David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust: The Album that Started it All Turns 50

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David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust: The Album that Started it All Turns 50

david bowie ziggy stardust
David Bowie. Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images.

Ziggy Stardust arrived on Earth fifty years ago on June 16, 1972, via David Bowie’s fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Rock music, and indeed, humankind, was immediately much the better for it. Bowie’s most beloved character was the game-changer that launched its creator into the realm of global rock royalty. Over the course of the late 1960s and early 1970s, there had been an increasing realisation among those in the know that young Davie Jones from Bromley, via Brixton, was a significant emerging talent and most definitely someone to watch. While his highly eclectic first album had sunk without trace, his second had fared little better despite containing the surprise hit of 1969, Space Oddity, a single release superbly timed to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing that held the world in thrall. His third album, The Man Who Sold The World, had sparked generally positive reviews from critics but failed to ignite either the album or singles charts, while his fourth, the sublime Hunky Dory – a songwriting tour de force - again spawned no hit single and failed to achieve its fair due in terms of sales. By this time a pattern had emerged of record companies signing and then dropping him, and while he had established a small but enthusiastic core of fans through his live work the success that he seemed so eminently capable of continued to elude him. But then came the fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and suddenly everything changed. Resplendent in full Ziggy garb – truly outrageous in its day – in early July, 1972, Bowie and his kick-ass band of Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody (Mick) Woodmansy performed the album’s lead single, Starman, on the UK’s pre-eminent television programme, Top of the Pops, and the very next day the album began to fly off the shelves in record stores throughout the land. Truly, the Genie was out of the bottle.

David Bowie | ‘Starman’ [Top of the Pops, 1972]

The irony of Bowie’s success was obvious and delicious. Through playing the role of a totally fictitious and wonderfully androgynous alien rock star, he became a real rock star. Instead of art imitating life, in Bowie’s thespian-like hands he turned that notion on its head and voila: life imitated art. Rock music had seen nothing like it and would truly never be the same again.

Purists who’d been raised on the myth of sixties rock authenticity – the blue denim truth, as someone once termed it – cried in outrage and/or muttered dark thoughts into their beer, appalled at the obvious artificiality and audacity of Bowie’s theatricality and accompanying knowing wink. In Oz magazine, the highly influential rock critic Nick Kent clearly didn’t get it at all when, despite praising the artist’s songwriting prowess on the album, he opined: “It’s all a little unfortunate . . . that someone as capable as David Bowie should attempt to hype himself as something he isn’t.” Bowie’s rapidly expanding legions of fans, though, delightedly lapped up Ziggy Stardust, and it was a clear case of egg on face for Kent and his ilk as Starman soared into the Singles chart; the album doing likewise on the album chart.

Sell-out tours followed, accompanied by Beatles-like hysteria, and the media and the general public couldn’t get enough of Bowie/Ziggy. He was the hottest of hot property. Speculation thrived as to what extent the artist and his creation overlapped and, as he clearly espoused on the methodology-defining album track, Star, Bowie played the part of his ‘wild mutation’ to the hilt. Later he’d admit that even he had trouble discerning in his own mind where Bowie ended and where Ziggy started, and the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll that left Ziggy washed up and staggering through the streets on the album’s final track, Rock’n’Roll Suicide, would be a hurdle to be overcome in his own, ‘real’ world. But, nevertheless, the ruse had worked magnificently and launched Bowie into the rock stratosphere.

Packed full of short, sharp, punchy songs, on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie, Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansy amply display their credentials as the quintessential power rock quartet. With stripped back production and simpler arrangements than anything Bowie had done before, and a glam rock sound perfect for the era, the album packed an enormously powerful and completely irresistible punch.

Also perfect for its time was the message that the album conveyed to its youthful audience. A concept album with a fragmented yet easily discernible narrative, the underlying theme of Earth’s imminent demise from some unnamed approaching apocalypse struck a chord with youth en masse. At this time the Cold War between the USA and USSR had been going on for well over two decades and, with the associated nuclear stockpiling and political chest beating, the planet’s younger generations had an entirely legitimate fear of the Big Red Button being pushed. Assured mutual annhilation was the assumed outcome of such an event, and thus to have a rock star such as Bowie address such an issue through sublimely sexy, hard-hitting and intelligent artistic means helped a generation articulate and make sense of their innate fears. Brilliant.

