David Bowie proved many times over that the best way to be yourself is to become someone else for a while.
In the case of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, it was an androgynous alien rock hero sent to Earth to save the population. Guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey were also featured on the project, which is often described as a concept album.
Bowie, however, had never intended to make anything too structured: It was an exercise in excess and pretentiousness as much as a career-defining piece of work — all in the name of pushing forward into the future, whatever that might look like. This was an attitude that permeated much of Bowie’s catalog.
“Some of it, just pure petulance, some of it was arrogance, some of it was unwitting – but, inevitably, I kept moving ahead,” Bowie told Melody Maker in 1977. “Ziggy, particularly, was created out of a certain arrogance. But, remember, at that time I was young and I was full of life, and that seemed like a very positive artistic statement. I thought that was a beautiful piece of art, I really did. I thought that was a grand kitsch painting – the whole guy.” Bulging with glitter and glam, sometimes doomed and sometimes ironically optimistic, Ziggy Stardust arrived on June 16, 1972, as more rock opera than a studio album. We’re revisiting the iconic LP, song by song, below.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars does not begin on a positive note. “Five Years” describes a brutally wretched world, one in which its inhabitants have five years left before apocalyptic disaster sets in. Then, mid-way through, Bowie breaks the fourth wall — “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor / Drinking milk shakes cold and long / Smiling and waving and looking so fine / Don’t think you knew you were in this song” — offering a glimmer of cheerfulness amongst the destruction. Bowie’s vocal gets more and more urgent as the song progresses, becoming practically desperate with emotion at the end. In his never-published autobiography, The Return of the Thin White Duke, Bowie said he was thinking of his brother Terry Burns when he wrote the song, though other various poems and dreams have been cited as inspirations, too. In 1985, Bowie was scheduled to close his Live Aid set with “Five Years,” but it was dropped to make way for footage of the Ethiopian famine for which the event was raising funds.
One of several songs that Bowie wrote well before sessions for Ziggy Stardust began, “Soul Love” was recorded in a single take, with a particularly unique drum part from Woodmansey. “The concept of these alien songs was important, so when I picked a drum beat I didn’t want it to be too unfamiliar,” he said in his book Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie. “I wanted it to have a futuristic edge without being gimmicky. I knew how John Bonham or Deep Purple’s Ian Paice would do it, but that wasn’t the point. … I followed the maxim that less was more, and avoided making everything too busy.” The results were primarily themes of love and religion – or, rather, lack thereof. “I was in love once, maybe, and it was an awful experience,” Bowie told Playboy in 1976. “It rotted me, drained me, and it was a disease. Hateful thing, it was. Being in love is something that breeds brute anger and jealousy – everything but love, it seems. It’s [like] Christianity – or any religion, for that matter.”
Bowie gave “Moonage Daydream” a go in 1971 with his short-lived side group Arnold Corns before recording it with his Spiders From Mars band. Named after the Pink Floyd song “Arnold Layne,” the group consisted of guitarist Mark Carr-Pritchard, bassist Peter de Somogyi and drummer Tim Broadbent. “David was a neighbor,” Carr-Pritchard later remembered. “He lived across the street; I used to do stuff at his folk club. I probably had more equipment than he did.” Bowie also hired the openly gay fashion designer Freddie Burretti as a singer for the group. He didn’t appear on either recording of “Moonage Daydream,” but Burretti did help inspire a lot of the fashion that Bowie incorporated in his Ziggy Stardust tour wardrobe.
Something had to be kicked off the track listing when RCA asked Bowie to write a single somewhat late in the sessions. He’d originally planned to include a cover of Chuck Berry‘s “Around and Around,” since Bowie felt it was the kind of song Ziggy would have done onstage. The song Bowie wrote in response to RCA’s request turned out to be his first major hit since “Space Oddity” three years prior: “Starman” reached No. 10 in the U.K., ironic given its heavy usage of American slang: “Hey that’s far out,” “Some cat was laying down some rock ‘n’ roll.” Bowie took inspiration from the Judy Garland classic “Over the Rainbow,” particularly the octave leap from the chorus. When the band performed “Starman” at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1972, Bowie played up the connection, singing: “There’s a Starman, over the rainbow …”
“It Ain’t Easy”
Originally penned by Ron Davies, “It Ain’t Easy” instead became the only cover to appear on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The song had earlier been updated by Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry before Bowie’s version was recorded in July 1971 during the Hunky Dory sessions. Bowie is featured on a 12-string guitar, while Rick Wakeman of Yes plays the harpsichord. A month before its official recording, Bowie performed the song for an edition of In Concert for BBC Radio that was broadcast in June 1970. That version can be heard on his 2000 compilation album, Bowie at the Beeb.
“Lady Stardust” was Bowie’s tribute to the late Marc Bolan. His original demo of the song was titled “He Was Alright (A Song for Marc),” and the lyrics paid direct homage to the influential glam-rock figure: “People stared at the makeup on his face / Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace.” Bolan’s likeness was also projected onto the stage behind Bowie during the 1972 Rainbow Theatre shows, in another commemoration of their complicated relationship. “Marc felt like he was in competition with everyone, and he felt in competition with David. David thought there was room for everybody,” their producer Tony Visconti told The Guardian in 2015. “They’d be together at my place quite often. It was neutral ground and we all just got on great. … We’d just jam and listen to records. It was a great time.”
