[121] David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

31 Jul

Never mind 1,000 recordings, Ziggy easily makes my all time Top 10.


I once sang in a band (briefly) called The Diamond Dogs, so it should come as no surprise that David Bowie is one of my all time favorites, from his wierd-folk beginnings, through his metamorphosis into rock god, his asides into industrial metal, his consistent reimaginings and his always enormous reinvention.

And it all began for me with Ziggy . . .

The whole thing is flawless, at once creating a specific mood and and an entire world, exactly as a concept album should.  Each track is a complete story song in its own right, and at the same time advances the larger Bouroughs-esque novel of sci fi rock and roll fame.

I recall spending hours pouring over the images painted by the words on the opener, “Five Years”, each phrase a vignette worthy of comparison with the best Beatles equivalents (think an apocalyptic “Penny Lane”.)  The details of disaster are sketchy, but the emotion and the unspecified dread was as recognizable when I discovered it in the late-late 80s as it must have been in the early 70s.  I am certain that it still moves new listeners today.

And I have always been a fan of meta, so the shout out,

“I don’t think you knew you were in this song”

resonates long and loud.

As a vocalist, I can’t help but notice that some of the phrasing here is Sinatra-esque.  It all sounds simple and straightforward, but is often surprisingly difficult to sing along with.  Although the Chairman of the Board never screamed in pain the way the Thin White Duke does as this opener comes to and end.

If this powerful and nuanced opening wasn’t notice enough that this is not just Rock and Roll (or even genocide) the next number is the smooth and mellow “Soul Love”, perhaps Bowie’s first flirtation with the Motown sound he would claim for real on Young Americans.  His vocals, just affected enough to catch the ear, almost veering into parody, always just keep enough reality to avoid ridicule.

It is a tightrope he has now walked with stunning balance for decades.

The sax meanders and the vocals build in intensity, and the words are poetry as backing singers moan gently behind, until the guitars finally crunch to open “Moonage Daydream”.

“Keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe.”

How can you focus on anything else while Bowie (Ziggy) preaches here?  The great secret behind Bowie is that he never set out to become, nor ever considered himself a rock star.  He is a performance artist, and Ziggy is his most memorable (if not his most enduring) persona.

Ironically, it is the Rock God persona of the Heroes / Young American eras which people believe to be “the real David Bowie.”

Yet still the leash is on, the power and prowess of Mick Ronson and the rest of the Spiders still harnessed, controlled, straining to let loose.  This can be clearly heard in the outro solo of “Moonage Daydream”, only for the next track “Starman” to revert to a gentle if insistent acoustic vibe.

Did I say Top 10?  Try top 3.

The snippets of conversations between young kids discovering the alien “waiting in the sky” that make up the verses are painfully true – I could and can vividly image my friends and I reacting exactly this way if our very own ET had come along.

Yet still the brakes are on as Ziggy starts to wail “It Ain’t Easy”.  For a pillar of Rock radio, this is so much more controlled and restrained than (for example) Aerosmith’s Toys In The Attic or AC/DC’s Back In Black.

Which is when we reach my favorite Bowie song – “Lady Stardust” – a perfect tiny story of “darkness and disgrace.”   The guitars are replaced with a piano lead, much the way that Queen would often do in years to come, and the lyrics are front and center in this, perhaps the height of Ziggy’s rise before the fall.

The acoustic demo that can be found on later reissues is even more immediate and raw.  It was discovering recordings like as a teen these that made me want to (even need to) sing.

More meta – “Star” is a wonderful piece of that performance art that Bowie so embraces – a rock star imagining that he is not, wishing that he was.  And here at last the pace is hard and heavy, driving towards a big rock n roll climax . . .

Instead the song morphs into a mellow chilled-out final verse.

“Hang On To Yourself” – name checked in The Bangles oversold and underrated album,  Everything – picks up the pace again, grinding and grooving and grinning until I find it impossible not to tap along.  I also find it nearly impossible to stop a grin from filling my face as this one plays.

And now the crunching majesty of that chord, leading into that riff and the title track.

The star himself, “Ziggy Stardust” appears.

Lyrically the song is a perfect telling of the archetypal internal journey of every star and wannabe (while hinting at the specific events in the life of Jimi Hendrix, as Bad Company would later in “Shooting Star, another favorite.”)

I am struck at this point at how much tension and power has been built up through the first nine tracks as they drive purposefully but with that unexpected restraint.  It seems all that energy is released in the opening notes of “Suffragette City”, like a pebble from a slingshot, and the kid gloves come epically, wonderfully off.

At least, that’s how I hear it in my head.  In reality, the groove and restraint is still there.  The explosion is one of attitude rather than volume.  The rhythm is so tight, every piano stab so precise and purposeful, the guitar solo so briefly, beautifully sketched.

I think of the many bands I have heard cover this song live in concert (including The Diamond Dogs so very long ago, and Marc Rentzer with Kreb’s and the Maynard G’s just this year) and realize this track would be worth the price of admission even if the rest of the album were only mediocre.

There is nothing at all mediocre about what has already occurred, and the final track ensures a perfect score.  “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” predates Grunge by two full decades and does it better than the Seattle scene ever came close to.

With “. . . Suicide” as coda to the prelude of “Five Years” the story has a concrete and satisfying arc.

Ziggy is more than Rock, or Pop.  It is Art.

Next Week: The Boys of The Lough – Live at Passim

Owned before blogging? Yes. (11 of 121 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? Yes. (19 of 121 = 16%)
Recommend? Yes. (100 of 121 = 83%)

2 Responses to “[121] David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”

  1. nycavri January 11, 2016 at 8:39 AM #

    Reblogged this on . . . To Hear Before I Blog and commented:

    Oh, how I sighed / When they asked if I knew his name . . .

  2. kindadukish January 11, 2016 at 9:20 AM #

    Have always considered Bowie as vastly over rated, the outré of “glam rock” and we know the derision that many glam rockers came in for. Yes, he writes a good pop tune, particularly like TVC15, but I really don’t understand the wholesale drooling going on in the media, sorry!

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