1. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

 

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” is David Bowie’s 5th studio album, originally released on 16th June 1972.

In the end, No. 1 had to be Ziggy. It’s not only my favourite David Bowie album, but my favourite album of all time. Which is actually quite remarkable as it was the very first album I ever bought on record (I initially bought all my music on cassette tape as I only had a cheap tape deck in the early days). So when I close my eyes and listen to this remarkable album, I’m instantly transported to my little semi-attached house in Manchester and playing this for the first time on my parents new record player and Castle speakers. It sounded sooooooo good and yes, it’s still sounds so fresh and vibrant and exciting and thrilling and ALIVE today.

But it’s not just that this album has oodles of nostalgia for me. It really is for me musically the perfect album…

Back in late 1971, early 1972, David Bowie was still relatively unknown. Despite being in the music business for an endless 7-8 years with four albums under his belt, Bowie had just the one hit to his name, the “Space Oddity” single back in 1969. But that was all about to change for ever…

All the pieces for his success were now finally in place. In Tony Defries, Bowie had a manager who was now singularly focused on ensuring Bowie got the media attention he needed and cleverly used hype and marketing to give the perception that Bowie was a star whilst still almost penniless. In RCA, he had a record label who were committed to the necessary marketing and promotion needed for success, especially in the US. In Ken Scott, Bowie had a producer who knew how to get the very best out of Bowie and his remarkable songs in the studio. In Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, he had the perfect musical foil who could both in the studio and live in concert make Bowie’s music truly shine. But perhaps most importantly, Bowie’s song writing had reached a golden period, where he had really clicked and was writing song after song of an incredibly high calibre. His previous album “Hunky Dory” was a tour de force of amazing song craftsmanship. Unbelievably, even before his previous masterpiece had even been officially released, Bowie was already in the studio excitedly recording his next album with another set of brilliant new songs.

However, rather than just a collection of great songs, Bowie had a half formalised idea for a concept album, one which told the story of Ziggy Stardust, an alien who would arrive on earth as a cosmic savior as the world was nearing a nightmarish end due to some unspecified apocalypse and through music would bring hope to a desperate population. However success and the inevitable, unavoidable end would all be too much for Ziggy, who ultimately perish at the hands of his devoted fans.

The Ziggy Stardust character would be based on various influences, including Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix, The Stardust Cowboy, Syd Barrett and perhaps most pivotal of all, Vince Taylor, a 1960’s rocker who would suffer from a mental breakdown at the height of his (mainly European-based) success. Although Bowie had developed quite a detailed story-line, at least in his head, the final album had a very loose concept with Ziggy no more than a vague thread than runs through the album, rather than any real coherent narrative. Side One of the album can be seen as setting the scene and describing somewhat Ziggy’s environment and arrival, where Side Two more specifically tells Ziggy’s tragic tale, although most of the narrative is actually condensed within the title track itself.

The album opens with Woody’s iconic slowly fading-in drum beat that is the introduction to “Five Years“. The band joins in with a mainly piano and guitar based riff as Bowie opens with the unsettling “Pushing through the market square, So many mothers sighing, News had just come over, We had five years left to cry in“. Bowie then details the reaction of various people at the awful, apocalyptic news that mankind only has 5 short years remaining. The music slowly builds as Bowie observes events around him such as “A girl my age went off her head, Hit some tiny children” and later “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, And a queer threw up at the sight of that“. Ronson’s lovely string arrangements are then introduced as Bowie sees his girlfriend, oblivious to their doomed future and has the heartbreaking task of telling her the nightmarish news “Smiling and waving and looking so fine, Don’t think you knew you were in this song“. It’s just all too much and as the music reaches it glorious crescendo and the strings explode out, Bowie sadly recants “We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot, Five years, that’s all we’ve got” before finally literally screaming “FIVE YEARS !!!” in sheer terror and anguish. Woody’s awesome drum performance then ends as it began, as it slowly fades away. It’s an extraordinary vocal performance, one Bowie could never quite replicate live as it would quickly destroy his voice and shred his vocal cords.

If this isn’t the best opening to any album, then I haven’t heard it. It’s one of Bowie’s very finest moments on record and we’re only up to the first track. Bowie would perform the song on and off throughout his career, in some of the early Ziggy Stardust shows, during the “Station To Station Isolar I” tour and “Stage Isolar II” tours and then finally on his last “Reality” outings.

Bowie introduced Ziggy Stardust to the world way back in February 1972 a few months before the album’s release when he performed “Five Years” on the “Old Grey Whistle Test”. Watch this iconic performance here.

The “Five Years” outro drum beat merges seamlessly to the intro drum beat to “Soul Love“, a song that describes the contradictions and failings of love within the Ziggy universe, from the perspectives of a grieving mother, young lovers and a lonely priest. It has a rather lovely, catchy melody played predominantly on Bowie’s acoustic guitar, with Ronson’s guitar at perhaps its most restrained on the album. Although the music has an uplifting feel, especially when Bowie plays his rather cute saxophone solo, there’s a sadness in each of the three vignettes; the grieving mother “Stone love, she kneels before the grave, A brave son, who gave his life“, the two young lovers “New words, a love so strong it tears their hearts” and the priest “All love, though reaching up my loneliness evolves, By the blindness that surrounds him“. In the chorus, Bowie reminds us how love encompasses all “Love is careless in its choosing, Sweeping over cross and baby” but in a doomed world, love might not be enough “All I have is my love of love, And love is not loving“. These are all people in desperate need of a saviour…

Other than the 1978 Isolar II tour where is was a fixture of the Ziggy Stardust resurrection within the setlist, it’s a track that Bowie very rarely performed live.

