Guest Blogger Eric Dodd: David Bowie – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

27 Jul

Another guest who has been following along with us via BGG, this time all the way from New Zealand!

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This is not my favourite Bowie album, and it may not be his best.

But it is as representative an album as you could ask for from such a shifting and changeable artist. I think it’s fair to say that if you don’t like any of the tracks on Ziggy Stardust then you probably won’t like any of his albums (industrial noise and drum and bass fans excepted). I was just too young for this album to mean anything to me growing up, but there’s little doubt Ziggy Stardust had real impact on the youth culture of the day. Not only did you need to lock up your daughters, when Ziggy was in town you needed to lock up your sons, too.

By the time of this, the fourth album of his career, Bowie had already been a hippie, a folk artist, a music-hall artiste, and even a rock singer. What Bowie really wanted to be was a star, and he made up a cosmic one of his own out of the best of his influences. Ziggy Stardust is the alien rock and roll messiah come to Earth to blow our minds, only to die at the hands of his fans. Although most of the songs have a space-age theme, Ziggy Stardust is really a one-song concept album.

To start the album, in “Five Years” the ‘Earth was really dying’ and Bowie relates the shocked responses of the people he sees out on the streets to a simple beat but driving intensity. “Soul Love” is a throwback for Bowie in style, and features 50s doo-wop and Beatles-esque lyrics and key changes. “Moonage Daydream” is an impassioned plea for a space race freak-out with a partner – is it a boy or girl, or does it matter?   Praying at the church of mad love, Mick Ronson’s guitar gets its first big solo, the repeated chorus leading into the hit single. “Starman” is an awesome song for building a young, fervent fan base. It’s a shared community (‘hey that’s far out, so you heard him too’) and youth versus parents in face of the new thing. The sing-along chorus with just a hint of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ embraces its childish joy as suitable awe in face of something exciting and awesome.

Bowie’s albums usually have covers, and “It Ain’t Easy” by American Ron Davies ended up here rather than on the earlier Hunky Dory album as was first planned. The line ‘It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down’ is the thematic link, but stylistic this song doesn’t really fit the album or Bowie’s voice. Just as well the rest of the album is rock solid, then. “Lady Stardust” is a complement to Ziggy Stardust, about the ambiguous but human performer with long black hair and animal grace. Is the narrator afraid to show his love for ‘boy in the bright blue jeans’ that all the audience is lusting after? Whether boy or girl, it just doesn’t matter… it’ll be alright as long as the band goes on.

“Star” sees Bowie imagining himself already the star this album would make him, showing how his dreams of success might have begun while already showing them up as a naive fantasy. Changes of tempo and style make this one of the more complicated tracks. Allegedly the first track written by Bowie on arriving in America for his initial visit, “Hang on to Yourself” is a rousing exhortation to stay in control as you survive that groupie and chase your dreams. More great guitar and the first mention of the Spiders from Mars ‘moving like tigers on vaseline’. This leads on naturally to “Ziggy Stardust”, as the entire saga, the rise and fall of the leper (‘leather’?) messiah is played out. Ziggy played guitar… but made it too far. Having taken over the band, Ziggy drives his fans wild with his smile, hairstyle and left-handed playing. Eventually the crass kids kill him and the Spiders from Mars break up, but they’ll always have the memories of Ziggy… Bow!

Bowie played out this song in real life by announcing on stage ‘this is the last show we’ll ever do’ less than a year after the album was released. Ziggy had served his purpose, and it was on to new styles and personalities for Bowie.   Great though deceptively simple guitar-work, and the song comes full circle musically and lyrically. “Suffragette City” is all about the aural assault, the battery of guitars driving a story of lust over friendship in Clockwork Orange argot ‘droogie don’t crash here/there’s only room for one and here she comes and she comes…’ Wham bam thank you m’am indeed! Finally the pace if not the intensity is taken down in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, a great piece that shows the after effect of fame. ‘I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain… you’re not alone.’ That’s what young Bowie fans, especially those uncertain of sexuality wanted to hear. For all his artifice, an impassioned Bowie clearly believes in the emptiness and desperation he’s singing about here.

A final word about the quality of the musicians. Mick Ronson’s guitar work is justly praised, but the bass section of Bolder and Woodmansey kept it tight no matter what style or mood the singer was exploring. You can ignore all the messages and get down and boogie.

Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs explore more of Bowie’s on stage theatricality. American styles and themes are explored in Station to Station and Young Americans. Brian Eno and German electronica influenced the Berlin trilogy of Lodger, Hero and Low. If you prefer the more straightforward rock and roll work backwards to Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World.

I recommend them all!

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Eric says:

I’m a role-player and board gamer with over 30 years experience. My earliest popular music memories are of my parents’ Beatles records and my sister’s Abba tapes. I didn’t discover David Bowie until the Scary Monsters and Super Creeps album with the memorable Ashes to Ashes video. The best place to find me on the internet is as Red Wine Pie at RPGGeek. I check in nearly every day!

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