Concept Album Corner - 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars' by David Bowie
The most defining element of rock that I think is also the greatest element is the undeniably energy that is injected into not only the music but the performances as well. The purpose of rock and roll from the beginning was meant to be music that one could party too, music that just let loose and went wild, courtesy and graciousness cast aside for recklessness and vigor. And even though rock has evolved from being simplistic, easy-listening party music, as one might have noticed throughout this little blog, not only does rock as a whole still contain enough liveliness to cause one to smash the nearest household item to pieces, but has even expanded to become even livelier and louder. One artist who has forever been an immense help to the rock genre, trying his hand at every subgenre of rock he can find, one of the biggest pioneers of concept albums in the seventies, and a man who redefined glam rock with the album we’re looking at today, shall be paid tribute to this entire month of January. That artist would be David Bowie.
Though I plan to go into greater detail on Bowie’s work as a whole at the end of the month, obviously some history of Mr. Bowie up to this point is needed for all two people who are unaware of this man. Like many British Rock bands and artists, the name David Bowie is such a common, famous name in the world of rock that I barely need to introduce him to any of you. Though his career started in the early sixties with an album named after himself, it took off right at the end of the sixties with one of his most infamous works, ‘Space Oddity’, filled with musical elements and lyrical themes that would practically define a fair chunk of Bowie’s musical style. The key element being that of the great depths of outer space and beyond. So it seemed reasonable that his first concept album that redefined glam rock would revolve around a spaceman.
One of Bowie’s most recognizable traits, which we’ll see throughout this month, is his penchant for donning stage personas and using them as the protagonists of his concept albums. The first and most widely remembered one is the androgynous, flamboyant alien rock idol known as Ziggy Stardust. The basis for the character came to Bowie just as he began to really nail down his musical style and gain popularity as a musician. With this album, he was able to fully reach both goals, after touring for his albums Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold The World. As Bowie looked at all of the proto-punk artists that surrounded him, he decided to find a way to merge the persona of Iggy Pop with the music of Lou Reed to create ‘the ultimate pop idol’, the iconic rock star.
1.) Five Years – The opening and closing tracks for this album are noticeably different in musical style from the rest of the songs. While some of the songs can be ethereal to a degree and even emotionally powerful, the rest are intended to be rock songs, party anthems, songs on the hopeful and self-destructive mindset of Ziggy himself. The opening and closing numbers, however, are focused on the emotional, the tragic, not typical rock songs at all, but more of the caliber of song that, fittingly enough, somebody like Lou Reed would right. We open on the fading in of a snappy, quick snare drum and cymbal as a piano and acoustic guitar wave into the music like a ghostly harp, much like Bowie’s voice, added with far-off, echoey back-up. The song details the Earth’s inevitable destruction in, as the title says, five years, and how the world copes with this knowledge. Soon strings join in the mix, adding a good deal to the emotional level of the song in a light, soft manner. The singer’s vocals, possibly belonging to Ziggy, rise from a quiet speech-like tone to a wail of fear, depression, and love all mixed into one, as he recounts every little thing around him, from physical description to emotional thoughts and musings. My brain hurt like a warehouse/It had no room to spare/I had to cram so many things/To fit everything in there. Even if Bowie’s vocals are a little iffy when he begins to wail, it really is a heartfelt song about how one doesn’t realize how important everything around them is until it all comes tumbling down.
2.) Soul Love – The second track opens slowly and quietly to transition from the melancholy of the opening song, acoustic guitar and quick snappy drum opening. Bowie’s vocals change to their more noticeable nasally quality, joined by backing vocals of even more nasally quality, recounting what ‘soul love’ is exactly. Stone love – she kneels before the grave/A brave son – who gave his life to save the/Slogans that hover between the headstones and her eyes. If those lyrics are anything to go by, ‘soul love’ is the kind of love many of us are familiar with. Not simple infatuation, not physical attraction, but the very simplest and most powerful definition of what love is. Love between boy and girl, between mother and son, even between the spiritual and the spirits can all be powerful and simple enough on their own, even painful when that love brings misery. In fact, the only reason that misery is so powerful, as noted in ‘Five Years’, is because the love that built up around it was so powerful. The soft opening quickly devolves into jazzy, snappy, and once the guitars get in, loud and fiery. As a narrative, this song portrays Ziggy’s fascination with love even when it is out of reach for him. All I have is my love of love/And love is not loving.
