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Sonic Androgyny: celebrating The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

the rise and fall of ziggy stardust and the spiders from mars david bowie anniversary

What is music but selling a fantasy? Bowie’s was that of being a star.

At the onset of 1972 David Jones was struggling to cast off his label as a  one-hit wonder. By the close of the year he was a star. In a matter of months, Bowie had transitioned from a politely accepted pop periphery to a sweeping cultural phenomenon.

Acting out a living fantasy, Bowie had willed himself into stardom. Arriving seemingly overnight with a persona which projected fame, Ziggy was a new breed of superstar for a new decade. Stepping outside of a series of mod and folk caricatures, Bowie emerged with an electric shock of red hair, browless and flashing an unnervingly jaundiced grin.

the rise and fall of ziggy stardust and the spiders from mars david bowie anniversary

Mirroring pop itself, Ziggy Stardust was fickle, restless and unreal. A triumphant Messiah from afar, up close he was neurotic, paranoid, lonely and self-obsessed, resplendently alien but utterly human.

Full of bravado, the sexually ambiguous Ziggy delivered simple emotion, catchy tunes and cheap thrills with soap box melodrama. As an outsider hero and doomed prophet, he was all of rock’s contradictions rolled into one.

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This Christ-like figure was Bowie’s own leap of faith. Within Bowie’s loosely operatic narrative, Ziggy conveyed the message of humankind’s imminent demise to a world already locked in post-apocalyptic decline.

Inside of this fictitious world Stardust was a prophet, but in ours, he was a provocative and flamboyant pin-up, the rock saviour of an adolescent generation. Calling back to the teen sensations of the 1950s but feeling utterly new, he struck a chord with a world of disaffected youth.

In 1972 gender bending theatrics and musical alter egos were nothing new, yet Ziggy burned brazenly into the popular consciousness. While a little late to the game, Bowie became synonymous with the glam rock movement which had coalesced in the early 70s.

Glam was very much a reaction to the drab and denim clad residue of the 60s. Flower Power had been co-opted into the mainstream and the revolution was over. Bowie’s forbears had elevated his medium to art, but in their wake came a succession of singer-songwriters, roots rockers and progressive virtuosos which revelled in the status of genius hoisted upon them while wallowing in their pompous excess.

As the love lethal 70s set in, rock was running out of things to say. Pre-figuring punk, Bowie re-instilled popular music with a sense of adolescence and rebellion. The subversion of Ziggy could challenge or subtly embrace artists’ newfound genius mentality. Bowie’s creation could be held up as either a visionary poet or calculated construct.

Many of Bowie’s successes lay not in his strength as an innovator but as a creative conduit and amalgamator of popular culture. The artist was constantly in motion, growing, learning and absorbing from others. His new moniker came as a combination of London fashion store Ziggy’s and obscure RCA tablemate The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

His visage was a reinvention of sound, vision, and public persona, back to basics rock ‘n’ roll mingled with futurism and challenging imagery. Sonically he was informed by the brief but stratospheric success of glam’s first idol Marc Bolan alongside fringe New York artists The Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop.

Visual pantomime learned under Lindsey Kemp, Warhol’s Factory, drag, Alice Cooper, kabuki theatre, Elvis, low-budget films as well as the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange all provided visual tools for subverting pop into performance art.

Bowie’s immersion in counterculture, William S. Burroughs, sweet Gene Vincent, a recent fixation with Americana, the downfall of Syd Barrett, Broadway aspirations, the unhinged Vince Taylor and sci-fi readings also figured into the equation. As disparate and diverse as these influences were, the result was unequivocal: glamour, simplicity, raw energy and raunch.

Ziggy was scandalous. On Bowie’s debut The Man Who Sold the World and follow-up Hunky Dory many lyrics had flirted with ideas of gay or binary sexuality. With the live revelation of Ziggy and an ambitious media campaign preceding his new album, David flaunted his immersion in gay subculture.

