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Week 70 | The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

This nearly perfect album is Bowie’s most beloved.  It is so good that it almost goes without saying that it is one of my favorites (next to “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps,” it is my favorite).  I write this the week Mattel unveiled a new Barbie doll dressed like Ziggy Stardust— yes, this is 2019.  I suppose the market is for those looking to buy a cool gift for their grandchildren.  Think about the cultural leap from transgressive symbol of rebellion against social norms to Barbie doll.  In a very strange way, there is probably no better sign of how influential this album has been on life in the Western world.  

It is worth noting that’s Bowie does not appear on the album cover dressed as we would come to think of Ziggy, so it is not just the album itself that cast a long cultural shadow, but the idea and image of Ziggy Stardust.  As is often the case with Bowie, the album is not just about the music, but its about the the presentation and the manufactured mythology.  If you just listen to the album, which is often thought of as a concept album, it isn’t obvious that it is supposed to be a story about a bisexual alien rock star.  The words “Ziggy” and “Stardust” do not appear together in any song (if the album and songs had different names, there wouldn’t be an obvious connection between the songs, “Ziggy Stardust” and, “Lady Stardust,” let alone most of the others).  The inclusion of the songs, “Soul Love,” “It Ain’t Easy,” and really even “Suffragette City,” further detract from the coherence of the album because no amount of creative interpretation can link them to the supposed story.  

Anyway, Bowie wanted to roll out an idea here, not just a collection of songs.  He even instructs those who purchase the album to listen to it at “maximum volume” on the album cover— which to me is not the obvious setting.  More than any of his previous albums, ‘Ziggy” has a distinct beginning, middle and end.  “Rock and Roll Suicide” is the ultimate final song, and the inclusion of bonus material after that song on my edition of the CD detracts from the listening experience.  

The album’s title itself helps tie it all (or most of it) together.  The Spiders from Mars are mentioned in the songs, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Hang on to Yourself,” and because we know Ziggy’s last name is, “Stardust,” we can presume that “Lady Stardust,” is about Ziggy.  “Lady Stardust” is obviously about a gender non-conforming singer, so there’s a hint that she is also the narrator of, “Moonage Daydream,” who is a “mama/papa coming for you.”  That song seems to have to do with space, which links it to “Starman,” and the obvious double meaning of the word, “star,” in that song referring to an astral body, but in, “Star,” referring to a celebrity, suggests that Ziggy came to earth and chose to be a rock star in order to make a living and deliver his message.  Since the album title tells us that it is about Ziggy’s fall, as well as his rise, we can interpret, “Rock and Roll Suicide” as part of the fall narrative.  So there’s a kind of story in there.  

But I don’t know how committed Bowie was to making a genuine concept album.  These links are tenuous, and if there is a story, it isn’t a linear one.  So Ziggy-as-concept album is a gimmick, but its a gimmick that enhances an album that has the added benefit of being monumentally great without any need for additional help.  

Beyond the concept, beyond the packaging, beyond the character of Ziggy Stardust, which was really not fully developed at the time of the album’s release, “Ziggy” is so strong because it contains some of Bowie’s best music.  You don’t need the rest to understand that.  If you don’t like, “Ziggy,” you don’t like Bowie, and you probably don’t like rock music.  For me, it is one of Bowie’s albums that I can listen to repeatedly.  Some of the songs, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City” in particular, I listen to multiple times per week— they never get tiresome.   Actually, most of the songs never get tiring— “Starman,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Hang on to Yourself.”  A list of all the songs on this particular album isn’t too different from a list of Bowie’s greatest hits from the early 70s.

That Bowie had the foresight to ride Ziggy for only so long, before changing up his style, shows that while he was never afraid to exploit a gimmick, he knew that he had to adapt to survive.  Bowie released three other studio albums featuring the Ziggy character on the cover— “Aladdin Sane,” “Pin Ups,” and “Diamond Dogs” (which is a real concept album).  But even while wearing the crimson mullet, Bowie made adaptations from album to album.  For instance, none of his subsequent three albums included any songs about space or aliens (he’d return to that theme later).  But Ziggy remains, nearly half a century after the album’s release, as recognizable as ever and probably Bowie’s most enduring persona. 

There’s so much I enjoy about the music on this album.  Bowie’s voice is at or near its highest pitch here.  I think his voice was strongest a few years later, but he wasn’t able to consistently  maintain the pitch he strikes on this album for too long after.  Nonetheless, it is one of his signature sounds.  And he makes the most of his voice by accenting it with lilts, inflections, sighs and gasps.  Plus he liberally uses words and phrases from the time, that probably came off as cutting edge in 1972 but today carry an almost nostalgic implication (“far out,” “outta sight,” “some cat was layin’ down some get it on rock n’roll”).  The there’s his repeated use of certain words that create a subliminal thread between the songs— “star,” “cat,” “love,” as a term of affection, even “thighs.” The album is perfectly paced, starting out slow, building to a kind of cliffhanger at the end of side one, regaining momentum at the start of side two, and tumbling to a crashing end with “Rock and Roll Suicide.”  

There’s a distinction in my head between my favorite Bowie album, and Bowie’s best album.  If I had to choose only one, I’d choose “Scary Monsters.”  I can offer reasons, but at essence I just like it a little more than I like “Ziggy.”  But If I were to recommend just one Bowie album to someone who has never heard him, it would be this.

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