Thirty Years On, 'Ziggy' Still Shines
On June 6, 1972, a moderately successful left-field musician named David Bowie released an album with a strange and extraordinarily long-winded title. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the SpidOn June 6, 1972, a moderately successful left-field musician named David Bowie released an album with a strange and extraordinarily long-winded title. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" was a concept album about an alien who comes to a dying Earth and becomes a rock star before being destroyed by his jealous backing band. It not only made its creator a superstar but also started something of a cultural revolution as Bowie -- in his attempts to promote it -- declared himself and his new alter-ego Ziggy Stardust to be bisexual.
Such a statement would be unremarkable now, but in the early '70s, it was a shocking breach of a taboo. Kids were initially repulsed but then took glee in using their infatuation with Bowie as a method by which to shock their parents. The album, by the way, was staggeringly brilliant, and now, on July 16, EMI will reissue it in a 30th anniversary edition, bolstered with a second CD of rare and unreleased contemporaneous songs.
"Ziggy Stardust" was engineered and co-produced (with Bowie) by Ken Scott, who had worked with Bowie on his previous album, "Hunky Dory," and would produce the following two. "I've always had doubts to the whole thing of it being a concept," says Scott of the album. "Nothing was ever discussed during the recording about it being a concept album. And when you consider one of the tracks was taken from the 'Hunky Dory' batch of recordings and used on the album and then we had to go in at a later date to do 'Starman'... it was kind of pieced together. Yes, there were a couple of songs that definitely strung together as a concept, but the whole album? Not really."
Though he had used baroque techniques in places on "Hunky Dory," it was a stripped-down approach that Bowie now favored. "We had a very, very brief discussion about it," recalls Scott. "Basically, it came down to, 'I don't think you're going to like this album. I want it to be more rock'n'roll.' He was completely wrong. I loved every second of it." Bowie's band for the album included drummer Woody Woodmansey, bassist Trevor Bolder, and guitarist Mick Ronson (Ronno), who also played piano and devised the arrangements. "He was very important to the final product," says Scott. "David didn't even have to really say anything and Ronno would get exactly the right thing."
"Ziggy Stardust" was recorded at London's Trident Studios over a two week period (with breaks), with another fortnight spent on mixing. Unfortunately, the product presented to Bowie's label did not meet with their complete satisfaction. Says Scott, "RCA said they needed a single so we went back in [to do] the single." Bowie pulled a rabbit out of his hat in the shape of "Starman," a brilliant piece of interstellar pop which would ultimately break him and the album. "Starman" replaced, of all things, a version of Chuck Berry's "Round and Round," which now appears on the anniversary edition.
The album begins with the solemn "Five Years," in which stunned inhabitants of Earth are told the planet has only half a decade left before an unspecified natural catastrophe destroys it. Though the premise is fantastical, Bowie's intonation is deadly serious. "He certainly knows how to perform in front of a mike," says Scott. "He could sing almost anything and make it moving."
"Ziggy Stardust" was the track that detailed the viscious infighting in Ziggy's band. It achieves the trick of being a raucous rocker despite employing acoustic rhythm guitar. "David tended to do that a lot," says Scott. "If you go back to the earlier rock'n'roll, it was based much more around acoustic guitar that it was electric." The breakneck "Suffragette City" (supposedly once offered to Mott The Hoople) was a big airplay hit in the States. Scott points out that those who admire its blaring horns are mistaken: "there isn't brass. That's synthesiser, which I programmed and Ronno played. Trident Studios had bought a very large ARP synthesiser and [the staff] would spend all of our spare time when we weren't doing sessions just messing around and trying to learn it. So it paid off that time."
Scott's favorite track is "Moonage Daydream" ("just the whole thing of it. The insanity at the end. It just works for me") and feels the weakest selection is "It Ain't Easy," simply because as a leftover from the "Hunky Dory" sessions he doesn't see the logic of it being there. The noir-ish "Rock'N'Roll Suicide" closes the album and seems to integrate with the theme of a fallen teen idol, but Scott has his doubts. "It's closer," he says. "I could see that fitting in with it, yes, but it's still to me just pushing it, it's forcing it to work."
"Ziggy Stardust" was a success but not in the territories its creators had imagined. "We did actually discuss whether it would be successful or not but we all felt that it would be successful in the States and possibly nowhere else," says Scott. "As it turns out it was the complete opposite: it was No. 1 everywhere else and really did diddley squat in the States." The album's commercial accomplishments in Bowie's homeland were helped in no small part by his feeding of the media with the sensational story of his sexual ambiguity. "It was the most astounding piece of media usage I've ever seen," Scott marvels.
As the hoopla surrounding the album's anniversary unfolds, Scott admits he is conflicted about its significance. "I've been told by so many people that it is and just the fact that we are having this conversation now 30 years after it was released, it has to have some importance," he says. "I find it hard to accept it that way." However, on the simple level of being a great piece of work by David Bowie, Scott is unequivocal: "As an album, I don't think he has surpassed it -- but then, I'm biased!"