It's the end of March, and in the wayward progression of this year-long blog, I find myself at 1972's The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust... An album which, for me personally, rates a solid 7 out of 10 in terms of personal affection and relistenability. Heresy, I know. Heresy, because it's "kind of a big deal" (to use a technical expression) with a lot of people, and within the Middle Aged White Dudes' Approved Canon TM of Rockism.
I suppose this album does mean a lot to me, but as someone who discovered Bowie in his early pubescence in the mid to late '80s, it has a different kind of relevance to its primary audience - the young adults who received the Starman's call in downtrodden 1972. You're all no doubt familiar with the well-trodden folk anecdotes of how the vermilion-haired, jumpsuited androgynous spaceman from Bromley became an interstellar Pied Piper to a whole generation of boys and girls.
How I envied them! I got the Bowie bug hard in 1987, as I recounted in my previous entry, and overnight this obsession of mine instantly transformed me from a quirky but reasonably popular 11-year-old schoolboy into something of a playground pariah. Looking from the outside in, no doubt it was a strange transformation. Back then, boys were only allowed to be obsessed with football teams - being besotted with pop stars was girly. Quite how this works, I don't know, as even back then it struck me as odd that it was acceptably 'male' to be obsessed with the homosocial recreational activities of groups of eleven men in shorts while insinuating that hero worship of any other kind was poofy or girly.
Granted, the hero I found - not chose! - to worship was known mainly for wearing makeup, androgynous clothing and to my cloth-eared schoolchums was principally identified as the frightwigged, jodhpur-wearing Goblin King of Labyrinth... Oddly, even though until I eventually confronted my own sexual identity in my twenties, I was spectacularly uptight when my own orientation was challenged - hardly surprising being a bookish, gentle, artsy boy at a time when homophobia was not only institutionalised, but also heightened due to AIDS paranoia and the lack of visible, identifiable non-hetero role models - I was unconsciously seduced by the visual appeal of Bowie's Ziggy incarnation without question. This is partly because I was sexually innocent at that age - I hadn't managed to become indoctrinated with prescriptive ideals of masculinity, and my own sexuality was quite latent: I'd had some chaste, unrequited crushes, and would continue to do so throughout my schooldays, and simply couldn't relate to the boorish, leering mentality that other teenage boys adopted. I don't even think I fancied David Bowie. It was a fact of simple aesthetics that he looked great, and, having been a young fan of Toyah and Adam Ant when I was still an infant, to my mind pop stars were supposed to look flamboyant and out of the pages of a science fiction B movie. I certainly didn't understand why thinking Bowie/Ziggy was cool made me weird at school. I never set out to be weird. To my mind, everyone else was weird for not getting it.
500-odd words and I've still not mentioned anything about the album this post is purportedly about. Which is rather the point. Ziggy Stardust (to use the truncated title, for ease) was never, from day one, simply about the music. It was the total package - hence those aforementioned folk anecdotes that emphasise the spell Bowie's character cast as much as the material he was delivering, the "I remember seeing Starman on Top of the Pops" effect.
Well, I don't remember seeing Starman on Top of the Pops. Sort of. I purchased the Ziggy album on cassette from Woolworths in spring 1987 (Cue millennials asking "What's a cassette?" and "What's a Woolworths?"), at roughly around the time the BBC had begun its 'baby boomer revivalism' phase, with a repeat run of series 2 of Monty Python's Flying Circus and as its news-and-pop clipfest The Rock N Roll Years moved into the 1970s. In 1987, the homemade, kitsch 1970s seemed remote enough to be distinct from the yuppified, fluorescent, gungetank '80s and yet still reachable enough, chronologically, to be vaguely tangible, given that any '80s child grew up in the cultural hand-me-downs of the preceding decade. Near and far, to quote the title of an educational TV series I have vague memories of.
So, yep, I saw Bowie do Starman, with his blue guitar, his arm around Ronno, and Robin Lumley on piano.
But it wasn't 'retro'. That wasn't a word that acquired any kind of cachet until the 1990s and the next wave of revivalism. There was no such thing as retro cool or geek chic - if you liked anything that was over six months old, it was deeply odd to your peers. So, yep, how I envied 1970s Bowie fans, who got to feel part of a tribe, a movement. There was just me, and my cassettes, and a slowly but steadily growing archive of Bowie books - Dave Thompson's Moonage Daydream was my Bible, although in retrospect his heavily pro-Ziggy bias made him an unreliable narrator...
