How Glam, Guitars and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ Led to David Bowie’s Masterpiece, ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’

·17-min read

There’s little question that David Bowie’s rise to superstardom in 1972 was a carefully calculated campaign, involving an unforgettable, otherworldly image, a strategically timed public announcement of his bisexuality, a rapid-fire series of tour dates and television appearances, no small amount of business and P.R. savvy — and most importantly, one of the greatest albums in rock history.

“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” released in the U.S. 50 years ago today, has come to be seen not only as a concept album but something of a self-fulfilling paradigm, involving the rise of the titular rock star whose fame went to his head and maybe died, maybe didn’t. But the loose plotline mostly adds a sense of drama to a stunning set of rock and pop songs that show Bowie’s unique songwriting, singing and storytelling reaching the first peak in several he would reach in that decade. The album’s arc begins with the apocalyptic “Five Years,” rolls through the otherworldly “Moonage Daydream” and the image-defining breakthrough single “Starman” before sweeping to a conclusion with the epic title track, the blistering “Suffragette City” and the swan song “Rock and Roll Suicide” — songs that have become iconic on their own, yet even stronger within the context of the album. With no less than four of its 11 songs containing the word “star” in their titles, it’s nothing less than a blueprint for fame, and while rock artists had embodied fictional characters in the past, none had done it so convincingly, or seemingly inextricably.

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Bowie explained the album’s concept — sort of — in a 1974 conversation with legendary author William S. Burroughs published in Rolling Stone. “Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman … this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the Earth,” he says. “Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starmen. He takes himself up to the incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real, because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.’”

It’s probably a safe bet that most of the album’s millions of fans did not have “the infinites” in their personal takes on the story, and Bowie later admitted that one of the album’s strengths is its obliqueness: The lyrics and the album’s sequence create a loose plot that is suggested but never explicitly spelled out, leading the listener to create their own narrative.

“I think the best thing I did was to leave him so open ended,” Bowie told writer David Buckley in 2002. “It wasn’t a specific story. There were specific incidences within the story, but it wasn’t as roundly written as a usual narration is. The only trouble about copying someone who is really well known is that you know all the facts about them, so you can’t actually be that person. But because Ziggy was kind of an empty vessel, you could put a lot of yourself into being your own version of him.”

David Bowie at home in Beckenham, Kent, 1972 - Credit: © Michael Putland
David Bowie at home in Beckenham, Kent, 1972 - Credit: © Michael Putland

© Michael Putland

That awareness comes from experience: By 1973, Ziggy and Bowie became interchangeable to the extent that the singer, who’d been working tirelessly to become a superstar for nearly ten years and had just one novelty single — 1969’s “Space Oddity” — and a bunch of flops to show for it, felt he’d created a monster. He effectively killed off the character by announcing that he was retiring, barely a year after the album’s release, at a legendary concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973, which was immortalized in the “Ziggy Stardust” concert film and album. (There were other, more mundane reasons for the “retirement” — particularly a seriously undersold forthcoming American tour that needed a good excuse to be canceled — but that’s a different story.) Of course, he had only retired Ziggy — the real Bowie was back in the studio within a week and back on tour in less than a year.

Yet the character’s influence and the ensuing identity crisis would remain with him for years to come: Several sonic and visual transformations later, his 1975 single “Fame” would arrive accompanied by an advertisement with a photo of contemporary Bowie, hunched and wracked before an iconic photo of himself as Ziggy. “It took a long time to shake him off,” Bowie told the CBC.

. - Credit: Courtesy Ebay
. - Credit: Courtesy Ebay

Courtesy Ebay

It’s a hell of a narrative — but according to Ken Scott, who was Bowie’s producer in these years, there was never any discussion of a concept during the album’s recording.

“It was never considered that way,” Scott tells Variety. “To me, just three songs link together: ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Star,’ which are all about the same person. The rest was just a bunch of songs that we recorded.”

