The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
Released: June 1972
Chart Peak: #75
Weeks Charted: 72
Certified Gold: 6/12/74
Upon the release of David Bowie's most thematically ambitious, musically coherent album to date, the record in which he unites the major strengths of his previous work and comfortably reconciles himself to some apparently inevitable problems, we should all say a brief prayer that his fortunes are not made to rise and fall with the fate of the "drag-rock" syndrome -- that thing that's manifesting itself in the self-conscious quest for decadence which is all the rage at the moment in trendy Hollywood, in the more contrived area of Alice Cooper's presentation, and, way down in the pits, in such grotesqueries as Queen, St. Nicholas' trio of feathered, sequined Barbie dolls. And which is bound to get worse.
For although Lady Stardust himself has probably had more to do with androgony's current fashionableness in rock than any other individual, he has never made his sexuality anything more than a completely natural and integral part of his public self, refusing to lower it to the level of gimmick but never excluding it from his image and craft. To do either would involve an artistically fatal degree of compromise.
The news here is that he's managed to get that sensibility down on vinyl, not with an attempt at pseudo-visualism (which, as Mr. Cooper has shown, just doesn't cut it), but through employment of broadly mannered styles and deliveries, a boggling variety of vocal nuances that provide the program with the necessary depth, a verbal acumen that is now more economic and no longer clouded by storms of psychotic, frenzied music, and, finally, a thorough command of the elements of rock & roll. It emerges as a series of concise vignettes designed strictly for the ear.
Side two is the soul of the album, a kind of psychological equivalent of Lola vs. Powerman that delves deep into a matter close to David's heart: What's it all about to be a rock & roll star? It begins with a slow, fluid "Lady Stardust," a song in which currents of frustration and triumph merge in an overriding desolation. For though "He was alright, the band was altogether" (sic), still "People stared at the makeup on his face/Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace." The pervading bittersweet melancholy that wells out of the contradictions and that Bowie beautifully captures with one of the album's more direct vocals conjures the picture of a painted harlequin under the spotlight of a deserted theater in the darkest hour of the night.
"Hang on to Yourself" is both a kind warning and an irresistible erotic rocker (especially the hand-clapping chorus), and apparently Bowie has decided that since he just can't avoid craming too many syllables into is lines, he'll simply master the rapid-fire, tongue-twisting phrasing that his failing requires. "Ziggy Stardust" has a faint ring of The Man Who Sold the World to it -- stately, measured, fuzzily electric. A tale of intra-group jealousies, it features some of Bowie's more adventuresome imagery, some of which is really the nazz: "So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands?"
David Bowie's supreme moment as a rock & roller is "Suffragette City," a relentless, spirited Velvet Underground -- styled rushing of chomping guitars. When that second layer of guitar roars in on the second verse you're bound to be a goner, and that priceless little break at the end -- a sudden cut to silence from a mighty crescendo, Bowie's voice oozing out as a brittle, charged "Oooohh Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am!" followed hard by two raspy guitar bursts that suck you back in to the surging meat of the chorus -- will surely make your turn do somersaults. And as for our Star, well, now "There's only room for one and here she comes, here she comes."
But the price of playing the part must be paid, and we're precipitously tumbled into the quietly terrifying despair of "Rock & Roll Suicide." The broken singer drones: "Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth/Then you pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette." But there is a way out of the bleakness, and it's realized with Bowie's Lennon-like scream: "You're not alone, gimme your hands/You're wonderful, gimme your hands." It rolls on to a tumultuous, impassioned climax, and though the mood isn't exactly sunny, a desperate, possessed optimism asserts itself as genuine, and a new point from which to climb is firmly established.
Side one is certainly less challenging, but no less enjoyable from a musical standpoint. Bowie's favorite themes -- Mortality ("Five Years," "Soul Love"), the necessity of reconciling oneself to Pain (those two and "It Ain't Easy"), the New Order vs. the Old in sci-fi garments ("Starman") -- are presented with a consistency, a confidence, and a strength in both style and technique that were never fully realized in the lashing The Man Who Sold the World or the eneven and too often stringy Hunky Dory.