When I think of my early days with Ziggy, I picture myself upstairs, in my attic room, when I wasn't memorising whole chunks of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (my other pet obsession, along with the Pythons), and creating my own pictures in my mind of how the Ziggy Stardust 'story' played out. Terms such as concept album and rock opera weren't yet in my vocabulary, and it's clear to see that the album's narrative is impressionistic at best, but the world created within that album is so immersive, the music so evocative (thanks largely to Ken Scott's subtle yet masterful production flourishes and Mick Ronson's string and piano arrangements) that you can lose yourself in its moonage daydream.
Every story needs a strong beginning, and Five Years really captured my imagination. Like a Greek prologue, it sets the scene so theatrically you can almost see the curtain disappear into the proscenium arch as Mick Woodmansey beats out that dum-dum-d'dum-dum introduction, with the piano and strings glissando like a spotlight hitting the protagonist for his entrance.
What really continues to fascinate me about this song is the way it moves easily between the descriptive accounts of the activity of the market square's inhabitants, and the narrator's first-person, introspective observations. Compare this versatility it to Bowie's previous three albums and you can see a real advance in his storytelling skills, it's no wonder it draws you in. Sonically, it was like nothing I had heard in popular music. Growing up in the '80s, the sound of pop music became more and more busy, layered, digitised and compressed, and my first Bowie album - Never Let Me Down - was all those things in excess. However, coming from an analogue decade, the Ziggy sound was strikingly acoustic and organic in contrast. It's tight, spare, with an acoustic base (as per its predecessor Hunky Dory, and T. Rex's near-contemporary Electric Warrior and The Slider) and there is a lot of space in the music.
Soul Love continues this a real warmth, from the tsk-tsk of Woody's hi-hat to the doo-wop-esque handclaps (the rhythm immediately reminded me of Stand By Me, then a hit in the charts thanks to a popular jeans advert), complemented by a wash of Bowie's twelve string. The combination of music and lyrics enables you to feel as if you are with the narrator, again strolling through the passing parade, observing the different kinds of love around him like the depressed protagonist of 1969's Conversation Piece, before Ronno's strident and unfussy guitar stabs in as the singer experiences an epiphany, the revelation that love in all its forms is cruel, mercurial, indiscriminate, unforgiving and intangible...
I used to imagine this song is from the perspective of the freshly crash-landed Ziggy Stardust, like Mr. Newton in the opening scenes of The Man Who Fell To Earth, drinking in the sights and sounds of this unfamiliar environment with unease and detachment...
Crash-landing is certainly the word for Moonage Daydream. Oh, to relive the very first time I heard Mick Ronson's opening one-two punch pierce the fading moments of Soul Love. We're suddenly wrestled from a discourse of selfless forms of love, to something urgent, intense, transformative, narcissistic and passionate. In a word, sex. Ziggy Stardust represents seduction, sex, space, abandonment and escapism - not for nothing did the Bowie/Ziggy experiment awaken something exciting and sensual in a then-dormant teenage population, and for me it always was and always will be the closest musical approximation of the messy, confused and intense feelings associated with the explosion of teenage sexual awareness, on that awkward adolescent threshold between boyhood and manhood - perfectly encapsulated in the way its' sexual innuendos are couched within sci-fi comic book double entendres. As for that guitar solo... Well, trying to describe that in words is like, to quote Graham Coxon, wanking about rain.
Here's where my experience of the Ziggy album diverges from the canonical version. As mentioned earlier, I owned an early 1980s cassette reissue. In those days, cassettes had to have a more or less equal run time on both sides, so very often the vinyl tracklists would be juggled about to accommodate this. And so, until Ziggy had his second coming in shiny disc form, as Moonage Daydream's orgasmic guitar solo receded into the stratosphere, the stately piano tones of Lady Stardust made their entrance.
And so, narratively, my first encounter with the album's titular star is not of the telegraphic call sign of Starman, but this gentle, homoerotic torch-song that was in fact the first song to be demoed for the album, under the working title Song For Marc.
It's a jewel of a song, that could only have been written when the gay scene was very much a subculture, haunted and crepuscular, even going so far as to echo Oscar Wilde's famous quote about 'the love that dare not speak its name'...
It's one of Bowie's queer classics, and I was delighted when Bowie revisited it in 1997, Toy-style for the Radio 1 Changesnowbowie special. As an ingredient in the Ziggy cocktail, it invites speculation as to who the real-life inspiration is, the lyrics being equally suggestive of Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper. That's beside the point - he's a composite fantasy creation, elsewhere compared to Jimi Hendrix ("cat from Japan") and Brian Jones ("snow white tan").
