Ziggy Stardust Turns Fifty Today


It was not a hit in America.

One of the thrills of going to London in 1972, besides going to the Chelsea Drugstore and the record stores, like Virgin, before there was a label, was the music press. Three weekly tabloids. A cornucopia of information. Nothing was that up-to-date in the U.S. “Rolling Stone” came out every two weeks, and read like it.

So I immediately purchased the three rags and what were they talking about? T. Rex and David Bowie.

Now T. Rex I was aware of, from previously being Tyrannosaurus Rex. I’d see them in the bins, not that I ever heard the music. Supposedly it was arty, reviews were not bad, but one could only afford so much music.

And then came “Get It On.” BANG A GONG, GET IT ON! That was a song you only had to hear once. But you didn’t hear it too often. FM didn’t embrace it and it got spotty airplay on AM but whenever it came on the radio I smiled. I remember driving down the Taconic hearing it on the radio on a drive from Middlebury to a show in New York. Yes, one play can make these incredible memories.

Now in the U.K., T. Rex was having hit after hit. “Telegram Sam,” “Metal Guru,” but what I heard I didn’t quite get. Although eventually I purchased “The Slider” and loved the title track, but not a whole hell of a lot more.

As for David Bowie? Why now? There’s not a hit single. But reviews were effusive. This guy had been around for years and had finally thrown down the gauntlet. Hosannas were everywhere. This I had to hear.

And this was back when you had to buy an album to hear it. They certainly were not playing Ziggy Stardust on the radio in the U.S. at the end of August ’72 when I purchased it.

Actually, it was called “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Yes, Bowie employed an alter-ego, even though we never knew of him to begin with. And we also were unaware of Mick Ronson and…

The cover was dark. Remember when rock was the antithesis to the daytime, to light? Back before everybody bragged about how early they got up in the morning? It was all about staying up late, when the straights were asleep, when we owned the town, when anything could happen. As for Bowie’s look? Didn’t look that outside, after all we’d never seen what he’d been before.

So I’m back from the record store, I’ve broken the shrink wrap, and I drop the needle. I don’t know what I’m going to hear, but it’s “Five Years.”

Now “Five Years” is slow, back when you wanted to hit the audience over the head with your opener. It was a dystopian tale. That one couldn’t really relate to back in ’72, which wasn’t quite like the sixties, but even though Nixon was re-elected in November everything was pretty good, especially compared to today.

But what was impressive about “Five Years” was the vocal, its intensity. Bowie was shouting, singing as if he were a star, even though he was not. He was not self-conscious, he was a self-declared seer. And you could understand every word when so much was incomprehensible on records decades before the internet revealed all the lyrics.

But the follow-up, “Soul Love”? I didn’t dig that all. The chorus was much better than the verse, but it seemed like an excuse for Bowie to play the saxophone, to demonstrate his dexterity.

And then came “Moonage Daydream.”


“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”

It was that sound at the beginning, that buzzsaw guitar cutting through the atmosphere, demanding attention. And then this descending chorus. Now wait a second, this is good, this I’ve got to hear again, this is GREAT!

And although it is rock it’s the opposite of the southern rock dominating the FM airwaves, even much of the English stuff. “Ray gun”? This was before “Star Wars” and the unending fascination with science fiction. Sure, we remembered ray guns from Saturday morning television, but we outgrew them, right?

And “Moonage Daydream” flowed into “Starman,” which was easily accessible in a way that “Soul Love,” even “Five Years,” was not. With a traditional structure, a catchy chorus and then the incongruous lyrics:

“Let the children lose it

Le the children use it

Let all the children boogie”

Boogie? I didn’t think an English act could utter the word, which already had a bad connotation amongst the hipsters who would attach themselves to David Bowie first. We’re in full sci-fi mode here now, the rocket ship has blasted from the launching pad, you were either on it or not, on the bus of off as the Pranksters would say, you forgot what you were attached to previously, you went along for the ride.