Regardless, the idea had been kicking around in Bowie’s head for at least a couple of years.

The Ziggy character was partially inspired by the 1950s British rocker Vince Taylor, who recorded the original version of “Brand New Cadillac” (later covered by the Clash) and was posited as England’s answer to Elvis Presley. But he fell on hard times, exacerbated by substance abuse (particularly psychedelics) and mental illness. Bowie saw him frequently during his early career and recalled Taylor showing him a map of the world, indicating where alien encampments were located, and a would-be messianic performance in his waning years. “He came out on stage in white robes and said he was Jesus Christ,” Bowie recalled to CBC. “It was the end of Vince – his career and everything else.”

Bowie’s imagination was further fired by his first trip to America in early 1971, in support of his second and final album for Mercury Records. “The Man Who Sold the World” was an album of cerebral, blistering hard rock that featured two future Spiders From Mars: guitarist/pianist Mick Ronson, who would be Bowie’s principal musical foil during this era, and drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. However, due to work-permit restrictions, Bowie was not allowed to perform on the tour, except for an impromptu acoustic set at a promo event in Los Angeles, where he first met many of the people who would later play a key role in his rise, such as legendary KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer and RCA Records exec Tom Ayers. Bowie’s look at this time was decidedly effeminate, with long, flowing hair like on the cover of his “Hunky Dory” album, and he actually wore a dress, which got him barred from a Los Angeles restaurant and inspired a man to pull a gun on him during the trip’s Texas jaunt.

On this trek Bowie was introduced to the music of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, whose primal charisma would have a huge influence on him, and soon after told people in Los Angeles that he was working on a new album based around a character called Ziggy Stardust.

Thus began Bowie’s first golden era, a wildly prolific period when he wrote the songs for both his “Hunky Dory” album as well as “Ziggy.” The latter album’s songs began to take shape in this period: He recorded a demo of “Hang on to Yourself” in Los Angeles and, a few weeks later, rough versions of that song and “Moonage Daydream” surreptitiously released as a single under the name the Arnold Corns (unsurprisingly, it flopped). Around the same time, he recorded demos of “Lady Stardust” and “Ziggy Stardust.”

The Spring of 1971 would also see him solidify his team. He signed with a new manager — the brash and brazen Tony Defries, who played a major role in his rise and compensated himself grandly for it — a new label, RCA (although his master recordings were owned by Defries), and a new vision and blueprint for stardom, much of which came from his 22-year-old wife, Angela Barnett, and a group of their friends who frequented the Kensington gay club the Sombrero. His financial fortunes also rose when his composition “Oh! You Pretty Things” was covered by former Herman’s Hermits singer Peter Noone and reached No. 12 on the British singles chart; Bowie would release his own version of the song on “Hunky Dory.”

Crucially, he reunited with Ronson and Woodmansey, who brought along their former bandmate Trevor Bolder on bass, and the group that would become the Spiders From Mars immediately set to work on “Hunky Dory.” The album was a vast leap forward from his previous work: It includes “Changes,” “Life on Mars?,” the more philosophical “Quicksand” and “Bewlay Brothers,” and the rocking “Queen Bitch,” which was a harbinger of what would come just a few weeks later when they began recording “Ziggy.” In July, he told keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who played the lilting piano on “Life on Mars?,” that he was forming a new band featuring himself as a character named Ziggy Stardust. (He asked Wakeman to join, although the keyboardist opted to join Yes instead.)

Equally significantly, Bowie also met a group of Andy Warhol associates in London performing in a play called “Pork” — Cherry Vanilla, Leee Black Childers, Tony Zanetta and others — who would become a part of his inner circle and introduced him to the New York music scene during a trip to the city to sign his RCA deal in September. There, he met Lou Reed, whose work with the Velvet Underground had an incalculable influence on Bowie’s, Iggy Pop, journalist Lisa Robinson, and the man himself in an awkward meeting at the Factory, where Warhol seemed uninterested in everything except Bowie’s yellow shoes. However, after this meeting Bowie’s look became much more lurid — an approach enhanced by an Alice Cooper concert that all four bandmembers attended in London a few weeks later.