Bowie intitiates "Moonage Daydream" on side one with a riveting bellow of "I'm an alligator" that's delightful in itself but which also has a lot to do with what Ziggy Stardust is all about. Because in it there's the perfect touch of self-mockery, a lusty but forlorn bavado that is the first hint of the central duality and of the rather spine-tingling questions that rise from it: Just how big and tough is your rock & roll star? How much of his is bluff and how much inside is very frightened and helpless? And is this what comes of our happily dubbing someone as "bigger than life"?
David Bowie has pulled off his complex task with consummate style, with some great rock & roll (the Spiders are Mick Ronson on guitar and piano, Mick Woodmansy on drums and Trevor Bolder on bass; they're good), with all the wit and passion required to give it sufficient dimension and with a deep sense of humanity that regularly emerges from behind the Star facade. The important thing is that despite the formidable nature of the undertaking, he hasn't sacrificed a bit of entertainment value for the sake of message.
I'd give it at least a 99.
- Richard Cromelin, Rolling Stone, 7-20-72.
It is not at all irrelevant that David Bowie's real name is David Jones. While Bowie is no kindred spirit of his real namesake of ex-Monkee fame, he, nevertheless, in the oddest and most perverse way imaginable, does possess a great deal of that English pop star charm that is so basic to the Ultimate Beatle.
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, David's second album for RCA and his fourth to be released Stateside, is his most delightfully "teenage" opus to date. Even more than his last album, Hunky Dory, which dealt extensively with the problems of being young and turning to "face the strange changes," Ziggy Stardust is an album for sons and daughters. It is a children's record in a world where children are not children.
As great a critic as he is an artist, Bowie has created an album that is as much about rock and roll as it is rock and roll. The central character of the story, Ziggy Stardust, is the perfect rock anti-hero. Unlike Peter Townshend's "Tommy," he could never be imperfectly understood as "Jesus Christ, Superstar." Instead, he is James Dean with a guitar. He may even be David Bowie himself.
The album opens with "Five Years," a grim admonition delivered as science fiction. We hear that the world has only five years left, and the mood is set. Whether it is fear or fact does not matter. It looms monstrously as mere possibility, and we become desperate for life itself.
In "Soul Love," even love fails to avert death.
With "Moonage Daydream" sex poses a momentary alternative in a song that is Marc Bolan taken to the nth power and is somehow closer in spirit to The Doors' "Hello I Love You" than to anything else. In a sexless but sexual persona, Bowie, backed up by a delightfully nasty Mick Ronson guitar, croons one of the leeringest choruses ever: "Keep your 'lectric eye on me babe/Put your ray gun to my head/Press your space face close to mine, love/Freak out in a Moonage Daydream, oh yeah!"
David's single from the album, "Starman,"is a beautiful extension of the science fiction motif and one of the greatest paeans ever to rock and roll. Appropriately, it is hopeful. The Starman, a god, a spaceman, a pop star, Ziggy, Bowie -- has but one message: "Let the children lose it/Let the children lose it/Let all the children boogie." The "it" may be the mind you must lose in order to use it. In the beginning, he is ridiculed. But in the end, he rises in the public's mind from being merely "alright" to being "really quite out of sight" to being "really quite paradise."
"Hang On To Yourself" is as ideal an "image" song for David Bowie as it is for Ziggy who tells his audience, "You're the blessed, we're the spiders from Mars." It is the perfect punk 'n' group ditty for a band with a name like The Spiders From Mars.
Hard times come upon Ziggy, a result not just of the corruption in the world but of his own "leper messiah" ego. And then there's "Suffragette City," a brilliantly bashing rocker that really ought to chime on the doorbell of every cathouse on Eighth Avenue.
"Rock and Roll Suicide" brings the story to a close, but is also a love song to humanity. As always, Bowie carefully undercuts himself to avoid pretension, and somehow miraculously, in the best comic book tradition of tragedy as catharsis, "Rock and Roll Suicide" never fails to make me laugh through any of the tears that might get in the way.
All in all, Bowie's latest gives us great hope for the future. It is rock and roll, as ferociously alive as ever. Yes, Virginia, there is a David Bowie.