“When you climb to the top of the mountain

Look out over the sea

Think about the places perhaps, where a young man could be”

Huh? Ron Davies’s “It Ain’t Easy”? That track is so obscure that it’s not on streaming services today, it’s not worth it to conquer the rights issues and get it posted.

I mean I knew it, because it was on the free A&M sampler that the label sent to compete with Warner/Reprise’s two dollar two disc loss leaders. “Friends” was only one disc, but it exhibited a cornucopia of talent, and there were only two acts I’d never heard of before, Lambert & Nuttycombe and Ron Davies.

You can see the track listing here: https://bit.ly/3xYEwuL

Even better you can hear Ron Davies’s original take on YouTube here: https://bit.ly/3zE1k49 There’s a lengthy acoustic intro, and then the track settles into the familiar groove that grabs you. The same one Bowie employs, it’s essentially the same arrangement, but how did Bowie know it? Nobody else seemed to. But Bowie’s vocal makes all the difference, lifts it from a Mad Dogs and Englishmen chorus-type track and brings it right up to 1972. The song has a deeper meaning. Or should I say Bowie MEANS it. This is a voice Bowie completely discarded as the years went by. But when you’re breaking rules, why not break all of them? Although the verses are acoustic, there’s a stinging electric guitar in the chorus as well as a whole neighborhood of voices. The song is taken out of the backwoods and deposited right into the grit of the dirty city.


As for “Lady Stardust”… Bowie’s now singing to the back row, it’s not the intimate sound of the opening of the record. And the changes are familiar, it’s easily understood.

“Star” was a romp. Seemingly out of place on this album, more akin to “Uncle Ernie” on “Tommy.” Tony went to Belfast, and the album was otherworldly if you were in America, Bowie was not playing to us, but a cadre of insiders who were definitely English.

“Hang on to Yourself”… Bowie’s talk-singing, it’s got the speed and the guitars of the soon to arrive Ramones and the rest of the punkers.

As for “Ziggy Stardust”… This was the analogue to “Moonage Daydream,” the one listen smash. It was that innovative riff. And the entire story. Akin to Bad Company’s “Shooting Star,” but that wouldn’t come out for three more years. “Ziggy Stardust” was the story of the band, it brought the whole album, the whole concept together.

“Suffragette City” was built from parts from the rock canon, but the guitar was a bit more crunchy and you had the attitude of the vocals, and then… WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA’AM? This seemed a misstep, out of character, would a guy this sophisticated sing this? I guess yes, but this still bugs me today. Like I said, “Suffragette City” was not innovative, but it pushed the faders to ten on all the parts, brought out all the clichés and the end result was better than the usual tripe.

As for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” this closing track was like “Five Years, the opener, it starts quietly instead of noisy and builds in amplitude and intensity. And it was quite obviously the capper of the story. And in truth, Ziggy Stardust did not live for that much longer, but…

The record ended, there was quietude, and my only option was to start over, I played it again and again, it was revealing itself to me more with each play. Nobody else I knew even owned it. So, it was private, and you treasure records like that. And the more I played it the more I liked it, loved it.


“Ziggy Stardust” was followed by “Aladdin Sane,” Bowie had made inroads in America, but “Aladdin Sane” was a disappointment, after “Ziggy Stardust” we expected something more, at least I did. One step beyond. We got “Jean Genie,” but a cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together”? I mean “Panic in Detroit” was a killer, but you couldn’t give someone “Aladdin Sane” and tell them to play it a few times and they’d emerge converted.

I bought “Pin Ups,” because I’m a completist, I have to have everything, I was not going to abandon ship. But I can’t say that I played it much. It’s just that Bowie’s versions of the classics…didn’t add anything to the classics themselves. The originals superseded them by a large margin. This is a record that really didn’t need to be released.

And then came “Diamond Dogs.”

Critics said it was the worst Bowie album yet, that it was pandering to the masses. But now AOR radio was in every hamlet and burg. And it was a meat and potatoes audience. And the album had “Rebel Rebel.” An almost stupid single. It was all over the airwaves during the summer of 1974, at least the FM airwaves. I went to see the show at Madison Square Garden, Bowie’s rep could sell out an arena at this point, and the staging was a take-off on the Guy Peellaert cover, with the backup singers running around in dog suits, the entire thing was overblown, this wasn’t what I signed up for.


