I knew there was a reason that I have had this record on pretty much constant rotation for the last few days (other than the fact that I listen to it maybe 20 times a year anyway). On the 6th of June 1972 David Bowie released “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” (hereon shortened to “Ziggy Stardust”). In doing so he changed the expectations and imaginations of a generation. He sowed further seeds for punk, directly created New Romanticism and allowed a million teenagers to realize that it was ok to be different.
“Ziggy Stardust” is in my opinion, by some distance, the zenith of concept albums. It is the most fully realized, the most listenable and the most interesting. It is camp, playful and comic as well as being perceptive, emotional and profound. It is layered and textured. It is otherwordly yet says something pertinent to the everyday. It is simply put one of the most perfectly created and executed works of art from the 20th century.
So after such a sweeping and epic statement it would probably be wise to at least endeavor to back up my opinion. I guess to me the songs are so vibrant and epitomize everything that is enthralling about rock n’ roll- massive riffs, audacious vocals and pulsating rhythms. Meanwhile the story that is told makes sense within it’s own narrative structure while still having something, however vague, to say about “normal” life. The songs can be interpreted as part of the whole or on their own terms. Finally I would say that there is the fact (previously discussed) that Bowie is so motherfucking cool. That “cool” was developed in part through Ziggy’s look and attitude. He can take you to these curious places because he is the kid you want to befriend. He is the person who does what he wants and that self confidence is just bewildering.
“Ziggy Stardust” continues to inspire awe a fact that I confirmed today by listening to it with my 5th grade. This was in part due to the fact that I knew with family visits, meals etc. I wouldn’t get a real chance to absorb the record till much later today. Consequently during their last lab before summer I put on the album as we had fun making huge bubbles.
Spirits, as you might expect, were already high but they became increasingly exultant with the music providing a superb context to the activity. Several kids asked “who is this?” “what is this?” Questions asked 40 years ago and just as relevant today. They loved the juicy guitar riffs on “Suffragette City” and “Moonage Daydream” and were soon joining in on the catchy chorusses such as “Starman”. The timeless appeal of this record lies in the amazing writing and the futuristic sound.
By creating a record set in the distant future Bowie searched for a sound that was itself modern. His glam rock exists in an imagined ideal of the future and as such cannot yet be “dated” as it is set in a time that will never come. While one could argue that such a conceit is itself archaic and distinctly 20th century, that does not discount the fact that the record inspires because it exists in different parameters to most. For example “Power, Corruption & Lies” and other albums that I have tested out on the children may sound antiquated or “of their time” because they are rooted on earth in the 80s rather than soaring many light years in the future.
In terms of the music I feel silly trying to explain what makes it so superb. Look it starts with the greatest opening track ever “Five Years” a song that fades in with it’s hypnotic beat and slowly builds to a crescendo about the impending end of the world. The vocal is impassioned and evocative spitting lines with desperation “all the tall short people/all the nobody people/all the somebody people” and then rounding them out with a melancholic resignation “I never thought I’d meet so many people”. Having opened with such a show of force the album speeds along with exhilarating riffs and chorusses before closing with one of the most incredible final songs on any album. “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” is my favorite Bowie song commencing with a worn out acoustic and then the world worn vocal “time takes a cigarette/puts it in your mouth”. It describes Ziggy’s demise as an old beaten strung out rock. The quiet of the verses is interrupted when the horns start the build toward the stunning chorus “Oh no love you’re not alone”. Bowie’s voice is magnificent articulating fear, loneliness and desperation. The strings and horns build and the song just takes your breath away. Yet somewhere in that resignation and fear there is comfort and a need for human connection “you’re not alone/just give me your hands”.
Between some of the greatest opening and closing songs in the history of rock n’ roll there are many, many joys to be had. “Soul Love” is a sexy song aided by great horns. “Moonage Daydream” is a adrenaline rush from it’s first line “I’m alligator” and the accompanying crunching guitar chords to it’s coda of Mick Ronson’s soaring solo. “Starman” needs no description containing an awesome narrative and singularly catchy chorus. “It Ain’t Easy” has a deceptively gentle opening but a huge glam chorus. “Lady Stardust” offers another addictive sing a long chorus “he was alright/the band was still together”. “Star” is a great rock n’ roll song replete with a great boogeying piano part. The album then rushes to it’s conclusion with “Hang On To Yourself”, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City” providing a heady cocktail of rock beats and massive guitar riffs.
“Ziggy” will always stand as Bowie’s high water mark as it appeared to arrive fully formed and, having been killed off on stage in 1973, disappeared just as suddenly. It is a inspiring and yet brief moment in rock history. It is a tantalizing glimpse in to the possibilities of rock n’ roll as a pure art form. It changed my life and widened my horizons and I think I proved today it will continue to do so for many years.