David Bowie | ‘Five Years’

Never one to serve up his message on a plate and therefore leave no assemblage to be done on the part of his audience, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust narrative is loose and somewhat fragmented, requiring one to buy into it and join the dots. Both the beginning and the end of the story are clear, however. The album’s opening track, Five Years, kicks things off in an almost filmic way, finding the song’s protagonist wandering through the market square of an unnamed town observing the chaos and panic surrounding him; the result of a weeping “news guy” breaking the news of Earth’s coming fate to the populace via their television screens. As the song progresses his descriptions and observations become more shrill and panicked, Bowie’s vocal line emotionally tormented and rising in pitch to the point where it sits dangerously at the top of his range; a wonderfully effective example of the songwriter’s tool of word-painting. Carried by an unrelenting and eerily ominous triple time feel, Five Years sets up the album in the manner of an opening scene in a movie.

David Bowie | ‘Suffragette City’ [Live, 1973]

From there the floor is open to Ziggy to come to Earth on his rescue mission; Ziggy the rock’n’roll saviour who announces his presence to Earth’s youth in Moonage Daydream, and continues the communication in Starman. Elsewhere on the album Bowie pays tribute to his friend and rival Marc Bolan (of T Rex) in Lady Stardust (in concert he projected an image of Bolan above the stage while performing the song). The hedonistic sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle of the quintessential stereotypical rock star comes through loud and clear in Star, Hang on to Yourself, Ziggy Stardust and Sugffragette City, and it is these tracks that reveal why the album’s final track, Rock’n’Roll Suicide, finds our hero washed up and coked out, wandering the city streets at dawn, drained, spent, and just a shadow of his former self. Once again utilising the triple time feel of the album’s opener, Five Years and Rock’n’Roll Suicide are intrinsically linked; acting as the album’s bookends.

David Bowie | ‘Rock 'N' Roll Suicide’ [Live, 1973]

Over the course of the eleven album tracks Ziggy Stardust goes from hero to anti-hero, willingly falling victim to the considerable excesses of rock stardom and presenting a highly effective parody of ‘real life’ rock stars. Bowie often said that rock and roll was simply an art form that he used; that he was not the real thing but rather an actor playing a role. Three years later, in 1975, after dropping Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack and the whole glam rock shtick, he would immerse himself in Philadelphia Soul, dubbing himself ‘the Plastic Soul Man’ and shooting to stardom in the USA with his Young Americans album.

And the rest, as they say, is history. David Bowie = Rock Super Star. But the catalyst was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Bowie’s ongoing popularity, six years after his death, is testament to his brilliance. To those of us who experienced his finest creation back in 1972 it is hard to believe that Ziggy Stardust is 50 years old this month. To Bowie’s legions of older fans and to younger fans alike, though, let the birthday celebrations begin! Place The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on your turntable and make sure to obey Bowie’s instructions that are printed on the back cover: ‘To Be Played At Maximum Volume’. Enjoy!

Dr Ian Chapman is a Senior Lecturer in Music in the School of Performing Arts, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. A life-long popular music fan he has written eleven books including ‘Experiencing David Bowie: A Listener’s Companion’ (2015), and ‘David Bowie FAQ’ (2020). Also a popular free-lance motivational speaker, Ian’s specialty is the transformative power of the performing arts, drawing upon techniques that can be used in everyday life to develop self-empowerment and self-confidence. https://www.ianchapman.co.nz 

Revisit The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on streaming below.

David Bowie | ‘Starman’ [Top Of The Pops Version - 2022 Mix]

Marking 50 years of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, a special streaming single, Starman (Top Of The Pops Version 2022 Mix), has been released. Stream/download the Starman (Top Of The Pops Version 2022 Mix), here. Plus a limited-edition 50th anniversary half-speed mastered LP and a picture disc, featuring the same master and a replica promotional poster for the 1972 album. Get it, here. 


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'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (50th Anniversary Picture Disc)'


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