The Rise of David Bowie and a Starman From The SkySep 14th, 2015 | By Jim Laugelli | Category: All Things Reconsidered, Reviews
Changes. No musician has embraced that concept more than David Bowie. His career has seen him release new material throughout the past six decades, a feat few musicians have equaled. Fewer still come close to the number of transformations he has gone through in both persona and music. Such a long and distinguished career filled with multiple shifts in style and approach is bound to divide fans over their favorite eras. Whatever your preferred period, it’s fair to say nearly all of Bowie’s alter ego personas holds something of intrinsic musical value.
There are many periods of Bowie’s musical journey that appeal to me, but the most captivating of them all is the one that introduced a particular space alien rock star to the public eye.The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, blasted onto the rock and roll world in 1972 and brought with it a velvet goldmine (pun intended) of new ideas and notions of what a rock band could do and be.
The album, while sometimes considered a concept album, is really a collection of similarly themed songs about stardom: the desire to gain it, and the destruction that can follow. Creating the character of a space alien allowed Bowie to stretch beyond the common rock star image and invite a broader view, one more subversive and iconoclastic. Still, none of that matters without strong songs, and on that point The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars is filled with incredibly powerful songs.
Each of Bowie’s previous releases held inklings of what would be wholly developed on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars. Taking the spaceman/alien idea from Space Oddity, the more hard-edge rocking numbers from The Man Who Sold the World, and the androgynous pop stylings of Hunky Dory, which was his most fully realized album to that point and a master work in itself, Bowie forged a dynamically fresh sound that in effect created a new zeitgeist in rock and roll.
The opening track, “Five Years” introduces the theme of caution. The song begins with a drum pattern as guitar, bass and piano is layered on top while the vocals inform us of earth’s coming death. Bowie’s voice, a beautiful croon full of desperation and intensity, is perfectly matched by the song’s continuous crescendo, culminating with a wonderful string arrangement as Bowie frantically asserts, “Five Years, that’s all we’ve got” before finally fading out to the starting drum pattern once again. This song certainly goes down as one of rock’s greatest opening tracks. The next track, “Soul Love” is an acoustic driven tune enhanced by a ghostly background chorus. On the chorus Mick Ronson, grinds out some gritty chords and riffing on electric guitar while Bowie’s sax solo, though nothing significant, nonetheless effectively sets the right mood. This is followed by what has become, rightfully so, a true classic.
“Moonage Daydream” hits all the right buttons when it comes to defining the glam rock sound. It possesses a rich blend of acoustic and electric instrumentation. The guitars are crunchy, the bass drives it, the drums provide a steady beat, piano adds an elegance to it, and most of all it swishes and swings with deliberate flamboyance. The opening lyrics, “I’m an alligator/I’m a mama-papa coming to you/I’m the space invader/I’ll be a rock ’n’ rollin bitch for you/Keep your mouth shut/you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird/and I’m busting up my brains for the words,” make pretty clear Bowie is not interested in repeating the usual rock ‘n’ roll lyrical tropes, opting instead for an anti-macho stance while still delivering a strong powerful rock song.
As the album was nearing completion there were concerns from RCA executives about the need to have a strong single. “Starman” would be Bowie’s response. The song tells the story of a cosmic rock ’n’ roll alien waiting for the moment to reveal himself and blow our minds. The story closely parallels Bowie’s own desire to break out. “Starman” would be the first single released from the album. It debuted on Top Of The Pops in April 1972 and in fact really did blow the minds of many kids, and probably sent many parents into a nervous tizzy. The song is chiefly a ballad, utilizing once more that exquisite blend of acoustic and electric guitars. Before the chorus kicks in there is a phasing of guitar and piano that creates what sounds like a musical morse code. It’s a signal to the kids of earth informing them of something new on the horizon or perhaps over the rainbow. The vocal melody of the chorus as Bowie sings, “There’s a Starman waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/but he thinks he’d blow our minds,” clearly alludes to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” suggesting that what lies waiting in the sky is a technicolor world. But what really blew the minds of the British public at the time was the visuals that accompanied the TOTP performance. If the band decked out in A Clockwork Orange-styled futuristic regalia, and Bowie’s hair — he long flowing blonde from the cover of Hunky Dory now dyed a bright red and sheared short — was an invitation to something new, it was nothing compared to the moment in the performance when Bowie so casually yet suggestively drapes his arm on Ronson’s shoulder. This was the shocking act that struck like a thunderbolt into the heart of the viewing public, recoiling parents and electrifying teenagers. It would also provide Bowie with his first major hit since “Space Oddity” and send The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars into the top 5 upon its release in June 1972.
