Ziggy Stardust

Ziggy Stardust (demo).
Ziggy Stardust (LP).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1972).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1973).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1978).
Ziggy Stardust (Bauhaus, 1982).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1990).
Ziggy Stardust (broadcast, 2002).

You have to start with the riff, right? Two bars long, it repeats four times in the intro, twice after the first chorus, three-and-a-half times at the end. It’s only five seconds in each duration but is perfect and complete: a slammed G chord, a fanfare, then the tough connective tissue leading to the next G chord. To make a riff like this, for guitarists, is like forging a passkey to Valhalla. (That said, the song’s demo reveals that Bowie’s responsible for most of it.) And the riff’s only one of Mick Ronson’s voices on “Ziggy Stardust.” There’s also the motif under “Spiders From Mars” or “the kids were just crass” in the verses, the tonal colors Ronson provides throughout the track, the vicious root chords in the chorus.

“Ziggy Stardust,” theme and title song of its album, is a snapshot keepsake of Ronson and his band (“Weird and Gilly” being Bowie’s sometimes-nicknames for Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey) at the height of their powers, with the first and last words Bowie sings being “Ziggy played guitar.” (The sequencing on the LP is inspired, with “Suffragette City” erupting a second after “Ziggy” ends.)

But “Ziggy Stardust” wasn’t intended as a guitarist’s tribute. It has grandiosity bred into it—it’s a paradox epic (the song that births “Ziggy” also kills him off), a plastic ballad (the verses move from G to B minor and later E minor, transitions that Roger McGuinn, noting the same change in “She Loves You,” described as “folk music changes” pilfered by rock musicians), a eulogy for a phantom.


the riff, anatomized

Even by the meager standards of rock “concept” albums, The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a thin business. The collected songs are recycled Arnold Corns singles, random covers (Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” almost made the final cut), and a few Hunky Dory leftovers. Even the last batch of tracks cut for the LP in early 1972 (“Rock & Roll Suicide,” “Suffragette City,” “Starman”) are only tenuously linked. Bowie’s unifying lyrical theme basically consists of using the word “star” in a few songs.

Bowie seems to have cobbled the Ziggy “storyline” together after he made the record. As Bowie described the story to William S. Burroughs, the world is doomed (“Five Years”) via some sort of Long Emergency scenario and then a black-hole-jumping alien race (or sentient black holes, it’s a bit unclear) arrives on Earth. Bowie called them “the infinites” (nicking from Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Burroughs’ own Nova Express). The infinites make a drugged-out rock singer called Ziggy Stardust their herald, he writes about them (“Starman,” we’ll give ’em “Moonage Daydream” too) and so becomes a messiah figure for a doomed generation. Then who the hell knows what else happens. The climax, allegedly, has Ziggy ripped to pieces on stage by the black-hole jumpers (“Rock & Roll Suicide”) who then, in Bowie’s words, “take his elements and make themselves visible.”

Despite this nonsense,”Ziggy Stardust” himself is one of Bowie’s best conceits. Ziggy’s ancestry included Iggy Pop, the mad British rock & roller Vince Taylor, the American eccentric The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (and there’s probably a touch of Biff Rose in the mix too), and rock & roll casualties like Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Bowie pulped them all together. Ziggy’s been described as a “cartoon” rock & roller but that’s not quite right: cartoons have weight and presence, holding fixed positions in your memory (think of the eternal Charlie Brown or Superman). Ziggy is fluid and unknowable, a pictograph whose meaning alters depending on who looks at it.

His existence depends on his audience. By 1972, with rock music falling into nostalgia and self-parody, Bowie was able to paint a rock & roll life in a few broad strokes, taking from listeners’ collective memories (e.g., “he played left hand” references Hendrix), with the track serving another of Bowie’s mime performances. Bowie filled the lyric with pseudo-American slang (“jiving us that we were voodoo”), built Ziggy’s image out of pieces (“like some cat from Japan,” “well hung and snow-white tan”).

It’s unclear who’s narrating. It could be a kid in the audience, remembering Ziggy years later (like the Christian Bale character in Velvet Goldmine), it could be one of Ziggy’s bandmates, Weird or Gilly, or it may be the disassociated memories of Ziggy himself, a fractured perspective through which Ziggy sees (and kills?) himself on stage. It could be all of them, recounting a story that had ended and now needed to begin. If “Ziggy Stardust” was the score, Bowie’ s life over the next two years would be the performance.

The “Ziggy Stardust” demo, recorded ca. summer-fall 1971, is on the Ryko 1990 CD of Ziggy Stardust. (Bowie didn’t give the demo to Ken Scott, his producer, or his band, instead just playing the song to them on guitar in the studio.) The LP cut was recorded 8-11 November 1971. Three versions of “Ziggy” were taped for the BBC during 1972, and it was central to the 1972 and 1973 tours (a version taped at Santa Monica, Calif., was released as a single in 1994). “Ziggy” returned in Bowie’s 1978 tour, with a recording from Philadelphia on Stage; the song also was a regular on the 1990 “Sound + Vision” tour, as well as many of Bowie’s shows in the past decade. Bauhaus’ remake hit #15 in the UK in 1982, and was later collected on David Bowie Songbook.

