The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Rock Stardom as a Phantasmagoria
Before virtually anyone else, David Bowie understood that rock and roll of the 1970s needed an element of fantasy. He made this a personal mission, and fashioned a repertory company of alteregos in theatrical guises—among them sleazy streetwalkers, space-dwelling dope fiends, and cross-dressers tottering precariously on platform heels. These constructs are, in some ways, more memorable than the spotty albums on which they appear. Until Ziggy.
Though its "story" dissolves early on, and its sexual brazenness is long past outré, Ziggy is British rocker Bowie's urtext.
It's also one of the great glam statements of the '70s, a clever distillation of T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, and Andy Warhol, in which the sublime and the sordid sit next to each other. Bowie had already grabbed attention a few times by this point, with Space Oddity, Hunky Dory, and the enduring title track from The Man Who Sold the World. Having tasted stardom, sharp social critic Bowie (né David Jones) was evidently both attracted and horrified by it; these songs are a frightened and frightening account of a space alien rock star sent to free the youth of the world from inhibition. Sometimes the places he and his entourage, the Spiders, go are a real trip ("Suffragette City," an all-time classic rocker), and sometimes they're all too real ("Rock and Roll Suicide," "Moonage Daydream"). No matter where he lands, Bowie fully immerses listeners in the freaky feel and smell of the place. He also gets the horniness and holiness of rock ritual—one more recently released bonus track, "Sweet Head," proclaims: "Before there was rock, you only had God." He also understands the yearning for meaning, and depicts the Spiders, and the freaks who pay to see them, with compassion. Like him, they're both skeptics and true believers, participants in a sordid traveling tableau. Their exploits form an allegory about stardom as phantasmagoria that seems downright prescient in our celebrity-obsessed age.
Released: 1972, Virgin
Key Tracks: "Suffragette City," "Moonage Daydream," "Five Years," "It Ain't Easy."
Catalog Choice: Young Americans; Heroes
Next Stop: T. Rex: Electric Warrior
After That: Mott the Hoople: All the Young Dudes
Book Pages: 109–110