A Musical Journey with Nicklas: Part 11: David Bowie -The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – 1972
Towards the end of February of 1986 I had this idea that might at first sound a bit bizarre – not to say totally ridiculous – but in hindsight it has turned out fairly well. I would spend the next six months buying records based on nothing but the cover art (including aspects such as artist name and album title). Needless to say this idea lead to me buying a whole bunch of crap – which we don’t really have to mention any further since those albums has long since been removed from my collection – but it also lead to me discovering a surprisingly large number of bands/artists that afterwards have become important supporting pillars on which my cathedral of music rests.
It was during these six months that I bought The Clash – Sandinista, Pink Floyd – Umma Gumma, Atom Heart Mother (both album covers are still among the most brilliant I’ve ever seen. R.I.P Storm Thorgerson), Kraftwerk – Autobahn, Trans Europa Express, Miles Davis – Bitches Brew to mention a few.
The ratio between usesless crap and unquestionable classics was quite definitely in favour of useless crap but I like to think that the depth and variety of my taste in music have its roots in those six months. And even if I usually count Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation as the starting point for my musical journey it was there and then my almost insatiable curiosity for ever new sounds and ideas, no matter how obscure or uncharacteristic. If I’m being perfectly honest I highly doubt that I had been ready to receive the glorious explosion of energy that shook my cerebral cortex as it erupted from Daydream Nation without the music I discovered during those formative months in 1986. But I digress …
To the point! During the latter half of that fruitful experiment I also bought no less than four albums by David Bowie: Diamond Dogs, Low, Heroes and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars.
Together these four albums paint a rather bewildering but magnificent picture of an artist so far ahead of his time and yet so perfectly right, recreating himself with each new album, pushing his own boundaries guided by an infallible talent for always picking his collaborators with pinpoint accuracy.
Mick Ronson to guide him into and through the glam rock era, Carlos Alomar to shape him into a slick soul man on Young Americans and Brian Eno to guide him through the experimental art rock era with a substantial contribution from Robert Fripp and his rather unique style of guitar on Heroes and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
There is something irrevocable about the moment when you first hear an artist or band. Irrevocable of course because it is a moment that cannot be undone and eventually these moments stack up to the point where it becomes harder and harder to get that sweet bliss that gives you goosebumps and makes your skin crackle with electricity. Then there are those first encounters that burn into your neural network like hydrochloric acid, rewiring your synapses from scratch.
Five Years is exactly such a moment!
The desolate power radiating from the isolated drum beat fading in, the slow – emotionally maximized – alternating guitar/piano chords combined with Bowie’s almost detached voice – backed by a ghostly echo – and the lyrics may very well be one of the all time greatest moments in the history of rock. The dynamic density of Fiver Years as it grows and progress into a cathartic anthem of cataclysmic proportions – and beyond – quite literally defies the laws of physics. And why not? The song is essentially about the imminent end of the world.
As for the lyrics to Five Years they are easily among the best that Bowie ever penned, rivalled only by a handful and surpassed only by Life on Mars to which Five years could actually be a darker, more desperate part two or at least a different perspective on the same theme.
After this soul-wrecking coup de grace opens the album Bowie goes on to deconstruct the word love before throwing the unprepared listener into Moonage Daydream not even allowing Soul love to end. The sheer volume of those first chords hits you like a left hook from Cassius Clay, right in the face and at this point the legend of Ziggy Stardust begins to take shape as he rise out of the bleak quietly desperate English suburban life. He’s an alligator, a mama papa coming for you, a space invader and a rock’n’roll bitch for you. Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am!
From here on the album becomes a virtual orgy of loud and noisy glam rock fuelled by one brilliant glam riff after another from Mick Ronson, perhaps doing some of his best guitar work ever.