More likely a famous tourist rather than a true convert, he consciously cultivated bisexual mystique. His new persona’s timely reveal was quickly followed with the famous words “I’m gay and always have been” printed in the hugely influential Melody Maker shortly prior to the album’s release.

His sensational plays on sexuality would continue until toned down in 1976 and later explicitly denied own by the coyly conservative ‘Straight Bowie’ of the Reagan-Thatcher 80s. Yet Ziggy’s impact on the LGBT community and popular culture opened the minds of a generation. It caused many to challenge the silence with which rock culture had treated issues of sexual identity.

But perhaps most importantly was the music itself. Coupled with a controversial appearance on UK’s Top of the Pops a week before, the backward reaching and forward leaning The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars was the album that made Bowie a star.

It consolidated the reputation of an accomplished songwriter and enigmatic artistic presence which would endure a lifetime. A testament to Bowie’s command of pop form and the unavoidable power of the songs themselves, there’s little filler.

Having been largely recorded at London’s Trident Studios in November 1971, the album was semi-completed prior to the release of Hunky Dory that December. Many tracks had been previously cut for an obscure side-project known as Arnold Corns. In most cases, Bowie laid down the album’s vocals in a single take.

Assisting Bowie in translating his pop visions into an ear-bashing rock sound were The Spiders from Mars. Three reluctant musicians from Hull, the foremost amongst them was the silver-haired Mick Ronson. A visually striking musical foil, Ronson was a blunt and masculine counterpoint to Bowie.

Most notably the multi-instrumentalist laid down the record’s visceral guitar parts. Delivered with gut-wrenching electricity, they acted as a second voice to Bowie’s delicate and expressive vocals. Spiders Weird and Gilly, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woody perfected glam rock’s grinding bottom end.

The record kicks off with the apocalyptic countdown of Five Years. The brassy Soul Love prefigures the plastic soul of Bowie’s Young Americans period while Moonage Daydream pushes the boundaries of rock music both inward and outward. There’s gravity to the track. It possesses a sense of heaviness that was never metal’s but would always remain distinctly glam.

Starman is the thematic heart of the album’s narrative. A fictional hit song within Bowie’s imagined universe, it conveys a mood of transcendent pop euphoria. Borrowing some of the escapism and melody of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, its free flowing melodies ascend above their instrumental foundation to create something which is both straight-shooting rock and concurrently otherworldly.

Suffragette City is a Velvets’ style riffer, but the rawest rock comes in the form of Hang On To Yourself. The track sounds off as almost proto-punk. Both bookend the eponymous Ziggy Stardust, which serves as a sonic incantation of Bowie’s newfound persona.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide is the cinematic finale. Exuding B-grade teen angst, Bowie channels Lennon-like introspection and vitriol without shedding the pulp sci-fi undercurrent. Its rapid-fire lyrics come laden with emotional charge.

While all involved were surprised by the album’s resonance and longevity, in hindsight it’s a record which provides the very matter from which memorable music is made. Ziggy’s glittered theatrics unleash angst, rebellion and surprisingly epic poetics with emotive zeal.

The album may spin an audacious and mythic narrative but in essence, it’s malleable fantasy. It sprawls forth as a loose collection of imagery, androgynous enough for endless reinterpretation and with leeway for imagination to run rampant. Almost immediately the album would catalyse a new movement of creative minds. For close to half a decade musicians and fans alike have been dragged into life-long relationships with, if not Bowie, Ziggy Stardust.

Despite the album’s strong but modest sales, Bowie’s transcendence would command a public focus far greater than higher selling glam contemporaries T.Rex and The Sweet. Today The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars is, next to the take-all-comers Let’s Dance, Bowie’s second biggest selling. Its plaudits include recognition as one of the most accomplished albums of all time.

Bowie would disavow his playfully camp creation, abruptly retiring him on July 3, 1973. Yet Stardust would linger. As Bowie continued to ascend towards rock’s aristocracy, he became hopelessly lost within a doomed fantasy which would nearly consume him.

But that’s a story for another album.

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June 16, 2017

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