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Thursday, August 15, 2013

David Bowie, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars"

David Bowie
"The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars"
RCA (1972)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Hair metal is tedious because there's so much sugar. One wicked guitar solo is great, but they all start running together. For every "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," there's the rest of Poison's oeuvre. The same criticism can be applied to bad glam rock. Sometimes it just seemed that the outfits were directing the music, and not vice-versa. David Bowie was not a terrible case of this, but his earliest albums, i.e. "Space Oddity," revolve around a single and being odd. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" found Bowie channeling both artistic and conceptual direction together for the first time.

Is "Ziggy Stardust" fully salient as a concept album? No, but when you've got a collection of solid songs, a linear narrative is optional (as with one of my favorite bands, Mastodon). Just as a primer, here's the plot: Ziggy (Bowie) is an alien that lands on Earth, which has five years left before its destruction, to be a rock star. Through a possibly psychedelic vision he foresees the coming of "starmen," a message that Earth takes to be a hopeful sign. Ziggy lives the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, imagining himself a prophet, which leads his band to hate him. In the end, his fans kill him onstage, possibly angry that the Earth is still going to be destroyed by a black hole.

Do you notice anything in this sci-fi narrative that could be applied to a real rock star's life? It's a fact that Bowie enjoyed his drugs as much as the next, and his sexual escapades are more legendary than the typical rocker's (because they involve dudes as well). The rest we just have to hypothesize. Did Bowie wrestle with his ambition and ego? Look at him then and look at him now. I'd say yes, he was probably a tad larger than life in 1972.

Bowie draws mighty things out of both his arrogance and humbled regret. For the former, check out "Moonage Daydream," a track I interpret to be Ziggy telling the Earth of his potential. Lyrics aside, notice how the glam grandiosity builds up as the song continues. What starts as straightforward rocker, with guitar, drums and piano, later adds a horn section, then a string section, then Mick Ronson caps it off with that awesome guitar solo we discussed. The highlight however is the chorus, where Bowie and his backing vocalists tell the world to keep an eye on him. It has the effect Bowie (and Ziggy) desired. If he were to deliver that hook in person for me, I don't see how I could look away.

"Ziggy Stardust" (the song, not the album) does the opposite to demonstrate Ziggy's mortality. Presumably told by one of the Spiders, the track details how unbearable the rock star has become, resulting in the bandmates sabotaging his act by breaking his hands. Some big chords open, but a less dense acoustic guitar plucks the riff throughout. The drums are focused, not raucous. The solo from "Guitar Hero" isn't there. This is minimalist compared to the maximalist of "Moonage," reflecting a change in attitude for both the character singing and the musician writing the song.

And of course there's "Suffragette City" for those looking for the party anthem, albeit it's terribly misplaced right before closer "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide." I'm not going to lie that Bowie's new grasp of concept made the rest of his albums this good. Because most weren't, and some were just bad. But you can't say that he didn't have a plan, even if it was a bizarre plan. It's a trait he would pass on to Iggy Pop when the pair became buds.

INTERESTING FACT: So some relation of Bowie had a child and decided that the star should be its godparent. Fair enough. Not cool, however, was making the child's name include "Ziggy-Stardust." Poor kid.

Moonage Daydream by David Bowie on Grooveshark

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