It’s day 2 of David Bowie Week. Bowie Week at the Fault rolls on!
Fact: David Bowie didn’t invent glam rock. While no musical ‘movement’ is ever created by any single person, most movements are brought to prominence by a single person/group/or scene (“scenes” are a much bigger thing in smaller countries – like the UK – or within self-contained areas, like NYC with their ‘punk’ scene). Marc Bolan and his band T. Rex transformed themselves from hippy songsters (not unlike Bowie himself on the Space Oddity album) into something electric, rocking, and grooving, especially on their second release as T. Rex (having wisely ditched the Tyrannosaurs Rex moniker), Electric Warrior. Was this the first glam rock album? I don’t know, I wasn’t there (I was 2), and the likelihood is that many groups were playing around with a harder-edged, rock-with-a-groove sound that what would eventually codify around a scene of youth with a penchant for ridiculous getups; youth that flirted with androgynous styles, likely for ‘shock’ value. This would ultimately become known as ‘glam rock.’ T. Rex was a major player, with the aforementioned Electric Warrior album being released in 1971. Another release, The Slider, followed in 1972. Also in 1972, an art-rock group called Roxy Music released their self-titled debut album. While more melodic and reliant upon woodwinds and a still fairly novel instrument called the synthesizer instead of guitars, Roxy Music nonetheless became a staple of ‘glam’ with their fanciful outfits and beerhall-tunefulness, and fit in nicely to a burgeoning scene that was beginning to form amongst London-based youth. If you want to know more about glam rock (and you should – for it’s the Fault’s belief that glam rock was as important a youth-cult movement as 70’s UK-and-US based punk rock, if much more maligned and less fondly remembered), click that link. You’d be surprised at some artists that began as (ostensibly) glam acts. Kiss, Sparks, Abba (??? Yeah – tell your girlfriend that ABBA is a glam band), and the New York Dolls (ok, that one’s not surprising) were all considered glam rock when they started out. Hell, even Elton John got pegged with the ‘glam’ tag for a period.
Needless to say, David Bowie was an observer and regurgitator of cultural fads. His first three albums (discussed on this very blog yesterday) did good jobs of aping current styles of the day, with only Hunky Dory being an album where Bowie was finding his voice. But now the pieces were in place. The band from Hunky Dory (minus Rick Wakeman) was road-seasoned and ready, Producer Ken Scott was at the helm again, and Bowie was set to unleash a set of killer tunes upon a largely unsuspecting public. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars wasn’t only a mouthful of an album title, it dropped (in the UK) on the same day as Roxy Music’s self-titled album (that would be June 16, 1972). For a record buyer (of which I’m definitely one) that would have been a great day for new music! Bowie began work on Ziggy in November of 1971, with a couple of the songs having appeared (in different form) in May of 1971. However, unlike his previous three albums, which were an amalgamation of the sounds of the day filtered through Bowie’s unique lens upon the world, Ziggy, if it owes a debt to anyone, owes a debt to T. Rex and their Electric Warrior album. However, it would be foolish to dismiss Ziggy as an Electric Warrior ripoff. What Bowie brought to the table was a willingness to push boundaries, a live show built as much upon theatre as musicianship, and a desire to break through. Break through how? Well, today, you’d not think twice if an artist said they were bi-or-homosexual (at least I hope you wouldn’t. Enjoy the music, who cares what they do behind closed doors?), but when Bowie, during a promotional appearance on television said “I’m bisexual and always have been”, the puritanical English press of the day went nuts! Everyone wanted to either crucify, vilify, or exalt Bowie. As a showman, it was a brilliant piece of theatre. On stage, Bowie would pretend to fellate lead guitarist Mick Ronson during Ronson’s elaborate guitar solos. This only further enraged (or enlightened) the public. Bowie became not only a household word, but an icon, someone to be spoken of around the dinner table. He was constantly on TV, and his tour to promote the album went through the UK, the US, Canada, and Japan. The tour lasted 18 months, and during this time he even managed to record and release another album called Aladdin Sane (we’ll get to that later).
