Counterbalance No. 16: David Bowie's 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars'
Up next for the Counterbalance series is No. 16 on Acclaimed Music's Big List—David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Press your space face close to mine!
Editor's Note: This article was published on 14 January 2011.
Klinger: I gotta be honest with you, Mendelsohn. For years, I operated under the assumption that the only Bowie you really needed were the Changesonebowie and Changestwobowie compilations. Bowie just seemed like one of those artists for whom the hits told the story. That's not a dig, either; I was inclined to lump CCR and Sly in there, too. But I was under the impression that anything beyond the FM playlists was strictly for people who showed up at parties wearing glittery unitards.
Eventually I came around and recognized that there's a lot going on in Bowie's deep catalog (I think it was Station to Station that did it for me, or maybe Hunky Dory), but even so, if you had played The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars for me during that time, I'm not entirely sure you would have changed my mind.
Mendelsohn: First: I'm shocked -- shocked -- that you would cop to owning a "best of" disc for anyone, let alone allowing it to stand in as a fair representation of the artist. That's a rock nerd no-no. You might end up on some Criterati hit list for saying stuff like that.
Second: Bowie is part of the Rock 'n Roll Holy Trinity. In the name of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, amen. I think the younger you severely underestimated the power this man has had in shaping music history over the past four decades. As for Ziggy Stardust, this record should be in the Top Five. Let's initiate a swap.
Klinger: No can do, Mendelsohn. The Rock Canon has spoken. And even if I did have the power to go switching things around, I'm not sure I'd go to the mat for Ziggy Stardust. I understand its iconic status, and I really like most of the songs -- I even love a few of them (hello "Starman"!).
Even so, after listening to this album repeatedly of late, I can't shake the feeling that this is, in many ways, a somewhat flawed album.
Mendelsohn: Lucy, you got some 'splainin to do.
Klinger: Sure. I'll 'splain. I'll 'splain it all. But first I think Mr. Bowie would do well to 'splain something to me, like what exactly he's on about in these lyrics, which frankly lean heavily toward jibber-jabber. And I have a lot of questions about the concept here. I know there's a space man who plays the guitar and apparently the world is coming to an end in five years, which causes someone to drink milkshakes. Then the space man moves like tigers on Vaseline and then the kids kill a man, so they break up the band. Oh, and then time takes a cigarette and makes you pull his finger. Am I reading too much into this? Or not enough?
Either way, it's a good thing for Bowie that Elton John and Bernie Taupin were right around the corner to serve up lyrics and concepts that were even more nonsensical than this.
Mendelsohn: Whoa, whoa, slow down there, Tiger. Step away from the Vaseline. What we're dealing with here is an ex-folkie who cut his teeth on made-up words and silly phrases who then transformed himself into an androgynous rock super star persona that was loosely based on what may or may not be an autobiographical concept album about the rise and fall of his newly-created alter ego. It doesn't have to make sense. It just has to rock. It does that and more. It rocks, it swings, it sighs, it has social commentaries and rock star excesses. It's all things to all people. Just get on board.
Klinger: Yes, it rocks, and it swings. And I like the way Bowie combines doo-wop chord changes with Beatlesque harmonies and crunchy Chuck Berry guitars -- it really reminded me as I was listening to this again just how steeped in nostalgia glam was. Is it the traditionalism that keeps the critics coming back, or is it the influence that Bowie has had since?
Mendelsohn: It's both. No question. Bowie took the '50s pop model tossed in some folk flourishes, intricate arrangements, and -- most importantly -- Mick Ronson's guitar (who has been, quietly, just as influential), resulting in an album that sounds so familiar yet doesn't sound like anything else that had ever been released. That, in itself, is an amazing feat. Bowie's wide-ranging influence simply adds to his cache.
With Ziggy Stardust, you can see Bowie constructing the persona that would carry him through the better part of the '70s. Like a Dr. Frankenstein he pulls together seemly disparate musical pieces, (rock, pop, doo-wop, folk, big band, glam) stitches them together piece by piece and by the end of the record we've come face to face with a rock monster. The real masterstroke though is that we don't really see those stitches. "Soul Love" is a perfect example or Bowie's maniacal prowess. It's a weird amalgamation of musical styles, vacillating between a swinging doo-wop and '70s pop before stabs of glam rock strike like lightning, illuminating the track before it falls back to the swing. There's even a sax solo!
It's odd but it works and it sets the stage for the rest of the record. We are no longer think twice about the blast of electric guitar that starts off "Moonage Daydream" and then gives way to piano and acoustic strumming. It's that push and pull, a yin and yang, between the opposite spectrums of rock that propels this album, and Bowie for most of his career. With out that balance, we wouldn't be talking about him and this album wouldn't be getting such praise year after year.
Klinger: Still, I can't help thinking that Bowie did a lot of this stuff better elsewhere. Hunky Dory is even more melodically intricate. Aladdin Sane has more swagger (can I still use that word?). And while I'm not a nut for the Berlin trilogy (he said, ducking), those albums are chock full of credly goodness. But we've certainly been round and round about the importance of iconicity throughout this series, so I'm willing to afford some leeway here. Even so, I can't stop picturing Dr. Frank N. Furter whenever I hear "Rock and Roll Suicide".
Mendelsohn: Time and place, my friend. Ziggy Stardust represents an important bridge in not only the evolution of Bowie but music and culture in general. We see Bowie move from long-haired folk foppery on Hunky Dory, a last gasp for the '60s, to a much more stylized rendition of rock on Ziggy Stardust, one that would set the tone for the next decade with a lot more flash and overt decadence. Aladdin Sane may have more swagger, but in order to get from Hunky Dory to Aladdin Sane, you had to have Ziggy Stardust. Do you think it's just a coincidence that The Rocky Horror Show hits the stage in London a year after Bowie, dressed as a space alien transvestite, took over the world?
Klinger: I'm pretty sure there were a lot of scripts floating around at that time where space alien transvestites took over the world. Gene Hackman was all set to star in a similar vehicle, but he ended up doing The French Connection instead. But I will concede your point about Bowie acting as a prime mover for glam, which became such a phenomenon after Ziggy Stardust that even Keith Richards started wearing makeup. And David Bowie was also a pioneering figure in the advancement of the mullet, which earns him a place in history right there.
Mendelsohn: Ain't nothing wrong with a glam mullet. Think about how much more awesome the world (specifically the sport of hockey) would be if everyone had a glam mullet.
Can I move my space face now? All that hair spray in your glam mullet is going to make me sneeze.