Whether on cassette or LP, side one of this album ends with It Ain't Easy, which - many years before it became known that it was a Hunky Dory outtake - stuck out like a sore thumb. It's the second in what became a tradition on the majority of Bowie albums (Diamond Dogs and the Berlin trilogy aside) - the token cover version - and its presence is perplexing. Thus far, the Ziggy album has presented itself as a vaudevillian, English take on the rock and roll idiom - Lou Reed by way of The Kinks and The Beatles - but this is Bowie in full-on Americanophile mode, complete with an exaggerated, keening, honky tonk woman yowl, as if in parody of Elton John and calling back to the Dylan-esque Eight Line Poem. Bowie's always had a very perverse and uncompromising taste in covers, and this is no exception. For me personally it also makes me question if the Ziggy story is happening in permanently drizzly England - as per the album sleeve, with its cover photos depicting the star man in a rainy London alleyway, just off Regent Street - or middle America. The surrounding songs are peppered with Americanisms, something Bowie had a fetish for ever since discovering the Velvets, bookended with references to Cadillacs and cops in Five Years and 'milk floats' and Chevrolets in Rock N Roll Suicide, but Ziggy feels like it is set in monochrome England, as elsewhere we have allusions to Nye Bevan and Bloody Sunday ("Star"). The song's inclusion is even odder, given that there were many other Bowie songs in the can that could have taken its place - Shadow Man, Looking For A Friend - or even more relevant covers, such as Amsterdam or Round And Round.
Side two is where the Ziggy story goes up a gear, almost as if the preceding five songs have been letting the scene unfold us, to prepare us to appreciate the rain-soaked, emotionally-deprived landscape in which our stellar superstar will invite his followers over the rainbow.
The cassette version kicks off with Starman, over which much ink and pixels have been spent already. It's now well known that this was a last minute addition, at the request of RCA's New York office, who wanted a single. And yet it's the one song where the nebulous 'concept' becomes fixed and suddenly everything makes a bit more sense, as well as giving the general public the mistaken impression that the boy David's comeback hit was a natural progression from Space Oddity.
By today's standards, Starman is overlong as a hit single, but it never outstays its welcome, and its extended la-la singalong probably seemed less out of place in the wake of Hey Jude and Hot Love. It gives us the closest thing to a narrative, has something to appeal to everyone, being a mutant fusion of a lullaby, a musical and thematic sequel to Oh! You Pretty Things and beating T. Rex at their own game by anticipating Children of the Revolution. It also marks Bowie's pop culture curator checklist by cheekily and cleverly interpolating elements of Somewhere Over The Rainbow from MGM's The Wizard of Oz and The Supremes' You Keep Me Hanging On, in the Morse code riff, hammered hard on piano on the original UK vinyl mix, although sadly most versions currently in print use the softer US mix.
Probably my favourite song on the album that's not already been taken up for grabs is Star. It's an incredibly underrated song. I can hear a massive Beatles influence - compare it to Lady Madonna for example - and it wins points for exposing the cynicism at the heart of fame-seeking - "I could do with the money" is a brazen lyric where the real Bowie, man of many years of commercial struggle and frequently unable to pay the rent, puts one in the eye for the heroic idealism of 'doing it for the kids, man'. In many ways, it's the heart of the Ziggy project. Bowie was a skint, long haired, musician when he was making the album, with a lot of personal and critical goodwill behind him, but another year of commercial ignominy would have finished him off as an artist. It's a brilliant song, where the ambitions of David Jones break the so-far carefully constructed fourth wall - by the time the album was released and he'd made his impact, he would become the wild mutation and fall asleep as a rock and roll star.
It's rock and roll all the way for the final set of songs. For reasons outside of the album's narrative, Ziggy and his band are rocking out, and it's at this point the power trio of Ronno, Bolder and Woody make their presence felt, having held back bar some catchy choruses. Hang Onto Yourself details their modus operandi - lock up your sons and daughters, Ziggy is coming to getcha! Effectively, it's the previous two decades of rock and roll in handy capsule form - taking Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent as a launchpad for its buzzsaw 4/4 riff, with more than a little of the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane ("me I'm in a rock and roll band") and the Stooges' lean and mean two-chorder No Fun thrown into the mix. The perfect opening gambit for a fictional rock group, and as such it kicked off every show on the Ziggy Stardust tour of 1972 and 1973, beefed up with the guitar solo from Bowie side project Arnold Corns' Man In The Middle to allow Ronno to throw some guitar hero shapes.