The saviour arrives in the next track, the cosmic experience that is “Moonage Daydream” and perhaps the centrepiece of the album. Following Ronson’s power chords, Bowie introduces us to Ziggy with the immortal lines “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you, I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you“. Things only take off from here on in, with The Spiders at their absolute best studio form, creating hard rock stereophonics that truly takes you to another place. The first verse though is relatively subtle, with mainly Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Bolder on bass covering most of the melody lines. Things expand out in the chorus, with the piano joining in the fun and the “dooooo” backing vocals as Ziggy pleads “Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe, Put your ray gun to my head“. Ronson’s superb guitar is more prominent in the second verse, as Ziggy ties things back to love themes from the previous “Soul Love“, “Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me, The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be” before diving into the chorus again “Press your space face close to mine, love, Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah“. We then arrive at the first musical break, where Bowie’s baritone saxophone and what sounds like a tin whistle dominate before literally soaring into the choruses again, the music building and building in intensity with Ronson’s amazing string arrangements kicking in. Ziggy’s voice expands out as he cries out the lyrics, echoing now as if resounding out into the cosmos. Ronson’s epic guitar solo bellows out as Ziggy commands us all to “Freak out, far out, in out“. The final minute plus of this track is undoubtedly Ronson’s finest moment on record, a soaring masterpiece of distorted guitar heroics that combined with his swirling strings creates a space-opera soundscape that always takes me to a special place. It’s a truly amazing song and when played at maximum volume (as suggested on the back of the record sleeve), it just sounds superb. Ziggy has most definitely arrived !!

An early version of Moonage Daydream was recorded for Bowie’s aborted Arnold Corns project (more on this later).

During the subsequent Ziggy Stardust tours, this track would be one of the highlights, with Ronson’s guitar solo expanded out to give time for Bowie to nick out for a quick costume change. It would also feature on a number of other tours, including the “Diamond Dogs” and “Outside” tours.

Starman” comes next, a hugely important track in the Bowie cannon as it was the introduction to Bowie for a generation when performed on Top Of The Pops on 5 July 1972. It’s Ziggy preaching via radiowaves to the doomed youth that there is still some hope of salvation. Starting with Bowie’s acoustic guitar, a young person is amazed at the starman’s message suddenly coming across on his radio “Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase haze, That weren’t no D.J. that was hazy cosmic jive“. The Morse Code like bridge takes up into the soaring chorus, inspired (copied) from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow“, with a warning about our Ziggy “There’s a starman waiting in the sky, He’d like to come and meet us, But he thinks he’d blow our minds” as Ronson’s string arrangements adds to the overall atmosphere. Ronson is again wonderful on guitar here with the solos after the chorus combining beautifully with the strings. In the second verse, the story teller shares his story with a friend and is delighted to hear he too heard the starman “I had to phone someone so I picked on you, Hey, that’s far out so you heard him too” with his arrival strictly for the youth (with a throwback to “Oh You Pretty Things“), “Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright“. The final “la la la la” coda is very reminiscent of Marc Bolan’s sound with T. Rex who was at the time indeed dominating the airwaves. Overall, it’s the perfect single. Which kinda makes it remarkable that the track only just made it onto the album after RCA wanted something that was more “single-worthy” to be included to promote the album. It was written and recorded at the last moment and replaced the Chuck Berry cover “Round And Round” on the album and thank goodness because the album is most definitely the better for the replacement (more on “Round and Round” later).

Starman was released as the lead-off single on 28 April 1972 and reached No. 10 in the UK charts, making it Bowie’s second hit single, a long 3 years after the “Space Oddity” success in 1969. In fact, many considered it as being Bowie’s only single since his previous likewise outer-space themed track. Bowie first performed Starman on TV on “Lift-Off With Ayshea” but it’s Bowie’s iconic performance on Top Of The Pops that’s most fondly remembered. This rest as they say is history. Watch Bowie perform Starman on Top of The Pops here.

Starman would feature on many of the earlier Ziggy Stardust dates before being dropped, with it only returning to the live sets during Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” greatest hits tour in 1990. The fact it didn’t even make it on Bowie’s first greatest hits package “ChangesOneBowie” suggests that Bowie was not overly fussed with the song. For me, it will forever remain a true Bowie classic.

 

 

The first side ends with the oddity of the album, “It Ain’t Easy“. The only cover on the album, it’s an otherwise virtually unknown song by American songwriter Ron Davies. It’s a nice enough track, with a catchy sing-along chorus and nice guitar licks by Ronson, but it just doesn’t feel quite right on the album and lacks relevancy within the album’s overall concept (except that obviously life indeed ain’t easy when you know the world will soon end). I view it as Ziggy simply taking a break on the top of a mountain, taking in the views of Earth before the rush that is side two of the album. However, “Sweet Head” or even “Velvet Goldmine” (both discussed later) would have made a much more fitting end to side one.

It’s clearly the weakest track on the album and as far as I’m aware, has only been performed live once by Bowie, during a BBC John Peel radio show where the song ended the session with a different Bowie guest singing a verse (as can be found on the excellent “Bowie At The Beeb” album).

Side Two kicks off sedately enough with the lovely “Lady Stardust“. Sung from the perspective of an adoring Ziggy fan, frustrated and angered at the naive reactions of others at a concert, the mainly piano based arrangement throws us back to the vibe of the previous “Hunky Dory” album. The opening lines “People stared at the makeup on his face, Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace” are clearly references to Bowie’s friend and contemporary inspiration Marc Bolan. Mick Ronson’s piano part is perfect melancholy as the fan watches his idol in action “And he was alright, the band was altogether, Yes he was alright, the song went on forever” and shows his love despite the sadness of the situation “I smiled sadly for a love, I could not obey, Lady stardust sang his songs, Of darkness and dismay“. He finally can’t hide his disdain for those ignorant around who don’t share his love for Ziggy “Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name“. It’s really is a beautiful song.

