“Borrowed Ziggy Stardust”
Reading and realising the significance of this diary entry staggered me.
What it means is that DESPITE having seen Bowie on tour a few months earlier, I had STILL NOT actually bought his “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars” album.
I borrowed it to commit it, merely, to tape. How considerably LAME is that?
I am especially horrified because this album, probably moreso than any other, is one that I grew to know inside out, start-to-finish, every nuance, note and lyric.
It is, to me, the consumate, most complete, Bowie album in his vast cannon of work.
Supposedly presenting the ‘story’ of an alien trying to warn the world of impending doom, the Ziggy Stardust character descends into a seedy world of promiscuity and drugs, and is eventually destroyed by his rabid fans.
“Five Years” kicks proceedings off with that mournful single drumbeat whilst the lyrics tells us that “earth was really dying” and we have the titular amount of time left.
“Soul Love” tries to document the various kinds of love that exist in the world; spiritual, romantic, grief, etc. I have always adored the line “love is careless in its choosing” which suggests both destiny and fate have an impact on who we find as a soul mate.
“Moonage Daydream” starts with Mick Ronson’s fierce guitar riff and introduces the listener to the ‘space invader” (Ziggy Stardust) who is enticing doomed humans to “press your space face close to mine love” and “freak out in a moonage daydream“. What has always made this song special for me is the baritone sax solo in the middle.
“Starman” is perhaps famous for originally NOT being on this album, Bowie having to be persuaded to add it after it was felt by his producers and the record label there was no “hit single” amongst the tracklisting. Bowie has changed his take on the meaning of “Starman” as a chapter in the whole Ziggy story over the years but the general consensus seems to be that it was the song Ziggy played – via some kind of intergalactic radio – to inspire people to follow him into outer space and escape the doomed planet Earth. Some, apparently, don’t hear the words, mooting “that weren’t no DJ that was hazy cosmic jive“. It’s almost impossible – maybe even criminal – NOT to love lyrics like that isn’t it?
“It Ain’t Easy” closes Side 1, and is a (space) oddity in its own right. Not only is it not one of Bowie’s own compositions (it was written several years earlier by American blues songwriter Ron Davies) it seems to have no relevance whatsoever to the album’s concept or storyline.
The song had already been recorded by artists such as Long John Baldry and Three Dog Night, but in the ultimate example of ‘THAT’s weird!’ Dave Edmunds recorded a version of the song on his 1972 Rockpile album… which was released at almost the same time as Ziggy Stardust!
Side 2 starts with what is generally felt is Bowie’s homage to fellow glam-rocker Marc Bolan; “Lady Stardust” (Allegedly, a demo version exists entitled “A Song for Marc”). Regardless, it remains a beautifully-executed acoustic ballad about a strangely androgynous pop star, returning us, albeit obliquely, to the ‘alien’ theme of the storyline.
“Star” is driven by boogie-woogie piano and Mick Ronson’s (again) fierce guitar work, with Ziggy making a “transformation” into “a rock n’ roll star”
“Hang Onto Yourself” should always be played as loud as your speakers (or ears) will allow. The guitar work is wicked and I find it almost impossible NOT to stamp my feet along with the rhythm every single time I hear it. Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols is on record admitting that their riff for “God Save the Queen” was partially stolen from Ronson’s on “Hang Onto Yourself”
“Ziggy Stardust” – as the name suggests – is the pivotal song in the album’s surreal concept. It is often reported that Bowie initially wrote this as a tribute to early English Rock & Roll legend Vince Taylor (of Vince Taylor & the Playboys) who achieved massive success in the early 60’s before plummeting into obscurity as a result of severe drug abuse. However, other resources suggest the lyrics are merely Bowie’s vague acknowledgement of several ‘musical messiahs’, most specifically Jimi Hendrix (…”he played it left hand, but made it to far“)
As far as the story goes, “Ziggy Stardust” would seem to – in just one song – plot both the rise and the fall of the Ziggy character, going from “we were ziggy’s band” to “when the kids had killed the man, we had to break up the band” in just a handful of stanzas.
“Suffragette City” may just be one of my favourite Bowie songs. Maybe even THE favourite? It has just SO much energy and verve, the synthesized sax, guitar, piano and drums all fighting one another for your aural attention, whilst Bowie purely croons over the top. That “Wham Bam Thank You Maam” break (a throwaway lyric stolen from an old Charlie Mingus album) is as thrilling to me now as it was when I first heard it in 1973, likewise the hyper-sexual “… she said she had to squeeze it, then she.. and then she…”
There’s ongoing rumours that Bowie initially offered this song to Mott the Hoople to help them out of the awful financial difficulties they were in at the start of 1972, but that it was rejected by Ian Hunter. Undeterred, Bowie sat down and wrote them “All the Young Dudes” instead!
The album’s finale is the anthemic and ultra-dramatic “Rock n’Roll Suicide” where Ziggy becomes little more than a washed-up rock star, trying in vain to engage his fading audience. I often wonder how many funerals this song has been played at, its “take my hands, you’re wonderful“, “I’ll help you with the pain” and “You’re not alone” all representing – at least to me – cries both to and from the assembled mourners.
It’s the perfect finish to – to my ears anyway – a perfect album. 38½ minutes of sheer brilliance. I’ve never tired of listening to it, either in segments or its entirety. I have to say that I’ve never really ‘fallen for’ the whole space alien plot thingie, feeling it to be something of a distraction to what are, otherwise, a great set of songs. (I have presented an interpretation of them above without huge levels of any thought if I’m being honest)
I am mortally embarrassed by my admission that I initially only recorded the album, especially when recent entries have suggested that I DID pay money for a couple of LP’s of utter rubbish by Uriah Heep and Procol Harum!
“The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars” was first released on 6th June 1972. It went on to reach #5 in the UK album chart and a paltry #75 in the American chart. Over the years it has appeared consistently in “best albums ever” polls, usually in the top half of the listings.
It has never been out my own personal Top 10.
Back in 2006, Mark, a friend of a friend here in Northern Kentucky informed me that he and his band, Leisure, would be performing the “Ziggy Stardust” album in its entirety at local indie venue, the Southgate House. It was a mere $5 to get in and I have to say it ranks amongst the best five bucks I have ever spent since moving stateside.
The band all dressed up in glitter and glam and VERY enthusiastically and respectfully covered the album – in its original playing order – from start to finish. I sat up on the balcony with a few whisky and cokes thoroughly enjoying and revelling in every single minute of the performance. It’s testament to the band – but not to my shitty memory – that I can remember MORE about that night than seeing Bowie perform Ziggy etc on stage at the Southampton Guildhall in 1973.
Owning Ziggy Stardust should be mandatory for all fans of popular music. Even 15-year-old pirates in 1973! Shame on me!