Outrage isn’t enough though. What about the songs? Isn’t that why we’re here? Yeah, it is. In that regard, you’re in luck. Ziggy Stardust ranks among the best albums of the 1970’s, and also as one of the best albums of all time (the album, in 2017, was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry, being deemed “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” by the Library of Congress.) No, David Bowie didn’t invent glam rock. He DID popularize it, and he did promote it on TV and live on stage, and he largely built his reputation off of this particular album (he would be a footnote if he didn’t have the talent to make stunning music long after the glam rock Ziggy fad had died, but that’s for later), and he was smart enough to capitalize on his newfound popularity. But none of that would have mattered without the tunes. Each of the 11 tracks is a Bowie original (with the exception of “It Ain’t Easy”, written by Ron Davies), and each stands as a stunning piece of writing and performing individually. What sets Ziggy apart is that each song, when taken in context with the rest of the album, is supposed to become part of a larger whole, to tell the story of a bisexual alien trapped on earth (hmm…Bowie would revisit the alien trapped on earth motif later, as an actor). Concept albums are a tenuous thing at best, with a lot of stretching of credibility to make certain songs fit into the larger story. In this respect, Ziggy is no different. What is different, is that each song on Ziggy can stand proudly, loudly, as an individual, ass-kicking composition. You don’t need to know the larger conceit to enjoy “Five Years”, “Starman”, “Lady Stardust” or my personal favorite (and a song I want played LOUD at my funeral), “Rock N Roll Suicide.” Every song is great and rewards you the more often you listen. I can’t say enough good about this album. Needless to say, to have been a teenager lucky enough to see one of the Ziggy performances during 1972-73, that would have been wonderful indeed (I’ve often said if I had a time machine, I’d neither use it for good nor bad. I’d use it to go back in time and see bands at the height of their powers, sometimes more than once. Bowie would be on the list on numerous occasions).
Look, I could babble on about how good this album is. If you’ve heard it, and own it, throw a copy on and listen to it right now. If you don’t own it (WHY DON’T YOU OWN IT), shame on you. Here. Thanks to the Youtube uploader for knowing what’s great. However, that doesn’t excuse you if you don’t own it. There are various CD editions to choose from, as well as a fresh vinyl remaster you can pick up at your local store for 20 US dollars (this wouldn’t be a blog about, amongst other things, record collecting, if I didn’t tempt you to buy a record). You might be taken aback by the sparse production upon first listen, but remember, 1972 was a different time. Things sounded different then. The expectations were different. The question, for me, for anyone, for an artist’s work, is, does it hold up, does it push through, does it resonate in spite of the limitations of the time? Does it excel because of excellence in composition, performance, resonance? For me, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars does. It’s campy, it’s paranoid, it’s menacing, it’s rocking, it grooves, it moves. IT ROCKS. Everything comes together and works.
Side Note: along the way, during the 18 moth Ziggy Stardust tour, Bowie gave us the Aladdin Sane album – famous for the Bowie ‘lightning bolt’ look known to, well, everyone). Indeed, many people see Aladdin Sane as “Ziggy, part 2”, coming so quickly as it did after the release of Ziggy. June 1972 for Ziggy, April 1973 for Aladdin. YOU try writing and releasing two classic albums within the space of a year. Bowie week is supposed to only last a week, I may not get to Aladdin Sane in as much detail as it deserves – but don’t get me wrong, you’ve heard the album, or at least the hits. “The Jean Genie”, “Panic In Detroit” – these are well-known songs (at least amongst people of a certain age). However, if you want the prime cuts from Aladdin, look to the two haunting ballads, “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” and “Lady Grinning Soul.” These songs deserve more recognition amongst the wider public. They’re haunting, grand, and menacing. While Aladdin Sane was never going to be as good as Ziggy, it’s a decent album in it’s own right.
David Bowie didn’t birth glam rock, but he gave glam rock a face and a voice, and when, eventually, Bowie retired his Ziggy persona, he took the glam rock cult with him. It would limp along for a couple years afterwards, but the bands that survived would eventually discover new identities to inhabit, much like Bowie himself was about to do. Ziggy might have been the androgynous, bisexual alien in ridiculously campy outfits and platform heels, replete with makeup, menace, and dourness, that made David Bowie a household name. It wouldn’t be his last costume, but it was likely his most famous and well known.