- Bruce Harris, Words & Music, 9/72.
Science-fiction rock? Yup. And David Bowie (the Rod Serling of the music world) dishes it up in abundance. Utilizing layers of rock (à la Lou Reed) and some really bizarre lyricism, story-teller David weaves some of the strangest rock tales found this side of the Twilight Zone. Weird, unorthodox and musically superior, Bowie's futuristic tunes are out of this world.
- Ed Naha, Circus, 9/72.
The last Bowie album I heard showed a sense of humor -- delicious British humor at that -- but Ziggy is rather stale. Supposedly there is a plot about a Martian (Bowie's got a thing for Martians) who joins a rock group, or forms one, or something. It's all rather hazy. The group (Bowie's, not the Martian's) sounds watery and thin: Bowie's vocals are whiny and -- well, maybe next time.
- Joel Vance, Stereo Review, 11/72.
Nineteen and Seventy-Two may well go down as the year David Bowie put the glitter and glamour back into rock. He is almost the most indestructibly sensitive lyricist in popdom: already an avant-garde superstar this album will make him accessible to the masses for home consumption. His vocal flamboyance scores most obviously on "Star," "Suffragette City" and "Starman."
- Billboard, 1972.
In its own way, this is audacious stuff right down to the subborn wispiness of its sound, and Bowie's actorly intonations add humor and shades of meaning to the words. Which are often witty and rarely precious, offering an unusually candid and detailed vantage on the rock star's world. Admittedly, for a long time I wondered who cared, besides lost kids for whom such access feels like privilege. The answer is, someone like Bowie -- a middlebrow fascinated by the power of highbrow-lowbrow form. B+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
In the mid-eighties, the editors of the British fan magazine Melody Maker chose Ziggy Stardust as the most influential album of the seventies. American auditors might find that a curious exaggeration. Despite his great success in the United States, Bowie did not transcend entertainment and become a cultural figure of great personal importance to a generation of Americans, as he did at home. Ziggy was simultaneously the apotheosis of glam rock and a prime example of how an artist can immerse a listener in the performer's fantasy.
Ziggy was David's debut in the British album chart. It made him a superstar -- during its chart run six other Bowie albums entered the ranks -- but it also caused a misunderstanding. When he uttered the famous words "This is our last show" at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, fans and media alike assumed Bowie was retiring. In fact, he was merely speaking as Ziggy and announcing that Stardust and the Spiders were going into mothballs, but by that time he had become indistinguishable in the public eye from his own creation. It was a tribute to Bowie that he was able to emerge again in another guise, the chameleon-like ability eventually becoming his trademark.
As so many artists do about their previous accomplishments, David later shrugged off this phase of his life. "I wasn't at all surprised Ziggy Stardust made my career," he was quoted as saying. "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star -- much better than any sort of Monkees' fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody's." Perhaps, but to the thousands of fans who showed up for his next tour one image behind in their appearance, this plastic rocker seemed very real.
In 1987, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #90 rock album of all time.
- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.
Bowie's masterpiece/masterplan for world musical domination, Ziggy catapulted Bowie into rock prominence. Taking as its theme a future rock superstar and the destructive fanaticism he creates, Ziggy cleverly kept one step ahead of Bowie's audience who longed to know more.
There are moments of stridency, some muddle and hiss, but in general these Trident Studio tapes have survived remarkably well. They translate with undeviating drive from Compact Disc, freeing Ziggy from the dynamic straightjacket of commercial LP pressings. Minute reverb and echo effects are revealed.
