Ziggy played guitar. And then David Bowie had him stop. Of course, as much fame and critical acclaim the character of Ziggy had brought Bowie, killing him off was only a gateway into a new stage for the artist. It was a constant throughout his career. A career whose foundation was built on making a large statement and then just as soon as the public was coming to terms with it, moving on to something else. This made for a great and varied body of work.
The sad passing of David Bowie earlier this year effectively stopped the clock on his incredible run. Bowie was never without loyal admirers and crafty imitators, but this put his catalog of work in a stronger light, aided by the collective emotion of grief. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is arguably Bowie’s most famous work.
Out of all the characters that Bowie invented to present his songs, it was Ziggy that introduced him to a global audience, made him a big star, made Bowie associates a lot of money and nearly killed its creator. David Bowie was a respected singer-songwriter prior to Ziggy. He had already made steps musically and fashion-wise into what would be deemed glam-rock and had already recorded the brilliant Hunky Dory. But the Ziggy persona and the public’s reaction to it was the point where any doubts of whether Bowie would remain a one-hit wonder, remembered only for Space Oddity, were dispersed forever. So why would someone kill off the golden goose? Why would an artist striving for commercial acceptance move into a different area artistically just as he had finally achieved the success he wanted for years?
For David Bowie, it seemed to be done almost out of a need for artistic survival. Critics of Bowie would argue that he did not create artistic movements but merely joined them at the appropriate time. There might some truth to it, but as Bowie pointed out himself, his greatest talent was to pick and choose the elements that suited him. Bowie was opportunistic about this but knew that his own vision would create something all his own out of existing ideas.
The character of Ziggy was, in fact, a mix of several odd, charismatic rock n’ roll figures that David Bowie admired. Bowie took the idea of the mercurial rock star figure, blessed with talent, but facing damnation and used it as a concept for the album.
Iggy Pop was one of the prime influences on the creation of the character. Iggy was then the singer of the brilliant, and as Bowie described “nihilistic”, The Stooges. Iggy’s Stooges was a band whose reputation for wild stage shows had preceded them and made the infamous, even if record sales were slow. Iggy had walked on the hands of the crowds, had splashed himself and his crowd in peanut butter and had cut himself on stage.
Other inspiration came from the disintegrating mental health of British rock singer Vince Taylor, a friend of Bowie’s and someone fitting the general image of the doomed rock hero. Vince Taylor had succumbed to something resembling messianic illusions according to numerous reports. Another influence was the odd, strangely beautiful music of Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
David Bowie was now competing with the big name bands of the time for radio and tv airplay as well as for large audiences. His stage presentation was one of the driving forces in the success of Iggy, but the X-factor was Bowie’s back up band. A rock n’ roll band par excellence, that Bowie employed for several albums. The band included rhythm section Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey, as well as the virtuoso playing of guitarist Mick Ronson. The band was so good in fact and their performances so tied into the Ziggy show that they could be perceived by many as being three members of a regular four-piece group, not unlike Alice Cooper or later Marilyn Manson.
On the last show of the tour, at Hammersmith in 1973, Bowie held a speech declaring that this would be the last show the band was ever going to do. There is a collective sigh from the audience. As the members of the group later declared, this came as news to them. One can imagine the tension in the room as the band plays the closing track on the album, the appropriately titled Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. It turns out David Bowie was always one for a great exit.
David Bowie escaped the insanity of the Ziggy era and most of his future efforts are the stuff of legend. He made plastic soul, went to Berlin and experimented with electronica, become an international pop star in 80’s and so on. Ziggy Stardust remains his most popular creation, quoted by artists and in popular culture continuously. As strange as his break from the character seemed with hindsight one can appreciate his decision to exit as suddenly as he did. Change seemed to be the constant through his career.