Released fifty years ago last month, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’, thankfully commonly shortened to simple ‘Ziggy Stardust’, is likely David Bowie’s most famous album, persona, and spawned his best known songs. As instantly recognisable an album as it is, and as iconic as Bowie of that era has become, there is still plenty to be said about the depth and craft that went into the album’s creation. Here we celebrate an almost universally revered album that itself celebrates the power of music in a way that, impressively, never hints at mawkishness.
As David Bowie’s fifth album, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was released once he was already a household name. Previous album, ‘Hunky Dory’ dropped just six months before ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and peaked at number three in the UK charts while 1970’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ missed out on the top twenty by just one place. Initial recording for ‘Ziggy Stardust’ began almost immediately after the sessions for ‘Hunky Dory’ were completed, with keyboardist Rick Wakeman leaving to join Yes, but the rest of the band largely intact. Recording predominant as a live band, many tracks were fully formed in just one or two takes with Bowie giving clear direction throughout. However, in spite of the efficient recording sessions, RCA executive Dennis Katz, who has just signed Bowie to a three album deal, felt there were no standout tracks ready to run as lead single. To this end, Bowie penned ‘Starman’ and the beginning of a loose central theme began to take shape. Accentuating this point it’s worth noting that, quite incredibly, alongside ‘Starman’ both ‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ were written in the final couple of days of the sessions. Once a collection of tracks were laid down the concept of the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ story began to take form and work began on programming the track order, cutting tracks that didn’t fit the narrative, and adding some judicious rewrites to help smooth the flow, particularly on ‘Moonage Daydream’ and ‘Star’. The result is a concept album often considered a rock opera but that is instead closer to a series of interrelated vignettes given some semblance of narrative thanks to carefully considered programming. Thus, the now famous character of Ziggy Stardust was created through an incremental process rather than as a grand vision.
Opening with slow building percussion before piano chords join, ‘Five Years’ introduces the concept that the earth has five years left and acts as a valediction to the wonderful strangeness of humanity as piano is joined by strings in a building swell. Soon, however, a saviour appears in the shape of Ziggy Stardust as he is introduced in ‘Moonage Dreaming’; “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa comin’ for you. I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you” as four distorted electric guitar chords see him land before acoustic guitar riffing takes over. This switch suggests he almost becomes more organic as soon as he lands, lending the lyrics “I’m a space invader”, which occur immediately after the switch, an air of mystery, contradiction, and humour.
Next up is that late addition to the album, ‘Starman’, where the narrator hears the titular starman, Ziggy Stardust, playing on the radio and using his music to inspire the world. While it’s easy to see the real-world Bowie self-referencing in this track as he debates on whether to release the androgynous Ziggy Stardust character on the world, it’s also clearly a carefully crafted narrative device allowing the following tracks to let loose and eschew some of the rigidity of the concept.
From there on until the title track each song essentially showcases Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders From Mars band performing for the world. It’s here that the idea of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ as a true concept album with a clear narrative gets shaky. Instead, the album is a world builder, crafting an idea of a character and allowing the audience to fill in the persona where the songs don’t necessarily overtly need to. Most notable of this section is ‘Hang On To Yourself’, a proto-Punk song that channels the same Chuck Berry influences as would later be found mined for all its worth by everyone from The Ramones and Sex Pistols onwards. More interestingly, Bowie has always been candid of his admiration, and near infatuation, with Iggy Pop in this period with the name Ziggy Stardust even being a loose play on Bowie’s favourite rocker. Just months after the release of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ Bowie would mix the Iggy and the Stooges album ‘Raw Power’ and while that band were always so much more than rough edged Chuck Berry derivatives, their brand of loose, hyped up, bare-bones rock can be clearly felt at this point in the Ziggy Stardust soundscape.
Alongside ‘Starman’, the closing three tracks are likely the best known on the album. The title track delivers a moment of unadulterated Pop brilliance from the instantly recognisable Mick Ronson guitar riff (yes “Ziggy played guitar”, but Mick wrote it…!). An expert piece of mythologising, Bowie talks Ziggy, and by extension himself, up as the perfect Rock ‘n’ Roll star, while throwing slights at himself, his band, and his fans. Next up, ‘Suffragette City’ overtly draws on the Stooges sound and hints at the work Bowie and Ronson would do producing Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ just months later. In amongst some oft-misheard lyrics, Bowie delivers some iconic soundbites and Mick Ronson delivers another classic guitar riff (accompanied by a matching piano line that flawlessly fleshes out the sound).
Album closer ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ helps to draw the work back to its concept by offering something of a conclusion as Ziggy Stardust dies on stage, too young but also too old. In some ways it can be read as a death of the 60s ideal, something that Bowie designed Ziggy Stardust to help kill. It’s a slow, fractured track that through its stripped back nature feels all the more dramatic coming off the back of a pair of full-on rockers.
Unlike so much from the Classic Rock and Glam era, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was an outlier of its time and has in turn benefited greatly from that. It has dated far better than many of its stylistic contemporaries, partly because Bowie was unafraid to broach subjects others eschewed. While other songs of the era were commonly little more than double-entendres with a phallic preoccupation, Bowie referred to his androgynous character as both “he” and “she”, vividly referenced gay sex, and when on the title track he sang “making love with his ego”, he found the most eloquent way of calling himself ‘a bit of a wanker’. It’s ingratiating stuff delivered with wit and careful foresight and it has seen the album, and Bowie’s subsequent career and legacy, in very good stead. Alongside the wit and the artistic concept, enough cannot be said for the guitar work of Mick Ronson who laid down at least three classic guitar riffs that influenced the remaining eight years of the decade, from Glam through to Punk. Unlike those that followed in his wake, Bowie and his Spiders From Mars backing group were maximalist by default; doubling guitar riffs with piano, using acoustic guitar to produce chugging riffs that were warm and organic, and fleshing out a concept album from the thinnest of narratives. ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ is a true case of rock ‘n’ roll mythologising that, thanks to its delivery, and Bowie’s subsequent run of equally exceptional albums through the remainder of the decade, somehow managed to not only live up to the myth, but accentuate it over the years.