The Companion

Home Index FAQ Encyclopaedia Timeline Songs Gallery E-mail

  The Complete David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust August 2001
Special Feature

August 2001's Special Feature profiled author Nicholas Pegg's excellent book "The Complete David Bowie" released last year and in particular the section devoted to analysing "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" (1972) album. 

The Rise And Full Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was Bowie's first hit album and his ticket to superstardom. The central conceit - a visionary poet who, with a little extraterrestrial assistance, becomes a rock star in a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse was an exotic consummation of David's life-long absorption of disparate elements of the zeitgeist. Andy Warhol, Little Richard, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, T S Eliot, Christopher Isherwood, Pork, A Clockwork Orange, Metropolis, 2001, Quatermass - all went into the melting pot. A cross between "Nijinsky and Woolworth's" was how David described the juxtaposition of high art and delicious banality embodied in Ziggy Stardust, a character who pushed to new extremes Bowie's fascination with the nature of celebrity. The work achieved its fullest expression on stage, where outlandish costumes, make-up, mime, pantomime, commedia dell'arte and kabuki theatre crystallized in a thrilling exploration of the artificial relationship between performer and audience. "It's no surprise that Ziggy Stardust was a success, David later explained. "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock 'n' roll singer much better than the Monkees could ever fabricate. I mean, my plastic rock 'n' roller was much more plastic than anybody's. And that was what was needed at the time."

For a while in late 1972 and early 1973 Bowie and Ziggy were practically indistinguishable from one another. Part of the album's enduring mystique is that the self-mythologizing pretensions of the songs themselves (l could make a transformation as a rock 'n' roll star, so inviting, so enticing to play the part") operate as a parallel enactment of the process that simultaneously launched Bowie himself as a major artist. It was during the early stages of the Ziggy Stardust campaign that, with the encouragement of Tony DeFries, David began to live out the MainMan nostrum that in order to become a star, one must learn to behave like one. Publicists were hired to ensure that doors were always held open for him. He had a bodyguard and traveled everywhere by limousine. Photography was controlled and plans laid to restrict press access to David himself - and all at a time when, to the majority of the record-buying public, David Bowie was nobody. 'Tony DeFries had this idea that if we just told the world that I was super-huge, and then treated me as though I were, then something might happen," David later explained. As we know, DeFries was right.

This appropriation of a specific set of behavioural conventions in order to manipulate the real world would become a template for Bowie's career. Before Ziggy Stardust his work as a songwriter and performer, however experimental, had maintained a monolithic aspect, a conventional view of the artist as Olympian observer at the centre of a creative web of assimilated influences and abilities. After Ziggy Stardust Bowie, like Warhol, would achieve the status of a postmodern artefact, a blank canvas, styling his creative output in response to the shifting sands of fashion and experience. "I'm really just a photostat machine," he told journalists in 1973, "I pour out what has already been fed in. I merely reflect what is going on around me." Thus the music on Ziggy Stardust, which rarely comes first in any dissection of the mythology built up around the album, is a vigorous restatement of the three-minute pop perfected by Bowie's childhood heroes of the 1950s, filtered through the electric soundscape of the early 197Os. It is an eloquent plea for the pop song, in all its gimcrack cheapness, as a valid artform, and an energetic dismissal of the increasingly pompous quest for neoclassical "sophistication" in rock.

Bowie's red hair, make-up and space-age costumes were more than just an eye-catching gimmick - although of course they were that too, and did their job well. Ziggy's multi-referential appearance circumscribed its own superficiality, injecting a sense of exotic decadence and pantomimic ritual into a popular culture dominated by the T-shirt-and-jeans norm of "progressive" rock. Glam was about cherishing uncertainty, anxiety and change, and it did so via a heady combination of nostalgia and futurism.

It's a common mistake, as it is with any creative school, to assume that glam was some kind of "movement", but if there was one consistent aim it was the diversification of culture and the dismantling of tribal allegiances. Bowie asserts that he, and other glam pioneers like Roxy Music, attempted "to broaden rock's vocabulary. We were trying to include certain visual aspects in our music, grown out of the fine arts and real theatrical and cinematic leanings - in brief, everything which was on the exterior of rock. As far as I was concerned, I introduced elements of Dada, and an enormous amount of elements borrowed from Japanese culture. I think we took ourselves for avant-garde explorers, the representatives of an embryonic form of post-modernism. The other type of glam rock was directly borrowed from the rock tradition, the weird clothes and all that. To be quite honest, I think we were very elitist. I can't speak for Roxy Music, but as far as I'm concerned, I was a real snob ... I believe there were these two kinds of glam, one high and the other situated lower. I think we were more in the first category!"

