Hello. It looks like youre using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

LONDON – MAY 12: David Bowie performs live on stage at Earls Court Arena on May 12 1973 during the Ziggy Stardust tour (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
Then we were Ziggy’s band

Then we were Ziggy’s band

LONDON – MAY 12: David Bowie performs live on stage at Earls Court Arena on May 12 1973 during the Ziggy Stardust tour (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

David Bowie became Starman in search of a hit and launched a space odyssey that has lasted 50 years. Martin Samuel sees no end to its influence

“When an artist does his work it’s no longer his…”

David Bowie, 1974

At Leroy, one of the cooler, hotter, Michelin-star restaurants in London, there is a sure signal at the end of the night that service is done. A revered square of colourised cardboard is removed from the shelves of vinyl and its contents placed upon the Technics turntable. And it begins. The tight snare and bass drum fading up, the strummed G chord, into E minor, “Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing…” And Simon smiles. He’s the head chef. This is his song, it’s his album, his end to the day. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It is, he thinks, the greatest achievement in the history of popular music. It is 50 years old in June. But Simon is 29. 

So he wasn’t born more than two decades from its release. His father, his gateway to the music of David Bowie, was seven when Ziggy came out. Yet here it is, still blasting – local noise pollution laws permitting – out of the speakers half a century later. Still vibrating through the collective consciousness, still relevant, still inspiring, still influential.

The newest, the fiercest artist this year, a name we might not even be aware of yet, will owe something to Ziggy Stardust. And if not him/her/they directly, then certainly their influences. Ian Curtis forms a band because of Ziggy Stardust. No Ziggy, no punk aesthetic. No Ziggy, no Madonna or Gaga or Siouxsie Sioux. Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor are at Ziggy’s first gig in Aylesbury, driving down in Taylor’s Mini. The band looked like spacemen, he recalled. Suede, Adam Ant, Marilyn Manson, Kate Bush, James Murphy, Prince, Radiohead, Franz Ferdinand, David Byrne, Eddie Izzard, Noel Fielding, anyone who has ever created a character, a persona, dressed it up and taken to the stage with it, are in debt to Ziggy Stardust. No matter the genre. No Ziggy, no Pharrell Williams, no Grace Jones, no Kurt Cobain. No wonder Bowie had to kill him. He grew so big.

Turn the record sleeve over and down the left side is a conventional list of credits. The songs, the names of the players, production duties, photographs, artwork. And at the bottom an instruction that still speaks of danger today. In bold capitals:

TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.

Not just loud.

MAXIMUM VOLUME.

These days, many of us consume music through our telephones. And if we listen long enough, through our branded earpieces, a little message pops up on the screen to say that we need to be controlled. We’ve had it turned up too loud. Naughty us. Our device will now be adjusting the volume to protect our delicate eardrums. But Ziggy says: fuck that. Ziggy is not going to be advised by some West Coast wellness freak on the correct amount of noise that should emanate from his air pods. So, in the most unexpected way, Ziggy Stardust is still out there, challenging: because he demands to be heard loud. And he absolutely should be.

The back cover of Rise and Fall

First and foremost The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a great rock album. It has a young Bowie, at last assured, confident and in a frenzy of creativity. Musical arrangement duties are shared with Mick Ronson, who is one of rock’s most powerful and melodic lead guitarists, the Keith to Bowie’s Mick. His work drives the album in the way Rick Wakeman’s piano led much of Hunky Dory. The rhythm section, Trevor Bolder bass, Mick Woodmansey drums, is always on point. Bowie’s rhythm guitar is some of his best, too. Strip away Ziggy’s paraphernalia and it would still cut it as 38 blistering minutes of pure rock n roll. There are 11 songs on Ziggy and close to half come in at under three minutes. Most of the vocals were laid down first take, most of the music in no more than three. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am, indeed.

The reason Ziggy is more than just a glam rock thrash, however, is because Bowie would not set his bar so low. He was aiming higher, he was making art as well as music. He eschewed the idea that a rock star had long hair, wore denim, and looked like the guy nodding his head in the front row. Bowie found that to be as fake as any of his own incarnations. By the time he created Ziggy Stardust, the alien rock star fell to earth, he was looking at the worlds of fashion, of science fiction, of Japanese art and culture; he was fixated by image, by stagecraft, by the potential in androgyny. 

