Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

Despite what you may have heard, or read, Glam Rock didn’t begin with Marc Bolan, David Bowie, or any other early seventies English rocker. It began long, long before that, during the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Forget those plain and lumbering creatures you see on the Science Channel—those were the workaday dinosaurs. The real creatures, like Glittersaurus Rex and Giganotosaurus Glamii, were fashion queens and totally outrageous.

They knew theirs was a final age of decadence and lived it to the hilt, wearing mascara, eyeliner, feather boas, and fabulous neckpieces like the one Edgar Winter sports on They Only Come Out at Night. And glitter, of course—the terminal age dinosaurs adored glitter. On their faces, on their claws, and even on their thigh-high 8-inch platform boots, which made it impossible for them to run and are the reason they went extinct. Their elegy, if they can be said to have one, was uttered by David Bowie, who said, “If those dinosaurs were the spearhead of anything, it wasn’t necessarily the spearhead of anything good. Any era that allowed dinosaurs like them to become rampant was pretty well lost.”

But we’re not here to talk about dinosaurs, but about one of the greatest albums of all time. And not just Glam albums, but albums period. 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was a concept album recorded by rock’s premiere changeling—a skirt-wearing longhair oddball ex-mime named David Bowie, who decided that outrage was the name of the game and that the most fabulous route to stardom lay in dressing up like a mincing androgynous intergalactic space fop, come to spread the news of imminent apocalypse and the gospel of hazy cosmic jive. And it worked, worked so well in fact that even Bowie himself came to believe it. Soon every teen in Glam Britannia was dressing up like a spaceman in drag, and tossing the wanker rock (e.g., Edison Lighthouse, Leapy Lee) they’d been forced to listen to until then into the dustbin. This wasn’t rock’n’roll—this was recordcide!

And god bless Bowie because unlike his chief competitor Marc Bolan he managed to successfully sell his wares across the pond and pollute America’s youth with his decadent creature Ziggy Stardust. In short the U.S.A got lucky, because of all the English glam bands that could have touched an American audience (e.g., Mud, Alvin Stardust, Geordie, and Smokey, to name just a few) Bowie and his Spiders From Mars were the real fucking deal. And they may well have saved my life, and because without them, what in God’s name would have I listened to when I first started getting high? Seals and Crofts? One of Stephen Stills 600 different various projects? Poco? Are you shitting me? I would have died of boredom, or done something really self-destructive, such as listen to Jackson Browne or actually do my homework!

Even after all these years—Ziggy was released over 40 years ago—it still makes me happy. Not the way it made me happy then—a combination of numerous bong hits and “Moonage Daydream” simply can’t be topped—but happy that Ziggy himself is still around, on the front cover of the LP, standing at 23 Heddon Street beneath the yellow sign for the furrier K. West, and looking alien dapper in his blue suede Kansai Yamamoto outfit, guitar at the ready. And happier yet that his music still has the ability to make me happy.

Not everybody bought into the Glam Bowie, or Bowie period. The curmudgeon Lester Bangs wrote, “Fuck Ziggy Stardust, which amounted to Judy Garland in The Reluctant Astronaut,” before adding, “I always thought all that Ziggy Stardust homo-from-Adelbaran business was a crock of shit, especially coming from a guy who wouldn’t even get in an airplane.” But so what, Lester I love you despite the fact you’re dead but you were wrong. Because while you could argue with the trappings of Ziggy—its concept, its camp costumes and outrageous hair styles, in short all of its theatrical hoodoo—there was no arguing with the music, which is why people buy albums in the first place. Had Ziggy Stardust been an accumulation of crappy songs, it would be a quaint footnote in the history of rock, and I doubt Glam would ever have gotten off the ground.

But Ziggy Stardust is sheer musical genius, from its slow numbers like “Five Years” and “Lady Stardust” and “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” to its rave-ups like “Moonage Daydreams” and “Hang on To Yourself” to “Suffragette City,” the sole exception in my opinion being Bowie’s cover of the Kinks’ “It Ain’t Easy,” which I’ve never felt fits on the album and is its weakest link. The Spiders From Mars (Mick Ronson on electric guitar, vocals, and keyboards; Trevor Bolder on bass; and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey on drums) are one tight outfit, and Ronson in particular performed miracles on electric guitar, and for the life of me I’ll never understand why Bowie dispensed with his services before recording 1974’s dystopian Diamond Dogs.