Top: Ziggy in his youth, ca. March 1972.

12 Responses to Ziggy Stardust

  1. Maj says:

    Poor Ziggy. By this time I’m just allergic to the guitar riff. It’s somehow less annoying when played on the 12-string in the demo. It’s obviously a great song but I’m fed up with it similarly to me being fed up with Yesterday or Imagine….
    Surprised there are not more comments here…

    • jmaxmiller says:

      Oh come on…annoyed by the riff? It’s such a classic. That’s like saying you’re annoyed by the solo in Stairway to Heaven or the opening to Gimmie Shelter. Sure we’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’s truly great and has endured the test of time. Same goes for Yesterday and Imagine. I don’t listen to those songs regularly, or really at all anymore, but I’m not annoyed with them, I’ve just moved on. I still respect them for their greatness and love them; and whenever I hear them I still enjoy them. The classics are classics for a reason.

      • Maj says:

        I dunno…but can’t I be annoyed by whatever annoys me? I’m not implying those songs are not classics. But they’ve been shoved down my throats so intensively since I was a child I get no enjoyment from them. Similarly this riff. There are other songs on this album that I like better. For instance I love the riff to Hang On to Yourself. To each their own, no?
        For the record I do not like Stairway to Heaven because my friends played it over and over on their guitars one summer holiday many years ago.🙂
        Just because a majority thinks something is great doesn’t mean an individual has to have a positive emotional response to it. And that’s what I was talking about in my original comment. I’m was not implying I think the riff in Ziggy is not good, I said I did not like it and have grown to find it annoying over the years. That’s all.

  2. Brian J says:

    Funny how this song only has one comment, but it seems to be one of his more popular and famous songs. Hmm…

    I was browsing the web reading about History when I randomly came across an odd connection to David Bowie within it.

    During the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 (Which may or may not have had CIA support being installed) there was a Greek rock musician named Kostas Tournas who “created the album Astroneira (Stardreams) influenced by David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_military_junta_of_1967-1974#Greek_rock

    Now I can’t seem to find the album myself, but you may be interested yourself in tracking it down and trying to find David Bowie’s influence in it.

    This kind of got me thinking about the global nature of music, and how music can even reach people living under dictatorships. Maybe once you got all the songs done you can look at individual country’s relationships to David Bowie’s work, he’s been a major influence and finding the people influenced by him would be pretty fun.

  3. Momus says:

    Ziggy-the-album can also be seen as Bowie’s contribution to an uncool-but-lucrative genre which was everywhere in early 1970s Britain: the Modernised Messiah Musical. Rice and Lloyd-Webber followed up Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell premiered the same year: 1971. Ziggy, the “leper messiah”, injects some cool and some sex into the genre.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The B saide of The Strawbs “Lay Down” in 1972, contining then keyboard player Rick Wakeman is called “Backside” by Ciggy Barlust and the Whales from Venus

  5. apologia pro sua vita says:

    I’ve always wondered if the riff isn’t in fact adapted from the theme from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 54 secs in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNarV_3P4oM I suppose one has to ask if Bowie would’ve been inclined to see such a film at that point in his life. However, who knows? His old hero Anthony Newley CO-WROTE THE SONGS….and we know Bowie lifted the first 2 notes of the Starman chorus from another children’s film, The Wizard of Oz.

  6. J,R. Clark says:

    I always felt that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars described Paul McCartney and the Beatles, Weird and Gilly being John Lennon and George Harrison…narrated by Ringo Starr.

  7. guru post says:

    […] Ziggy Stardust | Pushing Ahead of the Dame https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/Ziggy Stardust (demo). Ziggy Stardust (LP). Ziggy Stardust (live, 1972). Ziggy Stardust (live, 1973). Ziggy Stardust (live, 1978). Ziggy Stardust (Bauhaus, 1982). Ziggy Stardust (live, 1990). Ziggy Stardust (broadcast, 2002). … is a snapshot keepsake of Ronson and his band (“Weird and Gilly” being Bowie's sometimes-nicknames for Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey) at the height of their powers, with the first and last words Bowie sings being “Ziggy played guitar. […]

  8. That album is so great. I listen to it the first time today and had to listen to it three times in a row.

  9. billter says:

    David’s original is genius, of course. But just between you and me and the internet, I actually prefer Bauhaus’s version — a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart, a la “Pulp Fiction.”

  10. GratefulRob says:

    I think the lyrics make it apparent the narrator is one of Ziggy’s bandmates. Besides the line “.. we were Ziggy’s band”, there’s the climactic last line “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band!” – who else could make such a statement than a member of the band?
    I must say, this site is among the greatest I’ve found on the Web. I’m proud to have contributed some clarity!

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