Masterpiece Turntable : David Bowie – THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS

To be able to choose any one piece of art and definitively claim it as your favorite is not an easy task. Surely as one’s experiences and viewpoints change and shape their tastes, it would be nearly impossible to have a constant and unwavering list of such things. And yet, there are moments when one encounters a piece of work that makes such an unforgettable impression that imagining this proverbial list without its inclusion seems simply unfathomable. In my case, such an impactful moment came upon my discovery of David Bowie’s 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Thinking back on it today, it’s funny that this hugely defining moment for me came as casually as buying a CD on little more than an impulse. The year was 2004 and my adolescent head was still reeling from the game-changing powerhouse of Green Day’s American Idiot (which is undoubtedly a masterpiece of an album in its own right, but… well, we’ll save that for another time). At the time, I was entranced by that album, and I made an effort to catch any television appearance that the band had made. One of these instances came when a channel called Fuse aired an interview special on the band entitled 100% Green Day.

At one point in the program, the band was asked about which albums they considered to be the most impactful on rock music today. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong answered “I’m gonna say Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I like how it goes into different characters. It’s all androgynous and stuff and uh… I dunno, I think it changed rock music and things to come after that.” As he said this and images of Bowie’s album cover scrolled across the screen, something must’ve clicked in my subconscious because the upon my next trip to the record store, I headed straight over to the yellow marker that read “David Bowie” and flipped through the CDs until I found the portrait of the blue jumpsuit-clad Bowie equipped with an electric guitar on the side of a dimly -lit street. I have to say, it was probably the wisest impulse-purchase I ever made.

There are many facets to appreciate within the context of Ziggy Stardust. For starters, there is surely a storyline that pervades each of the songs in the track list. (At the start of the album, a picture is painted of a world on the brink of apocalypse due to dwindling resources. In the following tracks, the extraterrestrial Ziggy Stardust, a self-proclaimed rock-messiah who believes himself to be a prophet, comes to Earth in an attempt to send a message of hope to the doomed inhabitants of the planet. He rises quickly to super-stardom with his rock band ‘The Spiders from Mars,’ but through the excesses of his fame, he soon meets his demise.) However, it would be somewhat inaccurate to say that the concept here exists in the same way that it would on a much more narrative-driven album such as The Who’s Tommy.

In fact, while many things are easy to understand within the scope of the album, there are plenty more details and plot points which are (perhaps intentionally) vague in the piece. Rather than being a fault against the album, I feel that perhaps this contributes to some of the album’s appeal. While the beginning and the end of the record are undoubtedly clear in their contributions to the story, each listener can interpret the material between these points in any way that makes sense to them. Considering that, it’s easy to see how Ziggy has kept this unique sense of mystique throughout its life.

Of course, it would be impossible to discuss this record without bringing to light one of the most oddly elusive personas in the history of popular music, Ziggy Stardust. According to Bowie, Ziggy was an amalgamation of a number of people including rock musician Vince Taylor (who had once made remarks to an audience about being the living embodiment of a Biblical figure), another musician called The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and of the droogies in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. The result of which is one of the most alluring and intriguing characters that has come to exist in the medium of rock and roll.

The brilliance that lies in Bowie’s embodiment of Ziggy is how he manages to bring to life a character who can be at once so bizarre and flamboyant, and yet entirely elegant. With the one-piece jumpsuits, hair dyed bright red, a distinct lack of eyebrows (at least in the latter incarnation of the Ziggy style) and markedly slender build, I expect that any other musician would look absolutely laughable. However in the hands of David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust came to life with his own unidentified sort of style and class. The impact of which endlessly remains unmatched.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is an album with an intriguing persona taking the lead in the apparent storyline, but as always, the important question is how well the songs hold up. The scene is set with the opening track “Five Years” in evocative lines like “Pushing through the market square / So many mothers crying / News had just come over / We had five years left of sighing.” The tone of a world on the brink of collapse is captured brilliantly in lines of chaotic confusion (“Girl my age went off her head / Hit some tiny children / If the black hadn’t have pulled her off / I think she would have killed them”) juxtaposed with a simultaneous sense of romantic longing (“I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor / Drinking milkshakes cold and long / Smiling and waving and looking so fine / Don’t think you knew you were in this song”, “I kiss you / You’re beautiful / I want you to walk”). As the song reaches its ending climax, Bowie leads a chorus in proclaiming the planet’s fate: “We’ve got five years.”

