‘Ziggy Stardust’ – 40 years on.

Posted: May 22, 2012 in 70s, david bowie, marcbolan, pop

bowie and spiders

 

Absurd really.

A man pretending to be a bi-sexual space alien, five years before the end of the world, makes it big as a rock star and then at the end of his fame, commits suicide. That is the basic idea of David Bowie’s ‘The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. How did it happen and how did a generation of young dudes fall for the hammy and extremely contrived persona of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust?

Well, it was the 70s. And like most places in the past it is a  foreign country now. This was a country of economic gloom, post-sixties epicurean comedown, post-Beatles, post optimism. And pop music was being re-born again, this time around, dressed in satin and tat. Marc Bolan had signalled it was tongue in cheek party time, with his sexually infused blues pop and glitter under his eyes. He made Top of the Pops something worth watching again.

So, mid 1972 and the freak party that was Glam rock, was in full swing, with Marc Bolan at the centre of it all…well, that is, until Bowie came along.

Except Bowie’s glam rock party was taking place in an end of the world setting: ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was a pretty gloomy affair, when you think about it…

Bowie’s pessimistic take on culture was one of those zeitgeist defining moments. He would often refer to himself in interviews as ‘an actor’ and ‘ a Xerox machine’. His ironic detachment made his Ziggy Stardust persona a Grand Pop Experiment. It appealed to the teeny boppers who dug T.Rex, but also the ‘heads’ into progressive rock. Hey man, ‘Ziggy’ was a concept album after all…well, kind of. It was also an escapist fantasy ride, a diversion from the IRA bombings and terrorist-threat atmosphere of the early 70s.

But of course, I was blissfully unaware of all this at the time. Like most kids and teenagers, I lived in the sensation of the moment.

I had just turned 13 in June 1972. I was already reading the music press like New Musical Express (not yet, ‘NME’) ‘Sounds’ and ‘Melody Maker’.  I was aware of David Bowie of course, because of ‘Starman’, a recent hit. I was taken by its camp ( I didn’t even know what the word meant then) aura and its sci-fi vibe, being a Star Trek and Dr.Who child of the space age sixties. Bowie tapped into my on-the-brink-of –teenage-psyche, as he did for millions of others. ‘Starman’ was also a great tune with a chorus that soared, not unlike ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’. Plus it had that great boogie chug on the ‘la la la’ play out.

Shit!

I didn’t see the Old Grey Whistle Test appearances, heralding the arrival of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, in around early 1972. But I DID see Bowie on a late afternoon pop programme for kids called ‘Lift off with Ayshea Brough’. This was when ‘Starman’ was not yet a hit. I asked my friends if they had seen this ‘weird bloke singing this weird song’ as I broadcast it to my school mates. They hadn’t seen it. I felt like someone who had seen a UFO, and found it hard to relate it back to reality bound terrestrials. If someone had told me he was indeed, Martian, I probably would have believed them.

The next I knew, aided by airplay by the unlikely Bowie champion of Radio One’s Tony Blackburn, Bowie was on Top of the Pops; that famous arm with the calculated limp wrist, adorned with bangles, draped around guitarist Mick Ronson. (thinking of it now, Bowie’s ‘gay persona’ was more Danny La Rue end of the pier camp than anything)

It was the appearance that made your ICI process worker Dad, squirm.

(Interestingly, a couple of years ago, I played this famous TV appearance via youtube to a class of Year 8 kids (ages 12-13) and their response was to laugh at it – they just thought he looked silly and funny)

Everyone was talking about him now. The perception at the time was that he was some kind of novelty – but reading the music press, now gushing about his singular talent- it became apparent that this was man who was about to become huge.

If only Middlesbrough Town Hall had reflected this, when Bowie played there as Ziggy, in June 1972. It was apparently only two thirds full, the Teesside macho rock ‘n’ blues contingent perhaps too embarrassed to attend a concert by a man in a Japanese designed jump-suit and a jock strap, who sang vaguely gay themed pop songs such as ‘Lady Stardust’. (‘People stared at the makeup on his face / laughed at his long black hair/his animal grace’)

I remember seeing the advert for the tour in the music press. Bowie was drawn as a cartoon character and the tag line on the advert read: ‘David Bowie IS Ziggy Stardust’. I had read about the amazing show he put on and desperately wanted to go. I was now buying any publication with Bowie in it, absorbing his interviews and being totally entranced by his image.

I begged my cousin to take me to the gig, but she was more of a Tamla girl and not really interested in strange insectoid men with bright red hair. In her opinion, he was ‘probably a bum chum of that other talentless freak, Marc Bolan’ (well, she was from Middlesbrough, remember and she was strangely accurate in one way)

So alas, I did not attend this gig – my parents would not let me go on my own, possibly fearing I would be abducted by drug addled homosexuals, who would convert me to a life of debauchery and start quoting Oscar Wilde. And so, the Ziggy Stardust stage show passed me by, much to my eternal regret.

