1. The first sound that you hear, creeping in via Ken Scott’s faders, is Woody Woodmansey’s kick drum and closed hi-hat, in 3/4 time, with a snare hit (flutter) on the third beat, then (wham!) on the downbeat. Woodmansey later describes it as putting “hopelessness into a drumbeat.”
2. This is going to be something new…no one has ever seen anything like this before….it’s going to be entertainment. That’s what’s missing in pop music now—entertainment….You can’t remain at the top for five years and still be outrageous. You become accepted and the impact has gone. Me? I’m fantastically outrageous.
Bowie, June 1972.
3. “Five Years,” one of Bowie’s last Sixties songs, could have been sung at his Arts Lab in Beckenham–you can imagine his folk trio Feathers doing it. It’s an acting troupe sketch, with scenario by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough, place setting of the Market Square, Aylesbury, location of the Friars Club (we’re pushing through, not pushing ahead), and various mimes (“queer” vomiting, soldier with broken arm, cop kneeling to priest, girl drinking milkshake).
4. Instruments stagger in. Double-tracked autoharp and piano (ZING! “pushing through the market square”). Trevor Bolder on bass, making interjections between lines (e.g., the octave jump after the news guy tells us the bad news). Bowie on 12-string acoustic guitar (“a girl my age”) shadowed by Mick Ronson-arranged strings (“went off her head”). Ronson’s electric guitar only appears on the refrain’s fourth go-round (cued by a “what a surprise!”). The verses of “Five Years” seem like they will never end, until, after curling into a ball, they become a doomsday pub singalong refrain. Five repeats in all, the rest of the song, which ends in screams, then fades away. Dennis MacKay, engineer on Ziggy: “Bowie’s screaming and what you hear on that song, the emotion is for real. I was in shock because he was also hitting every note spot on.”
5. It’s work generally in an atmosphere that’s five years behind. There’s so much of it that seems to represent today, but it isn’t, in fact: it’s using references and feelings and emotions from a few years back.
Bowie on rock music, 1980.
6. “My brain hurt like a warehouse.” Ziggy is a work of Bowie writing about work. “Busting up my brains for the words.” “I’m so wiped out with things as they are.” “I felt like an actor.” Much of it is heard second-hand. Tapes, transmissions, backstage stories (“boy could he play guitar”). A record plays somewhere deep in the building, reduced by walls and floors to muffled basslines, ghost voices, the occasional piercing guitar note. Songs drift past on the radio. A band, sitting in a club long after hours, has gotten it together and can play all night, but few are there to hear them.
7. I thought of my brother and wrote ‘Five Years’.
8. “Soul Love” again opens with Woodmansey alone, but he’s cheerier now. Hi-hat flourish, then rim-shots and kick drum, chased with handclaps and conga.
9. “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.” Love as infestation (sweeping over cross and baby), as a priest talking to the empty sky.
10. Bowie’s baritone saxophone moves the action along in the second verse, then takes over, upturning the top melody and spooling it out, following a lengthy sloping phrase with a sharply arcing one, ringing in the key change.
11. David Bowie and Marc Bolan were Sixties people who made it late…they were that much more grown up and that much more experienced…They’d been consuming media for a long time and, on a smaller scale, they’d been dealing with media already…their Sixties forebears had been making it up as they went along. The major work of art was actually the media events. The records and shows were part of the superstructure. Charles Shaar Murray.
12. The key to “Moonage Daydream” isn’t Ronson’s opening chords or Bowie’s opening blast of “I’m an all-ih-ga-torrr!” It’s the diminishing that follows them. “Moonage” is carried for the rest of its verse on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic, augmented by Ronson muting his Les Paul strings; it’s as if a dance floor has cleared out. The heavy guitar is there in corners, rarely where one expects it. The countermelodies in the refrain are low backing vocals and piano; the solo is a duet of recorder and baritone saxophone. Ziggy keeps rock at a distance, rationing its appearances, rehearsing for a play that we will never see.
13. Then, as “Moonage Daydream” draws to its close, Ronson steps into the center, boring through, pushing out, rocketing away.
14. The image of Ziggy Stardust in shuffle. The LP cover photo, of Bowie in a post-Hunky Dory look, still with mousy hair (tinted blonde), now in a jump suit. George Underwood’s illustration, used for early LP and tour advertisements: a sexualized Laughing Gnome. The Ziggy of the Top of the Pops “Starman,” a variation on Peter Cook’s Satan in Bedazzled (“Drimble Wedge and the Vegetation“). In late 1972 shows, Ziggy as a pantomime figure, an ominous Ghost of Christmas Present. There’s the post-Japan imperial Ziggy, a space empress. His wasted, gaunt final edition on the 1980 Floor Show, a shade without a corpse.
15. They tell me the next record is going to be the big one. RCA are very confident.
Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s ex-manager, to George Tremlett, early 1972.
16. The strings of “Starman”—graceful cello ascension on the title line, high elaborations on Bowie’s la-la-las in the outro. Ronson used Cilla Black records as a primer for his arrangements: likely contenders include her mid-’60s heartbreakers “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (tensed strings take flight in the bridge) and the grand ballroom sweeps in “Love’s Just a Broken Heart.”