3.) Moonage Daydream – The burning roar of guitars open the song with Ziggy describing himself as an ‘alligator’, a ‘mama-papa coming for you’, a ‘space invader’, and even being a ‘rock-and-roll b***h for you’. Essentially, this is Ziggy finding the perfect way to relay his message to the world through rock and roll, already dreaming of being big and famous enough to keep his word and message going for the last five years on Earth. However, a lot of that fame comes from prostitution to the industry to make him famous, to be a go getter and to do as they tell him to do before they let him speak. Ziggy doesn’t seem to care, however, as he’s perfectly content with working to get his thoughts out to the public. Science Fiction imagery and sci-fi descriptions are heavily mixed into the lyrics: Put your ray gun to my head and Keep your ‘lectric eye on me. Musically, this is some of the best ‘weird’ Bowie music you’ll find, accompanied wonderfully with the low thrum of backing vocals that, for every Bowie album, always seems otherworldly and alien to begin with. The saxophone and whistle solo in the middle are especially amusing to listen to as something slightly comedic and funny. Outside of the soul-selling to industry aspect of music, it delves into Ziggy’s creative aspect, organizing his words and thoughts, planning how to give his message of love and peace to the world. I’m busting up my brains for the words. The guitar solo at the end fades out with the sound of whizzing and whirling sirens that sound like a dozen mewling kittens.
4.) Starman – The lyrics of this song and the perception behind them are certain to confuse a few listeners, especially if one listen’s to Bowie’s intended meaning. The person singing the song isn’t Ziggy this time, but rather a youth who listens to Ziggy on the radio, describing the moment of hearing the message of the titular Starman Ziggy. One would initially think that this is Ziggy’s admitting to the world that he is an extraterrestrial but Bowie has gone against such claims. Bowie might not have intended for Ziggy to be painted as an alien to begin with, but rather as an earthly messenger for some unknown alien force, which is a rather stimulating thought if one were to go into the philosophical implications of a messenger of love and peace for a greater force in the universe. There’s a Starman waiting in the sky/He’s told us not to blow it/’Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile. The song, for the most part, is played simply and sweetly on a dreamy sounding acoustic guitar even before delving into the straight-rock edged ‘la la la’ chorus.
5.) It Ain’t Easy – Not an actual Bowie/Stardust song, but rather a cover of a song by late American singer/songwriter Ron Davies. The opening note is a rather odd, short howl followed by a harpsichord sounding instrument, Ziggy serenades his people with a spiritual message of hope. There is a heavy theme of religious messianic undertones to the character of Ziggy throughout the album, but it seems to be the most prominent in here as Ziggy wails like a preacher of gospel with the lyrics he’s given. Well all the people have got their problems/That ain’t nothing new/With the help of the good Lord/We can all pull on through. However, the fans that Bowie reaches out to could be confusing his message as we’ll see later on, but Ziggy doesn’t care. He’s given his message of peace and love and everybody has listened to him. That is probably helped, though, by the bluesy rhythm of the song, especially during the chorus. There was a reason the rear cover of the vinyl album instructed it’s listeners TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME. The final verses before the chorus sing of Ziggy’s love for a dream girl, a somewhat fitting transition into the next song…
6.) Lady Stardust – Rather than Ziggy finding a ‘love of his life’, the titular Lady of the song may be a muse of sorts to Ziggy, as the song more heavily alludes to him and his band and their growing popularity, especially the charisma and magnetism that Stardust has that sways his audience to him so easily. Many interpretations have pointed to this song being an allusion of sorts to the late fellow glam rock icon and friend of David Bowie’s, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, the original demo title being ‘He Was Alright (A Song For Marc)’. Seems fitting to model the growing idol that is Ziggy Stardust after one of glam rock’s greatest contributors. The song is played predominantly on piano which adds perfectly to the sparkly, flashy, ethereal nature to Stardust’s character. In fact, the entire first half, save for ‘Moonage Daydream’, is predominantly soft, smooth, and or slow bluesy ballads, innocent and sparkling like a newborn star. That all changes with the next song, though, as the next half of the album shows the inevitable downfall of Ziggy Stardust…
7.) Star – Ziggy contemplates the benefits and pros of becoming bigger and bigger with his career as a rock n’ roll superstar, even a rock n’ roll savior, preaching a message of love and happiness like some spiritual monk dressed in the most colorful, outlandish costumes he can find. On the side of his thoughts, however, are the beginnings of his downfall, as he begins to think of using the benefits of being a rock celebrity. I could do with the money/I’m so wiped out with things as they are/I’d send my photograph to my honey/And I’d c’mon like a regular superstar. From here on out, the songs lose their slow tempo and beat and jog and dance wildly and madly, guitars roaring like fire and drums thrumming and pattering like a river dance. On a level of interest, I’d personally say that this song might be my least favorite on the track, though.
