Hard to believe now, but there was once a time when David Bowie was regarded as a one-hit wonder; this was when, after a testing, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful journey as an aspiring pop star throughout the 60s, Bowie finally gatecrashed the Top 5 at the very end of the decade. ‘Space Oddity’ launched him into the charts by capitalising on the 1969 Moon Landing, even if this atmospheric and unsettling song chronicling the doomed mission of an astronaut lost in space was at odds with the global euphoria that greeted Neil Armstrong’s achievement. It marked him out as one to watch, which must have made it all the more dispiriting for Bowie himself to then follow Major Tom into a black hole and fail to come up with that all-important second hit. At the beginning of the 70s, Bowie vanished off the public radar he’d spent so long trying to be picked up on and his career progressed largely unnoticed by record-buyers; during this period, his restlessness manifested itself as intriguing flirtations with musical trends then prevalent in that uncertain post-Beatles world.
His 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, was an electrifying excursion into the dark heart of Hard Rock, a timely move in a year dominated by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But Bowie’s exceptional intellect elevated the lyrical concerns of the album above the usual Blues Rock clichés, making for a uniquely original take on a style of music not renowned for highbrow content. Despite featuring the debut of Mick Ronson, the axe-man who would become Bowie’s priceless sidekick for the next three years, Bowie seemed to sabotage any potential success for the LP when he decided to pose for the sleeve wearing a dress. Mick Jagger may have got away with briefly donning a man’s frock in Hyde Park the year before, but he was a household name with carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted. Bowie was still only known for the one hit and had yet to build himself a fan-base that could translate into sustained commercial success. An album cover with him resembling a stoned Veronica Lake languidly lounging on the sofa was not one guaranteed to win him the favour of the denim crowd, despite the music on it delivering the goods. It flopped.
The next album, 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’, tapped into the vogue for the singer-songwriter, with heavy reliance on acoustic guitar and piano. Despite it containing some of his most memorably melodic gems – including ‘Changes’, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’, and the epic ‘Life on Mars’ – this album also failed to chart upon initial release. But one song on there, the Velvet Underground-influenced adrenalin rush of ‘Queen Bitch’, pointed the way to the future. A promotional visit to the US in which he made the acquaintance of Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop fired Bowie’s imagination and he returned home brimming with ideas for a persona combining the alluring artifice of transsexual Warhol Superstars like Candy Darling with the raw power and theatrical nihilism of The Stooges. Bowie’s wife Angie was a hustler on her husband’s behalf during this crucial stage of his career and her wide circle of outré associates provoked the transformation that was the first step towards the realisation of his new persona. Scissors were taken to Bowie’s flowing locks and the jagged thatch that remained was dyed an unnatural orange. Dragging his backing band into the spotlight, Bowie then generated a group image with outfits inspired by ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Spiders from Mars were born.
It helped that Bowie was writing new songs at a phenomenal rate. Even before the release of ‘Hunky Dory’, he and the Spiders entered the studio to record them with another album in mind. Loosely linked to form a narrative, the songs told the tale of the character Bowie envisaged as the ultimate rock icon when such figures were pop cultural Gods, Ziggy Stardust. His new image also reflected the growing resurgence of a trashy, old-school rock ‘n’ roll glamour unseen since the heyday of Billy Fury a decade before, and one that was at odds with the fashion as the 70s opened; the music scene then was all about authenticity, rejecting showbiz and looking like a hobo. However, the emergence of former hippie minstrel Marc Bolan as a major chart act in 1971 – scoring two No.1s with his band T. Rex – was another key inspiration for Bowie; Bolan’s music was deliberately primitive yet undeniably invigorating, whilst his image was of a well-groomed androgynous elf; Bolan’s breakthrough opened the floodgates for many acts who became the leading lights of Glam Rock, and for Bowie it convinced him his ingenious idea had a ready-made, hungry audience. He was right, but he also had to convince a sceptical music press.
Casually proclaiming himself bisexual in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972, Bowie sent nervous ripples throughout a music scene still wary of gender-bending despite the great leaps forward of the 60s. But it garnered the outrage, shock, horror and headlines Bowie required as he and the Spiders hit the road and began bringing their exhilarating set-list to the curious kids. The combination of this exotic alien creature quite unlike anything anyone had seen on stage before with a catalogue of riff-tastic instant rock classics was the magic recipe for success Bowie had spent a decade furtively searching for, one that the false dawn of ‘Space Oddity’ made him determined not to let slip through his fingers. None of the attention Bowie’s striking image attracted would have lasted long had he not possessed the musical mettle to back it up, however – and he did.
The release of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ exactly 50 years ago today was the foundation stone of a commercial career that lasted all the way to Bowie’s premature passing 44 years later. It became the first LP of his to chart in the UK and eventually peaked at No.5 whilst continuing to sell for decades thereafter. Its success was also aided by the single lifted from it, ‘Starman’. Having not troubled the singles charts for three years, viewers with a vague memory of a bubble-haired folkie were left open-jawed when Bowie returned to ‘Top of the Pops’ and unveiled Ziggy before an unprepared nation. As Bowie suggestively slung his arm around Mick Ronson, the shockwaves could be felt in every school playground in Britain the following day; it told many a confused kid it was chic to be a freak and gave them the confidence to follow suit. Many of them took the Bowie template and expanded it when they became glamorous chart regulars themselves a decade later.
The ‘Ziggy’ LP didn’t necessarily break new musical ground in the way Bowie went on to do, but it was a good place to start; by contributing his own intoxicating collision of high and low art to the nascent Glam scene, he enabled the Art School crew of Roxy Music, Sparks and Cockney Rebel to storm the charts and take the sound beyond the more basic appeal of Gary Glitter. Even Lou Reed managed to score a Top 10 hit courtesy of the Bowie connection, and the leper messiah also generously gave Mott the Hoople one of his pivotal numbers of the era, ‘All the Young Dudes’. With such pearls as ‘Five Years’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ and the LP’s title track, Bowie had announced his arrival in style and by the following spring, the release of the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album was heralded with an instant No.1 and a sold-out tour that saw his star in a seemingly unstoppable ascendancy.
The clever move of killing Ziggy on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t an afterlife. Ziggy lingered for a good year or so in Bowie’s haircut and music until he finally buried him by embracing ‘Plastic Soul’ in 1975 with the release of ‘Young Americans’. But Ziggy had been Bowie’s Open Sesame to the masses and would never be forgotten either by the generation that fell in love with him first time round or all the generations to come for whom he would prove to be a stellar inspiration. Half-a-century on, it remains yet another landmark in a long-gone age overflowing with them.
© The Editor