Ziggy played guitar. And then David Bowie had him stop. Of course, as much fame and critical acclaim the character of Ziggy Stardust 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.
The life and death of Ziggy Stardust and his fabled Spiders from Mars
Out of all the characters that Bowie invented to present his songs, it was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars that introduced him to a global audience made him a huge 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 Stardust 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. Clever lyrics and crafted song arrangements were one thing. 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?
Ziggy Stardust and the influences behind its creation
Who is Ziggy Stardust anyway? The Ziggy Stardust character was a summation of Bowie’s early and diverse influences. It was to be the David Bowie character that would be most celebrated throughout his career. It would also prove to be a stepping stone in his career and milestone that would be hard to overcome. Ultimately, it would be telling of Bowie’s ever-changing views and ambitions that the artist could find a single way to leave him behind. The death of ZiggyStardust was the only way out. The road ahead would be bumpy, but artist progress would be swift. David Bowie personas were the artist’s way to explore and use up an avenue of artistic expression before moving on to the next.
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 Stardust 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. The album’s lyrics told the story of the character’s rise to stardom, at the same time as humanity was foretold to be entering into decline.
David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, Alladin Sane, The Thing White Duke, the artist’ alter ego personas would eventually tend to blend into one another. But, in as much as Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s first, fully realized creation, he was constructed of numerous influences. There was one larger than life character in particular that Bowie was inspired by and whom he would later repay.
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.
David Bowie’s love of avant-garde and outside art
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 Stardust 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.
David Bowie’s backing bands also proved to have a significant amount of influence on the artists’ career trajectory. Many great musicians shuffled in an out of the group. Bowie chose all of them based on their reputation and on his current musical ambitions. But, the musicians’ own values were soaked by Bowie, the rock n’ roll collector.
The Spiders from Mars
The aforementioned Spiders from Mars band are a classic example. The fierce rhythm section and Ronsons’ guitar pyrotechnics helped beef up the overall sound. It also helped Bowie compete with the in-vogue hard-rock groups of the time. But, it wasn’t long until the songs David Bowie wrote were groomed to accommodate his sidekicks’ best qualities.
In fact, Ronson would be further taken under Bowie’s tutelage, as the singer helped guide his burgeoning solo career. The skills Bowie had carefully developed prior to attaining global success were coming handy. He was now taking on the role of producer. His intense work ethic provided more songs that Bowie could record, many of which were gifted to his proteges. Mark Ronson, initially sharing the same record label with Bowie, was one of the artists by the anointed Ziggy Stardust.
It was perhaps to be Bowie’s most tightly knit group, indeed giving the appearance of a band, rather than of a solo artist accompanied by versatile musicians. It is perhaps one of the reasons that quarter was eventually split up by Bowie himself. From then onwards, Bowie would choose musicians to his liking, and choose the period of their collaboration to suit his liking. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan, at the time an up and coming blues guitar hero, was chosen to add lead guitar to the Let’s Dance album. It would provide the modern dance tracks with a tie-in to Bowie’s rhythm and blues-influenced past.
David Bowie’s gallery of guitar heroes
Other guitar heroes would also come and go, acting as sidekicks to David Bowie’s hero persona, or simply contributing tastefully to the songwriter’s vision. But, the Thing White Duke knew better than to simply dictate what their contribution should be. Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick all got their shot and were encouraged to take it. Their appearances were not merely those of session musicians.
Rather, Bowie refined the art of taking the best elements of the artists he admired most. The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was a stepping towards multiple musical avenues Bowie would explore in the years to come.
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 perform. There was a collective sigh from the audience. As the members of the group later declared, the statement also came as news to them. Mick Ronson may have been the only one aware of Bowie’s intentions, while relations with the other Spiders from Mars members have begun to sour as a result of increased wage demands.
The motion picture and the death of Ziggy Stardust
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.
“Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do,” Bowie told his legions of Ziggys devotees.
The message was vague and likely purposely so. Of those in attendance, many believed that David Bowie had, in fact, announced his plans to retire from music altogether. While the artist had worked long and hard to earn his current status, such dramatic statements would have kept in line with the image Bowie had crafted. The said concert would later be released as a music-video package as Ziggy Stardust and Spider from Mars – the movie. It captures Bowie and his group as they truly were, part inventive glam rock unit, part meat and potatoes rock n roll.
Ultimately Bowie’s desire for exploration and change would prove to make Ziggy Stardust not simply a moment in time, a glam rock heirloom. When at his best, David Bowie’s characters delivered their messages in short and direct bursts. Once a connection with the public was established, the character’s mission was complete. Bowie was then freed of the responsability, unburdened and ready to set about on a new road.
David Bowie escaped the insanity of the Ziggy Stardust 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.