Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars review

For Paul Martin

David Bowie's monumental, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released 42 years ago - the same amount of time Elvis Presley was on earth. And yet, after all the hook-up spasms of the past have come and flamed out, after glam rock has crashed and burned more than once and the old shock, awe and even discussion of Bowie's androgyny have become mute, what remains is expert musicality, a fixed hard rock achievement. Ziggy Stardust is in the cannon, a desert island listen that belongs in the library files of rock alongside Sgt. Pepper's sticky fingers.

Bowie put years of  influences into this thematically conceived album - rock and rollers, years spent in avant garde theatrical training, experimentations, novelties. It all took shape with something original. Here is the concept: the earth is running out of natural resources and will self-destruct in five years. Meanwhile, an outer space alien takes human form and comes to earth with a message of hope and love through music. He becomes a rockstar, adored and loved to death by fans, yet lonely and isolated. Unable to find true love, he lives out excess and rock n' roll headonism - the whole sex, drugs and rock n' roll ride - until he self-destructs beneath the weight of it all.

Ziggy Stardust is an album that couldn't be made today. Nobody would believe it. But 1972 was smack in the Golden Age of Rock when your Mick Jaggers, your Robert Plants and any one of your ex-Beatles reigned bigger than life. The idea of a rock n' roll messiah was easier to grasp. Today, we get an occasional break-out star like a Lady Gaga. And there's respectable groups and musicians. We all know Jack White. We all know he rocks like voodoo meets John the Revelator, but the rock pinnacle as it was known in an era so close to the Beatles & Stones - that's not happening in today's fragmented world.

But any bar band could take any one of the songs from Ziggy and make rock gold out of it. This stuff never gets old. Rick Wakeman may have played on one cut from this album - "It Ain't Easy - just as he had for some tracks in Bowie's Hunky Dory, but this album is no pretentious trip, no Yes or The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Musically, the greatest thing about the Ziggy Stardust album was the way Bowie melded the heavy metal of his 1970 Man Who Sold the World album and the pop of his 1971 Hunky Dory album.

Bowie's band was Mick Ronson on guitar, Nick Bolder on bass and Mick Woodmansey on drums.

"Five Years," the first track on the album has a kind of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band "Working Class Hero" bent with its apocalyptic aura and despondency. There's a beauty in the cinematic lyrics, the morose images of opera houses, telephones, ice cream parlors.

A soldier with a broken arm fixed his stare into the wheels 
of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest
and a queer threw up at the sight of that

The next song, "Soul Love," is my favorite track from Ziggy. There is a beautiful psychedelic melody, a taste of fresh new love between a boy and a girl, but poignantly, the singer can't share this love with somebody. He has only the idea of love.

Inspirations have I none
just to touch the flaming dove
all I have is my love of love
and love is not loving

The idea of space alien as rockstar first takes root in the hard rocking "Moonage Daydream." He sings: "I'm an alligator...I'll be a rock n' roll bitch for you." The idea builds in the Elton John-like, gender-bending "Lady Stardust" and "Star" where Bowie says he could make all the bad things all right "as a rock n' roll star." He could find love, he thinks, in the church of rock n' roll.

My second favorite song on the album is the title track, "Ziggy Stardust," - the album's grittiest tune, yet with sad and beautiful soul poppish touches to go with the rock. The song captures this bizarre, rock mutant at the zenith of his power with decadence and downfall approaching. The line about Ziggy playing guitar left-handed was a veiled reference to Jimi Hendrix, which is pretty cool.

The rocking "Suffragette City" shows that rock n roll was just what the parents feared in the 50s: sex. "This mellow thighed chick just put my spine out of place."

There are signs on this album of the the late '70s punk and new wave to come, while Bowie shows a subtle awareness of traditional black soul, which he would later show splendidly on his 1975 Young Americans album.

Eventually, the whole Ziggy Stardust persona would reach such a level of grandiosity that Bowie, would have to kill it. He had to save himself and the character he'd perfected from becoming a one-note novelty act. It made prophetic the "Ziggy Stardust" line, "When the kids killed the man, I had to break up the band."

Bowie is a musical chameleon. He left the androgyny phase decades ago. He's still recording and he's always into something new. Ziggy Stardust, however was his signature album, a work he will be known for. It deserves many spins around your turn table.

David Bowie - he'll be a rock n' roll bitch for you.

England was dreary, living in the shadow of the Second World War, a post-empire, post Beatles world. Then Bowie appeared on the BBC in this spacey, androgynous performance, answering the question, "What's next?"

Bowie and his band recorded an unreleased version of this old Chuck Berry rocker at the beginning of the Ziggy Stardust recordings. It's wonderful to hear this song on record and experience it the way English kids like John Lennon, David Bowie and Keith Richards experienced it.

Bowie based much of the Ziggy character on English rocker Vince Taylor. Bowie met Taylor after he'd had a mental breakdown and believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien.

Without Bowie, there would be no Lady Gaga.

Gateway music

David Bowie took the name Ziggy from the name of a tailor shop he passed on a train. He liked the way it rhymed with Iggy as in Iggy Pop. Check out Iggy and the Stooges.

I referenced John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album. You've gotta hear it. It was Lennon's magnum opus.

The Rolling Stones rough-edged Exile on Main Street was released in 1972, the same year as Ziggy Stardust. One of rock's greatest albums, it belongs in your collection.