Saturday, 26 May 2018

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


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 1972 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.


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                              

"Five Years" - the first song's first line - “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.

“Soul Love” is a funky, sax-driven piece of early homo-erotica. Even more so than “Five Years”, though, as I said earlier, this is one of the songs that doesn't fit the “concept”. It is a semi-funky, saxophone-driven soully song. Great rhythm and very catchy, but totally irrelevant to the rest of the album. "Moonage Daydream" was also not really obviously relevant, but its "spacey" lyrics fit the bill, I guess. Some 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. "Starman" was the one that saw Bowie’s iconic “Top Of The Pops” appearance, and what a great single it was too. Addictive, radio-friendly chorus, lots of space imagery and that instantly recognisable morse code bit before the chorus kicks in, that was inexplicably lowered on many remasters over the tears. It exists on the original single mix.

“It Ain’t Easy” was pretty much everyone’s least favourite. In my view “Sweet Head” would have made a great replacement, but maybe not in 1972, with its risque lyrics. Maybe “Velvet Goldmine” then.

The piano-driven “Lady Stardust”, always my favourite, was about Bowie’s mate Marc Bolan, apparently. “Star” and the almost punky, four years early, “Hang On To Yourself” rock in a very glam way, both driven by Mick Ronson's searing guitar, before we get the iconic title track as Ziggy “jams good with Weird and Gilly”. Oh, that riff in "Ziggy". Acoustic and electric guitars in unison. Timeless. “Suffragette City”, with an equally iconic and recognisable Mick Ronson riff, rocks even more before the cataclysmic, melodramtic ending of the valedictory “Rock 'n' Roll Suicide”. Bowie brought the concept thing to a close in the most dramatic, theatrical style. Bowie had created something special 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. 

“You’re wonderful - gimme your hands”. We had not seen or heard the like.

This remaster is, I believe, the best one. 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.


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