Saturday, 26 May 2018

David Bowie - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972)

The boy in the bright blue jeans....

 

Released on 16 June 1972

Recorded at Trident Studios, London

Running time 38:29

The album that broke it big, real big, for David Bowie. It was also the first “serious” album I ever bought. Therefore, I have an incredible emotional attachment to it, and know it back to front. Every last note. Every lyric. For that reason it makes it strangely difficult to write as much about it as I would other albums that I don't know so well.

Like so many supposed “concept albums”, the “concept” is a somewhat vague one - about a “glam” rock star, Ziggy Stardust, who is maybe from another solar system, suddenly appearing on the scene, forming and leading a band an subsequently falling victim to the pitfalls of fame and “when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band” and it all came to an end, as quickly as it had began. Bowie himself, of course, followed the same path with his real-life Spiders From Mars.

Bowie himself said of its "concept", looking back on it -

“….What you have there on that album when it does finally come out, is a story which doesn’t really take place, it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth. I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in….”

Bowie is pretty much saying that the album isn't as conceptualised as many have viewed it. It is a series of randomly connected, great rock songs with no real continuity. I have always viewed it as such, even right back then, when I first bought it, aged thirteen.

The old “side two”, the final six songs of the album, are the ones that fit the concept, along with Starman from “side one”, to a certain extent. In that respect, it is far more of a concept album than say, Sgt Pepper or The Jam’s Setting Sons. However, Soul Love, Moonage Daydream and It Ain't Easy certainly don't fit in to any such idea.  Certainly, though,  Bowie “bigged up” the Ziggy image for all it was worth - bright orange coxcomb hairdo, one legged tights and full make up. We had not really seen anything like it, to be fair, Bowie’s appearance on Top Of The Pops in July 1972 performing Starman had us all talking in the school playground the next morning, and it had the country’s parents recoiling with horror, despite the previous decade’s excesses.

TRACK LISTING

1. Five Years
2. Soul Love
3. Moonage Daydream
4. Starman
5. It Ain't Easy
6. Lady Stardust
7. Star
8. Hang On To Yourself
9. Ziggy Stardust
10. Suffragette City
11. Rock 'n' Roll Suicide                              

On the first line of Five Years - “pushing through the Market Square” was inspired by the town I grew up in, Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Indeed, the world’s first statue of David Bowie is now sited there (pictured above). The song “fades in” with Mick Woodmansey’s slow drum beat, the a crystal clear acoustic guitar kicks in and we are into a rather disturbing song about the forthcoming end of the world. It is jam packed with characterisation and imagery and Bowie’s great lyrics and delivery build up to a truly tumultuous climax with finally fades back out again with the same sombre drum beat. "A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that...". What an evocative line.

The song doesn’t quite fit the album’s narrative, although maybe it could be argued that an apocalyptic world such as is described needs a Ziggy-like figure to arrive to lead it to the promised land before it is too late.

Even more so than Five Years, though, as I said earlier, Soul Love is one of the songs that doesn't fit the “concept”. It is a semi-funky, saxophone-driven soully song.  Back to the song itself, it has a very appealing, melodic vibe that again doesn't really sit easily with the harsh, edgy, glamminess of much of the rest of the album. It actually could be more than comfortable on Young Americans. Yes, it had great rhythm and was undoubtedly very catchy, but it was totally irrelevant to the rest of the album.

Moonage Daydream was where the "concept" started to kick in, with its "spacey/science fiction-esque" lyrics  and druggy references to "freaking out...".  It also contains a homoerotic line in "the church of man-love is such a holy place to be..." that totally passed my thirteen year-old mind by back then. It was, no doubt, referencing Ziggy's (and simultaneously Bowie's) bi-sexual experimentation. Even by 1972, though, the song's lyrics like "lay the real thing on me", "freak out", and "far out" were starting to sound more than a little dated - relics from the hippy era.

There is some marvellous, chunky, heavy guitar throughout as Mick Ronson came into his own, and an impossibly singalong instrumental refrain just after the “freak out in a moonage daydream” line. It ends with more impressive guitar. A proper rock song. Apparently Bowie used to try and "draw" the guitar solo, as he envisaged it, with crayons on paper. Ronson would look at it and play the solo as he interpreted it, which is pretty remarkable.

Funnily enough, though, the song's provenance dates from early 1971 and is the earliest-composed song to feature on this album, although not the first recorded. You would imagine it was from the late 1971/early 1972 sessions from its vibe and sound.

Starman was the one that saw Bowie’s iconic Top Of The Pops appearance (see the wonderful clip below), and what a great single it was too. Addictive, radio-friendly chorus, lots of contemporaneously-popular space imagery and that instantly recognisable morse code bit before the chorus kicks in, that was inexplicably lowered on many remasters over the years. It exists on the original single mix.