8.) Hang On To Yourself – Probably the most glam rock sounding piece of the whole album save for maybe ‘Suffragette City’. Glam rock’s purpose was to combine rock n’ roll of the past and the punk sound of the (then) future into one glorious mixture, which is pulled off well. The lyrics and chord structure certainly reek of near Elvis-age Rock n’ Roll but with a melody and sound that just roars and revs quickly and loudly. One interpretation I’ve heard for this one that I agree with the most is Ziggy starting to succumb to fame stroking his ego wildly like a careless, dangerous groupie, the notion of ‘selling out to a big industry’ personified in the girl of the song: She’s a collector layin’ on ‘lectric dreams and She’s a tongue twisting storm/She’ll come to the show tonight/Praying to the light machine. I rather like the analogy between the two as, personally, I’ve always found songs that do nothing more than to typically describe a pretty young girl to be bland and mere album filler. So Ziggy is told by the groupie to hang onto himself because things are gonna get rough if he wants to get to superstardom.
9.) Ziggy Stardust – The guitars of the album are put to their best use here, the sound of their squawking and growling sliding and hammering all about. Likewise, Bowie’s lyrics are probably at their best on this album, his descriptions perfect to describe such an alien-like rock idol. Ziggy really sang/Screwed up eyes and screwed up hairdo/Like some cat from Japan/He could lick ‘em by smiling/He could leave them to hang/’Came on so loaded man/Well hung and snow-white tan. Ziggy’s fame rises and rises to mythological levels, his every oddity and feature hypnotizing his nearly mindless followers, much to the chagrin of his original band, The Spiders From Mars. Rather than being a group, the band merely became Ziggy’s backup stars. And so we b***hed about his fans and should we break his sweet hands? If not for the final track, this could be undeniably the best track of the album.
10.) Suffragette City – Once more, the guitars rev up and blow steam all across this song, the drugs, partying, and cheap women having fully taken control of Ziggy and leading closer and closer to his inevitable fall. Next to ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’ is the most glam rock heavy song of the entire album, fast-paced, energized, fun lyrics, just an overall fun song to listen to, jazzy and punkish all at once. There’s even a Little Richards-esque piano riff and a small little reference to A Clockwork Orange, Bowie being a massive bookworm. It’s always fascinating how Bowie can make his most fun songs still have a great deal of intellectual aesthetic to them, and this song certainly shows that.
11.) Rock N’ Roll Suicide – Having reached his lowest point due to his intake of the glam rock lifestyle, Ziggy sings a final serenade to his fans, starting small on acoustic guitar, soon joined by the echoey beep and blare of guitar, growing louder and jazzier with the accompaniment of saxophone and horns. Soon the song sounds nearly orchestral like a funeral procession, big and booming still only using the barest instruments previously described. Going again with the messianic theme, Ziggy realizes that he can’t keep his message going with his followers for the last five years of Earth’s time, as people are constantly subject to change, especially in fashions and popularity. Bowie’s vocals grow from a whisper to a wail once more. In becoming a rock star, his drug intake and crazy lifestyle only goes to prove that nobody truly cared for the apocalypse in the first place; they still lived and acted as they always had been. So onstage, Ziggy sings his final ballad to his beloved fans, telling them that they’re all wonderful, as if blessing them, before he allows his fans to kill him onstage, ending the song in a short, low tug of strings.
For Bowie’s most well-regarded character and one of his most well-regarded albums, I can only really call this a great start on the road to his concept album craze. Bowie is able to create memorable and catchy songs be they fast paced or slow and soft. He’s obviously a very intelligent, bookish artist, influenced clearly by the likes of Burroughs, The Beatles, Lou Reed, and many, many more. Deciphering the meaning behind his songs is a very difficult task as Bowie’s songs act more like a haze than a solidified whole, a mist of a general idea rather than a concrete, understandable one. Not to say that his songs can’t reach the hearts and souls of the mainstream, he clearly did so. This album hit like mad, earning Bowie his name in the world of rock and roll. He knows how to write catchy, melody driven tunes.
But this album was only a starting point for Bowie’s long line of concept albums that would only further expand on his musical talents and define the sound of a David Bowie song…