My Playlist: David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Era

When somebody asks me whether I like David Bowie, my spontaneous answer is ‘yes.’ But what I mostly mean is Bowie’s early phase spanning the albums Space Oddity (1969) to Diamond Dogs (1974), especially the “Ziggy Stardust” era. I was reminded by this last night when I saw STARMAN, an excellent Bowie tribute, at a small local performance venue in Jersey. You can check them out here. While they played deep cuts and hits from most of his career, I mostly dug the tunes from the above mentioned time period. The gig inspired this playlist, which more narrowly focuses on the Ziggy period.

Bowie launched the Ziggy Stardust persona on February 10, 1972, when he played the Toby Jug pub in Greater London with his backing band Spiders From Mars: Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums). His love of acting led to total immersion in the stage characters he created. The Ziggy Stardust shows proved to be very popular and turned Bowie into a superstar and cult figure in the U.K. But there was also a dark side to Ziggy that almost cost Bowie his sanity.

David Bowie Ziggy Stardust 2

According to Wikipedia citing Bowie: Loving the Alien, a biography by Christopher Sandford, Bowie said that Ziggy “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” On July 3, 1973, Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

Time for some music. I’d like to kick off this playlist with Starman, the lead single to Bowie’s fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It appeared ahead of the record in April 1972. The song was a late addition to the album. When Dennis Katz from RCA heard a demo of the tune, he saw a hit and insisted that it be added. The track replaced a cover of the Chuck Berry tune Round And Round. Here’s a clip of Bowie’s performance of the tune on the BBC music TV program Top of the Pops from July 1972. It boosted the chart performance of both the single and the Ziggy Stardust album, which had come out a month earlier.

Suffragette City is another great tune from the Ziggy Stardust album. It also was released seperately as the B-side to the Starman single. Before recording it, Bowie offered the song to Mott the Hoople, if they would abandon their planned breakup. The band declined and instead recorded Bowie’s All The Young Dudes. It gave them a no. 3 single in the UK Singles Chart and extended their life until 1980.

In September 1972, Bowie released John, I’m Only Dancing, a non-album single. According to Songfacts, the tune is about a homosexual relationship where the narrator tells his boyfriend not to worry about a girl, since he is only dancing with her. Another interpretation is that Bowie wrote the song in response to John Lennon who had made a derogatory remark about Bowie’s cross-dressing. While the single’s topic did not impact radio play in the U.K., the official video directed by Mick Rock was banned by Tops of the Pops. Here’s a clip of that outrageous video!

Next up: Panic In Detroit, a tune from Aladdin Sane, Bowie’s sixth studio album. It is the second and last record that fell into the Ziggy Stardust era.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a cool clip from the above Hammersmith Odeon gig, the final Ziggy Stardust show: The Jean Genie, another song from Aladdin Sane, and Round And Round, the previously noted Chuck Berry tune that was removed from the Ziggy Stardust album at the last minute to make room for Starman. Bowie and the Spiders From Mars got some help from a formidable guest: Jeff Beck! Unfortunately, the quality of the video isn’t great, so it’s hard to see Mr. Beck in action, but the sound isn’t bad!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: May 5

This is the 40th installment of my recurring feature on rock music history. While I generally enjoy doing research for the posts and seeing what comes up for a specific date, sometimes it feels I already must have covered most dates of the year. But this little milestone means I still have more than 300 other potential installments left! 🙂

Without further ado, let’s take a look at May 5:

1956: Elvis Presley for the first time topped the Billboard Hot 100, with Heartbreak Hotel, which also became his first million-selling single. It’s one of my all-time favorite tunes by Elvis who interestingly received a credit for singing it. Nashville steel guitarist  Tommy Durden wrote the lyrics. They were inspired by a newspaper article about a man who ended his life by jumping out of a hotel window, leaving a note behind that said, “I walk a lonely street.” The music was composed by Nashville songwriter Mae Boren Axton. Heartbreak Hotel is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. In my opinion, the track is perhaps the coolest Elvis song. It has also been covered by Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and other artists, and is included in Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

1966: Manfred Mann reached the top of the British charts with Pretty Flamingo. Written by American songwriter and record producer Mark Barkan, the song became the band’s second no. 1 in the U.K. after Do Wah Diddy Diddy in 1964. The tune fared less well in the U.S., where it peaked at no. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late August – still not too shabby! The recording of Pretty Flamingo featured Jack Bruce, who briefly became a member of Manfred Mann before co-founding Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in July 1966. Bruce was replaced by another prominent artist: German musician, record producer and graphic artist Klaus Voormann, who remained the band’s bassist until 1969.

1967: The Kinks released Waterloo Sunset, the lead single to their fifth British studio album Something Else by The Kinks, which appeared in September that year. Written by Ray Davies, it reached no. 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart, marking the band’s 10th Top 10 single. According to Songfacts, Davies called the tune “a romantic, lyrical song about my older sister’s generation.” Widely considered as one of The Kinks’ most acclaimed tunes, notably, the single did not chart in the U.S. It is ranked at no. 42 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list from 2004.

1969: The Beatles released Get Back in the U.S. Notably, their first single of 1969 was credited to The Beatles with Billy Preston, the only time such credit appeared on any release by the band. The U.S. single came out nearly a month after it had appeared in Britain. According to The Beatles Bible, this “may have been due to a last-minute remix ordered by Paul McCartney on 7 April 1969, four days before the official U.K. release date.” The delay didn’t hurt the single’s performance in America where it topped the Billboard Hot 100, just as it did in the U.K. Canada, Australia and many other countries.