The song is built around an acoustic guitar riff more in tune with the lighter, breezier feel of Hunky Dory than the electric riffs of this album. As Bowie's only successful single to date apart from 1969's seemingly one-off Space Oddity it would have seemed to many that Bowie was obsessed with singles about space and the galaxy, which was of course not the case if you knew more of his songs. As with Moonage Daydream there are lots of hippy-style lyrics in the song - "hazy cosmic jive"..."hey that's far out"..."let all the children boogie..."..."some cat was layin' down some rock 'n' roll..." that owed more than a passing debt to Bowie's friend Marc Bolan. Incidentally, on the live performance, Bowie sang "get it on rock 'n' roll.." as a nod to his mate Bolan, no doubt.

I always wondered, when listening to this song, how one could "lean back on my radio..". How could you lean on a radio??

It Ain't Easy was pretty much everyone’s least favourite. In my view, and those of many others, Sweet Head would have made a great replacement, but maybe not in 1972, with its risque lyrics. Maybe Velvet Goldmine then. Both of them clearly would have been better inclusions than this cover of US songwriter Ron Davies's song from the late sixties. It was actually the first song recorded for the album. having been rejected for Hunky Dory. The only way I could make it fit the album's theme at the time was in its "climb to the top of the mountain" struggle-based lyrics, which I tried to interpret as Ziggy's travails as he tried to make it big. It doesn't really do it for me, though and remains apart from most of the album's other material.


The piano-driven Lady Stardust, always my favourite, was about Bowie’s mate Marc Bolan, apparently. It contains some great lines, such as "...femme fatales emerged from shadows to watch this creature fair..." and another homo-erotic reference in the line "the love I could not obey...". Is the song about Ziggy, or is is about Ziggy's messianic hero-worship of another figure? Either way, it is a lovely, atmospheric song and Mick Ronson plays some great piano something I didn't know he did. 

Star saw Bowie going all proto-punky four years early. It is a short, frantic and riffy number that briefly details in the first verse what happened to Ziggy's old friends as he left them as he pursued his journey to stardom. It is a mixture of glam and punk, although nobody knew what punk was in 1972. I have always wondered about the supposed "friends" named in the lyrics - Tony, Bevan and Rudi. Who were they? Odd names for Britain in 1972 as well, certainly the last two. Interestingly, the track also, like Moonage Daydream dates from early 1971 and was given away to a little-known band called Chameleon. Thankfully nothing came of their recording of it and Bowie resurrected it.

Hang On To Yourself was another in the punky vein, driven wonderfully by Mick Ronson's searing guitar, this was regularly used as a show opener during the autumn of 1972 and into 1973. It is an irresistible, rousing number. The Sex Pistols later said they based their God Save The Queen riff loosely around Mick Ronson's work on this track. It is right at the heart of the whole Ziggy thing, sitting as it does in the middle of "side two".

Ziggy StardustThe iconic title track is most memorable as Ziggy “jams good with Weird and Gilly”. Oh, that riff too - acoustic and electric guitars in unison, something that Bowie had begun to specialise in. It is a timeless classic. Again it is packed full of wonderful lines, like "he came on so loaded man - well hung and snow-white tan...", "with God-given ass...". The sexual and drug references were lost on most of us teenagers back then, I can assure you. The song is full of all sorts of images - the "leper messiah", "cat from Japan", "he was the nazz", "jiving us that we were voodoo.." and is just a delight from beginning to end. Just who were the introductory characters of "Weird and Gilly" I wonder? Previous band members or existing ones? Was "Ziggy" a unique, original character, or an amalgam of Bolan, Jagger, Jim Morrison etc? Whatever the answer was, one thing we knew for sure was that "Ziggy played guitar.."

Suffragette City is another superb track, with an equally iconic and recognisable Mick Ronson riff, rocks even more than "Ziggy", being in possession of a fast-paced glam rock meets regular rock guitar-driven sound and one of Bowie's strongest rock vocals. His higher-pitched voice never made for a truly convincing rock delivery, but it suits him fine here. He also wanted a saxophone sound on the song, but this was created by a synthesiser in the end. It is also full of sexual imagery and an undercurrent of seediness runs through it. Bowie wants Henry, whoever he is, to leave him alone while he attends to his "mellow-thighed chick". Then when he is done, it is "wham bam thank you ma'am..". There is the same sort of Studio 54 vibe to it that was also on Hunky Dory's Queen Bitch.

I always love hearing the guitar cut in to first one speaker then the other after the "wham bam thank you ma'am..." bit at the end. On the 30th Anniversary remaster of the album, the stereo channels are reversed, to the fury of countless "audiophiles", something that has amused me over the years.

Rock 'n' Roll Suicide was the cataclysmic, melodramatic, valedictory ending of the album, and, apparently, of Ziggy. Bowie brought the concept thing to a close in the most dramatic, theatrical style. From its first "time takes a cigarette..." line to "you're wonderful - gimme your hands..." the song is a perfect, evocative end to something very special that Bowie had created in this sub-forty minute album, that, while not wanting to go over the top about such a comparatively short piece of work, was quite artistically ground-breaking.

We had not seen or heard the like.
*

There were also several tracks recorded during the sessions for the album which didn't make it. They are all worthy of mention as part of the story of the "Ziggy era":-

Holy Holy was originally recorded in 1970 and in this form it is a very sixties-sounding, early T. Rex-influenced number, driven along mainly by Herbie Flowers' inventive bass, drums and backing vocals with the lead guitar considerably down in the mix and featuring a very typically late sixties Bowie vocal. it sounds in this form a lot like the final, superior material from the stuff that appeared on the Deluxe Edition of David Bowie, once Bowie had started to record some credible songs. It was actually released as a single and duly disappeared without trace.

Then there is the summer of 1971 re-recorded Spiders version, which is so much better. It is faster -featuring lots of searing Mick Ronson guitar, pounding rock drums and a stronger vocal from Bowie. I say that, though, and it has me suddenly wondering whether it is the same vocal track. Maybe not. I cannot find any mention that it is, anywhere. In fact, I'm sure it is different. The vocal is slightly deeper, more resonant. Either way, the second recording turns it into a proper early seventies rock song that indeed was initially pencilled in for inclusion on Ziggy Stardust. It would have been better than It Ain't Easy, that was for sure!

Round And Round was a cover of Chuck Berry's Around And Around. It was recorded in late 1971 as part of the Ziggy Stardust sessions and was due to be track four on "side one", before Starman replaced it. It is given the full-on Spiders from Mars treatment and features some red-hot guitar from Mick Ronson. Bowie, whose voice was never the most convincing in a straight ahead rock 'n' roll format, copes pretty well with it. It rocks in a full, bassy and muscular fashion.


Sweet Head was another one from the late 1971 Ziggy sessions this is a risqué rocker with a refrain that is almost punky in its intensity. Ronson's guitar again calls all the shots throughout this excellent track. It would have fitted in fine to the Ziggy album. It is actually the only song apart from Ziggy Stardust that mentions Bowie orange-haired creation by name. It is populated by salacious sexual references - "bob your sweet head..." and "give me sweet head..." as well as the cheeky "while you're down there....". No doubt had I heard this when I first got into Bowie, aged thirteen in 1972, I wouldn't have understood any of this. It is one of these rarities that I feel would really have done the business had it been included on the album it was intended for. It is a quality track that can consider itself unfortunate not to have made the final cut.

Velvet Goldmine was also from those same sessions as Round And Round and Sweet Head is this, another truly excellent number that really should have made the album. It is a solid-paced, chunky number with a strong Bowie vocal, quality Ronson guitar, a melodic rumbling bass from Trevor Bolder and a big, clunking Hunky Dory style piano. Its backing vocals are deep and sonorous in a sort of Volga Boatmen style, or maybe like some of those found on The Man Who Sold The World album. It ends with some jaunty whistling and madcap laughing vocals fading away in the background.

Amsterdam. Bowie always liked the whole Jacques Brel/Berlin in the 1930s decadent thing and this Brel song is perfect for that - a tale of drunken sailors and prostitutes. Bowie had been playing it live for a few years before he recorded it in the summer of 1971. It is a robust acoustic and evocative torch song and I first met it as the 'b' side of Sorrow in 1973. I found its images and atmosphere truly captivating. It was totally unlike anything I had ever heard from Bowie thus far. I always remember its abrupt ending too. Apparently it was going to be in the It Ain't Easy slot on Ziggy Stardust. I wish it had.

*

Regarding the sound, the 2012  remaster is, I believe, the best one. Possibly. It is always up for debate and re-assessment. The EMI/RYKO is tinny and dull. The 1999 one is acceptable, as is the 30th anniversary edition (although it has a bizarre stereo channel reverse from the original recording). This one is the least tinny and warmest.

It was, culturally, a hugely influential album. Musically, it was, basically, around forty minutes of mostly fast-paced, lead guitar-driven somewhat tinny rock music. Nothing incredibly special, to be honest, when compared against many other albums, (including many by Bowie) yet, at the same time, it felt just incredibly special. If you know what I mean.

A



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