That said, it’s a song that Bowie rarely performed live, except at some of the early Ziggy Stardust shows. At a concert at the Rainbow Theatre in August 1972, Bowie projected Marc Bolan’s image on a screen to make perfectly clear his inspiration for the song. It also features on the “Bowie At The Beeb” album.

Things really begin to rock out on “Star“, as Ziggy details his plans for rock ‘n’ roll stardom, while those around him falter and fail “Tony went to fight in Belfast, Rudi stayed at home to starve, I could make it all worthwhile as a rock & roll star“. The Spiders really rock it here, with a frantic bar-room type piano and the band unit thumping out a driving rhythm. Bowie sounds at his most fake american here, while the backing vocals are simultaneously delightful and hilarious. Ziggy doesn’t hide his true motivations; “I could do with the money, I’m so wiped out with things as they are” but is convinced he has what it takes to make it “I could make a transformation as a rock & roll star” and “I could play the wild mutation as a rock & roll star“. As the music calms down at the end, Ziggy makes his final proclamation “Just watch me now“. It’s a wonderful modernised example of an old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll song about the virtues of rock ‘n’ roll.

For some unknown reason, “Star” didn’t feature in the Ziggy era live shows, only making it’s live appearances during the 1978 Isolar II and the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tours.

The same can’t be said for the wonderful “Hang On To Yourself“, which generally opened the Ziggy Stardust era live shows. Starting life as a slower paced piece with decidedly different lyrics as one of the songs recorded as “Arnold Corns” (more on this later), this version is infinitely superior, with lots more frantic energy and saucier lyrics. Ostensibly about the perils and temptations of groupies, it opens with the killer lines “Well, she’s a tongue twisting storm, She’ll come to the show tonight” while later “She’s a funky-thigh collector, Laying on electric dreams“. Again, the Spiders are all in fine form here with a driving, punchy riff that takes one on a joyous trip. Other than the title track, it’s the only other time when they get a mention in the lyrics “Well, the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar, You’re the Blessed, we’re The Spiders From Mars“. Ronson’s guitar riff after the chorus and in the outro is just infectious as is Ziggy’s “Come on ha, Come on, ha“. It’s yet another example of Bowie at his best when he hits the groove.

Ziggy Stardust” comes next, where the entire Ziggy plot is essentially condensed down to this wonderful song. Starting with Ronson’s iconic guitar riff, it’s one of the most identifiable moments in rock history. Bowie as the narrator (who I have always thought to be one of The Spiders) introduces us to Ziggy “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly, And the Spiders from Mars“. Ziggy is an amalgamation of various persons, including part Iggy Pop, part Jimi HendrixHe played it left hand“, part The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, part Marc Bolan and in large part Vince Taylor. Our Ziggy is your archetypal rock star “He could leave ’em to hang, ‘Came on so loaded man, well hung and snow white tan” but the usual jealousies are coming into play at the end of each verse “Became the special man, then we were Ziggy’s band” and “So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands?“. Musically, it’s not just Ronson who shines here, although his guitar flourishes throughout are just divine, but both Bolder and Woody also make a tight unit that drives the whole piece along, especially during the refrains. At the end, Bowie depicts Ziggy’s downward spiral “He took it all too far but boy could he play guitar” although it’s typically ambiguous exactly how it all ends “Making love with his ego Ziggy sucked up into his mind, Like a leper messiah, When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band“. The track ends with Bowie’s final cry, stated in the past tense of how “Ziggy played guitar“. This track is the very definition of classic rock ‘n’ roll.

Bowie would of course perform the song live during his Ziggy period and on/off throughout his career, perhaps most notably on 1978 Isolar II tour where much of the album was given a resurrection. Watch Bowie’s 1978 performance here.

The super-charged energy that is “Suffragette City” comes next. Bowie’s acoustic guitar is buried by the banging piano that is undoubtedly a nod to Little Richard, while Ronson’s power chords and the Spiders driving rhythm is pure Velvet Underground x 10. This is Glam Rock at its very best, with Bowie’s vocals nominally detailing Ziggy’s decline to the abyss, while being constantly hounded by “Henry” who could symbolise the press/groupies/his own insanity, with lines such as “Hey man, oh leave me alone you know“, “Hey man, my work’s down the drain“, “Hey man, oh Henry, don’t be unkind, go away“. The chorus builds up the musical intensity even further where an ARP synthesizer kicks in with a sax-like drone as Bowie cries out “Oh don’t lean on me man, ’cause you can’t afford the ticket, I’m back on Suffragette City“. The highlight of course is the false ending, with Bowie’s sexually charged “wham bam thank you ma’am” bringing things back to life. The back of the album cover had the classic instructions “To be played at maximum volume”. I suspect it applies most specifically to this amazing track.

The song entered the bedrooms of many a teenager prior to the album’s released via being the B-side to the “Starman” single. It’s one of Bowie most played live tracks, making the set-list of many a concert. I’ve used this word a number of time I know, but this really is yet another Bowie classic.