1973: David Bowie started a five-week run for Aladdin Sane on the Official Albums Chart in the U.K. Bowie’s sixth studio album, which was the follow-up to breakthrough The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, became his first of six records to top that chart. With Ziggy Stardust being my favorite Bowie album I may be biased here, but I’m actually somewhat in disbelief that it was outperformed by Aladdin Sane. Well, I suppose Rolling Stone seems to agree with me that Ziggy Stardust is the better record: While both albums are included in their 2003 version of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, Ziggy Stardust is at no. 35, while Aladdin Sane is ranked at no. 277. Without meaning to get too much carried away with chart positions, Bowie’s next two albums following Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups (October 1973) and Diamond Dogs (May 1974), also hit no. 1 in Britain. I can’t imagine there are many other artists with three no. 1 albums in a row. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are among them. One final fun fact: According to This Day In Music, Aladdin Sane is a pun on “A Lad Insane.” That definitely deserves extra points for creativity! Here’s the insane lead single The Jean Genie.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, Songfacts, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Bowie/ Ziggy Stardust

When it comes to David Bowie, I’ve always felt more drawn to his early years. Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold The World and Changes are among my favorite tunes. Ditto for Starman, Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City. I was less fond of his Tin Machine venture and didn’t pay much attention to music he released thereafter. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is Bowie at his best, in my opinion. So guess what happened when I recently spotted a used audiophile vinyl copy of this gem at a small record store close to my house? Yep, I just couldn’t resist taking it home!

Often simply called Ziggy Stardurst, the record is Bowie’s fifth studio release and appeared in June 1972. Wikipedia characterizes it as a “loose concept album” revolving around a bi-sexual alien rock musician who becomes widely popular among teenagers before his fame ultimately kills him. Ziggy Stardust also became Bowie’s most notorious alter-ego during the massive tour that supported both this record and the follow-on Aladdin Sane from April 1973. Spanning the U.K., North America and Japan, the extended tour lasted from late January 1972 until early July 1973. One of the U.S. gigs, performed for radio broadcast in Santa Monica, Calif., became a fantastic bootleg. Since 2008 it’s been available officially as Live Santa Monica ’72.

David Bowie & The Spiders From Mars
David Bowie (second from right) with The Spiders From Mars (left to right): Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey and Mick Ronson

Driven by his fondness for acting, Bowie liked to create on-stage personas for his music and totally immersed himself into the characters. In the case of Ziggy Stardust things got so intense that eventually he could no longer distinguish between himself and his alter-ego. Wikipedia quotes him from the biography Bowie: Loving The Alien (Christopher Sanford, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997): Stardust “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” Time for a another cheerful topic – music about earth’s demise! 🙂

The album opens with Five Years, which like all other tunes except one was penned by Bowie. Telling about the planet’s upcoming destruction, musically, the song is a great built. Generally speaking, when it comes to music, to me the lyrics tend to be second to the melody and musical arrangement – in other words, usually, it takes the two latter for a song to grab me.

Next up: The excellent Soul Love, a tune with a distinct cool groove. In addition to singing lead and backing vocals, Bowie is also playing acoustic rhythm guitar and alto saxophone. I admire people who can master various instruments and always wanted to be a multi-instrumentalist myself. I only managed to learn the acoustic guitar and electric bass, each with moderate success, but I’m getting off topic here!

Starman was the last song Bowie wrote for the album, after RCA had noted it was lacking a single. Really? How about the catchy rocker Suffragette City? In any case, I’m glad Bowie obliged, since the result was one of his all-time greatest tunes: Starman. It ended up replacing a take of Chuck Berry’s Around And Around, simply called Round And Round. That cover eventually became the B-side to Drive-In Saturday, an April 1973 single from the Aladdin Sane album. BTW, Suffragette City ended up as the B-side to Starman – I think it should have been it’s own (A-side) single!

The record’s title track is another highlight. I’ve always loved the guitar riff – simple yet effective! Plus, it’s about a guy playing guitar. Did I mention guitarists are cool dudes? 🙂

The last tune I’d like to highlight, perhaps you guessed it, is Suffragette City, the tune on the I album I like best and perhaps my favorite Bowie song overall. It’s simply a kick-ass rocker – ahhh, wham bam, thank ya man! (taking some creative license here). Initially, Bowie had offered the song to then-struggling Mott the Hoople. His condition: Don’t break up, guys! While the band declined that tune, they went with Bowie’s All The Young Dudes instead, another catchy song. Oh, and it became their biggest hit in the U.K. and extended their career for more than five years (until 1980) – not a bad outcome!

The album’s music arrangements are credited to Bowie and Mick Ronson (guitar, piano, vocals), who was part his excellent backing band The Spiders From Mars. The other members included Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums). I need to check out whatever happened to these guys after their last performance with Bowie. That show at the Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973 was captured in the 1973 documentary Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by D.A. Pennemaker, a film I’ve also yet to watch!

The Ziggy Stardust album was recorded at Trident Studios in London, U.K., and co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, one of the five main recording engineers for The Beatles. That in and of itself is already pretty cool, but there’s more: Scott has also worked with other big names, such as Elton John, Pink Floyd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck and Kansas. And he co-produced additional Bowie albums, including Hunky Dory (December 1971), Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups (October 1973).

Ziggy Stardust has been called Bowie’s breakthrough album. It peaked at no. 5 on the British Official Albums Chart and no. 75 on the Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart (now called the Billboard 200). The album has received numerous accolades over the years. It is ranked no. 35 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2013 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 1997, it was named the 20th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll in the U.K. In 2017, the U.S. Library of Congress selected the record for preservation in the National Recording Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube