Moonage Daydream

February 19, 2010

Moonage Daydream (Arnold Corns single).
Moonage Daydream (Ziggy Stardust LP).
Moonage Daydream (BBC, May 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1973).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1974).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1997).

I first heard “Moonage Daydream” when I was 16 years old, which is when you should first hear it. I was in my car, listening to some dubbed cassette of Bowie hits, when suddenly:

BAMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m an ALLIGATOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BAMMMMMMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m a MAMMAPAPA coming FOR YOU!!!

Teenage bliss. I can’t remember what my exact response was, but it was along the lines of “Jesus! What is this?”

I had bought in. “Moonage Daydream” intends to shock, its spectacular opening a battle between power chords (Mick Ronson hitting hard twice on D, then F#) and Bowie’s dramatics (the excitement furthered by the taste of silence between each chord and sung line). But the track quickly settles down into a groove and its choruses are moody and wistful—it delays the fireworks that Ronson and Bowie promise in its first four bars. The first solo isn’t Ronson but a duet between a pennywhistle and a baritone saxophone.

So “Moonage Daydream” can stand for all of Ziggy Stardust, a vaguely conceptual rock LP about a fake rock star whose songs both parody and subsume rock & roll. As Ziggy is pop music about pop music, so the lyric of “Moonage Daydream” is fused from old rock & roll phrases—“I’m an alligator” come from “See you later alligator,” all the “far outs” and “freak outs” are pilfered from the hippie LPs, while a bizarre line like “you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird” sounds like it was lifted from a lost novelty hit of 1960 (as the solo was, see below). It also could be the pseudo-Russian pop music of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, or a botched translation—as if an extra-terrestrial who had been monitoring our radio and TV broadcasts had fashioned an imitation of what it took to be our national musics. Bowie later claimed that was the idea all along.

Bowie wrote “Moonage Daydream” to be the debut single of his “fake band” project, The Arnold Corns, and then refigured it as part of Ziggy Stardust‘s early conception as a West End stage show. So from its inception, the song was meant to serve as entrance music, a character piece for a fraudulent character, whether impostor pop idol (the Corns’ non-singer Freddi Buretti) or plastic rock star (Ziggy Stardust, who Bowie would later claim on stage was the song’s author).

The Arnold Corns project petered out after two singles, only one of which was released, as Bowie focused on designing the Ziggy character and his never-quite-comprehensible storyline (Hunky Dory and Ziggy were recorded back-to-back, with some Ziggy songs preceding Hunky Dory ones, hence the timeline confusion).

What’s missing from the Corns “Moonage Daydream” (beyond Ronson’s guitar) is the sense that anything’s at stake—the Corns single, voiced by Bowie but allegedly sung by the cherubic Buretti (he’s the male equivalent of Chantale Goya in Godard’s Masculin-Feminin), is drearier than much of the music it’s mocking. The Ziggy “Moonage Daydream” works in part because the song was taken out of Bowie’s head and invigorated by Ronson, whose guitar heroics are matched by his string arrangements, bassist Trevor Bolder and producer Ken Scott (who put the phasing effect on the swirling strings at the end of the track).

By the time of the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith in July 1973, teenage girls and boys in the audience were singing along to every word of “Moonage Daydream,” holding their hands to their faces while they sang the chorus, falling in love with themselves as much as they were with Ziggy. Using the strength and delusion of adolescence, the belief that the world somehow has been left open for you, they took the lie and made it sing to them.

Every night you knew that “Moonage Daydream” was going to be the one that really lifted them. Then we’d go and follow on from there to the end.

Trevor Bolder, 1976.

The Ziggy recording is the sum of its players. Bolder doesn’t get that much credit as a bassist, but his work on “Moonage Daydream” in particular is assured and inventive—he starts by anchoring Ronson’s opening chords, then serves as the main melodic voice in the choruses (his descending line, going down the frets from the D string to the A to the E, mirrors the wordless harmony vocals).

And then there’s Ronson. In the studio, Bowie drew a diagram for how Ronson’s guitar solo should sound—it started out as a flat line, grew to form “a fat megaphone-type shape, and ended in sprays of disassociated and broken lines,” Bowie recalled years later. Ronson looked at the chart, went off somewhere (he often wrote arrangements in the bathroom), and came back and performed a solo that exactly followed Bowie’s directions.

The Arnold Corns single version was recorded in April 1971 and released as B&C CB149; the Ziggy Stardust track was cut on 12 November 1971. (Bowie was inspired to suggest a baritone sax/pennywhistle solo from the B-side of The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop,” “Sho’ Know a Lot About Love,” which featured a fife and bari sax. “I thought that’s the greatest combination of instruments. It’s so ludicrous—you’ve got this tiny sparrow of a voice on top and a huge grunting pig-ox of a thing at the bottom,” Bowie said in 1997.) Bonus note: the solo’s descending minor-chord sequence (Bm/A/G/F#) is cited by Wikipedia as an example of the “Andalusian cadence.”

Bowie debuted “Moonage Daydream” on a BBC session of 16 May 1972, and played it in most shows of the Ziggy tour (the performances linked above are from Dunstable, UK (21 June 1972), Santa Monica, Calif. (20 Sept. 1972) and the final Spiders show of 3 July 1973, which features Ronson’s ultimate version of his guitar solo, all delays and feints). It’s turned up in a few tours (mainly the Diamond Dogs tour ’74, and some of Bowie’s ’90s shows) since.