Bowie first recorded a demo of “Star” entirely on his own in May 1971, singing and playing slide guitar and piano. This demo was then offered to the rock band Chameleon, who was signed to a subsidiary of Bowie’s label Chrysalis. He hoped to produce the band, but their recording of the song went unreleased. Bowie’s official take featured a drum beat inspired by Mitch Mitchell’s turn on Jimi Hendrix‘s “I Don’t Live Today,” plus a backing vocal line inspired by John Lennon‘s in “Lovely Rita.” “I have to interplay with other writers, because I’ve always been a fan,” Bowie told NME in 1973. “If I wasn’t a fan, I’d probably be far more individual – the other kind of individuality where it’s very, very ingrained in the self. Because I’m very involved with society on my level, I have to use the tools that the present society has been created with, musically. That’s why I lift from and use and am intrigued by other writers and their music.”
“Hang On to Yourself”
“Hang On to Yourself” was initially released in May 1971 as the B-side to Arnold Corns’ version of “Moonage Daydream.” A few months before that, Bowie had crossed paths with producer Tom Ayers on a promotional trip to the U.S., and he asked if Bowie might be interested in recording something with the ’50s rockabilly star Gene Vincent. “We settled on ‘Hang On to Yourself’ and made a ghastly version of it which is floating around somewhere on eBay, I expect,” Bowie said in Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust. “I went on to explain that Ziggy wasn’t going to be a real rock star and that I would play him. I think they all thought I was talking in terms of a musical. It’s possible that I was; it’s now hard to remember what direction I had expected him to go. Zig rather grew as he grew, if you know what I mean.” Bowie also borrowed something else from Vincent: In the ’60s, Vincent co-starred with Little Richard on a tour of the U.K., but his work permit didn’t come through so Vincent was only allowed to sing from the aisle rather than on stage. “Ludicrous but very exciting for us fans,” Bowie added. “At the time, Vincent had been wearing a leg brace, the result of a car accident. It meant that to crouch at the mic, as was his habit, he had to shove his injured leg out behind him to, what I thought, great theatrical effect. This rock stance became position No. 1 for the embryonic Ziggy.”
Toward the end of the album, Bowie finally offered the most detailed description of the hero with his “screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo.” The name “Ziggy” came from a tailor’s shop Bowie passed on the train one day, while “Stardust” came from a novelty sort of singer named Norman Carl Odam who went by the stage name the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. A singer named Vince Taylor who Bowie met in the ’60s also inspired the antics of Ziggy Stardust: “The guy was unbelievable. He had this six-day party once in some guy’s house, that just went on and on. Just the weirdest kind of creature,” Bowie told Q magazine in 1990. “And he always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock ’n’ roll. I’m not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both, probably. There was something very tempting about his going completely off the edge. Especially at my age then, it seemed very appealing: Oh, I’d love to end up like that, totally nuts.”
There are more Americanisms to be found in “Suffragette City,” plus various other cultural references: “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” was taken from the title of a song on jazz musician Charles Mingus’ 1962 album Oh Yeah, and the lyric “droogie don’t crash here” came from the teen slang in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. “I liked the malicious kind of malevolent, viscous quality of those four guys [in A Clockwork Orange],” Bowie recalled in 1993, “although the aspects of violence themselves didn’t turn me on particularly. … Even the inset photographs of the inside sleeve for Ziggy owed a lot to the Malcolm McDowell look from the poster — the sort of sinister-looking photograph somewhere between a beetle, not a Beatle person, but a real beetle and violence.” Bowie first offered the song to Mott the Hoople, but they turned it down and explained they were planning on breaking up. Bowie insisted they not do so and wrote “All the Young Dudes” for them instead.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
Often performed as the encore on the Ziggy Stardust tour, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” serves as the epic conclusion for Ziggy, whose death comes at the hands of his fans. Bowie had a couple of James Brown songs from 1963’s Live at the Apollo on the brain when he wrote the song. “Brown’s Apollo performance still stands for me as one of the most exciting live albums ever,” he told Vanity Fair in 2003.
Bowie later proposed making Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars into stage play during a Rolling Stone interview with author William Burroughs. “When the infinites [starmen] arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world,” Bowie said in 1974, “and they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.’ As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today.”
The play – and the character – were ultimately shelved. Bowie admitted that he’d delved so deeply into Ziggy Stardust’s persona that it became almost too much to bear. He was struggling to detach himself from his creation. At one point, Bowie even confided to Bob Dylan that he planned to retire after the Ziggy-themed tour concluded – though Dylan encouraged him to reconsider. “It became very dangerous,” Bowie told Melody Maker. “I really did have doubts about my sanity. I can’t deny that the experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself very dangerously near the line – not in physical sense but definitively in mental sense.”
In doing so, however, Bowie crafted more than just an album’s worth of songs that remain some of his most lauded recordings: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars created a new world to live in. “A song has to take on character, shape, body and influence people to an extent that they use it for their own devices,” Bowie said to Burroughs. “It must affect them not just as a song, but as a lifestyle.”
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