The introduction of the titular Ziggy Stardust comes in like a rocket. “I’m an alligator / I’m a momma-poppa comin’ for you,” Ziggy sings as guitarist Mick Ronson leads the band into the raucous “Moonage Daydream.” As we are made familiar with the daring and promiscuous persona of Ziggy and are shown the power of the Spiders from Mars, we are then given their message of hope to the planet. “Starman” displays one of the record’s most powerful melodies and chorus lines (“There’s a Starman waiting in the sky / He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’ll blow our minds”) and remains as easily one of the best tracks on the album.

This is the point where the story becomes nebulous and it temporarily loses some of the narrative form that it might have had in the previous tracks. But even so, the power of the each song is so striking that any problem with the continuation of the story is soon forgotten.

“Lady Stardust” provides one of the record’s most subdued moments by giving some relief from the aggressive nature of Ziggy’s band and a needed return to some more romantic imagery. “Star” and “Hang On To Yourself” follow by gradually building up the energy as well bringing more of the story elements of Ziggy and his band rising to rock stardom back in to focus.

This build-up of momentum climbs until we reach the peak of “Ziggy Stardust” which could be seen as the synopsis of the entire album within the boundaries of one song. We are told of the wonders of his fame (“Ziggy played guitar / Jamming good with Weird and Gilly / And the Spiders from Mars”, “Became the special man / Then we were Ziggy’s band”) and his inevitable fall from grace (“He took it all too far / But boy, could he play guitar”, “Making love with his ego / Ziggy sucked up into his mind / Like a leper messiah / When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band”).

The grand finale of the record (and arguably the piece’s defining moment) comes with the evocatively titled “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. Effectively serving as Ziggy’s swan song, the emotion of the album’s anti-hero culminates as he shouts to his audience “Give me your hands / Cus you’re wonderful!” And as the song winds to a close and the violins play their final notes, one is left with an odd sort of feeling. Surely it is one of tragedy, but somehow this is coupled with a sense of beauty. We leave feeling sad, but it’s a sadness that we are somehow happy to have received.

This past week marked the 40th anniversary of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. Apart from certainly being a milestone in his career as a musician, it stands as being a sort of miraculous occurrence that the record was able to have been such a success and that it continues to have a relevant life to this day. It may have some vague points as far as being a pure concept album, but in my opinion, that is a factor that plays a very small part in the overall effectiveness of the work. Perhaps Ziggy should be seen more as the 70s successor to Sgt. Pepper rather than to the consistently narrative tale of Tommy.

It’s not an easy task to ever choose one album to definitively be termed as your ‘favorite.’ But speaking on a personal level, I find it hard to conceive of any instance when The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars wouldn’t be at the head of my list.

~ Stephen

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Addendum:
(For anyone interested in any more of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust – Era releases)

Although the end of Ziggy Stardust seeming kills off its title character, the leper messiah would still manage to come back (kinda similar to Universal Studio’s Monsters… But I digress) in the following David Bowie releases.

Aladdin Sane serves as a sort of sequel-album to Ziggy. According to Mr. Bowie himself, the album has the concept of Ziggy coming to America.

After lengthy touring in the persona of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie effectively ended the life of his legendary creation at the Hammersmith Odeon on Juy, 3, 1973. Luckily, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was able to capture the event on film as it happened. The result is Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (See the video of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” above). The show is full of energy and classic Ziggy theatrics and (aside from some odd camera maneuvers such a random close-up of Mr.Bowie’s leg) is filmed quite well for a film that was put together so quickly.

Although this officially ended Ziggy’s reign, he would still peak his head out from time to time.

Pin-Ups is another Ziggy–related album, but only in that the character (complete with bright-red mullet) is plastered on the cover next to Twiggy. The album has little connection storywise to the character as it is an album of cover songs, but it’s a good album to check out.

Finally, even though Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is fairly disconnected from the Ziggy-myth, he still is somewhat apparent on the album… if only on the cover image alone. Regardless, it’s a brilliant album as well and well worth a listen.

For any further reading on the subject of Ziggy and his band, head over to www.5years.com for a treasure trove of information (including a particularly interesting interpretation of the album entitled “The Gospel According to Ziggy Stardust?”). And if you can get your hands on a copy (which may be unlikely judging by the prices on Amazon), check out the book “Moonage Daydream” by Mick Rock which captures some stunning photos of Bowie in-character during his brief time on Earth.

Which leaves nothing much left to say … except

“Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am!”

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