Roxy Music's Brian Eno concurs: "I think all those things were a sort of reaction to what had happened before, which was an idea of musicianship where you turned your back on the audience and got into your guitar solo," he tells Barney Hoskyns in his book Glam!, "I think all of those bands - us and Bowie and the others - were turning round towards the audience and saying, 'We are doing a show."'

The 1970s have long since been repackaged as a decade of gloriously amusing tastelessness, but the popular portrayal of glam as nothing more than a groovy fancy-dress party is superficial and inadequate. Glam allowed the charts to be re-colonized by a teenage consumer-culture for the first time in a decade. It forced changes in direction for artists as mainstream as Rod Stewart, Elton John and The Rolling Stones. It brought its own sexual revolution and sowed the seeds for punk and new wave. Through the emergence of bands like Queen and Kiss it helped to fashion the future of hard rock, and filtered through the space-age extravagance of "black glam" performers like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins it beat a direct path to the hermaphrodite disco chic of 1980s giants like Prince and Madonna. But amid all the brow-furrowing analysis of Ziggy and his contemporaries, what is often overlooked is their sense of triviality, irony and fun. "Whatever came out of early seventies music that had any longevity to it generally had a sense of humour underlying it," said Bowie twenty years later. The Sweet were everything we loathed; they dressed themselves up as early seventies, but there was no sense of humour there ... there was a real sense of irony about what we were doing ... I remember saying at the time that rock must prostitute itself, and I'll stand by that. If you're going to work in a whorehouse, you'd better be the best whore in it."

Naturally, there were those in the media who opposed the new music on the very grounds that it was a plastic fabrication. On hearing 'Get It On' John Peel famously withdrew his long-standing loyalty to Marc Bolan, and "Whispering" Bob Harris denounced Roxy Music on The Old Grey Whistle Test. But as 1972 grew old, even the critics began realizing that Glam's inauthentic gesture was its very point.

Of the many individual influences on the character of Ziggy Stardust perhaps the most obvious is Iggy Pop, the pre-punk rocker from Michigan who was introduced to David during his September 1971 trip to New York. Iggy was virtually unknown in Britain although, ever ahead of the pack, David had already described him as his favourite singer in a Melody Maker interview the previous December. Upon his return to England, Bowie told producer Ken Scott that his new record was going to be "much more like Iggy Pop" ("I had never even heard of Iggy Pop," Scott confessed to the Gillmans). Iggy's uninhibited and often violent stage act - "unleashing the animalistic parts of rock", as Bowie put it - was a crucial ingredient in the alter ego David was now crafting for himself. MainMan's Leee Black Childers later suggested that "Bowie's infatuation with Iggy had to do with Bowie wanting to tap into the rock 'n' roll reality that Iggy lived, and that Bowie could never live because he was a wimpy little south London art student and Iggy was a Detroit trash bag. David Bowie knew he could never achieve the reality that Iggy was born into. So he thought he'd buy it." Iggy represented what David later called "the wild side of existentialist America, and of course, being a real nutcase about America and American music, that was everything that I thought we should have in England." The same was equally true of Lou Reed, already a major influence on Bowie's songwriting: "He gave us the environment in which to put our more theatrical vision," explained Bowie. "He supplied us with the street and the landscape, and we peopled it."

But the Lou/lggy axis was qualified by another vital influence: Marc Bolan. By the time of the Ziggy Stardust sessions, Bowie's old friend had achieved his breakthrough, reinventing his songwriting with a new vocabulary of trashy urban sci-fi which usurped the Tolkienesque folk-fantasies of old. At the same time he had revamped his band as an electric outfit, and despite the outrage of some of his former fans the commercial effect was immediate and decisive. In the spring and summer of 1971 TRex notched up a total of ten weeks at number 1 with 'Hot love' and 'Get It On'. Bolan's fey, diffident public persona, not to mention the breathy, soft-spoken and close-to-the-mike style of his studio vocals, were assimilated into the Ziggy Stardust gestalt. So, too, were the 1950s throwback elements of Bolan's rock 'n' roll act and, of course, his make-up. Bolan could hardly have known what he was starting when he decided at the last minute to daub glitter on his cheeks for an appearance on Top Of The Pops in March 1971.

