A whole ten months pass between the last album we looked at, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, and its successor, Aladdin Sane. In previous Blogalongabowies this hasn't been a particular issue, as we've seen that Bowie's progression in his recorded career had hitherto been a series of sporadic bursts of activity intermingled with stretches of creative inertia.
However, in 1972, it was almost as if, having consolidated his earlier losses, he seized the opportunity to make good on his aspirations exactly as January's single Changes foretold. Both Starman and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust did not dent the charts initially, although both were received favourably by the nation's music press. Bowie's ascendancy from cult artist to pop figurehead was something that slowly but surely gained traction in the spring and summer of 1972, but once he had broken the mainstream, there was no stopping him.
Starman was his return from the chart wilderness, so much so that it may have appeared to the casual pop buff that Major Tom had literally crash landed back to earth, straight into BBC Television Centre, but he'd unveiled the Ziggy look (sans Suzi Ronson's vermilion-red bog brush hair-do) in February on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and select verses from the gospel of Ziggy had been debuted to Radio 1 listeners on two Sounds of the Seventies sessions in January and May.
Indeed, the famous Top of the Pops appearance was not the first time Bowie and the Spiders brought Starman into the nation's living rooms. The month before, they had appeared on ITV's pop show Lift Off, long wiped from the archives, although the moment was notable in that it was during the recording of this appearance that David Bowie became the first pop star directly responsible for inspiring a TV series.
Roger Price was a TV producer who was in the process of conceiving a sci-fi drama for younger viewers. Price struck up a conversation with Bowie about his concept, a select band of teenagers in possession of latent special powers, the coming of a new stage of human evolution - the Homo Superior. Bowie was receptive and encouraging about Price's concept, which debuted in 1973 as The Tomorrow People.
There was clearly some synergy at work here - Bowie's Oh! You Pretty Things was thematically cut from the same cloth, a deceptively jaunty (pun intended, TTP fans) Beatlesque sing-along predicting that the next generation would indeed become "the homo superior". A sci-fi twist on the pop youth anthem, infused with concepts indebted to Nietzsche's Ubermensch and Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Vril, The Power Of The Coming Race, concepts Bowie had already extrapolated in a darker fashion on The Man Who Sold The World's After All and The Supermen.
The Tomorrow People was a very canny, fantastical extension of the alienation and confusion every child experiences during puberty - all teenagers go through a solipsistic phase of feeling that they are misunderstood, special and burdened with special insight that the grown-ups and the 'straights' don't understand, so it is no surprise that this cheap, kitsch, imaginative series struck a chord with its youthful audience. It is also not much of a stretch to extend the show's pubertal allegory into a 'gay' reading - "breaking out" (TTP parlance for when one's Homo Superior potential is realised) can also be interpreted for the turbulent period of 'coming out'.
This brings us back to Starman. It's well documented that the moment when Bowie, having previously draped his arm around his handsome blond guitarist - an provocative act of homosocial affection rarely expressed so insouciantly back in 1972 - with a flourish, twirls his hand and points down the camera, "I had to call someone so I picked on you-ooh-ooh" was a moment that many a young pop fan felt that, somehow, this otherworldly, androgynous figure had anointed them alone, personally, to join him on a special journey beyond his or her fuddy-duddy parents' comprehension, as their dad coughed and muttered something about bringing back national service and short back and sides.
For anyone who fell under Ziggy's spell who had already started to experience or recognise sexual leanings 'outside the norm', doubtless the effect was tenfold. For many of Bowie's new acolytes in the wake of that performance who would identify as gay or bisexual, Ziggy's arrival opened a door. Ten years later, a new wave of androgynous, provocative pop acts would take the charts by storm - Boy George's Culture Club, Marc Almond and Soft Cell, Pete Burns' Dead or Alive, Holly Johnson's Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Ziggy's children.
The next Bowie-penned single that hit the charts was under another act's name. While Ziggy was in chrysalis form, Bowie was devastated to discover that one of his favourite home-grown rock acts, Mott The Hoople, were on the verge of disbanding. Ever the fanboy, he offered them two songs - one was Suffragette City, the other was All The Young Dudes.
Despite never having figured in any permutations of the running order of Ziggy, All The Young Dudes fitted seamlessly into the messianic narrative of Ziggy, with its roll-call of beautiful freaks and juvenile misfits, and a companion piece to Starman - 'the news' the dudes carried can easily be read as the Starman's own, to shake some action in the short period of time Earth had left before the impending apocalypse.
It was a rousing call to arms for Ziggy's children, to whom the Beatles and Stones were yesterday's news, and were waiting for a new figurehead to fill the leadership void. It's amazing that, in 1972, Bowie was in a position where he could give away such a stone-cold classic to another band, and Mott's version remains definitive, as his own take on the song - recorded for, but omitted from, Aladdin Sane - chugs along at a funereal pace in comparison.
Come the summer of 1972, Mott The Hoople was not the only obscure act that Bowie was rehabilitating by sprinkling some of his stardust. In different parts of London, Bowie had ushered Iggy Pop's Stooges and ex-Velvets mainman Lou Reed into studios to pay back the influence they had had on his recent work.