The final cry of “SUFFRAGETTE!!” leads us directly to the quiet slowly strummed acoustic guitar introduction of the album’s finale “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide“. With “Five Years” as one of the best ever openings to an album, this is undoubtedly one of the greatest songs ever to close an album. The song starts slowly as it details Ziggy’s sad demise, the tragic washed-up figure for whom “Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth” and slowly builds and builds. The second verse introduces Ronson’s initially subdued electric guitar before the band kicks in as the song’s narrator describes the dis-shrivelled Ziggy “Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road, But the day breaks instead, so you hurry home“. The narrator loves Ziggy (the same fan perhaps from “Lady Stardust”, now his last fan) and is desperate to save him, but it’s all too late. The music continues to build as he cries in desperation “Oh no, love, you’re not alone“. Ronson’s wonderful strings arrangements now break in, creating a wall of sound as it all becomes more desperate “You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care” before Bowie literally screams “You’re not alone” in a manner similar to how it all started in “Five Years”. The final section is just a crescendo of sound and emotion as Bowie pleads for Ziggy to “Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful, Oh, gimme your hands” before Ziggy ends it all and jumps into oblivion…

Wow. I mean seriously wow, what a way to end the show.

It’s important to note that many of the vocal performances on the album were basically first takes, with future takes often regarded as inferior to the original. Recordings were done at a super fast pace, this track basically recorded near the end of the sessions in just one day (4 February 1972)…

Bowie would of course indeed end all the Ziggy shows with this amazing track, most notably on 3 July 1973 when Bowie indeed killed Ziggy on stage as he announced he would never tour again to screams of utter disbelief (not least from Bolder and Woodmansey who were both clueless it was all about to end). Watch this icon final performance here.

On 11 July 1974 during a (very) brief lull in new material, RCA decided somewhat oddly to release “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” as a single. Considering it had been over 2 years since the album’s release and most fans already had the album (and “Quicksand” on the B-Side), it’s a sign of Bowie’s popularity that it reached as high as No. 22 on the UK charts.

 

 

Of course, as remarkable an album “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” is, there was a lot more to the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon than just a record. Bowie literally BECAME Ziggy, first with the image that initially started with his short cropped spiky hair, dyed a bright “martian” orange before transforming into a bright luminous red and the famous mullet that became the iconic hairdo of the Glam period. Then came all the costumes that became more and more outrageous as things progressed, many inspired by Japanese kabuki theatre. Bowie wore the outlandish clothing both on and off the stage, with Bowie staying in the Ziggy character during interviews and blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Bowie’s famous “I’m gay and always have been” interview with Melody Maker and his androgynous alien looks just added more fuel to the fire of a more “colourful” existence, than the boring, dreary gloom that was the reality of millions of youths in 1972. The influence and importance of Bowie’s wife Angie can not be over-estimated here in helping to create the Ziggy image and persona. She helped push her initially reluctant hubby to push the envelope of what could be achieved image wise outside the safety of the recording studio. While Marc Bolan could make the quite legitimate claim to being the birth a “Glam Rock”, Bowie with Ziggy made Glam grow up and mature to full adolescence…

Bowie first started touring Ziggy soon after the recording sessions ended in early 1972, months before the album’s release, with at first small venues and audiences that just slowly grew and grew as the Ziggy hype started to build up momentum. By the time of the album’s release and Bowie appearance on “Top of the Pops”, Bowie’s appeal exploded until even the US market was starting to take notice, with a US tour and shows that likewise started to become sellouts in increasing parts of the country. The Ziggy Stardust shows were more than just mere rock concerts, with more theatre elements introduced that made them must-see spectacular events, both visually and musically, thanks to the super tight band The Spider From Mars had become.

Bowie started Ziggy as a relative unknown. Bowie finished with Ziggy Stardust a short period of 18 months later at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973 as a superstar. Bowie was smart enough to know that such successes were but a current trend. Bowie needed to kill Ziggy and move on creatively if he wasn’t to also share in Ziggy’s ultimate fate himself…

There are a number of official live albums that beautifully document the Bowie/Ziggy era. These include:

 

Bowie At The Beeb“,  a wonderful 2 disc set that included most of the live performances Bowie ever recorded with the BBC during his career. The second disc especially captures live performances of every Ziggy Stardust track except “Soul Love” and “Star”. It really is a superb insight into the live talent that was early, pre-fame David Bowie and is one of my favourite albums. The original release of the album came with a 3rd disc that captured a live BBC studio concert recorded on 27 June 2000 that is also wonderful.

 

 

Santa Monica Live ’72” is one of my all-time favourite live albums and captures Bowie/Ziggy performing live at the Santa Monica arena, LA on Bowie’s first US tour on 20 October 1972. It’s a raw, superb, early insight into a young Bowie that was just beginning to successfully take on the world. Some of the tracks lack the tightness that would come, but it’s all the more poignant for it’s embryonic energy and nervous showmanship. It includes a rare outing of the Velvet Underground’sWaiting For The Man” and one of THE iconic, beautiful performances of Jacques Brel’s My Death“. This was many a Bowie fan’s favourite bootleg album before it was semi-officially released 30 June 2008.

 

Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture” is the soundtrack album of Ziggy Stardust’s final 3 July 1973 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, London that was captured for posterity on film by the noted film maker D. A. Pennebaker. While I always found the film to be a little too grainy and unfocused on too may occasions for my liking, it’s still a wonderful if sad document on such an important event in rock history. While Bowie’s final farewell speech always leaves a lump in the throat, there’s no mistaking the amazing performance and sheer energy that Bowie gave on his final official Ziggy outing. The 30th Anniversary 2 CD Special Edition of the album is definitely the version to try and get as it includes much of the show that was cut in earlier versions, although it’s still sadly missing the section where Jeff Beck played on a couple of songs (“Love Me Do/Jean Genie” and  “Round And Round”). The highlights are the Velvet Undergound’s “White Light/White Heat” (which was released as a single), “My Death” and the final emotional “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide“, although the whole album is brilliant if truth be told.