In the ongoing and ultimately pointless debate about which of the two glam architects deserves the greater recognition, it can't be ignored that Bolan made the decisive move from acoustic folk-rock to glitter-clad electric pop a full year before Bowie - but, lest we forget, he did so with the help of a post-Man Who Sold The World Tony Visconti. Bolan had been present at Hype's legendary "birth of glam" performance back in February 1970, and Visconti, who believes that "the Round House gig planted the seed in Marc's head," has suggested that Bolan and Bowie "simultaneously kind of invented" the glitter movement. Perhaps the most perceptive judgement comes from photographer Mick Rock: "If David Bowie was the Jesus Christ of glam, then Marc Bolan was John the Baptist!"

"I don't think he would be pleased to be associated purely with glam rock," Bowie said of Bolan in 1998. "He didn't see himself as a glam artist but more as something else. The concept of a bridge or of a missing link works well for him - it's exactly how he felt."

The word "Stardust", which in the wake of Bowie's success would be appropriated by one Shane Fenton (and, later, by an unappealing David Essex movie), derived originally from the 1929 Hoagy Carmichael standard, and had been popularized recently by Joni Mitchell's iconic 'Woodstock'. However, Bowie poached the word specifically from a much-ridiculed 1960s act called the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Born Norman Carl Odom and remembered for his famously dreadful single 'Paralyzed', the legendary Stardust Cowboy was the Margarita Pracatan of his day, his renown largely based on being booked for an "ironically" awful appearance on Rowan & Martins' Laugh-in. "They all laughed at him and he walked off and cried," said David. In 1990 he told Q that the singer "was on Mercury Records along with me in the 'Space Oddity' days, and he sang things like 'I Took A Trip (In A Gemini Spacecraft)' ... I just liked the Stardust bit because it was so silly." The fact that the Cowboy sang songs about spacemen and rocket-ships can hardly be a coincidence. In the same interview, Bowie explained that 'the Ziggy bit came from a tailor's that I passed on the train one day. It had that Iggy connotation, but it was a tailor's shop, and I thought well this whole thing is gonna be about clothes, so it was my own little joke calling him Ziggy. So Ziggy Stardust was a real compilation of things."

But if one figure is to be isolated as the model for Ziggy it is the wayward second-division rock 'n' roller Vince Taylor. Not an expatriate American as Bowie has sometimes stated, but a Middlesex-born boy whose family had moved to the States in the 1940s, Taylor released a couple of flop singles for Parlophone (including his only composition of any renown, "Brand New Cadillac'), before finding his niche on the Continent in 1961 as the so-called "French Elvis". Signed to the French label Barclay, Taylor's eccentric and temperamental disposition was fuelled by an increasing intake of wine, amphetamines and  LSD. "As soon as I get on stage, I go out of myself, I lose control," he once declared, "often I lose consciousness." His incipient mania and excessive lifestyle made an immediate impact on the young Bowie, who met him in London around 1966. "1 went to quite a few parties with him," David recalled thirty years later, "and he was out of his gourd, totally flipped. I mean, the guy was not playing with a full deck at all. He used to carry maps of Europe around with him, and I remember very distinctly him opening a map out on Charing Cross Road, outside the tube station, putting it on the pavement and kneeling down with a magnifying glass. I got down there with him, and he was pointing out all the sites where UFOs were going to be landing over the next few months. He had a firm conviction that there was a very strong connection between himself, aliens and Jesus Christ."

Back in France in 1967, Taylor's grasp of reality progressively fell away amid a series of troubled stage incidents uncannily mirroring the decline of Syd Barrett at around the same time. Tales of his bizarre antics - not necessarily reliable ones - filtered hack to England, until one night, according to Bowie, "he came out on stage in white robes and said that the whole thing about rock had been a lie, that in fact he was Jesus Christ - and it was the end of Vince, his career and everything else, It was his story which really became one of the essential elements of Ziggy and his world-view." After some years of recuperation Taylor did in fact rebuild a modest career, even releasing an album called Vince Is Alive, Well And Rocking In Paris' in June 1972, the very month that Ziggy Stardust appeared. But fame was never to he his, and he died in 1991. The previous year, Bowie told Q magazine that Taylor had always stayed in my mind as an example of what can happen in rock 'n' roll. I'm not sure if I held him up as an idol or as something not to become. Bit of both, probably. There was something very tempting about him going completely off the edge. Especially at my age then, it seemed very appealing: Oh, I'd love to end up like that, totally nuts. Ha ha!"