Opener “Five Years” recounts the reaction of the populace when they learn they have but five years to live. It opens with a simple drumbeat, then Bowie and piano enter, Bowie growing increasingly animated as he sings, “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare/I had to cram so many things to store everything in there” before delivering the famous lines, “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest/And a queer threw up at the sight of that” and “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor, drinking milk shakes cold and long/Smiling and waving I don’t think you knew you were in this song.” The song finally comes to a great climax, with Bowie growing agitated as he sings, “Your face, your race, the way that you talk/I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk,” then repeats the lines “We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes/We’ve got five years, what a surprise/We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot/We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got” before the song ends in wash of dissonant noise.

“Soul Love” is a mellow tune with a hard-rocking chorus, set to a syncopated beat and heavy on Bowie’s saxophone. Ronson’s power chords explode on the choruses, and there are lots of cool android backing vocals as Ronson plays a laid-back guitar solo that takes the song out. As for “Moonage Daydream,” it’s one of my all-time-favorite rockers, thanks to its groovy melody, Bowie’s vocals, and last but not least, Ronson’s guitar, which when it isn’t playing feral power chords is providing great fills or delivering what is, in my opinion, one of the finest guitar solos ever. It’s spacy and backed by Bowie’s echoing vocals and some electronic noise, but it never fails to knock me for a loop, especially when Ronson reaches a crescendo and lets loose with a couple of chukka-chukkas. Meanwhile Bowie is asking his love to put her ray gun to his head, and if this one doesn’t cause you freak out, and I mean far out, your brain has been invaded by a virulent virus from Venus that only allows you to enjoy the music of Christopher Cross. You think Ebola is bad? A case of this cosmic strain and you’ll be begging for Ebola.

“Starman” is a very slinky and gentle pop rock number that would sound just as home on 1971’s eclectic and folksier Hunky Dory as it does on Ziggy. And if it’s proof you’re looking for that Bowie’s taste was unimpeachable, “Starman” almost didn’t make Ziggy Stardust because Bowie (believe it or not) preferred a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round,” a version of which is available on the 30th Anniversary edition of Ziggy Stardust and which is nothing to write home about. “Starman” is about teens hearing the alien, who has appropriated the radio and is “would like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds.” I love the way Bowie pronounces the “boogie” in “Let all the children boogie” like “loogie,” and the strings, and Ronson’s funky guitar solo–over which Bowie sings, “La la la la la, etc.”—that takes the song out. Ronson also throws in some great Morse Code-like guitar before the choruses. As for “It Ain’t Easy,” I’m not wild about the verses but the choruses are big and Ronson plays great guitar. Still, the words “Hoochie-koochie woman” sound unnatural coming from the least blues-oriented musician this side of Morrissey, and why he didn’t choose the excellent “Velvet Goldmine” or “Sweet Head” (well, the critics might have had something to say about that one) instead is information beyond my pay grade.

The lovely ballad “Lady Stardust” is another gentle, piano-dominated number about a bi-sexual boy in bright blue jeans (which carries with it evil portents of the “Blue Jeans” Bowie to come) who climbed up on stage and “was really quite paradise” and who “sang all night long.” Bowie’s vocals are spot on, and he captures the magic of a great live show when he sings, “And he was all right, the band was all together/Yes he was all right, and the song went on forever.” The backing vocals are exquisite, as is Bowie’s closing piano, which segues into the harder rocking piano of the high-octane “Star,” one of the best songs about wanting to be a rock star since the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star.” Bowie’s piano, lots of great backing vocals, and his cry of “Get it on, yea” all make this one great, even if Ronson’s guitar is relegated to a minor role. You’ve got love Bowie’s conviction that he could “fall asleep at night as a rock’n’roll star,” and “fall in love all right as a rock’n’roll star” before Ronson’s guitar finally comes in and Bowie echoes Lou Reed’s “Just watch me now” from the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”

“Hang On To Yourself” opens with one the coolest guitar riffs ever, and moves, as Bowie himself sings, “like tigers on Vaseline.” The handclaps are tres chic, Woodmansey is terrific on drums, and the chorus kicks ass as Bowie sings about a “funky thigh collector” and how “the bitter (I always thought he was singing “meter”) “comes out better on a stolen guitar/You’re the blessed/We’re the Spiders from Mars.” And as the song comes to an end Bowie sings, “Come on, yeah” over and over, working himself into an intergalactic fever.

