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Duncan Fallowell charts the course of Ziggy Stardust.
Records & Recording (July 1972)
DAVID BOWIE: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. RCA Victor SF 8287. £2.19.
There are rock albums and there are rock albums. This is one of the latter, a suite of songs rather than a straightforward collection, something considerably more than its parts whose themes interpenetrate to plot the world of Ziggy Stardust, tragi-comic rock n roll star, which is David Bowie's current identity. There is an inevitability about the appearance of Ziggy, especially within the corpus of Bowie's own work. A series of contemporary trends intersect to form an outrageously camped-up descendant of the mod: pretty, bitchy, vulnerable, excitable, shrewd. sometimes gentle, high adrenaline, freak in star-studded boots and dyed hair. Ziggy's combination of narcissism and defiance gives birth to the knave-queen, finding his kicks in a glossy urban landscape full of dramas. Bowie is no fool, he is not blind to the horrors of the twilight zone, and its pain is an essential raw material for his songs. But he also knows that from this deadliness also derives the exhilaration. The scintillance and squalor of it provide the two poles between which, on this album, his music moves. It fuses the harshness of The Man Who Sold The World with the overt commercial panache of Hunky Dory to create an album which must do extremely well for Bowie. All the signs are that he is going to be very big indeed, and not before time.
The schema of Ziggy Stardust is indefinite but not vague. The idea of a doomed beauty and hero-martyr predicates the album in the first cut, Five Years, a typical Bowie song with big romantic melody and chorus which at the outset admits the transience of the whole trip. Only five years. But of what? The world, the pop star, youth, fun? It doesn't matter. It would be all of these. The mood is right and sharpens the poignancy of what follows. This happens to be a beautiful teen pop song called Soul Love, all bitter sweet, and high-pitched Bowie overdubs la-la-ling in the background. There is not much point in going through all the songs in sequence because they are moods, not items of narrative, and their arrangement is flexible. All have somewhere in them that elusive Bowie angst. None is underweight. Apart from large-scale production numbers like Lady Stardust, Starman, Ziggy Stardust, there is some truly frantic rock music on the album. Hang Onto Yourself has a fast riff swinging up and down, and manages to be both very original and terribly like the Velvet Underground at their best. Bowie intones the words in his exaggerated Lou Reed manner before breaking into a feline chorus which is all his own. Actually he intends to work with Reed soon which should produce some interesting permutations, even though Bowie has now overtaken Reed in almost every way. Suffragette City is faster still, a simple chromatic chord change providing the hook. Some of the songs incorporate both aspects of Bowie, such as Moonage Daydream, which also has Mick Ronson stretching all his muscles on an aching aerial guitar solo. The end of the album, appropriately enough is Rock N Roll Suicide, beginning in a subdued way and building to a shuddering climax which almost oversteps the mark. Only Bowie's aura of being larger than life, which I should call "theatrical realism" if I didn't feel that somewhere there must be a better way of describing it, can carry it off.
The Spiders - Ronson (guitar and piano), Bolder (bass), Woodmansey (drums) - also help to keep the hard centre of the music from disintegrating under pressure from Bowie's imagination. Ronson's guitar is as dramatic and flashy as Bowie's metallic, twisting voice. He is also responsible for some of the arrangements, creating expansive effects without overloading the sound. The production too (Bowie and Ken Scott) generously takes advantage of the studio. There are a mass of tiny original details, little tit-bits for the ears, worked into the broad texture. This album celebrates a new social style as well - the volatile Clockwork Orange fag of inclusive tastes - and judging by the enthusiasm of young Cowley apprentices when I saw him perform in Oxford we should soon see many sub-Bowies on the streets, his "vaseline tigers".
Curious that the album should come out at the same time as Burrough's novel, The Wild Boys. The general flavour of both is distinctly similar. A new cult is afoot.
---This page last modified: 13 Dec 2018---