From its grim, cinematic observations about the apocalypse on opening track “Five Years” to the haunting reassurance that we’re not alone on concluding song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a masterpiece that’s often hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time.
The glam rock classic, loosely based around the narrative of a red-headed, androgynous, extraterrestrial rock star, quickly elevated Bowie to superstar status in 1972. Fifty-one years later, Ziggy Stardust has received a spectacular reggae recasting: Ziggy Stardub, a new album by the Easy Star All-Stars, due April 21 on Easy Star Records. It’s the latest in the New York City-based independent’s series of reggae tributes to landmark rock and pop albums. Other titles include 2012’s Thrillah (based on Michael Jackson’s blockbuster Thriller) and the series’ best-selling release, 2003’s Dub Side of the Moon (inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon).
“Ziggy Stardub is like taking David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars band [bassist Trevor Bolden, guitarist Mick Ronson and the sole surviving member, drummer Michael “Woody” Woodmansey] on an airplane traveling back to Jamaica in the late 1970s; what would happen if we did that? People aren’t used to hearing music they are familiar with in a totally different light, but hopefully, they’ll come along for that ride with us,” explains Michael Goldwasser, the producer and arranger of Ziggy Stardub (and the other Easy Star tribute albums. Goldwasser is also a co-founder of Easy Star Records with Lem Oppenheimer, Eric Smith and Remy Gerstein, and is bandleader, producer and multi-instrumentalist for the Easy Star All-Stars). “All of our tributes start with great source material because it always comes down to the songs, and the great artists we work with.”
Each of the featured vocalists on Ziggy Stardub brings their distinctive styling to Bowie’s powerful, otherworldly lyrical imagery. British lover’s rock crooner Maxi Priest delivers a smooth, soul-inflected rendition of the “hazy cosmic jive” that is “Starman,” Ziggy Stardub’s first single; veteran Brooklyn/Jamaican singer Carlton Livingston’s joyous take on “Star” incorporates a rollicking ska tempo mixed with 1950s rock n’ roll; “Hang On To Yourself,” featuring Fishbone, Johnny Go Figure and Living Color’s Vernon Reid, fuses early digital dancehall sonics into soaring rock riffs; Macy Gray offers a gritty interpretation of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”; and British reggae band The Skints bring the requisite crunching guitars to “Ziggy Stardust.” Representing a younger generation of Jamaican singers, Mortimer’s exquisite vocals capture the essence of “Soul Love” and Naomi Cowan integrates a “rock and rollin’ bitch” persona into her gorgeously trippy reading of “Moonage Daydream,” complemented by Alex Lifeson’s blistering guitar lead.
As a teenager in England in the 1970s, David Hinds — lead singer/songwriter and founding member of Grammy-winning British reggae band Steel Pulse — describes David Bowie’s influence as inescapable. Even so, he never heard “Five Years” prior to Easy Star presenting it to him. To gain a greater understanding of Bowie’s artistry while recording the song, Hinds abandoned his usual approach to executing melody and syncopation. “Steel Pulse is all about rhyme, bounce, singing on a particular rhythm; with the Bowie song, it was about expressing word by word, phonic by phonic, syllable by syllable, without that being too overdone,” Hinds tells Billboard. “In making that effort, I experienced what Bowie was about, and I just hope justice was done to the song.” The restrained anger in Hinds’ vocals conveys Bowie’s striking, poetic vision of Armageddon, punctuated by the evocative lyric, “Five years, that’s all we got.”
Ostensibly, there’s little sonic overlap between reggae’s roots rock and British glam rock, yet Goldwasser’s nuanced, layered arrangements and crisp production create an expansive common ground, seamlessly meshing the originals’ celestial impressions with signature Jamaican sounds, including thunderous basslines, bubbling keyboards and flying cymbal drum patterns. “When working within the framework of a song with an established melody and harmonic structure, I consider what to include or interpolate; that’s why the tribute albums take longer than the original albums I have produced,” says Goldwasser. “I put in many interesting details to give the listener something different to focus on each time. I treat these tribute albums with reverence and humor: music should be fun, but I have reverence for the original material, and anyone listening will recognize both of those facets.”
Goldwasser’s admiration for the original songs and his meticulousness in transforming them into finely sculpted reggae tracks for Easy Star tribute albums has turned many rock fans into reggae enthusiasts. “Before the release of Dub Side of the Moon, we got hate from people on Pink Floyd and classic rock message boards who said things like ‘Dark Side of the Moon is sacred, how dare they?’ After the album came out, on those same message boards, people said ‘Easy Star did a great job.’ People have told me that listening to our tribute albums got them into reggae. That’s part of Easy Star’s mission: to break down barriers. If you can open your mind and your heart to different music, you can open your mind and your heart to different people.”