David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (pt. 1)

Ziggy

Dear Matt:

Lately, I am obsessed with Todd Haynes’s glorious, thinly-veiled David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine. It’s got everything that I look for in a movie, including fantastic music. Of course, none of the music is actually by Bowie, because he loathed the screenplay and refused to allow the use of his songs. Thus, Velvet Goldmine is scored with a spectacular mix of great tracks from A- through C-list glam icons who are not David Bowie. And, any movie with this many Brian Eno songs is pretty much guaranteed to grace my top ten for at least a short while.

I was thinking about just giving you the soundtrack, in the hope that you’d go on to watch the movie. But then I realized that hearing the soundtrack, or indeed seeing the film, would be a strange experience without you having experienced the music that haunts the liminal space at the edge of its narrative: Bowie’s classic tale of love, eschatology and gay space aliens, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So, that’s what you’re getting this week.

In 1972, Bowie was already something of a known quantity, but hadn’t attained any semblance of his later fame. Even so, he’d already been through at least one major stylistic change. This would happen again and again with Bowie. Even at this early point in his career, Bowie was aware of his impulse to change constantly and radically. It’s the subject of one of his most famous tunes.

By this point, he’d had a massive hit with ‘Space Oddity,’ and a couple of acclaimed albums. But Bowie was about to break through in a big way, thanks to the gradual development of his first consistent stage persona: Ziggy Stardust, the gender-bending extraterrestrial who brought everything that the early glam rockers like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had built to its logical conclusion. Ziggy was new and exciting in a way that couldn’t not connect in the radical, post-hippie England of 1972. And he sang some great tunes.

Ziggy arguably predates the album that bears his name, but it’s this album that codifies him and his mythology — albeit vaguely, as we’ll see. Ziggy Stardust has guitar-driven cock rock, ultra-camp torch songs and inexplicable harpsichord. It is poetic at times, and self-consciously dumb at others. For an album with such iconic, mainstream status, it is very, very strange.

Way back when you assigned me Deltron 3030, you pointed out that it wasn’t like a traditional concept album in that it doesn’t have a distinct narrative arc. Well, that applies just as much to this particular traditional concept album. Ziggy Stardust posits a version of the 1970s where the world is set to end in five years. Suddenly, the radio airwaves are invaded by the cosmic rock ‘n’ roll of an androgynous Martian of indistinct and mutable sexuality. Ziggy Stardust’s revolutionary space music preaches a gospel of universal love and banging whoever the hell you want, regardless of normative social codes. In Earth’s final moments, Ziggy gives humanity its mojo back. But naturally, at some point Ziggy’s ego begins to supersede his message, and things end badly for him and his intrepid band, the Spiders from Mars.

If you try to situate every song on the album within this narrative (which, bear in mind, is just my interpretation — this album is super vague) you are not likely to succeed. I just think of it as a bunch of songs that could plausibly come from a world where the biggest celebrity on the planet is a glam rock alien. Like Deltron 3030, it is probably richer for its looseness of concept.

I’ll be honest: for all of its daring transgressiveness, Ziggy Stardust is quite far from my favourite Bowie album. (That would be Low, but that’s practically a Brian Eno album, and we’ve done that already.) I find Ziggy a bit inconsistent, and Bowie’s vocals — while incredibly distinctive — haven’t settled into the nuanced baritone register where I like them best. But I still think you need to hear this, because it is without question the definitive Bowie album where most of the world is concerned. You need to hear it because the highlights (for my money, ‘Five Years,’ ‘Starman,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’) really are staggering. And, of course, you need to hear it because you need to know what’s going on in Velvet Goldmine. And you need to watch Velvet Goldmine.

— Matthew

P.S.: One of the best blogs on the internet is Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie’s entire career, with substantive essayistic treatment of every track he’s ever released. For our purposes, I might suggest his essay on ‘Starman.’ If, you know, that sounds remotely interesting to you.

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