As for “Ziggy Stardust,” what can I say? Everybody knows Bowie’s parable about Ziggy being crucified by his own fans, and anybody who doesn’t know Ronson’s opening guitar riff and the “Ooooooh yeah” that follow by heart should be sentenced to “a crash course for the ravers,” as Bowie sings on the wonderful “Drive In Saturday” off Aladdin Sane. Bowie sings, “He played it left hand/But made it too far,” and “He came on so loaded, man/Well hung and snow white tan.” But Ziggy takes it too far, declares he’s “the nazz with God given ass” and winds up making love to his own ego and getting sucked up into his mind and killed by his own idolaters. Sounds like what happened to me with my old band, Lesbian Boy. Especially the “well-hung with snow white tan” part. Sure the lyrics are ridiculous, but Bowie sings them with aplomb. Little did he know he would be playing the role of cocaine-fueled, ego-mad prophet messiah over the following years, to the point where reality and fiction became interchangeable and he fled Los Angeles in fear of both his sanity and his life.

I always found the rave-up “Suffragette City” funny, chiefly because it’s so over-the-top campy. Especially when he sings, “Hey man, well she’s a total blam-blam/She said she had to squeeze it but she… then she…” and, even better, when he tries to get rid of his flat mate, singing, “Hey man, droogie don’t crash here/There’s only room for one/And here she comes/Here she comes.” But there’s nothing risible about Ronson’s pounding guitar opening, or the “Hey man” that the backing singers call out after each of Bowie’s lines. Or Ronson’s jet roar of a guitar solo, for that matter. Meantime a piano pounds away as Bowie sings about being back on Suffragette City, which I assume is no good, before finally letting loose with that great “Wham bam thank you ma’am” at the songs’ end.

I agree with Lester Bangs that the opening lines of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” (“Time takes a cigarette/And puts it in your mouth”) are atrocious, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as Bangs does, that Bowie “wrote the absolute worst lyrics I had ever heard from a major pop figure… with the exception of Bernie Taupin.” Comparing anyone’s lyrics to Bernie Taupin’s is a serious crime, at least in Liechtenstein, and while characterized by excess, Bowie’s lyrics range from the bad to the very good. Even “Rock’n’Roll Suicide,” which opens on a downer note with some acoustic guitar and the aforementioned line about time shoving a butt into your piehole, shifts gears at mid-song with a savage snarl of horns followed by Bowie at his most transcendent. His singing grows more urgent until he cries, “Oh no love/You’re not alone!” then urges the would-be suicide to “Just turn on with me/You’re not alone/Let’s turn on and be/Wonderful!/Gimme your hands/Because you’re wonderful!” before letting out a final great cry of “Gimme your hands” It’s one of the greatest moments in rock, and offers a glimpse of hope at the end of an album that is all about the end of the world, and I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I was moved by the sheer compassion Bowie (a legendarily cold performer, if not human being) puts into those words.

Ah, but back to glam. Bowie released three more Glam LPs (that is if you count his album of covers, 1973’s Pin Ups) before concluding that Glam was going the way of those fopped-out dinosaurs in Cretaceous Period. In any event following 1974’s Diamond Dogs he reinvented himself as a plastic soul star and released 1975’s Young Americans, saving himself from contributing to the remorseless sucking sound that his Glam contemporaries made sinking into pop’s unforgiving tar pit. No, I stuck with Bowie through his avant garde Eno-period, and only abandoned ship after he released those twins of pop dreck, 1983’s Let’s Dance and 1984’s Tonight, which finally made Bowie the superstar he always wanted to be. But at what cost? Well, I for one haven’t listened to an entire LP by Mr. Bowie since.

But all that was in the future. Right now, I fear I’ve failed to explain why this overcooked but great concept album so moved me (along with the equally wonderful Aladdin Sane) when I was a teen. And all I can think is that while the whole LP blew my stoned mind (I think I believed that Starman was really up there, that’s how high I was) those final lines in “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” always moved me and gave me hope, and if there was one thing the rock scene in 1972 (or around 1974, when I began listening to it) was lacking in, it was transcendence. And by that I mean transcendence that could have only come from space, or some place other than Earth, because even then I suspected that there was little to be hoped for from my fellow man.

What else can I say? Except wham bam thank you Glam, for all those ecstatically stoned hours I spent in the presence of Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars. I can’t think of another album—with the exception of Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes—that has brought me so much joy over so many years, and that I’ll never stop listening to. I’m no long that young pot smoker filled with hope but a crotchety old man who believes all is hopeless. Yet listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars never fails to strike an echo in my heart, from that young me I always suspect is dead but who stirs at the sound of “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” and “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” And for that I owe David Bowie, the changeling, a debt of gratitude I’ll never be able to repay.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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  • Martijn

    Formidable!

  • Michael Little

    Thank you mein freund!

  • William Little

    Great piece Mike. I aint just sayin’ that ’cause were blood either!  One of my all time fav works.

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