The Stooges Mk.II were left to their own devices in Olympic Studios, Barnes, to lay the groundwork for what would become Raw Power while Bowie and Ronson, in a brief grace period during a non-stop tour, carefully fashioned together Lou Reed's Transformer, which saw Reed draw from his own first-hand experiences of the demi-monde of the Factory and Max's Kansas City as well as the delicate melodic sensibilities of the third Velvet Underground album, to create a document of pure "glam" from someone who had already lived this before it became a fashion statement. As such, it has a well-worn realness to it as Bowie could only walk the walk in Ziggy's shoes, whereas Reed was genuinely transgressive - only a bisexual like Reed, who had lived and breathed the atmosphere of Greenwich Village and moved in the same social circles as the likes of Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, not as a mere observer, could create something like "Make Up", with its echoing of the Gay Power chant "Out of the closets and into the streets" and make it feel like a document of lived experience...
Bowie is a presence throughout this album, contributing distinctive backing vocals throughout, but it is Mick Ronson who deserves the lion's share of credit here. Ronson's string and piano arrangements, which are such a key part of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane's enduring beauty, are all over Transformer, turning the ambiguous Perfect Day (is it about spending time with a lover? Or one last hit of heroin?) into a deceptively pretty ballad and transforming a goofy Velvets reject like Andy's Chest into a genuinely crepuscular and haunting piece of Dadaist poetry. Right up until his death in 2013, Lou Reed spoke fondly and generously of the inarticulate but incredibly gifted Yorkshireman who made Transformer a timeless classic.
The great gift for Lou Reed was the single from Transformer, Walk On The Wild Side. With its jazzy rhythm and Reed's poetically intoned vocals, it didn't fit in with the pop template then let alone now and stood out like a sore thumb. Reed's dry documentary account of the exotic Warhol Factory acolytes cast a real spell on the British audience, and rendered fringe outsiders Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtiss and Candy Darling as semi-mythical icons forever. There's a real story behind each verse, and it was beautifully detailed in the 1993 BBC Arena documentary Tales Of Rock 'N' Roll, well worth searching out. And to top it all, as if to crown David Bowie's year of success, he had his old saxophone tutor from Kent play the smooth, smoky sax solo.
Back on planet Bowie, RCA resisted the temptation to milk the Ziggy album for hit singles (in stark contrast to 1980, when eight out of ten songs on Scary Monsters appeared on one side or the other of a 45) and instead Bowie gave them a brand-spanking new single, John, I'm Only Dancing.
This was his first single released from a position of celebrity - having already had two milestone shows in the form of the Save The Whale concert (where Lou Reed joined Bowie for the encores) and the Ziggy Stardust Show at the Rainbow Theatre, with choreography by Lindsay Kemp and young guns Roxy Music as support act - and so seems designed to be provocative, consolidating Bowie's image in the press as a "magnificent outrage".
It's a devastatingly effective glam pop record on various levels. In terms of pop single simplicity, it clocks in at two minutes and forty-odd seconds and consist of two verses and a repeated chorus; an efficiency that is rare in the Bowie canon and anticipates the short, sharp shocks of punk and new wave singles by The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks (as does the delayed feedback ending, which is uncannily like the closing notes of Anarchy In The UK).
Lyrically, it really ups the ante in terms of being sexually forward, presenting a bisexual scenario at a disco - presumably inspired by Bowie and Angie's forays to the Sombrero Club. The song is a postcard-slight vignette in which the male protagonist finds his attentions torn between his boyfriend ("comes on strong, bet your life he's putting it on") and the sexually voracious Annie ("always eats the meat"); the singer protests "she turns me on, but I'm only dancing", but in the second verse, he's caught having a quickie with the girl ("Shadow love was quick and clean") by his boyfriend, related with the guilty "I saw you watching from the stairs, you're everyone that ever cared".
In retrospect it all sounds pretty slutty, which sits uneasily with me as a bisexual man given we are tarred with being unfaithful and promiscuous, but at the same time, even long before I had even begun to acknowledge or even accept my sexual orientation, John, I'm Only Dancing held a strange fascination for me, in terms of the fact that it described a non-monosocial situation AT ALL.
Anoraks like me might like to note that there are, at present, five different versions of John, I'm Only Dancing, which exist in a dizzying array of formats, some of which are still in print and some are not. Answers on a postcard.
All the while these various waxings were hitting the shelves, David Bowie's dark past as a sixties chancer began to slip out, with Pye Records releasing the first of numerous reissues of Mod Dave's ill-fated 45s, and the Arnold Corns project getting dusted off for a low-key reissue of the semi-mythical troupe's primitive prototype of Hang Onto Yourself. They didn't trouble the charts, and certainly didn't trouble Mr Leper Messiah himself, for while John I'm Only Dancing romped its way into the Top 20, David Bowie took Ziggy Stardust to America.
Join me in my next blog, when Ziggy begat Aladdin...
12th April 2014.