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A Musical Analysis
by Robert Mathew-Walker (1985)
This musical analysis of the Ziggy Stardust album comes from Chapter 8 of Robert Mathew-Walker's out of print and now hard to find 1985 book called David Bowie: Theatre of Music.
1972: "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars"
Side One: Five Years / Soul Love / Moonage Daydream / Starman / It Ain't Easy
Side Two: Lady Stardust / Star / Hang Onto Yourself / Ziggy Stardust / Suffragette City / Rock n Roll Suicide
This astounding album, Bowie's greatest work as a creative musician up to that period, begins with such certainty and such manifest self-confidence that one is immediately captivated by the brilliant recording of a brilliant conception, a dazzling sound-world of fiction.
In the opening song, "Five Years", the world has that period left to run (which would take us to 1977, the year of Bowie's thirtieth birthday, which just possibly might have been significant). The planet Earth is therefore doomed, though from exactly what threat is not revealed, and the drama of the song and ultimately of the album is played out against this immediately disclosed threat. "Five Years" is an extraordinary song for many reasons. First, it is a waltz, a strict 3/4 number, although Bowie's sub-division of the pulse which is in itself alien to rock 'n roll makes the triple-time appear incidental. In one way, the four-bar groupings make massive 12/8 bars, and this probably is the best way to appreciate the song's rhythmic construction. Secondly, the song's message of doom is shot through with a tenderness and sympathy which reveal Bowie's sensitivity and profound humanity. For example the locale, the "market square", immediately provides a broad mass of humanity from which he can observe and draw his examples. "A girl my age went off her head"; suddenly the strings enter for the first time at this point, warm and comforting in their long-sustained chords. In this instance the musical expression grows directly out of the text, but as each character - the cop, the queer, the black, the soldier with a broken arm, and so on - is mentioned, we glimpse that the album (for the album's title clearly tells us that this is to be a concept LP) is concerned with people and human relationships under threat. And so it proves.
But finally, one must note the amazing sound-world of this song, its inexorable growth and power, and the nicely-timed drum segue into "Soul Love", a restrained and surprisingly gentle song with a fascinating beat. This beat is a mixture of two basic pulses, producing a solo bass note on the seventh half-beat of each bar, a characteristic of slow-paced black soul music of the time and highly significant in view of Bowie's later work. Already, aspects of the Thin White Duke are here but this is to anticipate things; as in "Five Years" the rhythmic construction of this song is its most startling musical characteristic. Another, a slight variation on this, is the reasonably familiar Bowie fingerprint - the slipping of a two-beat bar within a four-beat bar sequence, balanced by another such event a few seconds later. The effect, especially on the melodic outline of the song, one of long notes against the chiaroscuro of the accompanying rhythms, is to produce a fascinating pattern of music, all carefully intertwined like the threads of a lace curtain, and as gentle and softly expressive. Against all this as Bowie sings with a reversion to his quasi-nasal Anthony Newley voice, exaggerating the theatricality of the concept, one is forced into a corner. Is this a real hymn to love, almost as an abstract concept? If it is, what is this vocal fly doing in this particular ointment? The answer is surely given in the text; "All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving". This has to be the answer, for it comes at the farthest-removed harmonic point from the song's basic key (in this case C minor within G major); not so very far removed from each other, but sufficiently strange to reinforce the point. The placing of this song about love (one could hardly call it a 'love song") also demonstrates its importance in the scheme of things. Its faint similarity to the construction of "Five Years", particularly the gradually expanding instrumentation, reminds us (albeit subconsciously) that it is to be heard in context.
At such a comparatively early stage in this album, one can already sense that the symphonic nature of the first side of "The Man Who Sold The World" is to be refined further here. And so it proves. The next song, "Moonage Daydream", carries earlier points further in their development. It is the most strongly rock-based song so far, but shot through with touches of non-rock material, particularly the oscillating treble chords in the first extended instrumental break, although based on a slight variation of the multi-layered rhythm of "Soul Love". The concept of voices echoing, repeating and seeming to attack and fly away from the main fabric of the vocal line is not new, but is used with a brilliance verging on genius here, for the effect is beautifully dovetailed into an extended but not lengthy Mick Ronson solo, way up in the guitar's highest register, carrying itself and us with it ever higher, climbing surely and effectively into an ethereal sky from which it finally fades.
David Bowie - 1973
It follows naturally that "Starman" should be next, a pure science-fiction popular song. Continuing from "Soul Love" the rhythm of "Starman" is a variation on the bassline of the previous number. Melodically, "Starman" takes two quite different entities, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "You Keep Me Hanging On", although the octave leap that characterises the initial vocal music of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" is the stronger influence. "Starman" has the most clearly-defined and complete story-line of any of the songs on this album. The singer has heard a cosmic voice interrupting his radio listening; on telephoning his friend he discovers he is not alone in hearing it, but the galactic message is one of reassurance. This remarkable concept, which, as has been pointed out by others, shows a startling premonition of the story-line of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, is expressed through an impressively non-fantastical musical manner.
With such an original conception as this album is proving to be, we almost expect a continuous viewpoint on events; the Alien perhaps, the personification of the interrupting voice on the radio of "Starman"? What we get is another voice (almost literally), but in the shape of another writer, the song "It Ain't Easy" by Ron Davies. Bowie's amazing repertoire of vocal tricks is here demonstrated further by his use, or rather our hearing, a tiny distanced voice, the whole concept a stage removed from our previous aural experience. This may indeed be the voice on the radio. It is a remarkable choice and a revealing one, but the effect of this performance is myriad. At a deeper level, it reminds us of Bowie's own performances, not necessarily of his own music; more importantly it throws into relief the other songs we have heard, bringing Side One to an end with an unanswered question. Tiny phrases, words, even syllables are momentarily emphasized in an astonishing vocal display by Bowie, becoming almost a disembodied soul singer of outstanding quality, but all put at the service of a higher concept - that of the unfolding drama of the album.Thus does the brilliant first side of "Ziggy Stardust" end, an incomparable procession of personal brilliance, staggering in its expressive scope and virtually flawless in its realization. This is a major artistic statement of the highest caliber within its own field, and like all such statements, it enlarges and develops our own experiences.
