory in its musical structure and the style it is in, although underneath the lyrics are almost saddening.
Somewhat less serious, this third track seems to be a space age, futuristic, and passionate love song. Powerful electric guitar mixed with the acoustics proves for an interesting sound found frequently in the album. The instrumental bridge in the middle of the song is a strange addition, but it works fantastically, flowing effortlessly into another chorus. The strings in the background also make for it to be an enjoyable listening experience. The lyrics are charming and humorous in their use of reference to technology and space-age themes (“keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe,”) but there is something oddly sinister underneath, reminding us of the religious theme in Soul Love (“the church of man, love, is such a holy place to be”
This track outlines the landing of the titular Ziggy Stardust. Presumably from the perspective of two young people, it focuses on the thought of greater things than we can imagine existing outside earth. Ziggy seems to represent a new messiah for the young people with his message of letting the youth be free and enjoy their lives. Despite this motive for the youth to feel freedom, there’s a sense of the young being sheltered and kept away from a free life by their parents and the older generation. There is a sense that this fun is forbidden in the lyric “don’t tell your papa or he’ll have us locked up in a fright). The track is mostly acoustic and features a beautiful strings section as the background. The tone of the music is quite wistful and hopeful, emphasising a feeling of looking up and feeling small. Regardless of any deep meaning, the song is a classic and totally unique.
It Ain’t Easy-
Opening with a strangely classical sounding guitar in a regular rhythm the verses to this song start out quietly and quite muffled as if Bowie is speaking through a captain’s announcer on a plane. The first verse focuses on thoughtful reflection on where life is. This is very suddenly followed by a loud chorus backed by a choir. The sudden contrast of the muted verse and the much clearer chorus emphasises the sense of foreboding in the lyrics (“it ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down”). It also links to the inevitability of the apocalypse – a feeling of constantly sinking, praying you will go to heaven. The next verse also relates to the theme of religion – the people are finding hope that they can survive through religion. Although this hope is prevalent, the song as a whole feels like a cry of doom.
Lady Stardust –
A melancholic but really beautiful piano opening describes a boy with long black hair, bright blue jeans and makeup entering the stage and becoming someone else. There is a comment on the phenomenon of alter egos in that as soon as he steps on stage, he becomes ‘Lady Stardust’ – something that Bowie regularly did throughout his career. The chorus is slow but emotive, despite the subject matter of performance and bright lights. Despite the positivity in the song of his performance, there is a bitterness to some of the lyrics for example “I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey” and “oh how I sighed if they asked if I knew his name”. There is a sense of letting go of someone you love, letting them move forward and make a new life for themselves. It’s one of the more thoughtful, calm moments on the album.
A song about youthful hopes for the future being a “rock and roll star” this song is uplifting and fun in nature. There’s a running theme of wanting to change the world, and believing you have the power to do so, a feeling we all relate to when we were younger. The musical structure of the song also travels back to the theme – it’s in a major key with a fast and exciting tempo, however towards the end of the song it slows down into a wistful bridge. The hopes in the song against the context of the album’s story make it somewhat saddening – the world is ending but the people still have their dreams and hopes despite the fact that they can’t happen. Despite being an overall fun 70’s glam rock song there is still a sense of important meaning to it.
Hang on to Yourself-
The album lets itself go here – there doesn’t seem to be anything deep or serious about this song but an expression of the chaos and rush of fame that comes with being in the music business, especially for the time. In terms of the story, Ziggy and his band are fully taking in the fame they’re receiving and the religious imagery of him almost as a messiah also plays a part (“you’re the blessed, we’re the spiders from Mars”). The music is again fast and upbeat with an optimistic feel to it – it is probably the emotional high point. There’s a feeling of not caring at all what happens to the earth, just listening to the music and enjoying it, although things may get tough (“hang on to yourself”).
Opening with one of the most iconic guitar riffs in Bowie’s history, this song speaks of Ziggy in the past tense. There’s a sense in the slow pace of the song that it’s all over now, and that this explosion of a rock star has been and gone. Without their guitarist, the band have had to split and are now reminiscing on the past. It’s melancholic and reflective of times passed and in that way, it’s quite saddening. There’s an underlying question of what is going to become of the world now the supposed messiah has left the planet. The vocals sound somehow as if they are despairing and wailing, although somehow pleasant to listen to.
The world seems to be in chaos now, and the only thing prioritised is a petty love interest. There is a frustration and a desperation running through the song, in which the narrator is fighting for a “ticket” out of where he is. The song is fast and a total romp, overall my favourite because of how fun it is to listen to musically – there is a strong saxophone section, punchy vocals and an entertaining chorus – it’s genuinely just joyful to experience, again without having to look for meaning in the lyrics.
Rock and Roll Suicide-
Reflective, emotive and dramatic this song is a fantastic closer for a fantastic album. The first section is bitter and reflective, speaking of the effects a turbulent life can have on your personal wellbeing, making you nonchalant and depressed until the eventual downfall of your stardom, your “rock n roll suicide”. In terms of story, this song represents the climax and final destruction of earth, but there’s a form of hope in the song too. It feels like there’s someone pulling you from the dark, away from the numbness in the aftermath of fame, despite the eventual fate of the earth. The music builds up from an acoustic track into an orchestral, almost epic climax as the album ends and it leaves you reflecting on what you’ve just listened to, the imagery strung through the album swirling in your head.