The citing of obscure and underground influences has, consciously or not, always been a key ingredient in Bowie's strategy, but by 1972, rock history had provided no shortage of other, more obvious models for Ziggy's rise and fall: in addition to Syd Barrett, recent casualties included Jim Morrison, Peter Green (another white-robed stage Messiah who succumbed to deteriorating mental health), Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix. The wider conceit of an album peddling a fictional band-within-a-band was nothing new in the post-Sgt. Pepper landscape, while the idea of a "leper Messiah" visiting a spiritually hungry society has its roots in The Who's Tommy; indeed, David's sometimes idol Pete Townshend is another contender for the guitar hero so memorably portrayed in Ziggy's title track.

The Ziggy Stardust sessions at Trident Studios began with the recording of the Ron Davies cover 'It Ain't Easy' on 9 September 1971. Initially the track was being considered for inclusion on Hunky Dory, and this was only one instance of the considerable overlap between the two albums which were effectively recorded back-to-back. Out-takes from this prolific period which would end up as B-sides or latter-day bonus tracks include 'Velvet Goldmine', 'Round and Round', 'Sweet Head', 'Amsterdam' and the superior second version of 'Holy Holy'. Other, less familiar rejects include 'Shadow Man', 'Only One Paper Left', 'lt's Gonna Rain Again', and an abandoned re-recording of the Arnold Corns number 'Looking For A Friend'. The attendant Ziggy-era single 'John, I'm Only Dancing' would be recorded some months later, in June 1972.

The main body of the sessions fell during the first two weeks of November 1971, when 'Star', 'Hang On To Yourself', 'Moonage Daydream', 'Soul love' and 'Lady Stardust' were all committed to tape. "We recorded quickly, just as we always did," recalled Ken Scott later. "We generally worked Monday through Saturday, 2.00pm until we finished, generally midnight-ish." By mid-December 'Five Years' and 'Ziggy Stardust' were also in the can, with 'Rock'n'Roll Suicide' and 'Suffragette City' following in January 1972. 'Starman', composed specifically with the singles market in mind, was the final track to be completed, ousting 'Round and Round' from the album at the last moment - the titles are swapped on the box of a master tape dated 2 February. An earlier master dated 15 December 1971, before the recording of those vital last three tracks and evidently prior to a re-think regarding 'It Ain't Easy', reveals a fascinating glimpse of the album's original track listing. Side one was to be 'Five Years', 'Soul love', 'Moonage Daydream', 'Round and Round' and 'Amsterdam', while side two ran 'Hang On To Yourself', 'Ziggy Stardust', 'Velvet Goldmine', 'Holy Holy', Star' and 'Lady Stardust'. The album itself was apparently to be called Round And Round.

By all accounts, Bowie's sense of purpose during the Trident sessions was decisive and absolute. "He knew what he wanted musically," recalled Ken Scott, "and he didn't want to know any of the technicalities." With some tracks being recorded almost entirely live, Bowie often dictated the exact content of the band's contributions. "There was just no room for anything else," he recalled later. "I had to - at least in my mind I had to - hum a lot of Ronson's solos to him. It got to the point where every single note and every part of the song had to be exactly as I heard it in my head ... that's not true of, say, The Man Who Sold The World, which was very much Ronson. But say the more melodic solos that Ronson did, an awful lot of that was just me telling him what notes I wanted. But that was cool. He's very laid back and he'd just go along with it." Ken Scott is keen to stress the significance of Ronson's contribution: "Mick Ronson was important," he tells Mark Paytress. 'like me, he had the job of trying to anticipate what David wanted, and then translating that into musical terms. In that respect he was very good. They were both on the same wavelength. He knew exactly what David wanted at that time." By comparison with the lengthy pre-session composition periods for Space Oddity and Hunky Dory, there is every indication that the composition of Ziggy Stardust was a piecemeal affair: indeed, the early track-listing of the December master suggests that the entire concept of Ziggy's rise and fall was a last-minute notion grafted on after the arrival of 'Starman' and 'Rock n Roll Suicide'. In his first major interview about the album, for American radio in January 1972, David was eager to dispel the notion which still persists today that Ziggy Stardust attempts a coherent narrative: "It wasn't really started as a concept album. It got kind of broken up because I found other songs that I wanted to put in the album that wouldn't fit in with the story of Ziggy - what you have on that album when it finally comes out is a story which doesn't really take place. It's just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, which could feasibly he the last band on earth, because we're living the last five years of earth -.. It depends which state you listen to it in, Once I've written an album, my interpretations of the numbers on it are totally different afterwards than when I wrote them, And I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me." It was only with his subsequent emergence in the guise of the iconic Ziggy character in the spring of 1972 that the album itself would pull together as a cohesive whole.