In November of 1971, the “Ziggy Stardust” album sessions began with early takes of “Star” and “Hang on to Yourself.” While Bowie had warned Scott that the new album would have a very different feel from “Hunky Dory” and “sound more like the Stooges,” the producer hears little difference between them. “They are almost part and parcel of the same thing,” Scott says. “You could just as easily have taken a bunch of the songs off of ‘Ziggy’ and put them on ‘Hunky Dory’ and vice versa.”

Indeed, while it is considered a much more rock and roll album, “Ziggy” has a similarly tasteful and restrained production, which gives the loud moments much more impact; it also has as much of Ronson’s intricate piano work as it does his electric guitar.

Throughout the month most of the album’s tracks were recorded, along with the outtakes “Velvet Goldmine,” “Sweet Head” (which includes a reference to “Brother Ziggy”), revamped versions of his earlier songs “The Supermen” and “Holy Holy,” and covers of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” the latter performed solo by Bowie. Also recorded were the unreleased and semi-finished songs “Looking for a Friend,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again,” “Shadow Man,” and a song that Woodmansey recalls including a melody later used in “Under Pressure,” Bowie’s 1981 smash with Queen.

The musicians worked quickly and Bowie, who had a notoriously short attention span, would flare his infamous temper if a song required more than a couple of takes. “I never even heard any demos,” Scott recalls. “He would go down, show the songs to the band and we’d record. Most of the songs were recorded in a day or less.”

Fifty years later, Scott still marvels at Bowie’s ability to lay down a final vocal in one take.

“David has to be the best vocalist I ever worked with,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of the vocals that I did with him on the four albums I co-produced were first takes — from beginning to end. It’s amazing.”

Ziggy’s look also went through a little-known experimental phase. Toward the end of the year, Bolder, a former hairdresser, had styled Bowie’s flowing locks into a sort of awkward bi-level, short on top and long in the back. But before a holiday trip to Cyprus to meet his in-laws for the first time, Bowie had it turned into the brush cut depicted on the “Ziggy” album’s cover. At first it was his natural brown, but before long he’d be dying it a vibrant, otherworldly orange that only appears in nature on certain plants and tropical fish.

In the first weeks of 1972, the final pieces of the “Ziggy” puzzle fell into place. Late in January, the group made its debut in Spiders From Mars gear at the Borough Assembly Hall in Aylesbury, north of London — a week after Bowie came out as bisexual in an interview in the British music weekly Melody Maker. At the gig was Queen drummer Roger Taylor — accompanied by the group’s singer, Freddie Mercury — who was stunned by the new look.

“Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig in Aylesbury,” Taylor told Mojo in 1999. “We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, whaaat? They looked like spacemen.”

Also in January, the band assembled for the album’s iconic cover shoot in a studio off of London’s Regent Street. Only Bowie appears on the airbushed cover, which depicts him holding a guitar with one leg cocked high outside what looks like a theater but was actually the K. West furrier (the proprietors of which were not happy about the association with the controversial star and whose attorney sent an official letter of complaint). The other bandmembers are not present because they said it was too cold to go outside.

An acetate of the new songs was assembled around this time, which included “Velvet Goldmine” and the Berry and Brel covers, although it is unclear whether it was intended as an album or just a progress report. Either way, Dennis Katz, RCA’s head of A&R, told Bowie that he didn’t hear a single, so the group went back into the studio. As would be the case when Clive Davis told Bruce Springsteen the same thing a few months later, Bowie returned with three stellar songs that are vital to the album: “Suffragette City,” “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Starman.”