 

 

As Bowie’s most cherished album, its had many re-releases over the years and had the special anniversary treatment more than any other Bowie album. RCA released it on CD format for the first time in 1984 but it first received the special treatment as part of the excellent Ryko/EMI re-issue series in 1990 when it came out in a box format that included a lovely glossy booklet and 5 bonus tracks:

John, I’m Only Dancing” was the classic follow-up single to “Starman”, released on 1 September 1972. It’s one of Bowie’s finest singles, a glam-rock anthem with The Spiders in inspired form with a driving rock tour de force performance. Ronson’s guitar echoing snarls at the end is perfection. A perhaps ambiguous tale in which the narrator is reassuring John that he is only dancing with the girl “John, I’m only dancing, She turns me on, but I’m only dancing“, where John could be interrupted as being either the girl’s or the narrator’s boyfriend. Considering the recent gay comments, most people interpret as being the latter scenario, which actually makes it quite a hilarious song and shows a rare humorous side to Bowie on record. The single continued Bowie’s momentum and reached No. 12 in the UK charts. There was another version of the single recorded during the later Aladdin Sane sessions (known as the “Sax” version) that was confusingly also released as the single with the same catalogue number. The single was featured the first in a number of excellent videos made with the famous photographer Mick Rock (who was also Bowie’s “official” photographer during the Ziggy period), which featured Bowie and The Spiders From Mars in a studio and in live performance with Lindsay Kemp and his dance troupe during a highly acclaimed concert at The Rainbow Theatre. Watch the video here.

 

Velvet Goldmine” recorded during the early Ziggy sessions made its first commercial debut as part of the B-Side to the “Space Oddity” single re-release that finally topped the charts in 1975. It’s a fantastic risqué little gem from this period that fits into the Ziggy narrative from the perspective of a groupie “You got crazy legs, you got amazing head, You got rings on your fingers and your hair’s hot red“. The music is typical Spider’s hard rock, but with a catchy piano based vibe and hooky chorus “I’ll be your king volcano right for you again and again, My velvet goldmine“. The outro with its “Seven Dwarfs” hum-along and whistling makes me smile with each listen. It’s a great song that like so many during this period, deserves more accolades.

Sweet Head” was the real gem and surprise from this re-issue, as it was a practically unknown track from the Ziggy archives at the time. Believed to considered for the ending of Side One, it was replaced almost certainly due to the sexually charged language that would have made any conservative record executive feel a tad uncomfortable.  A bluesy rocker that features Ronson’s fluid guitar playing, it’s perhaps a tad more “conventional” musically than much of Bowie’s output from this period. The lyrics, which features “Ziggy” explicitly (the only other such song being the title track), has content that shall we say is particularly sexually charged, with lines such as “I’m your rubber peacock angelic whore” and “Sweet head, give you sweet head, while ya down there“. There’s no prizes for what this song is ultimately about. I would have loved this track to have replaced “It Ain’t Easy”, but no surprises why is was left out and forgotten until this release.

The other two tracks are demo versions of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Lady Stardust” of interest to hard core fans only who didn’t already have them on bootlegs.

 

The 30th Anniversary Edition of the album released in 2002 included another lovely little booklet and a bonus disc of additional material that featured the above 3 tracks and the following:

Moonage Daydream” (Arnold Corns version). One of the many little side projects Bowie had going on during this formative 1971/72 period was a band he put together called Arnold Corns, which was designed (maybe) to highlight the singing talents of one of Bowie’s friends, Freddie Burretti. As it turned out, dear Freddie was much much better at designing clothes than singing and although a number of tracks were recorded, Bowie handled most of the singing (while The Spiders played much of the music). As a practice run for what would become the Ziggy Stardust project, Bowie recorded 2 early versions of tracks that would feature on the Ziggy album. Released as a single on 7 May 1971, one was this version of “Moonage Daydream”, a much slower version with somewhat different lyrics. Featuring a mainly percussion and piano arrangement, it’s an interesting insight on how a song can develop (and drastically improve) over time and with much better production values. The guitar riff here is good, whereas the guitar work on the final album version is extraordinary. The single sadly flopped without a trace, although not all was lost for Burretti who would go on to design much of the Ziggy’s clothing and stage costumes.

Hang On To Yourself” (Arnold Corns version). The B-side to the above Arnold Corns “Moonage Daydream” single was a very early version of this iconic Ziggy track, again in drastically different form and with different lyrics during the verses. Comparing this to the energised Ziggy classic, this version comes across as a little ploddy and tame. Again, the transformation of a song from average to brilliant is fascinating to witness.

Round And Round” is a cover of the famous Chuck Berry classic. If you’ve ever wondered what the futuristic Spiders From Mars would sound like playing classic covers at some small English pub, the answer is “fantastic” !! They all sound as if they’re having a blast and it really is a riot. This track was destined to be included on the album until replaced at the last minute with “Starman” to satisfy RCA’s need for a single worthy track be included. As good as this performance is, the Ziggy Stardust album is just unimaginable with Starman. It was first originally released as the B-side to the “Drive-In Saturday” single in 1973.

Holy Holy” is yet another little gem from the Ziggy era. This is a Spiders From Mars rework of the song originally released as a single that flopped back in 1970. Whereas the original version was a clear nod to Marc Bolan with its almost folky arrangement (and a stark contrast to most of the material from “The Man Who Sold The World” album he had released at the time), this version gest an injection of energy that makes it infinitely superior. Bowie’s vocals are just great here as he wickedly sings “I don’t want to be an angel, just a little bit evil, Feel the devil in me“, but it really is the whole band that shines throughout. Again, originally planned to be included on the Ziggy Stardust album before being shelved, it finally made its first commercial appearance as the B-side to the “Diamond Dogs” single released in 1974. You can still find the original version on the Re:Call 1 disc of the “Five Years” box set and is certainly worth checking out for contrast purposes.