Those listeners who wish to follow Bowie's dictum "To be played at maximum volume" can now do so without suffering premature deafness from distortion.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
The ultimate rock poseur steps forward to announce a brave new apocalypse as seen through a male/female eye. Ziggy Stardust is one of Bowie's stronger releases, the material is concerned with stardom, rock and the general state of a confused world predicted to follow. He paints his picture with wit and insight, and frames it with strong production values -- astro glam/jam, but with arresting lyrics: "Like tigers on vaseline," and "That weren't no D.J., that was hazy cosmic jive." The Rykodisc CD contains five bonus tracks -- a previously unreleased mix of "John, I'm Only Dancing," "Velvet Goldmine," the previously unreleased "Sweet Head," and the acoustic demo versions of "Ziggy Stardust" and "Lady Stardust," which are interesting because of the focus on the vocals. He's at his best when the sometimes heavy-handed musical accompaniment doesn't overwhelm his lyrical nuance, as in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." Ryko's digital remastering is extraordinary, resulting in a clean, bright, dynamic sound. A-
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
Regarded by many to be Bowie's best album, Bowie took the melodicism developed on Hunky Dory and beefed it up with a punchy, rigid, freeze-dried "rock" setting. It's a perfect setting for Bowie's concept of a plastic rock star, Ziggy Stardust. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, without a doubt, was an important defining effort for the glam rock movement. * * * * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is Bowie's crowning achievement, his finest fusion of concept and songs ("Moonage Daydream," "Suffragette City," "Starman"). Driven by exquisite melodies, stellar playing and the songwriter's singular vision, it is one of the finest albums of the 70s. * * * * *
- Aidin Vaziri, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Apparently terrified by his own expanding fame, David Bowie decided to create an alter ego. Ziggy Stardust was an alien hermaprodite with blood-red hair and a gaudy selection of skin-tight P.V.C. jumpsuits. Had the resultant album not been of exquisite quality, the whole thing would have collapsed into a mess of glam rock kitsch. Announcing his own bisexuality immediately prior to the album's release only served to increase the curiosity value among the public. Ziggy's concept, being the five-year lifespan of a supergroup (The Spiders) finally crashing into tragedy, was fairly weak, to be honest. But all was forgiven for those tunes. The Spiders, spiked by Mick Ronson's vicious rock'n'roll guitar, injected a vigour into Bowie's songwriting that had been lacking in the previous album, Hunky Dory. Ziggy was a rock'n'roll pastiche complete with numerous 50's reference points and a sci-fi heart. From the opening song, "Five Years," through the visionary "Moonage Daydream" (about the moment Ziggy had appeared in Bowie's mind), the classic "Starman" and the dramatic finale of "Rock'n'Roll Suicide," the album was a perfect whole. Bowie sold Ziggy to the world and then, at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, he killed him stone dead. Alladin Sane was then No. 1, but the most glorious period of glam had already started to die.
- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
By 1972, David Bowie had spent more than five years chasing trends and waiting for the world to catch up with his perception of himself. He had honed his craft and come up with a unique mix of paranoia and whimsy the year before on Hunky Dory, but he was by no means a fixture on the rock firmament.
There was only one logical thing to do: scramble his mind and adopt the persona of an androgynous, sex-crazed messianic space alien.
It worked. His songwriting came into sharp focus, his voice took on unexpected immediacy, and, with guitarist Mick Ronson, he formulated a dramatic, melodic style that carried the wistful longing and strange fancies of the character he was to inhabit. Ziggy Stardust inaugurated a period of stunning artistic achievement for Bowie that lasted through the decade.
Bowie would later say that Ziggy was hard to shake, that the alien messiah love god had taken hold in his consciousness and didn't want to go away. Small wonder Ziggy Stardust is the main document of one of rock's gret philosophical and artistic experiments.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust was voted the 48th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.
- Quinton Skinner, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.
This album documents one of the most elaborate self-mythologizing schemes in rock, as Bowie created the glittery, messianic alter ego Ziggy Stardust ("well-hung and snow-white tan"). The bouncy glam-rock Bowie made with guitarist Mick Ronson is an irresistible blend of sexy, campy pop and blues rock, with enduring tracks such as "Hang On to Yourself" and "Suffragette City." The anthem "Ziggy Stardust" was one of rock's earliest, and best, power ballads. "I consider myself responsible for a whole new school of pretensions," Bowie said. "They know who they are. Don't you, Elton? Just kidding. No, I'm not."