Side Two begins with "Lady Stardust", an original Bowie song, introduced by solo piano (Mick Ronson displaying an outstanding ability on this instrument - although he had been heard in this role on Side one). The song is told from the viewpoint of a boy who is in love with a rock and roll singer on stage. We hear of his fantasies, but there is no ambiguity here as there was in "Queen Bitch". The "Lady Stardust" in question is almost certainly Marc Bolan (indeed Bowie has indicated as much on several occasions), but that is ultimately irrelevant. The important point is that, for all the adoring description of the singer, this is not a sexual song - although doubtless the singer in this instance would not have minded the opportunity - and the love remains unrequited, distanced. We do not know if the object of the love either knew or cared about the existence of his admirer. The song can be seen to be concerned with all such yearnings, translated into a gay setting not for sensationalism but because a straight song on the subject would not have had the effect of other-worldliness, as of seeming to care for the minority, or of focusing our attention on the sadness of the situation, with all its implications, which the "five year" life of this particular sound world forces us to consider when time has a definite limit imposed upon it. The song is shot through with masterly touches: at the phrase "out of sight" Bowie's voice suddenly leaps skywards, but quietly, the musical equivalent of the words, and retained as part of the melodic line. When this phrase returns with the word "paradise" the ecstasy and heavenwards-thought also fit the rising rapture of his voice like a glove. One final small point; the piano introduction and coda quote (doubtless unconsciously) "Maria" from "West Side Story", for the second time in Bowie's writing career.
The second side is as complete a collection as the first, on which the parameters had been faintly drawn; now, they are to be explored, but within the context of music theatre. As we have heard, the first song, "Lady Stardust", is about performance, seen from the adoring fan's viewpoint. Now, a succession of songs, a mini-gig, almost as a multi-movement cantata within the album side, refracts the image. The next three songs, vastly different though they be, nevertheless make the collective viewpoint. "Star" takes the solo singer, whom we know is called Ziggy Stardust, and reveals his plans for personal world stardom. But we also know, as he does not, that in this context the Earth's life is a mere five years more. His, therefore, cannot be longer. Furthermore, the pansexuality which pervades these songs is nothing more than Ziggy's desire to appeal at every level to the widest possible audience. "Star" is a remarkable song. It is based on old rock formulae, confirming the dramatic background, but handled with considerable ingenuity, not least with regard to its rhythmic construction and the malleability with which Bowie uses backing voices. The song's seriousness is reinforced by the sudden unexpected change to a slow tempo towards the end, as though a frown has passed across the mind, unbidden, revealing an aspect of stardom which it is probably better not to contemplate.
This new aspect might just possibly be referred to in the next song "Hang On To Yourself" a piece of surprising originality. This is sung to a fast-medium soft-rock tempo and is an overt invitation, if not more than that, to sex, but sung in an insidious half-whipped voice that seems all the more dangerous because it appears plainly determined to get what it wants. "Ziggy Stardust" is a portrait of the star, not of Bowie himself. It is essentially descriptive of the performer at work, seen this time from on stage.
So we have three interlinked songs, related by their harmonies, and rhythmic subtleties, concerned variously with the star's ambition, his influence and his appearance. Now Ziggy himself, fully revealed by this process, sings "Suffragette City", full of those sexual ambiguities noted earlier. In one sense the star realizes the helplessness of the situation he has created; as a leader he has his followers, but they are suffocating him and he cannot control them. They, lacking his original certainty of purpose, threaten to overwhelm him and very nearly do; the suffragette, the willingly-led seeker after personal freedom, is both man and woman. It is likely that the seeker is the original innocent distant lover of the first song on this side; Ziggy's increasing exasperation finds its outlet initially in the frantic tempo that towards the end freezes into repeated notes with an obsessive disregard for everything. The words tumble beneath a seemingly chaotic spray, as the speeding mind races through a whole kaleidoscope of imagery. The result is a colossal shock, both for the listener and for Ziggy himself, for we never thought it would come to this. And this, the self-created, self-destructive situation can only go in one direction, at least in this frame of mind.
"Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" concludes this amazing piece of work, a slow, beaten, broken song beginning in the depths of despair. The image of a worn-out youth at the end of his imagination is brilliantly drawn; but he is both Ziggy and Ziggy's follower. As Ziggy he cannot escape, as the previous song clearly indicated, and as his followers have no-one to lead them, they drift aimlessly, within a world of finite temporality. But this is reduced to the personal, to the singular; here the suicide - both the person and the act - is that of one individual who is led towards his inevitable suicide. Together, however, Ziggy and his followers might just achieve something "You're not alone," sings Bowie to himself and to his followers, calling "love" to anyone who wants to hear. It is both a plea for his fans to follow him and to himself to go on to new things, and although this arises from the depths of despair, the music manages, in spite of the slow and doom-laden tread, to heave itself upwards, groaning and protesting the while, from the simplistic C major, the chord reinforced right at the very end of the record The opening song of the album was in G major; now, at the end, we have harmonically speaking traversed the universe to end on the farthest possible key away - the tritone D flat. Clearly Bowie has a great deal more left in him to say, although whether it will be Ziggy who says it is another matter.
Continued on next page
---This page last modified: 13 Dec 2018---