Amsterdam (Port of Amsterdam)” is a track that has been a little derided by critics over the years. A cover of the 1964 song by Jacques Brel, Bowie gives it here his full histrionics treatment, with a soaring (some say overly pretentious and melodramatic) vocal performance. But I’ve also loved it, especially the way it builds up slowly with the addition of acoustic guitars with each new verse until to reaches its final climax “Throws his nose to the sky, Aims it up above, And he pisses like I cry, On the unfaithful love, In the port of Amsterdam“. Again, at one stage planned to be part of the Ziggy Stardust album, it was dropped and not officially released until it made it on the B-side to the “Sorrow” single. Although I do love this performance, it does pale to the way Bowie usually performs “My Death“, the Jacques Brel song for which Bowie is much more well known to perform live, especially during his Ziggy era.

The Supermen” is a Ziggy sessions reworking of the track that originally closed his earlier “The Man Who Sold The World” album. As the earlier album had failed to make any impression on the charts and as Bowie initially felt the song could work within the Ziggy framework, it was briefly considered for the Ziggy Stardust album, before being dropped and ultimately forgotten. Unlike most tracks from these sessions, I actually prefer the original version to this one, that ultimately adds little. The song was performed live during many of the earlier Ziggy Stardust shows.

The 40th Anniversary Edition of the album received the full re-mix treatment, which although interesting, is ultimately not a good as the original mix which really is impossible to beat. What though was indeed a super treat was the 5.1 surround sound re-mix that was also included as a DVD with the vinyl edition. This gives the whole album an added dimension and “space” that make for a fabulous listening experience. It’s the same 5.1 mix that was released previously on the SACD format. If you can get your hands on either of these versions and have a surround sound setup, you won’t be disappointed.

I’m already looking forward to what must surely be a very special re-issue come its 50th anniversary in 2022…

 

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” really is an exceptional album, a classic in every definition of the word and an album that truly still sounds fresh and new and “futurist” to this very day. Although one could easily argue that Bowie would go on to record even more cutting edge, musically advanced and technically better albums, I personally regard this as his finest musical achievement.

Just remember whenever you’re lucky enough to play it, it’s: To be played at maximum volume.

Best Tracks: “Five Years“, “Moonage Daydream“, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

12. David Bowie (aka Space Oddity)

space oddity album cover

David Bowie” is David Bowie’s 2nd studio album, originally released on 14th November 1969.

In many ways, the David Bowie story almost starts here. Almost.

By 1969, David Bowie had already been in the musical industry for five, very long, long years. But despite releasing numerous singles both with a number a different bands (The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third) and as a solo artist and also releasing his first album “David Bowie” in 1967, all these releases had been commercial flops. He would have had more hot dinners than the number of records Bowie had sold collectively by 1969.

1968 had been the worst year yet, with no official releases at all and with Bowie seriously wondering if a career in music was really for him. Perhaps he would make a more successful Buddhist monk?

His then manager Kenneth Pitt still had enough confidence in his boy to invest in the making of an extended music film/video (released many years later as “Love You Till Tuesday“) that would showcase the musical talents of Bowie and could be used to promote his struggling star to be. Featuring mainly material from his first album “David Bowie“, they decided it needed something new and modern to just spruce it all up a bit.

After watching and being inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, “A Space Odyssey”, Bowie wrote a new song called “Space Oddity” about a doomed astronaut, Major Tom. The strength of this song along with other demos he recorded around this time was enough for Bowie to be offered a new recording contract with Mercury Records.

Bowie was back in business.

Recorded between June-September 1969, his first album with Mercury Records called somewhat unimaginatively “David Bowie” (as was his previous album) was a really interesting affair. Sounding nothing like his previous Mod, come English Musical Hall numbers, the new album was a bizarre collection of songs that included everything from quaint folk numbers, romantic ballads, hippy anthems, hard rockers to futurist sci-fi art pieces. This was both the strength and weakness of the overall album, in that it features so many different styles and influences, but lacks the focus and single artistic direction of many of Bowie’s very best albums.

Bowie clearly wasn’t too sure of his place or destiny within the musical world (a fault that can be attributed somewhat to his then manager Kenneth Pitt who thought any career in “rock music” would be limited), but Bowie at the time liked The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan and so these influences feature heavily in the album.

Recorded by a number of top British session musicians such as Tim Renwick, Rick Wakeman, Terry Cox and Herbie Flowers (and the odd Bowie mate such as Benny Marshall), it was also the first album to be produced by Tony Visconti, his to be long-time collaborator.

The album opens with the iconic “Space Oddity“. This is one of THE Bowie classics and an incredibly important song that features on/off for the rest of Bowie’s entire career. It’s a song that’s worthy of a book on its own, beginning life as mentioned earlier as the centrepiece of the “Love You Till Tuesday” promotional film. Starting with slowly building acoustic guitars and slow military style drum beat, it tells the tale of the doomed flight to the moon by Major Tom, who mysteriously loses contact with Ground Control. The production here is just fantastic, with weird electronic swells and soundscapes thanks to Bowie’s toy Stylophone and Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron, creating a musical atmosphere that still sounds fresh and futurist to this day. The taking off and finale sequences are just amazing, as are Bowie’s vocals as both Major Tom/Ground Control. It’s THE perfect pop song.

Remarkably, Tony Visconti wanted nothing to do with the song, thinking it a piece of commercial/popularist crap that was taking advantage of all the current interest in the upcoming Apollo moon landings. So it was actually Gus Dudgeon who would later make his name producing many of the Elton John classic albums who was drafted in to produce just the “Space Oddity” track. Gus, thank you, you did a superb job, sounding vastly superior to all the others versions and demos that were previously recorded.