. - Credit: REX/Shutterstock, courtesy David Bowie Estate
. - Credit: REX/Shutterstock, courtesy David Bowie Estate

REX/Shutterstock, courtesy David Bowie Estate

The final piece also arrived during this time, when Bowie and the band saw Stanley Kubrick’s controversial and mind-bending film “A Clockwork Orange.” Their future stage wardrobe, with pants tucked into high boots, was a direct inspiration from the matching outfits that star Malcolm McDowell and his “droogs” wore in the film; the Ziggy concerts would open with the recording of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” used in the film.

With the album completed, over the following weeks the group recorded a number of BBC radio sessions premiering the new material, made their first television appearance debuting their new look, and toured Britain extensively, winning converts at nearly every gig: Future Joy Division members Ian Curtis and Stephen Morris would see the band in Manchester; future Pet Shop Boys founder Neil Tennant would see them in Newcastle in June; and future Smiths frontman Morrissey at a second Manchester gig a few weeks later.

Bowie’s creativity continued unabated. “It was interesting seeing him grow,” Scott says. “He became fearless: it was working, and that gave him more confidence.”

In May, he gave one of his most iconic songs, “All the Young Dudes,” inspired by friends at the Sombrero, to the group Mott the Hoople; later in the year their Bowie-produced version of the song became a global hit and an all-time rock classic. The following month he and the Spiders recorded the stand-alone single “John, I’m Only Dancing”; a month later, he and Ronson produced Lou Reed’s classic “Transformer” album, which features the New Yorker’s biggest-ever hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as the classics “Satellite of Love” and “Perfect Day,” both of which showcase the pair’s vital contributions to the album.

But the spark that truly lit the fuse of Bowie-mania was “Starman,” which was released as a single late in April. Surprisingly, Bowie showed a strange ambivalence toward the song that would make him a superstar. He performed the song rarely, even when it became a hit, and it’s absent from many of his greatest-hits collections. It was the very last track to be added to the album: On the box dated February 9, 1972 that contains the master tape of this now-legendary album, one can see “Round and Round” scratched out on track four of side one and replaced with “Starman.”

Yet its impact upon Britain in the summer of 1972 was galvanizing, largely due to his performance of the song on the weekly British TV show “Top of the Pops” on July 6. There he is, in all of his early Ziggy splendor, pointing directly at the camera during the “I had to call someone, so I picked on you” lyric and draping a campy arm around Ronson for the final chorus.

The impact of that one performance changed Britain forever. For the generation of British musicians who would rise to prominence in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, it was the equivalent of the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on “Ed Sullivan Show,” including Boy George, U2’s Bono, the Clash’s Mick Jones, Siouxsie Sioux, the Cure’s Robert Smith, Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths, John Taylor and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, David Gahan of Depeche Mode, Adam Ant, and countless others. Decades later, the song was even used as historical context in “The Crown,” Netflix’s drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, when the actress who plays Princess Anne sings along with it while driving to Buckingham Palace, and then hums its coda as she walks through the royal residence, which is darkened due to power cuts in the recession-wracked early ‘70s Britain.

Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet told Bailey, “I watched [the ‘Top of the Pops’ performance] at a friend’s council flat. My reality was so far removed from this guy’s that my journey from that moment on was to get there, and I think the same applies to most of my generation.”

Echo & the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch said, “I seem to remember being the first to say it, and then there was a host of other people saying how the ‘Top of the Pops’ performance changed their lives.”

“David Bowie was the beginning of me exploring my identity,” Boy George said in a “Bowie 75” video interview. “Like, ‘Oh my god there’s other people like me in the world!’ His message became my message.”

Ziggy Stardust had risen.

Sources: Kevin Cann’s masterful book “David Bowie: Any Day Now, The London Years 1947-74”; David Buckley’s stellar liner notes to the 2002 deluxe editions of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” Robin Mayhew’s “Ziggy Stardust Companion” website, and Chris O’Leary’s “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” site and “Rebel Rebel: All the Songs of David Bowie from ’64 to ’76” book, the definitive study of Bowie’s music and history. 

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