17. The verses are done in confidence: Bowie, You, and the Starman, communicating through radio receivers as if they’re walkie-talkies. Music played in a darkened bedroom, trying not to wake your parents.
18. On The Crown, dour Princess Anne sings the closing “lar lar la-lars” of “Starman” as she strides through a blacked-out Buckingham Palace. With its Judy Garland steals and clopping handclaps, it’s a song one can imagine the royals enjoying.
19. Lost pasts dept., part one: RCA PRESENTS DAVID BOWIE’S NEW RECORD: “ROUND AND ROUND.” Look out, you rock and rollers! The 15 December 1971 master was: Side 1: Five Years/ Soul Love/ Moonage Daydream/ Round and Round/ Amsterdam. Side 2: Hang Onto Yourself/ Ziggy Stardust/ Velvet Goldmine/ Star/ Lady Stardust.
20. It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story of Ziggy…so at the moment it’s a little fractured and a little fragmented…so anyway what you have there on that album when it does finally come out is a story which doesn’t really take place…it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth…I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in…I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album, but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me.
Bowie, radio interview, February 1972.
21. Having knocked “It Ain’t Easy” a lot over the years, I’ll try to make a case for it. The album needs a chunk of early Seventies Rawk to counter its flightier numbers. Despite being a Hunky Dory outtake, “It Ain’t Easy” still fits better in the LP sequence than “Amsterdam” (too folkie) or “Round and Round” (too scrappy). “Sweet Head” was never a contender; “Velvet Goldmine,” too magnificently singular. “It Ain’t Easy” is the communal closer to the LP side, the same role as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” on the flip. When Bowie had performed it in 1971, he gave the verses to Geoff MacCormack, George Underwood and Dana Gillespie to sing (Gillespie is on the Ziggy take, as is Rick Wakeman on harpsichord). If five years is all we’ve got, spend them with your friends.
22. Still, “Velvet Goldmine.”
23. Lost pasts dept., part two; Bowie, to GQ, 2000: “I’ve pulled out a good deal of scraps that were never used at the time [on Ziggy Stardust]. Some of them are only 30 seconds long, but I’m extending those. I thought, ‘OK, is this crap and is that the reason why it never appeared on the first one or is it OK and should I try and do things with it?’ So I’ve taken those six tracks and thrashed them out and made them into songs that will support the original. One’s called the ‘Black Hole Kids’ which is fascinating.”
24. The demo of “Lady Stardust” is, ever since I first heard it on Ryko’s reissue in 1990, the song’s canonical recording for me. The strength of Bowie’s singing, the intimate grandeur of the track. It’s to the point that whenever I hear the Ziggy version, everything sounds off, especially Bowie’s phrasing. It’s become a retrospective outtake.
25. I knew someone who was in a band in the Nineties. They got signed by a major label, cut a record. Then, as often happens, there was a shift in label management, or the promo staff thought it wouldn’t hit on radio: something went wrong, a few bad rolls of the dice. The record was shelved, never to be released; the band split up. But during this time, they worked with Mick Ronson. One night, without prompting, Ronson sat at a piano and played “Lady Stardust” for the band, letting the song roll through him.
26. I guess it’s kind of that art school kind of posturing that the Brits usually have. And it was people like myself and Roxy Music that had a different agenda about taking up music. I think we all were kind of – well, maybe – I can’t speak for Roxy, of course. But some of us were failed artists or reluctant artists. You know, the choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music. And I think we opted for music: one, because it was more exciting. And two, you could actually earn a living at it.
27. We’re as far away now from Ziggy Stardust as it was from Ulysses and The Waste Land, from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin at their youthful peaks. As a child in the mid-1980s, I thought Ziggy, what I knew of it, seemed old and weird. Its film clips (bits from Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture and Mick Rock’s promos were pressed into service on occasion on Friday Night Videos) were like scenes from some ancient, decadent world. It was hard to reconcile Bowie of the then-present, a genial, medium-cool figure singing “Blue Jean” and “Dancing in the Street” and at Live Aid, with the jaundiced extraterrestrial in 16mm, this hollow-cheeked specter.
28. “Star”: A kid in her bedroom sings to the mirror; a school band struggles to get the song right for once (the drummer always fumbles the transitions) before the talent show. The opening number of the musical, actors spilling on stage, playing to the back rows. Soooooo exciting! to play the part!
29. The apparent reference to Nye Bevan “try[ing] to save the nation” in the second verse is one of Bowie’s more obscure lyrical nods, at least for non-UK listeners. Someone ages ago claimed to me it was actually a reference to ELO’s Bev Bevan, who I didn’t realize had been so ambitious.
30. Nickelodeon backing vocals in “Star”—air-raid siren “oooh wahs”; ch-ch-ch, ch-ch, cha-la-la-la!; you know that I couuuuld–end in Bowie’s ping-ponging hums and a whispered “just watch me now!”
31. “On stage when you are performing you are in total control. It is like a demon or spirit taking over. You have a congregation and you are the high priest.” But rock and roll doesn’t really fascinate him. “It is hardly a vocation.” Ziggy Stardust was conceived as a film. No one would make it, so he turned it into a record instead.