Eighteen months later, in a 1973 interview for Rolling Stone, David held forth at length to William Burroughs about his latest reading of the Ziggy story, based on his short-lived plans to stage the album as a West End musical and TV spectacular. While his own accounts may have varied over the years, in this particular version he makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, Ziggy Stardust himself is not an extraterrestrial. He is a human who inadvertently makes contact with forces from another dimension via his radio (as related in the lyric of 'Starman') and, mistaking their messages for spiritual revelation, adopts a Messianic role on Earth while the passionless alien "infinities" use him as their channel for an invasion that will destroy the world. Very little of this story is apparent on the original album, but this in itself is instructive: throughout his career Bowie has led by example, reinterpreting his own work to suit the mood of the moment. In the same interview, he claims to be "rather kind of old school, thinking that when an artist does his work it's no longer his - I just see what people make of it,"

Just as the album's unifying concept did not spring fully-formed from the brow of its creator, so the iconic appearance of Ziggy Stardust himself underwent a protracted gestation: in early publicity photographs Bowie bears little resemblance to the strutting peacock of popular legend. The first step came in early January 1972 with the cutting of his luxuriant Hunky Dory-style tresses. At around the same time he began wearing a tight-fitting, open-chested jumpsuit designed by Freddi Burretti, and together with a shiny red pair of lace-up boots this became his standard early Ziggy uniform, later imitated by everyone from The Sweet to Suzi Quattro. It was in this outfit that Bowie made his most significant early Ziggy appearances: in the pages of Melody Maker in January 1972, on The Old Grey Whistle Test the following month, and most notably on the cover of the Ziggy Stardust album itself. The photo shoot was conducted by Hunky Dory veteran Brian Ward outside the K West furrier's offices at 23 Heddon Street, a little cul-de-sac just off London's Regent Street near to Ward's own studio. "We did the photographs outside on a rainy night," Bowie recalled later, "and then upstairs in the studio we did the Clockwork Orange lookalikes that became the inner sleeve."

Although the K West sign has long since gone, the location remains a place of pilgrimage for Bowie fans. The famous image is a notable oddity among Bowie's album covers which otherwise, almost without exception, feature a studio close-up of David in his latest guise. For Ziggy Stardust, Bowie/Ziggy is instead a diminutive figure dwarfed by the shabby urban landscape, picked out in the light of a street-lamp, framed by cardboard boxes and parked cars. As on the cover of Hunky Dory, David's flesh-tones, hair and gaudy jumpsuit have been artificially re-tinted, enhancing the adventitious impression that the guitar-clutching visitor to this unglamorous twilight backstreet has just touched down from another dimension altogether.

Even the K.West sign, so glaringly prominent above David's heed on the album sleeve, has aroused speculation: certainly it provides Bowie with a ready-made visual pun on "quest" - his own and Ziggy's. The rear sleeve stresses the sci-fi overtones with what is surely a tongue-in-cheek reference to Doctor Who: with one hand on his hip and a cigarette in the other, David gazes at the camera from inside the incongruous setting of a public telephone box, the mode of interplanetary travel favoured by the BBC's Time lord since his first appearance in the early 1960s. And, perhaps indebted to SIade's 1970 album Play It Loud, the rear sleeve also carries the celebrated injunction "To be played at maximum volume".

