I’d love to claim that as an ultra switched on 9 year old I was watching Top Of the Pops in July 1972 when Bowie (or was it Ziggy?) sang the line “I had to phone someone so I picked on you” and has he sang the word YOU stared straight into and pointed down the camera lens, and I was struck by that feeling of “he means me” that so many others I’ve heard it from were taken by. Truth be told I had not-a-clue and didn’t really discover this wonderful record until the early 80’s ! Since I discovered it it has tho’ held a permanent place in my top 5 favourite albums of all time.
“The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” was already recorded and ready to go before its predecessor, “Hunky Dory”, had been released. Bowie was not a star at this point but his management, Tony De Fries and Mainman, came up with the strategy that if you pretend you are a Rock star, turn up everywhere in a limousine with an entourage, stay at all the best hotels etc., then people will believe you are a Rock star and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. So that’s what they did. Fortunately he had the record to back up the artifice.
“Five Years” is a classic Bowie apocalyptic, dystopian tale (there will be many more). The news had just come (the same news the Young Dudes were carrying Bowie later admitted) that “Earth was really dying” and as a result people were collectively losing their minds. We encounter crying newsmen, a soldier just staring, cops kneeling to kiss priests feet and violent young girls freaking out at the thought of the end of the world. I guess it felt at times in the early 70’s like the world was about to end so the song fits the mood of the times well. Woody Woodmansey said he was trying to put “hopelessness into a drum beat”.
“Soul Love” feels like an anti love song…it feels warm and fuzzy and quite funky but the lyrics tell a different story of how love is careless. As “Soul Love” fades to nothing a perfectly timed edit brings us
DRAAANG…DRANG…I’m an alligator…
the crunching opening chords of Mick Ronson’s 2nd great performance, “Moonage Daydream”…but, but, but <<< rewind a little…
One thing that has always bugged me about the start of “…Ziggy Stardust…” is this…”Five Years” and “Soul Love” share very similar drum patterns alongside very similar chord structures, why did no-one think to have Woody segue out of “Five Years” into the opening beat of “Soul Love” (that’s the way I always hear it in my head) and you create an opening to Side 1 that doesn’t let up from the start until the end of “Moonage Daydream”.
Anyway, back to the song in hand…Ronson really does freak out as the lyric suggests and the lyric basically encapsulates the entire album in one song, a grand introduction for a fake rock star, whether that be Arnold Corns (aka Freddie Buretti, for whom it was originally written) or Ziggy Stardust. This is, tho’, Mick Ronson’s showcase, although let’s not forget Trevor Bolder who anchors the whole thing while Ronno is creating stardust with that guitar solo. A solo for which Bowie drew a diagram for how it should sound, Ronson went off and hid in a corner somewhere and came back with an exact match for the diagram (watch him get into it at the final Hammersmith show below). You want a theme tune for Ziggy Stardust ? “Moonage Daydream” is it.
And if that 3 song opening salvo didn’t floor you then you get “Starman”. Books and essays have been written, documentaries filmed and podcasts recorded and in many of them David Bowie has been described as a/the Starman. Bowie has forever been viewed as an alien presence and it all comes back to this album, to the character Ziggy Stardust and to this song. It was the albums lead single in April 1972. THAT TOTP performance in July 1972 has gone down in lore as the moment many people “got” Bowie. Draping his arm around Ronno’s shoulder was scandalous at the time, Trevor Bolder and his incredible side-ies nervously laughing as they did that told you as much. The outfits were incredible along with the hair and that moment, “I had to phone someone so I picked on you”…suddenly Bowie WAS a star, and we haven’t reached the end of side one yet !
Although we do reach the end of side one with more of a whimper than bang. “It Ain’t Easy” was a cover of a song from Louisiana songwriter Ron Davies 1970 album “Silent Song Through The Land”. Now, apart from “Waiting For The Man” I don’t think Bowie was ever really that hot at picking covers. It has been claimed that Mick Ronson had introduced this one to Bowie as he’d played it with his band The Rats. Whatever, it’s the albums low point and it’s astonishing to think that this made it while “Velvet Goldmine” was left in the tape vault.
Side 2 is where it all happens. When you think of Ziggy you think of Bowie’s look at the time, flame red hair, bright sparkly jump suits. “Lady Stardust” tells of someone with “long black hair” and “the boy in the bright blue jeans”. Not how we think of Ziggy Stardust looking. Whatever, we’re being introduced to the phenomenon here. I love the verse:
Femme fatales emerged from shadows
To watch this creature fair
Boys stood upon their chairs
To make their point(s)of view
The beautiful people have emerged but the boys at the back of the room are still, drinking and shouting their heads off.
“Star” (it’s almost an admission of the pretence of being a star Bowie and his entourage were playing out) and “Hang On To Yourself” (the song that opened many shows on the Ziggy tours) show us the mania and the excitement Ziggy was stirring up “We can't dance, we don't talk much, we just ball and play, But then we move like tigers on Vaseline”
Then Ziggy’s song, telling, from the POV of one of the Spiders, of the rise and fall of the alien rock star. Hung off one the greatest guitar riffs ever played Bowie tells us of the well hung nazz, who played left handed and took it all to far. “Suffragette City” feels like Ziggy’s comedown “wham bam thank you m’am”. It was apparently offered to Mott The Hoople before “All The Young Dudes” but they turned it down. It and “Hang Onto Yourself” must have been huge influences on Punk…proto-punk ?
And then it’s the end game. Side 2 has flown by and it’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. The kids have killed the man and the Spiders have broken up but “you’re not alone, gimme your hands” and it ends on orchestral strings…what a rush.
“The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” is important cos it gave the world the greatest rock star of my lifetime. I was late to this party, but from that first hearing to listening for the nth time just now, I don’t think I’ve ever been anything less than enthralled by this wonderful record.
Moonage Daydream - https://youtu.be/BL9Aur-G1yc