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was chosen as the 35th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
With Ziggy... David Bowie abruptly redefined what being a male rock star was all about. The cover depicts Bowie as a skinny, crop-haired androgyne in a rainswept alley (though in the recording studio he was still wearing the fey long locks sported on his previous album, Hunky Dory). Clutching an electric guitar, he is an alien beamed down to the drab Earth to bring us rock 'n' roll. (Shot on Heddon Street, London, the photograph was originally black and white but later tinted, giving it an odd Fifties sci-fi quality.)
Ziggy... is the only glam rock album to have stood the test of time. Guitarist Mick Ronson's crunching guitar riffs and soaring solos -- heard to spine-tingling effect on "Moonage Daydream," "Suffragette City," and the title track -- helped to define the glam sound. Bowie's vocals change with every song -- by turns reflective, preening, desperate, and ecstatic. Ziggy... contains a wealth of sexual ambivalence and space-age imagery, but it is couched in solid songwriting and carefullly thought-out arrangements.
It may have sounded like a lightning bolt from the future, but in assuming the role of a troubled rock 'n' roll outsider Bowie immediately clicked with teenagers and critics alike (Rolling Stone gave it "at least 99/100"). Britain, and America's East and West coasts, fell deliriously for Ziggy (though he was just too weird for the Midwest) -- as did punks and New Romantics later, with whom the character's sexual ambiguity and outrageous appearance struck a chord.
- Robert Dimery, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Before virtually anyone else, David Bowie understood that rock and roll of the 1970s needed an element of fantasy. He made this a personal mission, and fashioned a repertory company of alter-egos in theatrical guises -- among them sleazy streetwalkers, space-dwelling dope fiends and cross-dressers tottering precariously on platform heels. These constructs are, in some ways, more memorable than the spotty albums on which they appear. Until Ziggy.
Though its "story" dissolves early on, and its sexual brazenness is long past outré, Ziggy is British rocker Bowie's urtext.
It's also one of the great glam statements of the '70s, a clever distillation of T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, and Andy Warhol, in which the sublime and the sordid sit next to each other. Bowie had already grabbed attention a few times by this point, with Space Oddity, Hunky Dory, and the enduring title track from The Man Who Sold the World. Having tested stardom, sharp social critic Bowie (né David Jones) was evidently both attracted and horrified by it; these songs are a frightened and frightening account of a space alien rock star sent to free the youth of the world from inhibition. Sometimes the places he and his entourage, the Spiders, go are a real trip ("Suffragette City," an all-time classic rocker), and sometimes they're all too real ("Rock and Roll Suicide," "Moonage Daydream"). No matter where he lands, Bowie fully immerses listeners in the freaky feel and smell of the place. He also gets the horniness and holiness of rock ritual -- one more recently released bonus track, "Sweat Head," proclaims: "Before there was rock, you only had God." He also understands the yearning for meaning, and depicts the Spiders, and the freaks who pay to see them, with compassion. Like him, they're both skeptics and true believers, participants in a sordid traveling tableau. Their exploits form an allegory about stardom as phantasmagoria that seems downright prescient in our celebrity-obsessed age.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
Three years after the canine-eyed curiosity made his name with "Space Oddity," he turned himself into one. As Ziggy Stardust, Bowie embodied the kind of alien rock god he'd himself become -- a boundary-pushing, truly out-of-this-world archetype of pop excess.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was chosen as the 34th greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.
- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.
Bowie got tired of waiting for the world to anoint him as a rock star -- so he did it himself, playing the role of a crimson-haired glam messiah from outer space named Ziggy. This concept album finally made him a total blam-blam in his native land. He was flamboyant on a level rock had never seen before, whether he was ranting about hot sex ("Suffragette City") or morbid alienation ("Five Years") or both ("Moonage Daydream"). "I'm the last person to pretend I'm a radio," Bowie said. "I'd rather go out and be a colour television set."
- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 8/25/16.
David Bowie's creation of his glitter-god alter ego Ziggy Stardust is easily rock's most influential self-mythologyzing scheme. The glam rock he made with guitarist Mick Ronson is an irresistible blend of campy pop and blues power, on songs like "Suffragette City," and "Ziggy Stardust," one of the first great power ballads.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was chosen as the 40th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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