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by Chuck Darrow - Philadelphia Courier-Post (June 1997)
This past Friday marked a particularly significant rock music milestone: The 25th anniversary of the release of David Bowie's "The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." A quarter-century later, "Ziggy", as it's popularly identified by its fans, remains a singular pop music achievement. Beyond it's status as Bowie's breakthrough (its the one that launched his career in the U.S.), the disc is considered by many fans and critics (this one included) as the best rock album of all time.
While not the first 'concept" album, "Ziggy" - whose 25th anniversary has been commemorated by the release of a digitally remastered gold CD on the Rykodisc label - may very well be the greatest example of telling a unified story via a collection of rock songs. As Bowie himself explained in a 1976 interview, the album told the tale of a Martian messiah who twanged a guitar. "He was someone who got dropped down here, got brought down to our way of thinking and ended up destroying himself."
Two years later, in another interview, Bowie described the work as "very much Japanese Theater meets American science-fiction." Despite the album's far-out premise, the Ziggy Stardust character had a real-life model, a man named Vince Taylor, whom Bowie had known in London in the mid-1960s. "He was the inspiration for Ziggy," Bowie told an interviewer. "Vince Taylor was a rock n roll star from the 60s who was slowly going crazy. Finally, he fired his band and went onstage one night in a white sheet. He told the audience to rejoice, that he was Jesus. They put him away."
No less an authority than Rolling Stone magazine proclaimed that "Ziggy Stardust" presented to the world rock's first completely pre-packaged persona." Ziggy's tale opens with the ominous bass-and-snare-drum figure of "Five Years," which sets the LP's pre-Armageddon scene. Ziggy a 'space invader" and 'rock n rollin bitch' is introduced by the LP's third song, the distorted-guitar-driven "Moonage Daydream." His arrival is celebrated on the popish "Starman," and he is framed as the ultimate rock star in two Side Two tracks, "Star" and "Hang On to Yourself."
The story climaxes with the title track, which describes how Ziggy, fuelled by a monstrous ego, is consumed by his belief he is the Messiah, come to Earth to rescue the world. For his troubles, he is killed by the very fans he professes to want to save. While the concept and lyrics are the LPs soul, the heart are the sometimes melodic, sometimes frenetic, musical performances. Throughout the album's 10 songs, the ensemble playing of Bowie (on 12-string acoustic guitar), the late Mick Ronson (lead guitar), bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey is never less than electrifying.
Although he didn't hear "Ziggy" until 1981, Mike Harvey, is one of those fans who is convinced the album is a masterpiece without equal. His devotion to the LP is such that he conducts an impressively detailed website called "The Ziggy Stardust Companion", which is devoted almost exclusively to the disc and Bowie's watershed tours of the "Ziggy" era (1972-73). "I suppose it is the lyrics and music in "Ziggy" which I admire most. In particular, the passionate singing, the clever lyrics, the great melody, the power bass and drumming, the great Mick Ronson solos...the whole package with a concept running through it. "I still get shivers listening to the line `I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour (in 'Five Years'), when Bowie turns his attention to the listener and brings them into the song. It's a defining moment in his music." The importance of "Ziggy" he suggests, transcends what is on the record. "I think "Ziggy" was a major ground-breaker in many ways. Bowie's introduction of a heavy dose of Theater (in concert) cannot be emphasised enough."
By late 1973, Bowie had abandoned "Ziggy" and moved on to the even-more-theatrical "Diamond Dogs" concept. From there, he forayed into Philadelphia soul (Young Americans), techno-rock (the Low-Heroes-Lodger trilogy) and pop-rock (Lets Dance). His most recent albums have found him revisiting the techno genre he helped pioneer 20 years ago.
But "Ziggy" will, most likely, always be Bowie's signature, which shouldn't come as news to its creator: Ziggy's real-life alter ego always knew the album would be his ticket to stardom. "I wasn't at all surprised "Ziggy Stardust" made my career," Bowie once said in an interview. "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star much better than any sort of Monkee's fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody's."
---This page last modified: 13 Dec 2018---