Starman is in my opinion the first return of Major Tom transformed into a space invading rock’n’roll superstar blowing our minds with his Spiders from Mars. Think about it. It makes perfect sense. Just three years earlier Bowie left his first major alternate persona Major Tom hanging, suspended in the cold vacuum of space, floating round his tin can far above the moon. Now add the question about whether or not there is Life on Mars, asked by Bowie the year before Ziggy Stardust. Next add the two stellar songs from Ziggy Stardust – “Moonage Daydream” and “Starman” in which Ziggy Stardust becomes a rock’n’roll prophet – and it should all begin to fit together like hand in glove.
Especially when you consider the concept behind the album and the Ziggy Stardust character the earth has depleted all it’s natural resources and has only five years left. All the people of earth have more or less run it dry and are now in a position where they’ve lost touch with reality. Everyone already has everything except the electricity’s gone so no one can use anything that runs on electricity which is essentially everything. (Sound familiar?)
Also; without electricity there can be no rock’n’roll which is why rising rock star Ziggy Stardust after having been advised in a dream to try to save the world by inventing a messianic extra-terrestrial saviour starts to collect and sing the terrible news of the collapsed human civilisation becoming at the same time a doomsday prophet and a bringer of hope to the dying earth.
The song Bowie wrote about these news didn’t end up on the Ziggy Stardust album but instead became the title track from axeman Mick Ronson’s band Mott the Hoople’s 1972 album All the Young Dudes. The lyrics are in a way quite similar to those of Five Years but are also quite reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. Why All the Young Dudes didn’t make it onto The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars I honestly don’t know but it is possible that there just wasn’t any room for it. It appears in a shortened version (just the first verse and chorus) on the Motion Picture Soundtrack from the Spiders from Mars tour in a rather rockier version.
The concept of Ziggy Stardust is quite inspired by William S Burroughs’ ground breaking science fiction trilogy The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express – also known as the Cut Up Trilogy. Just as Diamond Dogs – a few years later – was inspired by George Orwell’s novel 1984.
And in between the two Ziggy Stardust went progressively insane from and transformed into the schizophrenic Aladdin Sane (A Lad Insane) on the album of the same title which Bowie has described as “Ziggy goes to America”. Together the three make up Bowie’s apocalyptic glam rock science fiction trilogy.
Bowie felt that this expansive way of creating his music was the only way. In a conversational interview by the very same William Burroughs for Rolling Stone magazine published in 1974 Bowie explains his view on songwriting: “I’m just not content writing songs, I want to make it three-dimensional. Songwriting as an art is a bit archaic now. Just writing a song is not good enough. – – – A song has to take on character, shape, body and influence people to an extent that they use it for their own devices. It must affect them not just as a song, but as a lifestyle. The rock stars have assimilated all kinds of philosophies, styles, histories, writings, and they throw out what they have gleaned from that.”
What I think many people today might perhaps not remember or even realize is that before Let’s Dance David Bowie was this quirky experimental artist with a relatively small following of loyal but bewildered fans, a well respected outsider among his peers (even after the break through that The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would turn out to be.), sometimes bordering on total madness and alienation inventing a new musical language and a persona to carry it with literally every new album.
In 1972 when writing and recording Ziggy Stardust Bowie probably couldn’t imagine in a million years that he’d end up with a career spanning more than four decades. This meant that he had to get as much out in as short a time as possible. In the months following his Young Americans album Bowie did come quite close to becoming yet another casualty of the rock’n’roll lifestyle – a Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide. Life in America and particularly in Los Angeles was eating him up and he fuelled his depression with more and more drugs and his drug abuse with a deepening depression leaving him in an almost psychotic state where – among other things – he was convinced beyond a doubt that Jimmy Page was out to kill him.
This psychotic break was luckily enough channelled into the persona of The Thin White Duke as he returned to Europe and went into an almost ascetic lifestyle hidden away from the world on the streets of Berlin where he would embark on the next part of his journey, the trio of albums he created with Brian Eno.
Av: Niklas Ekström, Landskrona.