The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars
By the time Ziggy Stardust appeared in June of 1972, David Bowie already had issued a number of fantastic recordings, namely Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, and, of course, Hunky Dory (consider for a moment its incredible content: “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Kooks,” “Life On Mars,” “Queen Bitch,” et al.). But his fifth album took Bowie to another level, conceptually and otherwise. More than a fabulous example of glam rock, it's arguably one of the greatest rock albums ever produced, and it wouldn't be overstating it to describe its influence as incalculable. With Bowie accompanied by guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, and drummer Mick Woodmansey on the album's eleven songs, Ziggy Stardust is one of those rare instances when form and content came together beautifully, and the iconic album's brilliance is evident on multiple levels—arrangements, songwriting, vocal and band performances, stylistic diversity, and production (the album co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott). Rock music would never be the same after Ziggy.
One reason for the album's appeal lies, of course, in the Ziggy characterization and the bold visual concept Bowie devised for the project. The alien creature with the shag haircut and colourful jumpsuit inexplicably dropped onto a rainy London sidestreet was unlike anything seen before. I grew up listening to the album sans lyrics and was often mystified by what Bowie was singing. With lyrics included in the reissue, words that were once unintelligible now reveal themselves to be incredible couplets such as, “Keep your mouth shut, you're squawking like a pink monkey bird / And I'm busting up my brains for the words” (“Moonage Daydream”), “Femme fatales emerged from shadows / To watch this creature fair” (“Lady Stardust”), and “She wants my honey not my money, she's a funky-thigh collector / Layin' on ‘lectric dreams” (“Hang On To Yourself”). Adding to the project's mystique is that Ziggy's tenure was brief, as Bowie famously killed off the character at a July 3rd, 1973 concert at London's Hammersmith Odeon, and so too was the band's, as Bowie subsequently adopted a less band-centered approach on the albums that followed.
The album's pleasures are almost too plentiful to list. The majestic drama of the apocalyptic “Five Years” and the melancholy that infuses it are moving still, and powerful too are Bowie's impassioned vocal and Woodmansey's infamous drum pattern. In “Soul Love,” there's the seductive purr of Bowie's saxophone solo, the wordless background vocals, the clever tempo change, and Ronson's searing electric guitar. With its chugging guitar riff and handclaps, “Hang On To Yourself” plays like the greatest song T. Rex's Marc Bolan never wrote, and memorable too is the way Bowie spits out the words, “Well the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar / You're the blessed, we're the Spiders from Mars.” Part of what elevates the album is its range of emotion. There's jubilation but sadness, too, obviously in “Five Years” but also in the otherwise stately “Lady Stardust,” a song that becomes even more affecting in light of Bolan's premature death (reportedly the original demo of “Lady Stardust” was titled “He Was Alright (A Song for Marc)”). And while “Star” is primarily a fusion of glam rock and rockabilly (one could easily imagine Jerry Lee Lewis banging out the piano part), the song grows gentle during its coda. We would be remiss in not noting the magnificent “Starman” and “Rock ‘N' Roll Suicide,” too.
Bowie's unerring vocals are a pleasure throughout, even if one already hears traces of certain mannerisms that would take root on subsequent albums. Of course Ronson's guitar playing is fabulous in its own right; listen, for example, to the heavy riff that grounds “Moonage Daydream” and the freakout that follows, the seminal riff that opens “Ziggy Stardust,” and the buzz-saw swarm roaring through “Suffragette City.”
The fortieth anniversary edition is a two-disc affair, the first a CD featuring the original album and the second a DVD that includes the songs in 5.1 mix versions plus previously unreleased tracks (“The Supermen,” “Velvet Goldmine,” and “Sweet Head”). Though the reissue's been newly remastered by original album engineer Ray Staff, there's been some grumbling over the fact that the fortieth anniversary edition isn't the first to have appeared (there was a thirtieth, and one anticipates an inevitable fiftieth, too). Grumbling aside, it's remarkable how well this classic album holds up forty years after its release. Bowie would, of course, continue to transform modern music on Aladdin Sane, Station to Station, and Low, but there's no discounting the stroke of genius that is Ziggy Stardust.