Enter Ziggy Stardust. Or shake hands if you prefer. Although I hear he's quite liberal. Great riff, iconic song, dreary demo on numerous reissues. As with Five Years, the song cleverly alternates between first and third person, it's a pop song fable. In 1972, the rock scene was in its infancy, but it already had a legacy of successes, failures and casualties to draw on. Pop had already begun to eat itself, and so we have the first postmodern meta-crisis. As a wannabe popstar on the up during the '60s, Bowie had seen how teenybop idols' status were as transient as other trends, how the likes of Syd Barrett had crashed and burned, leaving behind a mythology that glamorised breakdown, how egomaniacs like PJ Proby deep-sixed their own careers by making love with their ego, all merged with Bowie's own encounters of one-time Elvis Mk II Vince Taylor, who literally thought he was the messiah, and no doubt close observation of his hero Scott Walker's retreat from pop idol status. It's the ur-text of rock fame, in tandem with its companion, Rock 'N' Roll Suicide. Will the chain ever be broken? Not while the beer lights guide us.
I've meandered from my original approach to provide my own personal take on the Ziggy album, because from hereon the show's the thing, and there's no ambiguity. We're in the last five years before some undiagnosed catastrophe - fossil fuel crisis? The economy? Pollution? Who's to say? The average man in the street in the 1970s needn't have to look far for possible reasons for man's imminent obsolescence, so the cause barely needs stating. The kids got it. Starman suggested that Ziggy had some kind of higher purpose to offer his chosen ones, some form of transcendence to a higher state of being perhaps - in line with the Hippy Nietzsche predictive fantasies of earlier Bowie songs perhaps? - but once we're in Suffragette City it seems that we have another analogy with Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Once the leper messiah has found fame on this planet Earth, he's being swayed from his original mission by earthbound temptations and distractions. Ziggy's put upon by too many carnal temptations, the pressures of management, demanding girlfriends, and just for zeitgeist power, Bowie throws in A Clockwork Orange reference - a significant reference point, as it was Alex's droogs' adoption of fake eyelashes, codpieces and jumpsuits that influenced the Ziggy look, as did the corrosion of gang mentality (All The Young Dudes), the seduction of choreographed violence (Sweet Head), the verisimilitude between Alex's near-future urban wasteland and civil-engineered, inner city 70s Britain with its concrete jungle boys (Dudes again - surely, this song earned its place on Ziggy?) not to mention the mechanical soundtrack, which Bowie would use as his intro music for the Ziggy tour.
After the stop-start fake ending of Suffragette City, divebombing VCS3 synths imitating saxophones and droning "Hey mannnn", the ultimate glam rock song hits a wall, and we're left to contemplate an utterly defeated, destroyed Ziggy. Bowie later spun out the Ziggy story to William Burroughs in 1973 as ending with Stardust torn apart into pieces by the Infinities, black-hole jumpers from antimatter universes (suggesting he'd been ODing on Pertwee-era Dr. Who in the meantime - see The Mutants and The Three Doctors) but the cause on the album text is plainly his fans. Little did the 1971 model of Bowie know he'd be living out this text, and would sidestep the literal demise of his avatar by simply segueing into a new incarnation. Canny, very canny.
After a whole side of more or less straight-ahead rock pop, that had only been hinted at on Hunky Dory via Queen Bitch, unless you count the grotesqueries of The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie pulls another string from his bow to end the album as it began - on a note of pure theatre. Rock 'N' Roll Suicide works as a companion piece with the song Ziggy Stardust, as in commenting on the rock trends, Bowie created a melodramatic cliché that more vulnerable souls have succumbed to over the decades, and in reality tragedy is not romantic. Yet somehow, in this fictional universe, Bowie brings things full circle - passionately narrating/observing an existential crisis, and giving it a heroic feel. Rock 'N' Roll Suicide is Bowie at its best - it imparts something true about human nature, that there is a sense of life being like a smouldering cigarette and that someone or something out there can protect us from the lacerations of stress, dread and mortality, if we reach out for it, but ever the self-conscious, emotionally-defensive Englishman, wraps it up a cloak of self-aware camp, giving it the full Judy Garland "Give me your hands!" and so, Ziggy Stardust disappears down the end of Lonely Street, a broken leper messiah, his hopes and dreams crushed in the cold light of dawnbreak, somewhere in Soho, and the band salutes his heroic failure with a strident massed violin sign-off. Bowie's really good at ending albums with a sense of finality.
So that's the Ziggy album as I've read it over the years. Next blog, I'll be looking at the attendant singles that made 1972 Bowie's year - Starman, John, I'm Only Dancing, All The Young Dudes, a couple of reissues, Walk On The Wild Side and Jean Genie. See you there.
29th March 2014.