Dave Amitri on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Month three into 12 Bowie albums in 12 months as someone who had never heard a Bowie album before and I’ve arrived at “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. It will be plain old “Ziggy Stardust….“ from now on. I definitely approached this with trepidation as it’s clearly very important to an awful lot of people. I hope my attempts to view it from a different angle are appreciated. As usual I limited my reading to a scan of Wikipedia and it immediately strikes me how ground breaking the image must have been in 1972. The Top Of the Pops “Starman” performance was obviously a turning point in Bowie’s career. I remember how people reacted to Boy George 10 years later so in 1972 the concept of a bisexual alien on the telly on a Thursday night must have caused quite a stir. Much Blue Nun spat out into the fondue across 70’s suburbia. My mission is to see if the music lived up to the image or was it all flares and no knickers?
On the first listen they’d obviously given Elton his piano back. Its more of a rock album but with some surprising elements that fired up some strange musical and vocal connections and influences for me. Obviously the whole glam rock movement was spawned from the seed of Ziggy’s loins but I also found familiarity across five decades from the 60’s through to the early 2000’s
“Five Years” kicks it all off and it feels like a primal scream of anger at the various injustices Ziggy encounters as the earth careers towards impending doom. It’s a bit of a list song that builds beautifully to a crescendo. A definite grower that put me in mind of The Waterboys “This Is The Sea” album. Mike Scott’s vocal delivery mimicking Bowie’s screeching intensity. Bowie is not a singer in a traditional sense. He’s a vocal expressionist that isn’t always to my taste but on “Five Years” he nails it.
“Soul Love” following “Five Years” just makes me smile. It’s a song you could imagine Lou Rawls or Barry White growling over. It’s a groove with Bowie again creating a sound that just about works. On Paul Weller’s “On Sunset” he does something similar on the track “More”. How it fits into a concept like Ziggy Stardust I’m not quite sure. I’m happy for someone to explain. It’s a lovely song, a phrase I wasn’t expecting to use….
“Moonage Daydream” is all kinds of mad. It’s a heavy metal vibe that instantly put me in mind of The Cult. To my ears Ian Astbury is another devotee to the school of Bowie vocal acrobatics. The bit I love most though is the middle eight that reminds me of those hippy lunchtime children’s tv programmes from the 70’s like Pipkins, Fingermouse or Bod. It shouldn’t have any right to be plonked in the middle of a freeform ramble of lyrics and guitar but there it is. Bowie’s influence on children’s TV is a whole new subject for another day…
“Starman” then. A massive hit that I’m obviously familiar with. Should Bowie songs ever come up as a question on Pointless I suspect “Starman” would be the worst answer. Everyone knows it. It’s great, luscious, melodic and everything you’d expect when Bowie ventures into space. Listening to it as often as I have though one thing struck me, Noel Gallagher has lifted the intro and beat for a number of plodding Oasis songs scattering his monodust on it where Bowie sprinkled Stardust. I hope I haven’t ruined it for you…
“It Ain’t Easy” is one of those songs that from the first line I visualised another band from the future, 30 years into the future performing the song. I can see the video, see the performers, the flashing monochrome lighting, crashing through the song in a mix of guitar showmanship and simplistic drumming. Man and woman, husband and wife. You got it yet? Of course you have its Jack and Meg, The White Stripes. It’s so familiar I even searched the internet to try and find it. I was so close. There’s a YouTube clip of Jack doing it live with The Raconteurs. The song is a force of nature. I love it.
“Lady Stardust” is a return to the theatrical Bowie of previous albums. An androgynous tale performed with a mix of light touch and gusto. The “Alrights” would appear again in “Young Americans” . Continuing the vocal mimicry theme there are moments where it could be Jon Bon Jovi dressed as a cowboy with his six string across his back singing a song from a Western. It’s another lovely song. That’s it. Lovely.
“Star” to me is a straight up rock pop tune that I didn’t expect to find on an album that’s so revered. I’m delighted it’s there. I have a real soft spot for mid 70’s pop songs and one of the first records I bought as a child was “Glass of Champagne” by Sailor. The piano from that was clearly lifted directly from “Star”. It feels like it inspired bands like The Motors, Racey and Jigsaw. If that is the case then it’s a Bowie legacy that’s right up my street. It’s a belter.
“Hang On To Yourself” takes us back to the rock ‘n’ roll era and also forward to a pub rock, punk, new wave stomp along. It’s Dave Edmunds “Queen Of Hearts” meets Sham 69. A fantastic song full of spirit and energy but like “Star” not what I expected to find on “Ziggy Stardust”.
“Ziggy Stardust” is another stone cold classic. One of those songs that I would have loved to have been around to experience at the time like “Hound Dog” or “Hey Joe”. It must have been astonishing to witness in 1972. Where the look and sound meet in perfect harmony. Minds blown, drugs taken, experiences experienced. I suspect Justin Hawkins and The Darkness along with many others found inspiration in such an iconic song musically and in performance. I really have nothing new to add here it’s everything popular music should be.
“Suffragette City” another familiar song sent me off to actually do some research into the lyrics and meaning. It would appear he’s referring to a person rather than a place in an overtly sexual manner. He’s on his Suffragette City and she’s outta sight, she’s alright…. Nope, not a clue what he’s on about but there are thousands of words out there on the subject. The sound was familiar to me. My older sisters weren’t huge Beatles fans but they did own “Back In The USSR” which is very similar in feel to “Suffragette City” but I guess if you’re going to borrow from someone…
“Rock n Roll Suicide” closes the album and it takes us back to the beginning with more chest beating cries of anguish over an acoustic arrangement. The overall feeling of the song took me back again to the 2000’s and the self proclaimed indie kings of the time Razorlight. It’s just the kind of thing Johnny Borrell would have thrived on. Standing naked to the waist, in the spotlight, believing he was the second coming. In his dreams. Twat… In Bowies hands though it’s a great finish and his “You’re not alone” is spine tingling. That voice of his is a real conundrum…
So in conclusion I was expecting a concept album full of great songs that matched Bowies latest incarnation. In parts it really is remarkable. In other parts it’s just a decent rock album leaning on some Hendrix guitar dressed up in a fancy image. I was also expecting to hear influences on the early 80’s Blitz kids but it appears they just borrowed the clothes. The musical inspiration from “Ziggy Stardust” went from mid 70’s pop to 2000’s indie, via Brit Pop. I just wish I could have heard it in 1972 the day after he did “Starman” on Top Of The Pops. I expect you really had to be there. If you were, please let me know how it felt, it’s an experience I’d like to hear all about. A final thought. It was recorded at almost the same time as Hunky Dory. For me they could have made one absolutely phenomenal album from the best of the songs from both albums. Surely “Life on Mars” at least belongs on “Ziggy Stardust”? Regardless Ziggy joins “Hunky Dory” on a list of albums I’ll return to.