- 28 Apr 21
49 years ago today, David Bowie released 'Starman' as the lead single from his fifth studio album. Following a performance of the song on Top of the Pops, 'Starman' peaked at No.10 on the UK charts. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting our 'Classic Album Review' of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
By the time he came to make Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie's career was in a most peculiar state.
Although he'd been hovering around the fringes of the UK music scene since 1964, had a top 5 hit in 1969 with 'Space Oddity' and released the acclaimed collections The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory the previous year he'd hardly had a hit album worthy of the name, in fact Hunky Dory's showing at #93 in the US listings two months before this epochal outing was Bowie's first album chart entry anywhere in the world.
But back in the early ’70s labels were prepared to nurture their acts through at least a handful of albums before giving up the ghost and as Ziggy came together Bowie had a vital ace up his sleeve: Mick Ronson.
This native of Hull could not only hammer out riffs as well as any guitarist of the era but on Hunky Dory had shown himself to be an expert arranger to boot, well capable of choosing the precise musical shades Bowie's songs required. With Ronson as his right-hand man and the solid backing of Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey (drums) the stage was set for David Bowie to launch himself into the stratosphere.
Ever the one for theatrical conceits, Bowie came up with the idea of a concept album based around the career of a fictitious rock star, possibly hedging his bets in a way as if the project died a death he could always claim that it wasn't really him on the record, but a character (does 'Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines' begin to ring any bells?). The strange thing is that the idea of linking the songs through a central persona only came halfway through recording, with the result that a handful of songs don't really fit the theme, notably 'Five Years, 'Soul Love', 'Star', 'Lady Stardust', 'Suffragette City' and the incongruous cover of 'It Ain't Easy' by a chap called Ron Davies, not, one presumes, the former Welsh international.
Yet even with only half the songs bearing any real relevance to the flimsy story Ziggy Stardust is a masterpiece.
A musical magpie with impeccable taste and timing, Bowie moved beyond his folk explorations here and took as his template the acoustic/electric riffing of the latter-day Velvet Underground (practically unknown outside a handful of critics and a tiny but clued-in cult following) and added his own take on the hooligan androgyny of the fledgling New York Dolls, in the process creating arguably the sound and vision of glam rock. Lob in plenty of alien chic and here was an unbeatable package for the grey landscape of 1972.
Ziggy Stardust opens with an encroaching drum beat, gradually becoming louder until Bowie launches into the apocalyptic vision of 'Five Years', in which he details the ensuing panic as the planet realises that it'll all be over by 1977. Ronson's arrangement is superb, adding instruments as the vocal tension increases, Bowie's snapshots veering from the the sublime – "A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that" – to the Pythonesque howl of "My brain hurts a lot!".
The following 'Soul Love' is a gorgeous, surreal swing with Ronson's skill yet again blinding, encompassing one of the neatest key-changes ever and a sax/guitar interchange which takes my breath away to this day.
With 'Moonage Daydream' we're only just getting into the 'theme' of the album, Bowie jumbling up sci-fi/sexual imagery and proclaiming "I'm the space invader/ I'll be a rock'n'rollin' bitch for you" while instruments whirl fantastically through the mix and Ronson provides a divine solo over the ending.
The epochal 'Starman' follows, and it's the memory of Bowie with his blue acoustic guitar performing this on Top Of The Pops which remains a key musical memory for a generation. The gist of the song is that rock'n'roll comes from outer space or some such twaddle but it made perfect sense at the time and, funnily enough, still does.
Bowie and the Spiders could rock like madmen when the mood took them and towards the end of the album let rip on 'Star', 'Hang On To Yourself' and 'Suffragette City', while maintaining perfect control on the epic title track (one of only four which bear any real relevance to the central concept) and the closing 'Rock'n'Roll Suicide'.
The latter is one of the greatest closing songs ever conceived, a tale of thwarted ambition and glorious failure yet leaving room for redemption with the cry "You're not alone!/ Gimme your hands!/ You're wonderful" as the orchestral climax kicks in.
In under 40 minutes David Bowie had not only salvaged his career but become a superstar. In July 1973 he'd kill off Ziggy and adopt his next persona Aladdin Sane before moving on to The Thin White Duke and experimenting with soul, electronics and masses of drugs.
He had a terrible ’80s creatively and it's ironic that nobody took him seriously when he tried to come across as a normal bloke whereas we had no trouble at all taking to him when he claimed to be from another planet. Us punters are funny like that.
Seventeen years after its release Ziggy Stardust still stands up as a sparkling achievement, with Bowie's piratical pop sensibility perfectly offset by the genius of the late Mick Ronson.
One minor complaint though, the current EMI reissue of the album claims to have used all the original artwork yet the rear sleeve doesn't contain the statement which caused many a ’70s adolescent to court parental grief: 'To Be Played At Maximum Volume'.
Try it sometime.
WHAT THEY DID NEXT: Bowie and the band embarked on a massive world tour which broke them in America and virtually broke them as a unit to boot.
'The Jean Genie' was released towards the end of the year and in 1973 came Aladdin Sane and Pin-Ups, with Bowie also retiring his Ziggy persona in July of that year.
Following all of which came plastic soul, techno funk and futuristic electronica. Not a bad decade for the boy Jones, all in all.
STAR TRACK: A tough one, this but okay, alright then, 'Starman'.
ACE LYRIC LINE: "We can't dance, we don't talk much, just ball and play/But then we move around like tigers on vaseline/ The bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar/ You're the blessed, we're the Spiders From Mars" - 'Hang On To Yourself'
MAGIC MOMENT: Bowie's rhapsodic sax melody in 'Soul Love', joined after two repeats by Ronson's crystal clear, distinctive harmony on Gisbon Les Paul.
ODD FACT: Belfast pop punks Rudi took their name from the line "Rudi stayed at home to starve" in 'Star', while Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott once had a cat called Ziggy Stardust and two goldfish who answered to the names Weird and Gilly.
When you're a millionaire rock star you can afford goldfish who answer to their names.
RELATED ALBUMS BY OTHER ARTISTS: A liberal dip into the works of Suede, Cockney Rebel, The Radiators, Pulp, Aslan, Engine Alley, Gay Dad and even Marilyn Manson's last album will reveal a definite debt to Ziggy Stardust and countless punk acts took the energy and hair-dye as a basic blueprint for their short-lived careers.