The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
1972, Epic. Producers: Ken Scott and David Bowie.
In My Collection: CD, 2015.
IN A NUTSHELL: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a glam-rock, guitar-feast masterpiece. The songs range from ballads and cabaret to screaming rock ‘n rollers. Always melodic, David Bowie’s remarkable voice carries the album. He sells every ounce of every song about Ziggy, the space alien, bisexual, rock-star savior who put together a band to save Earth. It’s not exactly Puccini, but I saw La Boheme at The Met, and that story didn’t make much sense either.
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 30.
Here’s a big shout-out to Sully, a co-worker at a biofuels lab ten years ago who told me I’d really like Ziggy Stardust. Sully is almost exactly my age, and had an eerily similar upbringing to mine. This, apparently, aligned our musical tastes as well. He was one of the first people with whom I’d shared an early version of my 100 Favorite Albums list. At that point it was a bulleted email of otherwise perfect albums ruined by one bad song[ref]Some of these albums, from artists like Maria McKee and Stone Roses, ended up placing highly on the final list despite their flawed song.[/ref]. I also emailed him a list of Unexpectedly Great Albums, including titles such as Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No and Buckcherry’s Time Bomb.
A person whose co-worker shares weird lists of albums with them and DOESN’T immediately run away or call HR is clearly a very decent human being. One who actually engages in the lists is a kindred spirit. And in recommending Ziggy Stardust to me, Sully clearly understood what I’d like in a record. It’s terrific.
As an AOR music fan in the 70s and 80s, I thought of David Bowie as the weird uncle of Classic Rock. The adults felt compelled to invite him to Christmas parties, and everyone chatted with him and smiled, but you could tell he made them all uncomfortable. He’d laugh and make jokes you didn’t understand, and ask you to come close so he could see how big you’d grown. You’d grin warily and softly answer “Fine,” when he asked you how school was going. Then he’d leave early, and everyone enthusiastically shouted “‘bye!” and breathed a sigh of relief. He was part of the family, but only sort of.
As an adult you finally realize that the uncle had switched faiths, or gone to college, or was gay, or a union leader, or didn’t go hunting, or in any case had done something that set him apart from everyone else. And whatever that something was, you also realize that the rest of your family were just as weird, or weirder than, him. You’d also want to learn more about him.
Such is David Bowie. He was definitely invited to the party that Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kansas and Led Zeppelin and Van Halen were having on 70s FM rock radio, but he sure made them uncomfortable. He was in the family because some of his songs had fuzzy, squawking guitars or really cool lead guitar. But then some were sort of synthesizer-y or R&B or disco or just weird. And some were, like, a combination of all that. Then there was the whole “Is he gay?” thing, which in that era surely turned off some folks. In those less-enlightened days, rock fans pretty much assumed Freddie Mercury was gay, and just ignored it. But with Bowie, there was a feeling that he could be gay, straight, or some other orientation that had yet to be considered[ref]There’s a great scene in the amazing 1980-set TV show Freaks and Geeks where Seth Rogen’s character, Ken, is wondering whether he’s gay, and so listens to David Bowie albums to help himself find out.[/ref], which seemed much scarier. But still, he was at the party.
Given his weird-uncle status, I never really connected with him as a young rock fan. I enjoyed some of his songs on the radio, and I loved his Queen duet, “Under Pressure.” When he repackaged himself for MTV with 1983’s Let’s Dance album, I thought “Modern Love” was great, but I mostly liked that he hired Stevie Ray Vaughan to play guitar for him. I had a couple of his Greatest Hits cassettes, but I didn’t buy an album until Sully pointed the way.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a concept album, a sort of rock opera. I like many such projects (The Wall, American Idiot) and have even created them from albums that weren’t intended to be (Give the People What They Want). But I never get too caught up in the stories, as their narratives can often be described as disjointed, at best. In this case, Ziggy Stardust is an alien sent to Earth to save it from an apocalypse that’s described in the lyrics of the opener, “Five Years.”
