Thursday, May 31, 2012

Let's get Ziggy with it

Before anyone thinks that what you're about to read is an attempted suggestion that I'm older and more musically erudite than I really am, let me declare that I didn't own a David Bowie record until 1973.

That might still be in itself eminently cool, given that it means I joined the ranks of the Bowie-owning classes at the age of six. However, it is only right and proper to point out that the record in question was The Laughing Gnome. First released in 1967 this Anthony Newley-style novelty was the product of Bowie's inaugural metamorphosis from Bromley pop wannabe David Jones to the legendary rock changeling we now know him for.

In 1973 the re-release of The Laughing Gnome was completely out of place with the singer's career. He'd already had a breakthrough hit with Space Oddity, a modicum of success with The Man Who Sold The World, and his fourth album, Hunky Dory, released in 1971, had been critically acclaimed, if not particularly successful commercially.

The apparently incongruous reissue of the novelty record was no accident, however, but a somewhat cynical effort by Deram, the 'hip' offshoot of Decca and the singer's first record company, to cash in on the success of an album - released the year before - that ultimately turned David Bowie into one of the most talked about, perennially fascinating and constantly evolving artists of all time - The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

If there was one word which, if you were to Google "David Bowie" and carry out a word search of the results, would come up again and again, it is "chameleon". It's a lazy description, since chameleons change their colour to blend in. Bowie has been about anything but.

Hunky Dory marked the singer's evolution from the bag of musical variety tricks lacking a centre that had hallmarked his early career, another art school upstart finding his way through the confluence of London's music, art and fashion 'scene'. It contained the singles Changes and Life On Mars - neither of which bothered the charts at the time, surprisingly, as well as Queen Bitch, the song which vented Bowie's love of the Velvet Underground and which certainly acted as a prototype for the album that was to follow.

On June 6, 1972, Bowie's fortunes changed forever with the release of Ziggy Stardust. It would go on to spend the following four years in the album charts, and remain one of the albums that shaped the rock era. Next week it is being re-released in celebration of its 40th anniversary, joining reassemblies of classic albums like Born To Run, Exile On Main Street and Dark Side Of The Moon to tease coinage from the nostalgic and the curious (and me, obviously) with a choice of formats - including an all-you-can-eat bumper package comprising the vinyl LP, a newly-remastered DVD of the Ziggy Stardust stage show, and 5.1 and stereo mixes of the CD.

OK, so that's the commercial over - so is it any good? Why, of all the other great albums released in 1972 - Harvest, Deep Purple's heavy metal blueprint, Machine Head, Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Exile On Main Street, Elton John's Honky Chateau or Steely Dan's Can't By A Thrill - does the mere mention of Ziggy Stardust now make grown men and women swoon so?

Anchored by Starman, Suffragette City, Rock'n'Roll Suicide and the eponymous title track, Ziggy Stardust was a concept album before the term had been stigmatised. The Who had already introduced the idea of a arcing, single narrative album with Tommy and Who's Next (built out of Pete Townshend's abandoned Life House story), with Sergeant Pepper, The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and even Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940 before them.

Ziggy Stardust was a complete immersion in character, image and song, delving deeply into Bowie's interests in the avante garde while continuing his relationship with space, an apparently subconscious interest that predated Space Oddity and went back as far as his love of Telstar, the 1961 hit by The Tornados. It would, of course, return with Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the songs Life On Mars and even the much later I Took a Trip (On a Gemini Spaceship) and Hello Spaceboy.

It seems to be a common thread amongst rock stars that once they acquire celebrity they feel compelled to write about its pitfalls. Roger Waters cathartically took this on via the character of Pink with The Wall, while Peter Gabriel assumed the guise of Puerto Rican street tough Rael, seeking freedom and an identity in New York on the 1974 Genesis concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Though Bowie had yet to ascend the height of his fame, Ziggy Stardust became his comment on fame's Messianic nature, seen through the guise of an alien rock star who comes to earth in search of all that sex and drugs and rock-and-roll has to offer, only to find that achieving fame and promiscuous good fortune, he ultimately becomes shunned by the very fans he'd hoped to acquire.

For the era of somewhat self-indulgent double albums enclosed in luxuriantly-designed double-gatefold sleeves, Ziggy Stardust was relatively brief at just under 40 minutes long - 20 minutes per side. But like so many classic, short albums (A Hard Day's Night, What's Going On and Transformer amongst them) it delivered much more by lacking the excess of its contemporaries.

It is, at essence, a pop-rock album recorded by the most basic of constructs - singer (Bowie), guitarist (Mick Ronson), bassist (Tony Bolder) and drums (Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey). All songs - bar one - were written by Bowie himself, who also co-produced with Tony Visconti the sessions at London's Trident Studios over the course of a few weeks between the September and November of 1971. Compare that with the three years it took the Rolling Stones to record Exile On Main Street.

The lack of complexity translates into a musical immediacy apparent from the opening bars of Five Hours, with its shuffling drums and swinging bass intro, introducing the story that hints at the demise of Earthly civilisation. Two tracks later, Moonage Daydream and the ensemble lets rip, a precursor of the camped-up crunch to come with Suffragette City ("Ahhhhhh - wham-bam, thankyou M'am!"), and the album's glam rock torch song finale, Rock'n'Roll Suicide.

