On This Day in Rock & Roll History: May 26

I can’t believe it’s been six weeks since my last installment in this recurring music history feature. And even though to me it feels like I’ve covered so many dates already, the reality is I have more than 300 left to go. Do without further ado, let’s take a look at May 26!

1964: Lenny Kravitz was born in New York City as Leonard Albert Kravitz. He was the only child of actress Roxie Roker and Sy Kravitz, a news producer at NBC Television. Both of his parents have passed away. Kravitz was drawn to music since he was tiny. At age 3, he began using pots and pans as drums, and two years later, he apparently knew he wanted to become a professional musician. After his family had moved to Los Angeles in 1974, Kravitz started listening to rock music like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival. When he set out to get a record deal, initially, he was given a hard time, with record labels either telling him he wasn’t “black enough” or “white enough.” Fortunately, Kravitz was able to overcome this BS, and in September 1989 his debut studio album Let Love Rule appeared. He has since released 10 additional studio records, in addition to a greatest hits compilation, as well as various box sets and EPs. My introduction to Kravitz was his sophomore album Mama Said from April 1991. Here’s a great rocker from that record he co-wrote with Slash: Always On the Run.

1967: The Beatles released their eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If I could only choose one of their records, a nearly impossible task, this would be it most days. On other occasions, I might go with Abbey Road or Revolver. You can read more about Sgt. Pepper and why I dig that album here. Following is the record’s grande final A Day in the Life, a tune that was mostly written by John Lennon. Paul McCartney’s main contribution is the middle section.

1969: Janis Joplin made the cover of Newsweek. The headline declared Janis Joplin: Rebirth of Blues. Seventeen months later, on October 4, 1970, Joplin was found dead in her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles after she had not appeared for a recording session at Sunset Sound Recorders studios. An autopsy by L.A. coroner Thomas Noguchi determined she had passed away from a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. Joplin, undoubtedly one of the most compelling female blues vocalists, was only 27 years old.

1972: English rock band Mott the Hoople, which despite their cult status in England were on the verge of disintegration due to lack of commercial viability, recorded All the Young Dudes, a song that had been given to them by one of their fans: David Bowie, who also produced the single, played guitar, sang backing vocals and clapped. All of that happened in the middle of the night at Olympic Studios in London, where Bowie had managed to get them some time. The tune was released on July 28, 1972 and climbed all the way to no. 3 on the UK Singles Chart. In the U.S., All the Young Dudes became a top 40 hit, reaching no. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. It ended up saving the band and extending their life until 1976.

1973: Deep Purple release Smoke on the Water as the third and final single from their sixth studio album Machine Head, another gem of a record, in my opinion. The tune, which must be a living nightmare of many folks working at guitar stores, was credited to all members of the band at the time: Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord and Ian Paice. The song was inspired by a fire at the casino in Montreux, Switzerland on December 4, 1971, where Deep Purple were about to get underway with recording sessions for the Machine Head album. But some stupid with a flare gun/Burned the place to the ground – the night before after a Frank Zappa concert. Perhaps he had not liked Zappa’s performance! Whatever the case may have been, the tragic fire, which claimed all of Zappa’s equipment, led to one of the most iconic rock songs of the ’70s.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day in Music; YouTube

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

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