David Lewin, “Will the Real David Bowie Stand Up?” Sunday Mirror, 20 July 1975.
32. How restrained “Hang Onto Yourself” is. The one-two opening punch of the riff is kept in check; the refrain’s an insinuation. Trevor Bolder’s bass as the focal point. Even Ronson’s slide guitar packs off without too much fuss.
33. “Layin’ on electric dreams.”
34. The guttural backing vocals that surge under “honey not my money” or “bitter comes out better” make those sections of the track sound as if the tape’s flaking apart.
35. Few have ever been in love with the sound of this album. Too tinny, too murky, too weedy, a rock record on which the rock has been boxed off. Audiophile message boards have hosted decades’ worth of battles over which pressing, which reissue, which remix salvages it. There will forever be some magnificent ideal Ziggy waiting for the right engineer to, at last, set it free.
36. The name, distilled from Bowie’s American trip of early 1971: the wild boy (Iggy Pop) and the wild man (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy). The character, bits taken from Nik Cohn’s chaos incarnate pop star Johnny Angelo and, as per Bowie legend, the acid-damaged Vince Taylor. Ziggy as a commemorative coin minted from the great rock ‘n’ roll dead: Brian Jones, Eddie Cochran, Hendrix, Morrison, Buddy Holly, countless more in the years since. Yet this misses Bowie’s point that Ziggy wasn’t supposed to be some great charismatic pop singer, but someone chosen, possibly at random, by “black hole jumpers” as their vessel. A middling performer, working through yet another set in yet another half-filled room, complaining to his manager that the latest single, “Liza Jane” or “I Dig Everything,” has gone nowhere.
37. While Ronson gives a grand ornamentation to “Ziggy Stardust”—the crunching chromatic bass figure under “Spiders from Mars” in the verse, the harmonics on “became the special man,” the vicious chords in the refrains—the memory may only recall him playing the main riff over and over again. The riff is Bowie’s version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”: each time it appears, the rest of the band stops to pay homage.
38. Like the New Testament gospels, the story of Ziggy is redacted from different, contradictory narrators. The timeline’s murky: a legendary past shot through with future premonitions. “He was the Nazz,” Bowie sings: Lord Buckley’s name for Christ, the Nazarene (is “god-given ass” a pun?). The Nazz never did nothin’ simple, Buckley would say. When He laid it, He laid it.
39. The opening riff of “Suffragette City”: played on Les Paul and 12-string acoustic guitar, soon bolstered by a monster ARP 2500 that got hauled down from another floor at Trident, all sounding as if they’re about to tear into Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise.”
40. HEY MAN.
41. Ronson’s pick scratch as “wham bam!” hits. The ARP doubling Bolder’s bass; the bright rock ‘n’ roll rumble on the Trident Studios’ Bechstein. Woodmaney’s snare fills on the title phrase. How the front-mixed acoustic guitar works more as a percussion line (Ken Scott: “I wasn’t too into cymbals back then so I mixed them low”).
42. “Suffragette City” is the first Bowie song that I ever heard, or at least the first one I remember being a “David Bowie song.” Via a grade school friend whose sister, in college at the time, would come home on holiday breaks with the cool records. The nasally presence, the push of the track—it sounded diabolical.
43. Bowie atlas, with Suffragette City as sordid port town; its sister city across the water, Amsterdam; Hunger City, casting its long shadow on the plains. Oxford Town beyond the hills. Berlin, Jareth’s Labyrinth, Amlapura, Crack City. Freecloud Mountain to the north.
44. I dream about him a lot, but they’re always horrid dreams ’cause he always dies in the end.
Teenage fan of pop idol Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), in Privilege (1967).
45. “What do you think?” she asked Peter.
“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”
Many clapped. Some didn’t. A few beasts hissed.
The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.
JM Barrie, Peter Pan (1904).
46. Gimme your hands!
47. In his hand-written lyrics for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie wrote “the water-wall is calling” in the first verse. Robin Mayhew, his tour sound engineer, was asked to proofread lyrics while visiting Gem Music one day, and thought he heard Bowie singing “wall-to-wall,” changing the line on the lyric sheet without telling Bowie (listen to the original—Bowie’s almost certainly singing ‘waw-ter wall’). “Wall-to-wall” has been the official lyric ever since. In the Bowie spirit, the mistake works as well as, if not better than, the intention.
48. Throughout Ziggy, horn lines are masqueraded by the ARP, or delivered alone by Bowie. Now, for the finale, Ronson at last scores a brass section—trumpets, trombones, tenor and bari saxes—as if inviting the neighbors in for a party.
49. Ronson’s won!-der-fuls towards the close.
50. The last thing that you hear: celli and double basses, a beat after everyone else departs, playing one last D-flat chord. An album that begins with a solitary drummer ends with four musicians bowing in unison. Oh no, love, you’re not alone.
Essentials: The Ziggy Stardust Companion; Mark Paytress, Classic Rock Albums: Ziggy Stardust; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record (International Music Publications Ltd.)