The alien narrative of Ziggy Stardust is hardly a perfect arc, coming and going at the Bowie's pleasure, on songs like Star examining "the wild mutation of a rock and roll star" who would "come on like a regular superstar" by sending "a photograph to my honey". The theme of rock star narcisssism - of which Bowie had been regarded as a prime practitioner during his 'ultra' Mod period in the mid-60s - came out strongly with Lady Stardust which, it is widely believed, was a comment on Marc Bolan, with whom Bowie enjoyed a strong fraternal relationship, with its opening line "People stared at the makeup on his face, Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace.

Bowie's barbs for the trappings of success that he'd craved from the moment he started courting fame in suburban combos in Bromley and Beckenham are reserved for the album's mildly vituperative title track and its swipe at the rock star beast, channeled through the album's eponymous hero, "Making love with his ego" and the killer line "Like a leper Messiah".

No pun intended, by Starman is the standout of Ziggy Stardust. On one level it's a brilliant pop song, replicable by whistling postman as much as stadium-filling rock gods. In the mix is Ronson's delightfully sleazy guitar riff - a clever Marc Bolan pastiche (Bowie's early career had, allegedly, plundered many a riff from contemporaries like Pete Townshend, prompting The Who guitarist, during an early backstage encounter, to remark: "Shit, was that one of my songs you just played?" after hearing something which sounded distinctly like Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere).

A month after Ziggy Stardust was released, Bowie/Ziggy and the Spiders appeared on Top Of The Pops to perform Starman in what was to become one of the signature television appearances of the 1970s.

Starman became Bowie's first hit single since Space Oddity, and the sight of Bowie cosying up to Ronson to share a microphone, and Trevor Bolder's bizarre grey muttonchops gave the home audience a glimpse of the sheer theatricality of the Ziggy Stardust stage show about to go on the road. 

Touring a complete album has become the norm these days, as artists hit the heritage trail with their biggest hit, but in 1972 it was unusual. It also afforded Bowie the opportunity to give Ziggy a shelf life before moving onto his next persona, which he did once the legendary Ziggy Stardust stage show came to an end on July 3, 1973 with its final performance in London.

The show's origins, though, had been less salubrious: the very first "official" performance came on February 3, 1972, in the unlikely setting of the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth, Surrey, barely a mile from where I was growing up. The show itself would have been unremarkable if it wasn't for the fact that Bowie had created for himself media interest that transcended the music he was creating. 

The music was only half the story: the other half was the persona Bowie adopted. Sporting bright orange mullet, he presented the most dramatic change of image to date, a trait he would continue doing for the remainder of his career.

Ziggy wasn't just a haircut - he was the representation of a deliberate androgyny. For 1972 - long before Boy George, remember - this was guaranteed to make headlines. And yet Bowie wasn't being intentionally camp or ambiguous. Ziggy was simply the image the character had arrived at. But not camp. "David had to become what Ziggy was – he had to believe in him," guitarist Mick Ronson has said in an interview. "Ziggy affected his personality, but he affected Ziggy's personality. They lived off each other." And thus Ziggy became Bowie's host for shocking, gaining infamy during the Ziggy Stardust tour when, in Oxford, he appeared to relate Mick Ronson's guitar on stage. Pop stars, eh?

"I understand the camp thing," Bowie himself told the NME's Charles Shaar Murray in July 1972. "Once upon a time it was, I think, put down in the category of 'entertainer' but since the departure of good old-fashioned entertainers the re-emergence of somebody who wants to be an entertainer has unfortunately become a synonym for camp. I don’t think I’m camper than any other person who felt at home on stage, and felt more at home on stage than he did offstage."

That said, Bowie had earlier declared himself bisexual in an interview with Melody Maker in January 1972. As shocking a declaration for a mainstream pop star to make then, it would become regarded by many - and possibly Bowie himself - as one of those remarks pop stars in their ascendancy say when attention is within their grasp. Think Lennon and his Jesus comment, or the Gallagher brothers and almost anything they've said to a journalist. Ever. "I suppose it's the best thing that ever happened to me," Bowie told Playboy in 1976, later stating that it was also the biggest mistake he'd ever make.

Either way, at the beginning of 1972, Bowie was the man. The declaration in Melody Maker may have been a cute piece of shock PR, but it became integral to the entire Ziggy persona, and helped start the album earning long before it had even reached a pressing plant.

Just as most early Beatles fans were interested in screaming at the Fab Four rather than appreciating their melodic genius, Ziggy Stardust nevertheless generated as much shock value for what Bowie looked like as to what he and his band - the Spiders From Mars, of course - sounded like.

Ziggy - the character - has become part of pop iconography. Like a waxwork line-up of Elvis, The Beatles, Sinatra and probably even 1982 Boy George, too, Bowie/Ziggy is instantly recognisable, and instantly memorable. At the time, though, there were mixed feelings from a music press unsure whether Ziggy was a gimmick or artistic statement. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust... personifies Bowie's new image as the intended messiah of Teenage Wasteland," wrote Nick Kent in Oz magazine, before commenting, first, on the Ziggy image ("an almost grotesque parody of early Elvis Presley complete with outrageously tasteless costume, butch hairstyle and calculated effeminate gestures") before noting the album as "quite superb".

If, as Kent argued, Ziggy was simply a vehicle for attention, Bowie succeeded. But in The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, he created an album that pushed the envelope of what rock and artistic expression could do. 40 years on, it still is.

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