Not long after the photo shoot, Bowie's hair underwent a second and definitive change in appearance, apparently inspired by a magazine article David had seen about the Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, whose stylized work was taking the fashion world by storm and who would take over from Freddi Burretti a year later as Bowie's principal costume designer. "The Ziggy hairstyle was taken lock, stock and barrel from a Kansai display in Harpers," Bowie later recalled. "He was using a kabuki lion's wig on his models which was brilliant red. And I thought it was the most dynamic colour so we tried to get mine as near as possible ... I got it to stand up with lots of blow-drying and this dreadful, early lacquer." What the 'Ziggy Stardust' lyric had already prophetically described as a "screwed-down hairdo, like some cat from Japan" was created at Haddon Hall in late February by Angela's hairdresser Suzi Fussey. By the time the year's most celebrated coiffure appeared on Top Of The Pops in July the Ziggy Stardust tour was well into its stride, and far David Bowie there was no turning back.

But before the red hair and the stage show came the advance publicity which generated one of thc decisive interviews of Bowies career. In the wake of Hunky Dory's critical garlands musical critics were already touting David Bowie as the great hope of 1972, and the Melody Maker interview published on 22 January was proof that he knew it. l'm going to he huge and it's quite frightening in a way," he told Michael Watts who confirmed that everyone just knows that David is going to be a lollapalooza of a superstar throughout the entire world this year. But famously it was another aspect of Watt's interview that grabbed all the limelight. Headlined "Oh You Pretty Thing" it described David's new "yummy" appearance and dutifully reported his latest bombshell: l'm gay,' he says, and always have been even when I was David Jones."

Latter-day accounts of Bowie's career have sometimes approached this crucial moment with an ingenuousness that surpasses all understanding. Contrary to widespread assumption, very few people at the time were genuinely taken in by Bowies brilliantly timed shock tactic - least of all Watts himself, whose response in thc article itself was to note that there's a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth ... if he's not an outrage he is at thc least, an amusement." Watts appreciated and clearly enjoyed the fact that Bowie's declaration was simply the most headline grabbing yet of his attempts to project a sense of his own otherness. Taboo subjects have always appealed to David s appetite for sensation, and his desire to operate outside traditional systems naturally attracted him to homosexuality a sub-culture. 'I liked the idea of these clubs and these people and everything about it being something that nobody knew about," be explained later. So it attracted me like crazy. It was like another world that I really wanted to buy into."

This in itself didn't make him gay; indeed, anecdotal evidence amassed by manifold sources confirms that the Ziggy period was one of energetic heterosexuality at every opportunity. In later years David's remarks on the subject were nothing if not nonexistent. 'It's true I am bisexual," he said in 1976, only to respond to an interviewer's question a few years later with the retort, "Bisexual? Oh Lord, no. Positively not. That was just a lie. They gave me that image so I stuck to it pretty well for a for years." During the New Zealand tour in 1978 be told a chat-show host, "Yes, I am bisexual, that was a genuine statement." launching himself on a mass market in 1983, Bowie was at pains to recant his former declaration to anyone who'd listen -particularly in America. He told Time magazine that it had been a "major miscalculation" and in Rolling Stone he called it "the biggest mistake I ever made." When pressed on the question by Smash Hits in 1987, Bowie amusingly only underscored the whole saga by occasioning them to print: "Ha ha! You shouldn't believe everything you read."

There can be little doubt that David dabbled ("I was physical about it, but frankly it wasn't enjoyable," be said in 1993, it wasn't something I was comfortable with at all, but it had to be done,") but ultimately the question of his own sexual orientation is splendidly irrelevant. In the Melody Maker interview he was doing something far more fundamental: be was embracing the spirit of Camp according to its truest definition, which is not about sex but about the elevation of the aesthetic above the purely practical. Just so, David's relentless habit of editing his personality, appearance, vocabulary and frames of reference to present a succession of "new" Bowies, each fashioned for effect and exclusivity, follows the manifesto of Camp established by Oscar Wilde and Susan Sontag. Camp invested Bowie/Ziggy with a useful air of ironic detachment, placing the received image of the star on a pedestal aloof from the mundane reality of studio sessions, tour buses, and the wife and baby at home. David himself would later insist that the revelation was not premeditated. "1 was starting to build Ziggy, he was starting to come together and I was naturally falling into that role," he told Watts in 1978,"... you sort of pick up on bits of your own life when you're putting a role together. Bang! It was suddenly there on the table. It was as simple as that."

According to Angela Bowie, even Tony DeFries was "profoundly shocked" by the revelation, but as the music papers fell over one another to follow up the story he "realized the full commercial potential of David's sex-role games". For his part, producer Ken Scott has opinioned that DeFries was actually behind the declaration in the first place, devising it as a publicity coup.

