Revisiting David Bowie’s masterpiece from 1972
It’s generally accepted that David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the peak of his glam rock phase; the album’s extravagant image embodies much of the showmanship now associated with the era and, what’s more, it acted as the platform from which Bowie would launch his future career. It is, however, the anecdotal DNA of the record that holds more significance than its glam rock showmanship.
Released in 1972, the record tells the story of an alien from mars, named Ziggy, who came to Earth and became a rockstar. Its themes were foreshadowed in much of Bowie’s earlier work; the singer had had an obsession with space and Si-Fi for some time, and this album represents the peak of that obsession. Thematic similarities can be drawn between ‘Ziggy Stardust…’ and much of Bowie’s previous works; songs such as ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Life On Mars?’ not only showcase similar themes to the ones on this record, but also show off Bowie’s incredible ability to create worlds and characters within his music.
The album essentially acts as the biography of Ziggy Stardust, the frontman of ‘The Spiders from Mars’ and details his mission to save the Earth with rock ’n’ roll music. Bowie’s talent for storytelling is brought into the foreground right from the word go; the album’s opener, ‘Five Years’, sets for Ziggy’s rise and tells of individual’s reactions to the news that the world will end in only five years time. It’s the kind of story that could have been taken straight from a Sci-Fi film, but the imaginative pictures Bowie paints of people vomiting, fighting, and crying makes it far more believable than any blockbuster I’ve seen.
Bowie’s character is developed throughout the album, with the tracks acting like chapters in a novel. We are told of Ziggy struggling for inspiration, finding fame, and eventually failing in his aforementioned mission. The story reaches its high spot on the album’s title track, where Bowie shines the spotlight on his alien protagonist’s demise. The track tells Ziggy’s story through the eyes of someone close to the band, covering his rise to rock ’n’ roll stardom and eventual fall from grace. The track suggests that, ultimately, Ziggy’s demise stemmed from him falling foul of one of the most sacred rules: don’t believe your own hype.
The album’s closer, ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’ sees Ziggy contemplating his own failure to save Earth and desperately looking for motivation to carry on. It’s open to interpretation whether or not the character does indeed end his own life but the title, clearly, suggests he does.
It’s Bowie’s characterisation and the invention of alternative worlds that sets the album up to be the timeless masterpiece it is. It features the kind of creation and imagination most associated with the progressive rock of the late ‘70s, but does it almost 10 years prior; showcasing Bowie to be a true innovator. Bowie’s invention of characters is not something isolated on this record and features heavily in other stages of his career, both before and after ‘Ziggy Stardust…’. It’s the protagonist on this album, however, that stands up to the test of time more than his other alter egos. The stories are so well presented that they will never not be compelling.
As well as being well ahead of its time lyrically and thematically, the album is also well developed musically. Bowie takes inspiration from the same place Ziggy does and derives the core of the record’s sound from the glam rock that was dominating the UK charts at the time. Marc Bolan was of particular inspiration to Bowie at the time and inspired the track ‘Lady Stardust’ which, while also describing Bolan’s appearance, sounds rhythmically similar to T.Rex’s ’Planet Queen’. More generally, the musical inspiration of the album comes from T.Rex’s ‘Electric Warrior’ album, which was released less than a year before. It features similar percussive patterns as well as similar vocal styles, which strongly indicate Bowie’s admiration of the glam rock star, as well as his willingness to use him as a source of inspiration.
Although perhaps not as musically inventive as it would first seem, on the whole, it’s hard to put into words just how much this album meant to music both in 1972 and now. We, as music fans, often think highly of musicians with the ability to tell compelling stories within their music and, as storytellers go, they don’t come any finer than David Bowie. ‘Ziggy Stardust…’ is the very definition of a seminal album and represents the point at which Bowie finally found his feet. It’s representative of the point at which the world was made aware of Bowie’s genius.
Maybe Ziggy Stardust couldn’t quite succeed in blowing the minds of Earth’s inhabitants with his rock ’n’ roll music, but David Bowie definitely did and the world is yet to recover.
Words by Adam Jackson-Wright