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

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 27

I know there is a certain degree of arbitrariness to look at happenings throughout rock music history on a specific date. But even as I’m putting together this 28th installment of the recurrent feature, I’m still intrigued with it. I guess in theory this leaves me with 337 remaining dates to explore – but one step, or perhaps I should say date, at a time!

1956: Heartbreak Hotel, one of the coolest tunes by Elvis Presley, was released as the first single on his new record label RCA Victor. Credited to him, Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden, the track climbed to no. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100, Cashbox Top Singles Chart and the Country and Western Chart. It became Presley’s first million-seller and one of the most commercially successful singles of the year. I always loved the double bass and the guitar solo in that tune. Here is a nice clip.

1964: The Beatles, or “Les Beatles” as they were called in France, played their 11th date at the Olympia Theatre in Paris as part of a residency in the French capital at the time. According to The Beatles Bible, the set list included eight tunes: From Me To You, Roll Over Beethoven, She Loves You, This Boy, Boys, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Twist And Shout and Long Tall Sally. Here’s a somewhat choppy clip with excerpts from The Beatles shows on January 16, 17 and 24, 1964, mostly featuring Roll Over Beethoven, I Saw Her Standing There and Boys. But, hey, it’s remarkable this footage is available on YouTube in the first place, so I’ll take it.

1971: David Bowie visited the U.S. for the first time. While he wasn’t allowed to perform due to work permit restrictions, his record label had urged him to go there on a publicity tour to support his latest album The Man Who Sold The World, which had come out in November 1970. But not all of America was ready for the androgynous image Bowie was cultivating at the time and the dress he was wearing. A post on Live For Live Music quotes him as recalling, “In Texas, one guy pulled a gun and called me a fag. But I thought the dress looked beautiful.” Sadly, one could picture the same scene these days.

David Bowie In Dress

1973: Superstition, one of the defining songs by Stevie Wonder, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by him, it was the lead single from Talking Book, his 15th studio album released in October 1972. It also topped the soul singles chart and became his first no. 1 single since Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours in August 1970. The tune’s signature funky riff was played by Wonder on a Hohner Clavinet C. Jeff Beck, a great admirer of Wonder, came up with the cool opening drum beat.

Sources: This Day In Music.com, This Day In Rock, Songfacts Music History Calendar, The Beatles Bible, Live For Live Music, Wikipedia, YouTube