“For most British musicians at that point, the choices were either painting or making music,” he explained. “We opted for music and brought a lot of our aesthetic sensibilities to it. We wanted to manufacture a new kind of vocabulary, a new kind of currency. And the so-called gender-bending, the picking up of aspects of the avant-garde, and things like the Kabuki theatre in Japan, and German expressionist movies, and poetry by Baudelaire, and everything from Presley to Edith Piaf went into this mix, this hybridisation, this pluralism about what, in fact, rock music was and could become. It was a pudding, you know? It really was a pudding of new ideas, and we were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders that we were creating the 21st century in 1971. That was the idea. And we wanted to just blast everything in the past.”

So that’s what he did. Ziggy Stardust did not render all that went before obsolete, of course. Succeeding Bowie in the top ten of the album charts in 1972 were Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Lindisfarne, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Max Bygraves. But music changed. Not necessarily on 16 June, the day of Ziggy’s release; but certainly on 6 July when Bowie took the album’s lead single, Starman, to Top of the Pops.

It remains one of the most iconic performances of the television age; a transformative, transcendent turn that, viewed now, also appears surprisingly sweet. Ziggy may have dropped from space but there is an obvious humanity about the man playing him. “I never thought I’d need so many people,” he sings on Five Years, the album’s opener, and there is nothing cold about Ziggy’s persona as introduced to an entire nation, his cheeky little grin, his warm, blue 12-string guitar. We can revisit that introduction through our modern streams, our videos, our clips on YouTube with views in the millions. Yet at the time Bowie arrived on terrestrial tea-time screens what you saw was what you got. No rewind, no replay.

So when he looked directly into the camera lens, pointed a finger in its direction and told Britain’s impressionable teenagers, “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-hoo”, it was a direct invitation to his revolution, and his world. We can date Spandau Ballet and Boy George to that moment, we can date Eighties synth-pop and the most colourful territories of punk. Bono has cited it, so too the Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen. And when he sung the chorus, Bowie draped an affectionate arm around Ronson and smiled happily, completely comfortable in his gender-fluid skin. Nothing was the same after that.

Ziggy photographed in a New York hotel room in 1973

Starman wasn’t a glam rock stomper. At the time, it wasn’t even much of a hit. Bowie was invited to the BBC on the back of a rise to number 41 in the charts. RCA must have had a good plugger. As for ch-ch-changes, musically, Starman wasn’t much of a challenge to your parents at all. Here was a two minute and 39 second pop song, with phrasing and an octave jump that owed more than a little to Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow and a delicate string arrangement by Ronson. Of all the songs on Ziggy Stardust, Starman is the one that most sounds as if it would fit right in on its tamer, classier predecessor Hunky Dory.

And there’s a reason for that. Starman wasn’t supposed to be on Ziggy Stardust at all. Its influence is perhaps the greatest of the many myths and happy accidents that surround this period in Bowie’s life. Making up the original 11 songs on the album would be a cover version of Chuck Berry’s Around and Around. Hearing the early sessions, the head of RCA Records, Dennis Katz, told Bowie that the album did not contain a hit. So Chuck was dropped and Bowie wrote Starman.

This raises a few questions. Firstly – seriously, mate? Suffragette City? You don’t think the kids might have gone for that? Equally, what level of creativity was Bowie summoning at the time that he could compose such a perfectly crafted piece of pop music almost on command? But there it is. Bowie was seeking commercial success and perhaps saw a link between the themes in Starman and his biggest early hit, Space Oddity. He certainly wasn’t averse to novelty records. Yet, there, on Top of the Pops, in a rainbow jumpsuit and red astronaut boots, white painted fingernails, and the Spiders from Mars in scarlet, pink and gold around him, the myth and magic of Ziggy Stardust was born.

Until then, the promotional tour had not been going entirely well. Drummer Woodmansey recalled hostile receptions to the Ziggy persona at first. Bowie was confronting audiences with something new. “Until that time the attitude was what you see is what you get,” Bowie recalled. “It seemed interesting to try to devise something different, like a musical where the artist onstage plays a part.”

So who was Ziggy Stardust? He was a composite: of names, ideas, styles, imaginings, fictional creations, real-life human beings. Even the name Ziggy was an amalgam of the wonderful and mundane: part Iggy Stooge; also the name of a tailor’s shop Bowie would regularly pass on the train. Stardust came from an affection for science fiction and also the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, real name Norman Carl Odam, who was briefly on Mercury Records with Bowie in the late 1960s. Bowie said he was in love with the idea of Odam’s music, which is certainly more palatable than the music itself. The alien rock star was Bowie’s re-imagining of Vince Taylor, a British rock and roller who endured a drug-induced mental breakdown, and believed himself to be a space god. Bowie melded all this into the story of Ziggy Stardust. Here is the narrative, in Bowie’s words, as told to William Burroughs.

“The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of a lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock and roll band and the kids no longer want rock and roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, because there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. All the Young Dudes is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They are black holes.

Ziggy at Newcastle City Hall in January 1973

“Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes Starman which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. They latch onto it immediately. The starmen are the infinites, they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe.

“Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks he is a prophet of the future. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide. As soon as Ziggy dies onstage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today.”

It’s weapons-grade gibberish is what it is, but that doesn’t matter because the story of Ziggy Stardust, and Ziggy Stardust the concept album, is another myth. It is retrofitted around a collection of songs written to serve a thrilling, unique, new stage persona. The fact that Starman was tagged on, and that some of the songs emerged from the same sessions as Hunky Dory, hardly suggests a prepared script. Ken Scott, Ziggy’s producer, certainly never bought into the idea of a concept, or a rock opera. “To me, three songs link together,” he said. “Ziggy Stardust, Lady Stardust and Star, because they’re all about the same person. After that, it’s a bunch of songs that work together.” Bolder, the bass player, also believed he worked on a conventionally structured record.

Concept albums have a rather chequered history. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is frequently credited as the first, but apart from a segue from the title track to the introduction of the fictional Billy Shears, who sings With a Little Help from My Friends, the concept is pretty much abandoned early on side one. The same year as Ziggy Stardust came out, Jethro Tull released Thick as a Brick, one continuous track over two sides, setting to music a supposed epic poem by a troubled eight-year-old genius, Gerald Bostock. The record came in a sleeve parodying a local newspaper covering Bostock’s story. Ian Anderson, the group’s leader, was put out that their previous release, Aqualung, had been described as a concept album, so wrote the piece to poke fun at the genre and grandiose progressive rock generally. Naturally, Thick as a Brick is now considered seminal in both fields. It is the musical equivalent of the car crash to end all car crashes in The Blues Brothers, which only succeeded in unleashing more and bigger versions of the same.

Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick

So Ziggy the character comes first, Ziggy the album second and Ziggy’s story third. After which, Ziggy the nervous breakdown. There is little more than a year between the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Bowie’s decision to retire the character live on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973. In that time Ziggy had gone to America as Aladdin Sane – hold on, hadn’t he been torn limb from limb by black holes at the climax of Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide? – and Bowie had changed his art form irrevocably. He had achieved his mission, incredibly ambitious for the time. “I must have the total image of a stage show,” Bowie explained. “It has to be total with me. I’m just not content writing songs, I want to make it three-dimensional. Songwriting as an art is a bit archaic now. Just writing a song is not good enough. A song has to take on character, shape, body and influence people to an extent that they use it for their own devices. It must affect them not just as a song, but as a lifestyle. Rock stars have assimilated all kinds of philosophies, styles, histories, writings, and they throw out what they have gleaned from that.” 

And he did. Occasionally Bowie sounds despondent about what his public took from his music – “I’m quite certain that the audience I’ve got for my stuff don’t listen to the lyrics,” he told Burroughs – but he altered the way a generation viewed art, music, fashion and life. Even hairstyles. Ziggy dragged the avant-garde into the mainstream, whether the movement of Lindsay Kemp or the clothes of Kansai Yamamoto, he introduced his audience to tropes and language that few others dared explore. Even his record company could be taken aback. “The church of man love is such a holy place to be,” sang the openly gay Bowie on Moonage Daydream. Yet on Ziggy Stardust’s lyrics sheet, commas are coyly placed either side of “love”, as if the singer is suddenly auditioning for a bit-part on Coronation Street. And it’s not because RCA regard all typography as sacred. On the most recent editions of the album, the company’s logo is changed to read BOWIE in the same black on orange typeface. But “man love” remains prudishly off limits. Probably just as well nobody looked into the deeper meaning of “squawking like a pink monkey bird” from the same song. Imagine hearing it in 1972. The rock star as mama-papa, as Star and Lady Stardust, well-hung and snow white tan. Imagine every other rocker, head in hands, as Bowie effortlessly turns “she’s a total blam-blam” into one of the greatest, most readily understandable, perfect and quotable lines of doggerel in popular music. You know, the same way he came up with the exquisite “bipperty-bopperty hat” on Queen Bitch, like a pop-culture Shakespeare coining his first onomatopoeia. He leaves Easter eggs everywhere.

Nuggets of Brel, kernels of Gene Vincent or Jimi Hendrix; gay slang, classical French poetry, leper messiahs. It is wrong to depict Bowie as a magpie because he didn’t just take; he made his pilferings unrecognisable, something new of his own. We can compile lists many pages long of the influences on Ziggy Stardust, but none produced art quite like it. 

This is an explosion of creativity close to unmatched. Hunky Dory-Ziggy Stardust-Aladdin Sane represents roughly 21 months of work in which Bowie took rock music further than just about any individual since Elvis Presley. He pushed at boundaries that still exist in minds today. And yet he did it all while trying to be inclusive. You’re not alone, was Ziggy’s departing message. You’re wonderful. You’re blessed. Give me your hands. And just like his creation, the mission nearly ended him.

(Opening picture and above) Ziggy at Earls Court in May 1973

Bowie retired Ziggy because his alter-ego grew to rule his life. Nobody even wanted to meet or interview the creator any more. They wanted the monster, his creation. Bowie had become Ziggy, a living piece of performance art. A brilliant construct, but not entirely helpful in a shared cab because Ziggy the alien didn’t carry money, and drummers did. “You’d come off stage and he’d still be Ziggy,” Woodmansey recalled. “You’d be sat in a taxi with this alien. You’d ask a question and he’d look right through you.”

“It seemed like a very positive artistic statement,” Bowie said. “I thought it was a beautiful piece of art, I really did. I thought it was a grand kitsch painting. Then that fucker would not leave me alone for years. That was when it started to sour. And it soured so quickly you wouldn’t believe it. It took me an awful lot of time to level out. My whole personality was affected. I thought why leave Ziggy on stage? Looking back it was completely absurd. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity. The experience affected me in a very exaggerated and marked manner. I think I put myself dangerously near the line. Not in a physical sense but definitively in a mental sense.”

Yet there he is still, colourised outside a Heddon Street furriers, London W1. He had flu and it had started to rain, so he wouldn’t walk far from the studio. The sign above Ziggy’s head says K. WEST, which legend has it symbolises Ziggy’s quest. Also a myth. The furriers belonged to Henry Konn. The K stands for Konn, the WEST indicates the location. Yet it remains easy to believe an alien has landed. Easy to be captured by the imperious figure on the rear sleeve, cocky hand on hip, lurid jumpsuit split to the navel, looking out from an old red telephone box. Of course it was a quest. It must have been a quest. It certainly looks like one, even 50 years on.

Bowie with a gold disc marking 100,000 sales of Ziggy Stardust

And so, after Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’s last delicate power chord, the needle slides into the run-out groove, again. “I’ve listened to it four times already this week,” says Simon. “I’m already looking forward to hearing it again.” So we think a second, share a glance and, ah, what the hell. Turn it over, appreciate the cracks and scratches of a truly loved, ancient piece of vinyl, tight snare and bass drum fading up, strummed G chord, into E minor, “Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing…” Some things never get old. Oh, and try the fish.

Photographs Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Ian Dickson/Redferns, Gems/Redferns/Getty Images

This piece appeared in Anniversary, a recent edition of the Tortoise Quarterly. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.