“Space Oddity” was initially released as single way before the album on 11 July 1969 and it looked for a while that it would continue the run of commercial flops with minimal initial sales. But then the BBC decided to adopted it as the music for their coverage of the moon landing (clearly not listening too carefully to the lyrics) and it starting its journey up the UK charts, peaking at an impressive No. 5. Bowie, finally at long long last, had his first hit (although it only initially made No. 124 in the US).

Space oddity single cover

The story of “Space Oddity” however was far from over.

In 1970, Bowie won an Ivor Novello “Special Award For Originality” for “Space Oddity”, a notable achievement for the struggling Bowie.

After finally finding true fame and success with Ziggy Stardust, Bowie re-released “Space Oddity” in 1973 especially for the US market and recorded a new video at Trident Studios, directed by the legendary Mick Rock (Bowie’s “official” photographer during this period). “Space Oddity” finally became a US hit, reaching No. 15 on the charts. Watch the official Ziggy Stardust era video here.

space oddity us single cover

In 1975, “Space Oddity” was re-released as a single yet again, this time backed with “Changes” and a superb previously unreleased track from the Ziggy Stardust sessions “Velvet Goldmine“. It reached No. 1 in the UK, giving Bowie his first ever UK No. 1 single and at the time, a record of being the longest period for a single to reached No. 1, some 6 years after it was initially released.

space oddity 1975 single cover

In 1980, a stripped down new version of “Space Oddity” was released as the B-Side of the single “Alabama Song“. Finally, Tony Visconti got to produce a version of “Space Oddity”, some 10 years after rejecting the project. A video of this version was made for the hilarious Kenny Everett Show. Watch it here.

alabama song single cover

The Major Tom character would feature in a number of subsequent recordings by Bowie, most notably the majestic “Space Oddity” follow-up “Ashes To Ashes” in 1980 (which coincidently would become Bowie’s 2nd No. 1 UK single) and the Pet Shop Boys remixed version of “Hallo Spaceboy” in 1995. Major Tom would also finally feature (it is popularly believed) as the skeletal astronaut remains in the “Blackstar” video from 2015. Say goodbye to Major Tom here.

Bowie would perform “Space Oddity” live throughout his career and would rightly always remain a crowd favourite.

Now onto the rest of the album…

Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is an interesting affair. Said by Bowie at the time to be a reflection of his feelings following the death of his father, the song appears to be about a girl who is of a higher class and standing than Bowie and who’s stare reflects this difference in standing. Featuring for Bowie very upfront and some would say distasteful lyrics, “I’m a Phallus in pigtails, And there’s blood on my nose, And my tissue is rotting, Where the rats chew my bones” just isn’t going to help the protagonist get the girl. The music starts with basically an acoustic guitar, before a basic drum beat and electric guitar riff kicks in, followed by more guitars, harmonica and then the full Tony Visconti big production treatment takes over (with Visconti’s bass very high in the mix), then more horns, then the lot really. It ends up being a raunchy, over-the-top rock-based affair and quite unlike anything Bowie had done before (or since really). By far the “rockiest” track on the album.

(Don’t Sit Down)” is a 40 second piece of studio foolery, with Bowie singing to a basic rock track “Yeah, yeah, baby, yeah” a few times, followed by “Don’t sit down” a few times before Bowie bursts out in hysteric laughter. This track was dropped from all the subsequent RCA re-issues of the album. Is it in my Top 100 list of great songs? No.

Letter To Hermione” is the first to two tender love ballads on the album addressed to his ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale who had left him just before recording the album. It’s both incredibly beautiful and sad in equal measure and with lyrics such as “And when he’s strong, He’s strong for you, And when you kiss, It’s something new, But did you ever call my name. Just by mistake?“, you can’t but feel Bowie’s pain. This broken relationship had a huge impact on Bowie, later describing love as a “disease” and despite getting married the following year to Angie Barnett, one senses he didn’t find true love again for another 20+ years.

Cygnet Committee” is the centrepiece on the album, a 10 minute epic on the consequences of blind faith in the new, post hippy world. Bowie plays the weary leader of a cult for which he no longer has the belief or inclination to continue and his angry and frustrating annoyance at those who won’t listen to his rejections. It’s the first time that Bowie sings from the position of “outsider” and for which the lyrics appear intentionally obtuse, ambiguous and open to (much) interpretation. It certainly won’t be the last time fans puzzle on precisely Bowie’s meaning within a lyric. Although it’s a great track, it’s not at the same level of much of his future work, especially musically, which is a little ploddy and pedestrian, when it really should have been epic and climatic. It is however a clear sign of some rather special things to come.

Janine” is a fairly standard rock song, although a tad more up-lifting than some of the prior content.  It does however contain the lyric “Janine, Janine, you’d like to crash my walls, But if you take an axe to me, You’ll kill another man, Not me at all” which hints at schizophrenia, a topic Bowie would return to again and again in the future.

An Occasional Dream” returns us back to his woes with Hermione and is another beautiful love song that is more bitter than sweet. “In my madness, I see your face in mine, I keep a photograph, It burns my wall with time“. The 22 year old Bowie never sounded quite as vulnerable as he does at times on this album.

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is one of the real gems off the album and along with “Space Oddity”, a real highlight and dare I say, early Bowie masterpiece. In reality a basic folky ballad (as evidenced by the “Space Oddity” B-side version, recorded earlier and featuring just acoustic guitar and Arco bass), the version on the album gets the full Visconti huge orchestra production treatment. Telling the story of a young, peaceful mystical boy awaiting execution by hanging from village folk who both fear and misunderstand him, he reluctantly gets rescued by the great mountain of Freecloud, who destroys the village before they can harm him. The imagery, the musical atmosphere, the emotion and vocal delivery is all pure vintage Bowie at his absolute best. This track is the only one other than Space Oddity that Bowie would perform live once he entered his Ziggy Stardust period, as a medley with “Oh You Pretty Things” and “All The Young Dudes“. A Bowie classic in every sense.