Inevitably, reactions to the "I'm gay" interview were inconsistent and far-reaching. There were those who condemned Bowie's stance in reactionary terms - later the same year Cliff Richard denounced him as being instrumental in the disintegration of society's moral fiber. In America, a country famously ill at ease with the concept of irony, most Bowie coverage now began and ended with the question of his sexuality, while the few American performers of the 1970s who sought to emulate Bowie, like the entertaining but forgettable Jobraith, did so within a stiflingly gay context. As late as 1976 many American critics still regarded David primarily as a gay icon, which is unsurprising given that Cherry Vanilla, MainMan's publicity officer, had swamped the press with enthusiastic and lurid details of David's sexual adventures in advance of his first US tour in 1972. As the occasionally hostile reception to the tour demonstrated, America was not yet ready for homosexuality as a marketing strategy "Alice Cooper had to stop wearing ladies' sling-back shoes and false eyelashes and dresses and get more into horror." remarked Jayne County later. "People could understand horror and blood and dead babies, but they couldn't understand male/female sexuality, androgyny or, as little American boys would say, fag music." Bowie later intimated that he had disapproved of Cherry Vanilla's tactics from the start: "All the time that was going on, I was in another country, so it was very hard for me to keep any sort of control ... when I got to America and found out how I'd been set up, I thought, 'My God, I can't fight this enormous snowball, I'll have to work with it and gradually push it down into something more manageable."' In some quarters it would take until 1983's 'China Girls' video for the skeptic's to concede that David Bowie might not be quite the raving queen he had once cracked himself up to be.

In both Britain and America David was eagerly adopted as a figurehead by gay-right activists; in the summer of 1972 Gay News welcomed him as "probably the best rock musician in Britain" and "a potent spokesman" for something called "gay rock", But Bowie's long-standing refusal to politicize himself or "be a cause" for anyone - a protestation he had long ago made to Kenneth Pitt - inevitably resulted in some of the flag-wavers experiencing a misplaced sense of betrayal when he turned out not to be everything they had projected onto him. But this is not to deny the impact of Bowie's projection of a gay sensibility before a mainstream pop audience, which was positively seismic. In 1972 the decriminalization of homosexuality was only five years old, and notwithstanding the provocative bisexual innuendoes of Mick Jagger and Ray Davies, there were no openly gay role-models in the country. Bowie was the first star to challenge the reactionary perception of homosexuality as the preserve of limp-wristed shop assistants in mediocre sitcoms. Instead he rubbed the nation's nose in the idea that homosexuals could be young, attractive, talented and successful. He was the first "gay" man marketed to both girls and boys. He undermined walls of bigotry simply by providing a pretext for debate. As Dead Or Alive's Pete Burns pointed out in 1984, "that was a real breakthrough. You used to hear dockers saying, 'Ah, I'd give Bowie one.' That was great, but it'll never happen again." In the coming months Bowie's stage relationship with Mick Ronson would subvert the standard macho interplay between rock singer and lead guitarist, and within a year of Bowie's pivotal 'Starman' appearance on Top Of The Pops, most British groups pitched at the teenage market boasted at least one gratuitously effeminate member - Sweet's bassist Steve Priest and MurI's guitarist Rob Davis being only the most prominent. And Bowie was already setting the agenda for the pop music of the future: the teenage audience of the Ziggy Stardust tour included not only Pete Burns but Boy George, Holly Johnson and Marc Almond.