Side 1 ends with a cover of Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy.” This was a popular song covered by several artists at the time. While the song is good and Bowie does a fine job with it, I find it to be an odd inclusion on the album, especially when a song like “Velvet Goldmine” had been recorded but left off the album. It is the only misfire on the entire album.
Another gorgeous ballad, “Lady Stardust,” opens Side 2. Bowie’s friend and adversary, Marc Bolan, is generally considered to be the model for the lyrics of “Lady Stardust.” Bowie and Bolan were simultaneously following a similar path littered with velvet and glitter, but Bolan, with his band T.Rex, was already enjoying success with a number of hits. Certainly Bowie saw this as a challenge and inspiration. Additionally, Bowie references The Velvet Underground with the lyrics, “Femme fatales emerged from shadows/to watch this creature fair,” no doubt an acknowledgement of that band’s influence on him as well. The music on “Lady Stardust” is guided by Ronson’s piano playing, a delicate and touching performance reminiscent of Elton John. The following track, “Star,” is a bit of a rave-up number. It’s driven by some pounding piano and a lot of bluster. With its background vocals of “sha-ya-ya-ya” it has an almost nostalgic feel to it as it speeds along. The tempo is kept apace on the next track. “Hang On To Yourself,” is another hard driving number featuring some solid bass playing and nice slide guitar.
By the time we get to the album’s namesake song we have been glittered, glamoured and velvet primed. The opening chords of “Ziggy Stardust” ring out in declaration as Bowie’s voice fades up with a “oh yeah” followed by an “ah” before announcing that “Ziggy played guitar.” It’s a song filled with power, attack and determination matched by the ego-driven lyrics about this “leper messiah.” It’s not only a definitive glam tune, it’s an all-out rock classic. The following number, “Suffragette City,” is another hard-rocking classic. Once again pounding piano, crunching guitars and a gnarly Ronson solo make it an aggressive and explosive feast culminating with a false ending before Bowie delivers the exemplar glam lyrics, “Wham bam, thank you ma’am” only to have the band return in full force for another chorus. The album closer, “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide,” is a beautiful ballad made all the more poignant when Bowie decided to kill off his Ziggy character in 1973. The song details the undoing of a rock ’n’ roll figure whose star has been exhausted. The song builds with acoustic guitar slowly aided by horns and strings as it reaches its climax with Bowie crying out in desperation, “Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone (wonderful)/Gimme your hands ‘cause you’re wonderful (wonderful)/Oh gimme your hands.” Is the cry an affirmation to carry on or an invitation to let go? Perhaps both.
Creating characters to inhabit is not an uncommon trait in rock ’n’roll. Whether building a concept album around a character or simply adopting a stage persona, many rock figures have done so and continue to do so. Few, however, have incorporated such characters into their life so completely as David Bowie. He is conceivably rock’s foremost method actor. As such it is not surprising that after touring as Ziggy Stardust for more than a year with few breaks, Bowie was feeling consumed and burnt out with his creation. What better way to end it than to follow through with the rock ’n’ roll suicide note that ended the seminal album. And so on the final gig of his tour, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3,1973 before the encore of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” Bowie/Ziggy announces that this performance will be “the last show we’ll ever do.” So completely had Bowie assimilated Ziggy, that nearly everyone presumed this meant David Bowie himself was retiring from music. The truth was, he just wanted to move forward and find other exciting areas of music and characters to create.
From today’s point of view it’s likely that the character of Ziggy Stardust seems a bit tame. Forty-plus years of rock history can do that. We all smile at how shocking it was when Elvis Presley shook his hips, or how outraged folks were by the hair length of the Beatles. Ziggy Stardust/David Bowie was just as scandalous, at least to those less progressive. But for those of us who revel in such outrageous acts, Ziggy was a breath of fresh air, exciting, daring and provocative — precisely what was needed at that moment in the history of rock. And yet what makes this phase of Bowie’s career most enduring is not simply the glitter and glam, the make-up and costumes; indeed, what makes this album so timeless and lasting is the quality of the music. It is an extraordinary album, masterfully written, with first-rate performances. In short, a masterpiece.