Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am!
If you analyzed the evolution of rock music over the last 50 years, you’d find that few artists, if any, were as thoroughly innovative, outrageous, diverse, dedicated, and influential as David Bowie. Born David Jones, he performed in a few bands as a teenager before quickly realizing that the charming and safe guise had to go (partially because an internationally adored Monkey was already making good use of the name). Since then, he’s become a bona-fide musical icon.
While he’s always been relevant and fascinating, Bowie’s most important period was easily his initial run in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. A revered, brilliant artist, he released some of the decade’s most important and acclaimed albums, as well as became a musical and physical chameleon. Although his earliest albums hinted at Bowie’s need to challenge conventions, vary his sound, and take his audience to unexpected places, most fans and music critics agree that his real breakthrough came in 1972 with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. With its 40th anniversary upon us, it’s worth reevaluating the album’s significance and quality, as well as looking into the newly remastered special edition of the record.
Commonly shorted to simply Ziggy Stardust, the album’s two predecessors, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, only hinted at the androgynous flamboyancy and grandiose aesthetic to come. However, with Ziggy Stardust, Bowie clearly rivaled contemporaries like Mark Bolan (T.Rex), Roxy Music, and Gary Glitter for dominance over the glam rock movement, which essentially fused catchy guitar rock with theatrical production and performance, as well as a heightened sense of sexuality and glitzy gender-bending fashion.
In addition, Ziggy Stardust marks the first time Bowie ventured into sustained conceptual territory. Similarly to Peter Gabriel’s embodiment of his creations with Genesis (albeit within a different genre), Bowie performed as Ziggy Stardust, an orange-haired bisexual rock star savior from another planet, and this persona (as well as Bowie’s sudden yet perfectly timed announcement that he was homosexual) certainly helped generate controversy and interest for the project. And even though Ziggy’s tale began and ended with this album, the façade stuck around for several albums afterward, with Bowie famously describing 1973’s Aladdin Sane as “Ziggy Comes to America.”
As for the album itself, well, the music is as biting, catchy, and mesmerizing as ever. With its rebellious attitude and aggressive approach, Ziggy Stardust is a definitive slice of proto-punk (although its production and scope was extremely sophisticated). Serving as the “Spiders from Mars” was Bowie’s regular backing band, which consisted of guitarist Mick Ronson, drummer Michael “Woody” Woodmansey, and bassist Trevor Bolder. Like most concept albums, the story isn’t essential to appreciating the record, but the overall vague notion of a musical alien sex symbol trying to save Earth is certainly appealing. Together, Bowie and his musicians crafted what many aficionados consider one of the most important albums of the last fifty years.
Opener “Five Years” conveys the themes of apocalyptic destruction and hopelessness through trouble-free percussion, delicate piano chords, sorrowful strings, and Bowie’s trademark histrionic anxiety and vocal range. His melody is superbly restrained and affective, as are his complementary harmonies. While he would explore a similar catastrophe on 1974’s fantastic Diamond Dogs, he never expressed it with more straightforward desperation than he does here.
Elsewhere, “Moonage Daydream”, “Hang On to Yourself”, and “It Ain’t Easy” are invigorating rockers highlighted by Ronson’s electrifying timbres, while “Soul Love”, “Lady Stardust”, and “Starman” focus more on introspection and commentary. The album’s most famous tracks, “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City”, are still endlessly addicting and pleasantly infectious. Both songs are built upon archetypal guitar riffs, and they way they mix catchiness with invigorating instrumentation and excellent dynamics is remarkable. The former is still a quintessential biography song, while the latter, with its riotous chorus, declarative horns, and famous “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am” interruption, is still one of the best anthemic tracks ever made. Finally, “Rock & Roll Suicide” concludes Ziggy Stardust on a reflective, somber note. It builds from an acoustic ballad to lusciously produced farewell, and Bowie has rarely sounded more urgent and emotionally drained. It’s easy to appreciate how Ziggy Stardust was a revolutionary record in 1972, and it’s still as vibrant, significant, and enjoyably today.
As for the 40th anniversary edition, both the CD and heavyweight vinyl come in identical gatefold sleeves (which contain the original artwork). Inside the central sleeve of the vinyl is the DVD-A, which includes several mixes of the album, as well as about fifteen minutes worth of bonus tracks. “Moonage Daydream (Instrumental)” reveals just how deeply layered and intense the music on Ziggy Stardust is, while “The Supermen”, which originally appeared on The Man Who Sold the World, is a presumably remixed version. As for “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head”, they’re essentially extras from the Ziggy Stardustrecording sessions, and both feel right at home with the rest of the collection. Of course, the whole affair sounds better than ever, and the packaging is superb (although the lack of a booklet is a bit disappointing).
It’d be hard to overstate the musical and cultural impact of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Despite the fact that some may prefer other Bowie albums (Diamond Dogs is my favorite), Ziggy Stardust unquestionably ranks not only as one of his best works, but as one of the best rock albums of all time. More than just a singular collection of songs, it started a new chapter in Bowie’s career, as well as played a major role in the emergence of an entirely new subgenre. It redefined how a musician could approach performance and creative representation. It challenged norms, shocked the sexually repressed, and introduced a new level of artistic freedom. Those who’ve since adorned a stage or photo shoot as a caricature of themselves owes a debt to this landmark release (among others, of course). The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars took the world by storm in 1972, and it’s still a masterpiece forty years later.