By the time The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was finally released on 6 June, Bowie had been touring Britain for four months and was already the talking-point of the year. "Of course there's nothing that Bowie would like more than to be a glittery super-star," noted the NME, "and it could still come to pass. By now everybody ought to know he's tremendous and this latest chunk of fantasy can only enhance his reputation further." In Melody Maher Michael Watts found the album "a little less instantly appealing than Hunky Dory" but admitted that "the paradox is that it will be much more commercially successful ... because Bowie's bid for stardom is accelerating at lightning speed." The warmest reviews came from America, where Cashbox enthused that "The songs are uniformly brilliant and the production by Bowie and Ken Scott is virtually flawless. It's an electric age nightmare. It's a cold hard beauty. It's another example of the shining genius of David Bowie. An album to take with you into the 1980's." Phonograph Record praised "a self-contained rock and roll album about rock and roll" which showcases "one of the most distinctive personalities in rock . .. Should he become a star of the Ziggy Stardust magnitude, he will deserve it, and hopefully his daydreams won't be forced to turn to suicide when it's all over." Hmm. The Philadelphia Inquirer declared that "David Bowie is one of the most creative, compelling writers around today." Rolling Stone hailed Ziggy Stardust as "David Bowie's most thematically ambitious, musically coherent album to date, the record on which he unites the major strengths of his previous work", concluding that Bowie "has pulled off his complex task with consummate style, with some great rock & roll ... with all the wit and passion required to give it sufficient dimension and with a deep sense of humanity that regularly emerges from behind the Star facade. The important thing is that despite the formidable nature of the undertaking, he hasn't sacrificed a bit of entertainment value for the sake of message.

This last comment is perhaps the bottom line on Ziggy Stardust: after all is said and done, it remains at the end a tremendously entertaining piece of pop music. The themes and motifs are all there for the taking, and of course they are endlessly fascinating: the nature of stardom, the ongoing extraterrestrial shtick, the end of the world, the false Messiah and the mistrust of organized religion (there are even more priests and churches in Ziggy Stardust's lyrics than in its predecessor's), the lure of America, rock music and celebrity as metaphors for sexual consummation, decline, defeat, catharsis: all Bowie's pet subjects wrapped in eleven perfect pop songs.

Those who come to the album for the first time, aware of its awesome reputation, are often surprised by what a well-mannered, quietly crafted set of songs they find. Most Bowie enthusiasts will cite other, lesser-known albums in preference, and even David himself has advised caution: "I find the Ziggy Stardust record very thin," he said in 1990. "It sounded really powerful then; maybe systems have got better, it sounds kind of weedy." Certainly Ziggy Stardust's chart-friendly string arrangements, polite piano and reined-in guitar solos stand in surprising contrast with the proto-punk assault of The Spiders' live act, but this is part of its winning formula. Midway between the sophisticated acoustic balladry of Hunky Dory and the all-out glam slam of Aladdin Sane, its contentious visions of alienation and decline are conveyed in a commercial, almost easy-listening idiom. It is a brilliant stroke, appealing across the widest possible spectrum.

It certainly worked. Although Ziggy Stardust only made number 75 in America, the critics were won over and the word was out. In Britain the album climbed rapidly to its number 5 peak, remaining in the UK chart for over two years. By January 1973 MainMan was feeding reports to the press that the album had sold a million copies, but this was a flagrant exaggeration: at the end of 1972 it had sold 95,968 units in Britain, and around the same number in America. It remains a big seller to this day, and reissues have entered the top 40 on two separate occasions.

Bowie has certainly made greater records, but none will ever achieve the cultural impact of this one. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars made him a household name and left a milestone on the highway of popular music, rewriting the terms of the performer's contract with his audience and ushering in a new approach to artifice and theatre that permanently altered the cultural aesthetic of the twentieth century.


Is the first book to cover every facet of Bowie's career in revealing depth and detail. In his research for this benchmark book, Nicholas Pegg has used a host of sources, many of them previously unpublished. Every recording is analysed from a technical and musical point of view, as well as being judiciously placed in the context of Bowie's mercurial career moves and constantly refined creative intentions. The A-Z of songs and the day-by-day dateline of Bowie's career are the most complete yet published.

* THE ALBUMS - detailed production history and analysis of every album from 1967 to the present day.

* THE SONGS - hundreds of individual entries reveal the facts and anecdotes behind not just the famous recordings, but also the most obscure of unreleased rarities - from 'Absolute Beginners' to 'Ziggy Stardust', from 'Abdulmajid' to 'Zion'.

* THE TOURS - set-lists and histories of every live show.

* THE ACTOR - a complete guide to Bowie's career on stage and screen, including many obscure and little-known performances.

* PLUS - the videos, the BBC radio sessions, the paintings, the Internet and much more.

From the 11-year-old's skiffle performance at the 18th Bromley Scouts' Summer Camp in 1958, to the 53-year-old's headliner at Glastonbury 2000, THE COMPLETE DAVID BOWIE dissects every last move in rock's most fascinating career.

Published by Reynolds & Hearn Ltd

---This page last modified: 17 Dec 2018---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)