Five years remain for life on Earth. No reason is given, but it’s a sufficiently sad song for such a topic. It starts and ends with a ticking-clock drumbeat, a nice touch. There’s plenty of orchestra to underpin the emotion, but it doesn’t go overboard, and Bowie uses his best “Heroes-y,” heartache-y voice. It’s a great opener.
“Soul Love” has a flamenco/tango feel, with an off-kilter time signature that keeps the song gently hiccuping along. The lyrics describe the different forms love takes, and it’s not clear, exactly, how this fits into the greater narrative (Is Ziggy singing it? Are the nearly-annihilated Earthlings?) but that’s to be expected in these rock operas. The song does set the stage for “Moonage Daydream,” the introduction of that “alligator, mama-papa, space invader, rock ‘n roll bitch,” Ziggy Stardust, who somehow will save Earth with his freak-outs. And Earth is pretty psyched, too, as “Starman” indicates. It’s a strumming folk tune, almost, with a nice, simple bass. The lyrics are short on specifics, but this savior’s plan does include letting all the children boogie. (Hey, look, when you have five years left, you’ll try anything, I guess.)
I’ve thrown a lot of snarky comments in here about the story, but let me say this: story-schmory. The songs on the album are awesome. Mick Ronson’s guitar sound is cool throughout, the songs are catchy and really well-produced. And Bowie can sell any lyric, even those extolling the Hoochie-Koochie woman who helps Ziggy get to Earth. I think that’s what “It Ain’t Easy” is about? Anyway, it has cool slide guitar that I really like. “Lady Stardust” sounds like an Elton John number, with Mick Ronson playing piano. Bowie sings about a drag queen, presumably Ziggy, who blows the audience away with her performance. I really like the sing-along “all right.”
It’s never clear how or why, but Ziggy has to form a band to save Earth. “Star,” a rocking number, perhaps my favorite on the record, describes the process. Bowie’s voice presages the new-wave stylings of Gary Numan and Devo, and there’s a cool bridge. The backing vocals are great, and drummer Mick Woodmansey really shows his skills! If “Star” isn’t my favorite song, then it’s probably “Hang Onto Yourself,” a Ramones-ish, glam-rock workout.
The bass from Trevor Bolder is high and tight, hurtling the song forward. The song could fit perfectly on a New York Dolls album. The lyrics, again, don’t exactly, continue the story. Ziggy is having a great time in the band and enjoying the groupies, including a funky thigh collector with whom he moves like tigers on vaseline. No specifics are provided on how such high jinks are helping, or hurting, his whole Earth-saving mission.
However, “Ziggy Stardust” pretty clearly explains that the experience is getting out of hand. Although the song is about a space alien drag queen rocker, it could probably describe any of a number of debauched, strung-out 70s rocker. It’s one of Bowie’s best-known, and coolest, songs. Mick Ronson’s guitar tone and riff are perfect, and Bolder’s ranging bass supports it brilliantly. Woodmansey’s drums sound really cool, too. And it flows perfectly into “Suffragette City,” another of Bowie’s most celebrated numbers. The story seems to have completely broken down at this point. I don’t know what a Suffragette City is[ref]Happy 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the USA! In a high school speech class of mine, a girl gave a talk on the Amendments to the Constitution, and when she got to the 19th, commonly described simply as “Women’s Suffrage,” she stated it was put in place so that women would no longer suffer.[/ref], or how it relates to Ziggy saving the world. But it’s a cool song, for sure, with nice horns and piano.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” is, musically, a perfect album closer. It’s sort of a show tune, a jazzy cabaret-style number driven by Bowie’s sparkling voice. There’s a nice 50s-style, watery guitar in the background, as the song builds to Ziggy shouting “you’re not alone!” at 2:15. It’s great, but lyrically it doesn’t really wrap up the story. It seems Ziggy is dying? But all he’s really done for Earthlings is tell them they’re not alone? (Story aside, I’m sure the lyrics have been helpful to depressive Bowie fans for the past 48 years, which is a positive thing!)
But regardless of the story, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a brilliant album. It covers a lot of territory, musically, and the sound and performances are killer. I’d like to publicly thank Sully for encouraging me to pick it up! He’s a great guy, and he still reads this blog (I think). You’ll sometime see his comments after posts!