God Knows I’m Good” is a quaint tale set to chirpy acoustic guitars of a little old lady praying she doesn’t get caught shop-lifting a tin of food, only to then pray for forgiveness once she gets caught. Bowie would often touch on religious themes in future work, this being another sign of things to come.

The album closes with the marvellous “Memory Of A Free Festival“, a truly beautiful, somewhat romanticised account of the free musical festival Bowie helped to organise in his home suburb of Beckenham, South London earlier that year. By all accounts Bowie was stressed as hell and had a miserable time, but this song tells how he had hoped the event would had gone. Starting slowly with a simple organ, Bowie’s wonderful vocals recounts how “The children of the summer’s end, Gathered in the dampened grass, We played Our songs and felt the London sky, Resting on our hands, It was God’s land. It was ragged and naive. It was Heaven.” With beautiful imagery, including meetings with passing Venusians (yes, I suspect there was a lot of bliss passed around that day), the song then breaks out into the second half chant “The Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” where the band breaks out and backing vocals spreads out the joy of the free festival. It’s another early Bowie treasure. A reworked version was broken into two parts and released as a single the following year, but as with Bowie’s output at the time and like the sun machine itself, sadly sank without a trace.

memory of a free festival cover

The original album cover featured a permed, “Dylan-esque” image of Bowie on a background designed by Victor Varasely. The brilliant artwork on the back cover was created by Bowie’s friend George Underwood and features different images and characters from the album.

Space Oddity album back cover

In the US, the album was re-titled to the much better “Man of Words/Man of Music” while using the same photo of Bowie but on a plain blue background.

Man of words Man of Music cover

The album really is quite excellent that features many Bowie treasures and gave many glimpses of Bowie treasures to come. Sadly and to Bowie’s frustration, despite the relative success of the “Space Oddity” single, the album did poorly and failed to initially chart. Bowie had to wait a further three long, long years before he finally achieved long lasting success with the “Starman” single and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album.

It’s at this point, that this album was given a new lease on life. Bowie’s record label at the time, RCA, bought the rights to the album (and the follow-up “The Man Who Sold The World“) and repackaged and re-released them in December 1972, just as Bowie’s fame was really taking off. The album was renamed “Space Oddity“, given a new cover featuring a close-up of our hero in early Ziggy Stardust guise, had some ludicrous notes printed on the back cover and finally achieved the success it deserved, reaching No. 17 in the UK charts. This would be the cover and title used for the next 30 odd years and the one I and many others grew up knowing the album by.

space oddity second cover

There have been various re-releases and remasterings of the album over the years. The most notable being in 1990 as part of the truly excellent Ryko CD re-release series that included a number of bonus tracks; the single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” Part I and Part II and:

Conversation Piece“, an absolute gem of a song originally released as the B-side of the single “The Prettiest Star“, the follow-up single to “Space Oddity”. It’s one of my favourite songs from this period, a brooding, quiet piece on the topic of loneliness and isolation. Bowie’s vocals are just exquisite here and you just want to give him a huge hug. Features Marc Bolan on guitar as an added bonus. A re-recorded version of this was done for the abandoned “Toys” project in the early 2000’s which was almost as good.

In 2009, a 40th Anniversary version of the album was released, that featured the original cover, plus a bonus disc that included a bunch of demos and live BBC recordings from this period, as well as “Conversation Piece” and the following notable tracks:

The Prettiest Star” was the follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and sadly, returned Bowie back to the long line of commercial failures. Which is a real petty because it really is a beautiful love song, that featured his good friend and musical adversary Marc Bolan on lead guitar. This single was the only time I believe they played together until right up to the very end when Bowie appeared on the “Marc Bolan Show” a few short weeks before Bolan’s tragic death. A much more widely known version was recorded and included for the “Aladdin Sane” album, with Mick Ronson playing the Bolan guitar part almost note for note. Both are wonderful, it’s just this version is more special.

prettiest star

A version of “London Bye, Ta Ta” was recorded around this time and kinda takes you back to the weirdness of Bowie’s debut album when it was first written. Based on the difficulties of the black community living in London, it’s a song Bowie has recorded a number of times but never to satisfaction of it being officially released.

Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” is an odd affair, the exact backing track to “Space Oddity” but with lyrics changed completely to that a love song and sang entirely in Italian. Strangely, it kinda works but Bowie would sing in a foreign tongue much more effectively on tracks such as “Heroes” and “Seven Years In Tibet” in the years to come. It was first generally available on the 1982 compilation album “Bowie Rare“, his last release with RCA.

At the time of writing, it’s the 50th anniversary of the initial release of the album. To celebrate, a number of exciting new releases are planned (initially in vinyl format) to capture the various demos that were recorded at the time. These are currently:

Spying Through A Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs) 7″ Singles Vinyl Box Set

Spying through a keyhole

David Bowie With John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson Clareville Grove Demos 3X7″ Vinyl Singles Box Set

Clareville Grove Demos

The Mercury Demos Vinyl

Mercury demos

I’ll update with more details on these once they’ve all been released.

A rather impressive remixed version of the album (remixed by Tony Visconti) was also released in 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, that brings new life to many of these excellent tracks.

The 1969 “David Bowie” album would prove to be a false start for Bowie, with the “Space Oddity” single doing well, but the album itself yet another commercial failure. For 3 more years, it would appear that Bowie might perhaps be destined to be yet another “one-hit” wonder. That would all finally change in 1972 when an orange-haired, rock ‘n’ roll alien would invade the earth and our TV screens.

But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Space Oddity”, “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, “Memory Of A Free Festival”