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Ziggy Stardust at 50

  • July 1, 2022
  • 5 min read
Ziggy Stardust at 50

David Bowie

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

16 June 1972 RCA Records

The Spiders from Mars, Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey 

Co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott 

Ziggy Stardust’s 50th Birthday

To say that I make no apology for a second Bowie article in three months is disingenuous. It is an apology. I’ve been thinking about Ziggy’s 50th since Rubber Soul’s half century in 2015.

A tale grew in the telling. You’ve probably heard a version. John McEnroe learning the riff from Rebel Rebel in a hotel room. The original axe-man, Bowie himself (unusually assuming lead guitar duties), is woken and elects to tutor his yet unknown struggling neighbour. Asked about the veracity, McEnroe says, “not that old story, it’s a load of rubbish … it was Suffragette City.” You want it to be true and the protagonists both tell similar versions. 

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at 50 has come around quickly enough. There isn’t much left to be said about Ziggy Stardust. If Aladdin Sane became what Bowie described as Ziggy goes to America, and failed to kill off the alter-ego that threatened to engulf Bowie himself, then that was achieved by the covers coda of Pin Ups, Plastic Soul of Young Americans, the dark nihilism of Diamond Dogs, the Thin White Duke of Station To Station, itself the prelude for the Berlin trilogy, Low “Heroes” and Lodger, and culminating with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Taken together this unparalleled run preserved Ziggy Stardust in amber, flamboyant, cohesive, innocent, with the naïve knowingness of adolescence. 

Ziggy Stardust is feted today because it is rightly associated with the emerging gay rights movements of the late sixties and seventies, challenging the homophobia that contributed to the destruction of a war hero (Alan Turing), and contemporary scandals, including the fall of Jeremy Thorpe, and who knows what private miseries. Ziggy Stardust stands out as an iconic statement, celebrating diversity, and perhaps it deserves its status in Rock folklore as the outstanding protest album against inherited prejudices of the past. 

Musically Ziggy Stardust sits neatly alongside the other Spiders albums (in chronological order, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups (at a stretch)) and one might argue that its status now the albums are all 50, or in their very late forties, is more socio-political than artistic, in that the others are either arguably better (in the case of TMWSTW) or very nearly as good; except Pin Ups which isn’t bad. Can an album’s reputation be so great that its legacy transcends mediocre songs? The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is recognized as a recording milestone but is matched by the other big three Beatles albums Rubber Soul, Revolver and Abbey Road. Only Pepper caught the zeitgeist, but it wouldn’t be revered without a strong lineup including A Day in the Life.

If the Berlin Trilogy redefined music, Ziggy Stardust styled much of Punk and the New Wave, the New Romantics, all of Blitz, and most of what followed. Bowie said that Ziggy was named after a clothes store and its similarity to Iggy (Pop) so the influence on fashion was prophetic. Ziggy Stardust’s seismic contribution to homophobia’s death knell could never have been predicted.

The story of Ziggy Stardust saw all the fates aligned. With the lead single Starman (surprisingly enough, a last-minute contribution), Bowie’s life changed and he would never know life away from the limelight, and the most intense scrutiny. The killing off of Ziggy Stardust seemed to become an all too real evocation of Bowie’s decline, by the mid-seventies painfully expressed in the emaciated form of the Thin White Duke. Bowie himself struggled to understand where Ziggy’s persona ended, and his own reality began. Like the Ziggy Stardust era itself, which lasted for less than two years, the post Ziggy era ended quickly enough. 

Biographical detail is only of so much interest and less relevance to artistic appreciation. It is relevant to an assessment of Ziggy Stardust, because Ziggy’s legacy has been enhanced by the conflation with Bowie’s own personality, even though Bowie’s rejection of the Ziggy Stardust character was ultimately successful, or perhaps because it was successful. 

So much for social influence and Art in Context. Ziggy Stardust wouldn’t have aged so well without the music. Few albums have such killer tracks as Five Years (many say Bowie’s best).  There is a humility to all Bowie’s experimentation, epitomized by the clapping rhythm section in Soul Love. Bowie and Steve Reich (Clapping Music (1972)) were to revisit each other’s influence over the years, culminating with The New Day (2016). Fans argue whether Ziggy’s version of Moonage Daydream is eclipsed by the extended Prog Rock version on David Live; each is outstanding. Starman was the breakthrough, burying Bolan’s one-hit-wonder (Space Oddity) teasing. Lady Stardust, said to be inspired by Wilde’s Lord Alfred Douglas, closes side one, while side two’s denouement features Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City and Rock’n’Roll Suicide. None of the others are fillers. The sleeve notes are unusually accurate. All these tracks respond to the exhortation “To Be Played at Maximum Volume”.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is rightly hailed as a milestone in diversity. It couldn’t have achieved immortal status with being a great work of art. Happy birthday Ziggy. They’ll still be lauding you when you’re a hundred.

Image: Jamie via Flickr

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Douglas Shanks

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