I did not even own a copy of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ until the following year. The copy I heard, and tried to hang onto as long as I could, belonged to an older brother of a school friend of mine.

But how I remember playing that album. It was a teenage bedroom moment: my imagination stolen away by the opening track: ‘Five Years’. The soft pitter patter of the drums fading in;  it was the musical equivalent of curtains being raised, when Bowie sang ‘Pushing through the market square…so many mothers sighing’…and then there was that weird echo repeat on the last word of the line, making it sound like he was walking through empty city streets at night. It conjured to mind visions of clockwork orange droogies stalking deserted alleyways. (Another influence on Bowie was this film: it is not hard to see that he based the Ziggy and the Spiders outfits on the droogie characters, except making them into ‘cosmic yobs’ as Bowie called himself at the time)

Ziggy Stardust had arrived, and his tenure for me, was to be a life long duration.

For someone who pored over the lyrics of Marc Bolan, I think that by the third track into ‘Ziggy Stardust’, I was aware that Bowie was a talent operating on a much higher creative plane than Marc Bolan. Sure, Bolan was my first major musical crush, and his weirdo pop still haunts me today, but with Bowie it was something else entirely.

Bowie’s songs took unexpected turns that made the hairs on the back of my neck raise. The play-out of ‘Moonage Daydream’ sounded like a band being transported into warp drive deep space. The bridge on ‘Soul Love’ delighted and surprised, and this was uplifting, life-affirming music too. The ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ show stopping moment in ‘Suffragette City’ was another ‘wow’ moment on the record. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was a great album because it had great tunes, great hooks, as well as being the compelling work of a pop art imagination.

The closing track ‘Rock ‘n roll suicide’ was simply amazing to my fresh teenage ears at the time. The whole song is a psycho drama, climaxing in the audience of the mind plea of ‘gimme your hands! You’re not alone!’ Instantly, I wanted to be in that audience. And I was.

I had no idea why I was responding to the emotional resonance of the album, because it was a strange, sexually ambiguous atmosphere that emanated from the grooves of the record – but that is what it was: emotional. Despite Bowie’s ironic detachment from his subject matter, despite his claims in interviews to ‘being a bit of an ice man’ – this was emotional music and it lodged itself into my mind like a kind of bomb. It blew my mind to listen to ‘Ziggy Stardust’ at the time, in other words.

Now, the stench of the familiar and the over-played, has given the album the aura of being a period piece – a kind of ‘Sgt Pepper’ of the Glam rock era in Pop music.

But on the right day, the opening power chords of ‘Moonage Daydream’ still manage to jettison me back to that initial thrill, that euphoric moment of ‘what the hell is this?’ excitement.

The jangly intro to the title track ‘Ziggy Stardust’ still gives me an excited flutter in the stomach. The way the song unveils its vignette of a rock star ‘killed by the kids’ still takes me on a journey, if I let go and remember how I used to feel as a young teenager.

The barely pausing for breath near segue from ‘Ziggy’ to ‘Suffragette City’ is still one of the most exciting pieces of track sequencing on any album. The Who-like power chords are traditional, yet the synths on the track give it a futuristic flavour. Droogie rock ‘n’ roll is what it was. You can imagine Alex and his friends getting reading for a night out of ultra-violence to this track.

Bowie of course, went on to make decade defining music after Ziggy. (In fact he was already doing this with the two albums before ‘Ziggy’ – ‘The man who sold the world’ and ‘Hunky Dory’ – but nobody but a tiny minority of hipsters were listening then)

I am not going to use this piece to go into pretentious piffle about how Glam rock was a kind of social and sexual revolution (it wasn’t – it was mostly a Top of the Pops phenomenon and collision of effete cross-sexual fashion meets post- Warhol rock ‘n’ roll sensibility)

(Now that’s pretentious – I can’t help it, can I?)

I would however, like to simply say that ‘Ziggy Stardust’ still sounds like a tremendous achievement of the pop imagination and that the songs – after all the space alien drag act hype – still stand up today, forty years after its release in 1972.

And let us not forget: discovering Bowie was a world that led to other rock ‘n’ roll outsiders like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, hitherto, unknown to most. Bowie brought the perceived rock ‘n’ roll losers out into the mainstream and basically initiated some kind of weirdo ball that was to cast its long shadow up to and including Punk: which when you think about it, was as much about the art of self re-invention as Bowie’s ‘Ziggy’ was.

But now I am stating the obvious.

Awwwwwwwww….

Wham bam thank you ma’am!

Happy 40th birthday, Ziggy Stardust.

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