And then Bowie disappeared. Gone. But when he came back…

It was a completely different sound. It was “Young Americans” that started to cement the David Bowie legend, he could have been a footnote, just another rocker employing glam elements to success, but how to explain this R&B album without the affected vocals?

It was a revelation.

Ultimately the hit was “Fame.” I didn’t love it then and I can still barely listen to it today. But I remember the first time I heard “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

I’d slept in my 2002 behind the Hart ski warehouse in Reno. The sun came up, shined brightly, there was no way I was gonna get any more shut-eye, I shimmied out of my sleeping bag, turned the key and cruised the stations on the Blaupunkt. And that’s when I heard “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

There’s the exuberance, the tension and the release. The intro is a minute of David Sanborn blowing, he’s got no particular place to go, he’s not worried about playing too long, and “Deacon Blues” wasn’t even in the mind of Steely Dan. It’s like Bowie’s on stage knowing that he’s gonna blow the audience away, they’re going to come running like lemmings to the sound. This is not the Bowie of yore, who needs it, who needs to convince you. In this case the sound is enough, one listen infects you.

And I feel the same way about “Fascination.”

And then came version two, “Station to Station.” “Golden Years” was superior to “Fame,” and “TVC15” was infectious, the whole album was solid, but sans the peaks of “Young Americans.”

But then Bowie PIVOTED!


You couldn’t get away with this today. Fans are not that dedicated. Well, maybe some hard core fans are but not the casual listeners keeping superstars in business.

It was now 1977. The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac were cementing their legends with “Hotel California” and “Rumours,” extensions on what had come before, but “Low”? It had no precedent. Except the ascendant electronic music scene, whose only breakthrough had been Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” seen as a novelty record at this point.

But there was a power in “Speed of Life.”

As for the sound of “Breaking Glass,” it was even less easily digested, but you were either in or out at this point, on the Bowie train or not, he was on his own artistic hejira, this was not “Diamond Dogs” and “Rebel Rebel,” giving people what they wanted.

Who knew the title track of “Heroes” would go on to become a standard, it certainly wasn’t back in 1977, when it was released. The album was seen as a more obvious exploration in the “Low”lands, and it wasn’t until Bowie came back with the MTV staple “Let’s Dance” in 1983 that he was front and center, atop the hit parade once again. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the theme song to “Cat People,” the movie which broke Nastassja Kinski, we all talked about putting out fire with gasoline, back when a record could truly be ubiquitous and infect the entire public, far beyond the reach of Drake, never mind Kendrick Lamar or Kanye.


Bowie kept experimenting to his death. He didn’t want a victory lap, he just wanted to complete his new album.

Bowie is a legend because he kept evolving whereas most of our heroes stopped, are still frozen in amber, playing the hits of yore.

And it all started with “Ziggy Stardust.”

Which was followed by the years old nonstarter “Space Oddity,” which finally became a hit in America, helping drive ticket buyers to the Garden and the rest of the big venues, but at this late date, I have to say the best, and my favorite David Bowie album, is “Hunky Dory.”

It was “Life on Mars” that got played when he shockingly died.

And “Changes” is now a staple, even though you never heard it in America back in 1971 when the album came out.

And it’s songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things” that make an act a legend, because true stars are always embraced first by the outsiders, those who don’t fit in.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Andy Warhol” and “Kooks.” This was back before it was about becoming a worldwide sensation, when everything was still local, when you felt your own life meant something, you didn’t feel overburdened by the harsh community and people telling you how to live and act.

But that brings us back to “Ziggy Stardust.”


When you’re enamored of an act, when they’re your new favorite, you’ve got to go see them live, before everybody finds out and you can still get close. So we drove down from Middlebury to see Bowie at the Music Hall in Boston on October 1st 1972. Through the magic of the internet you can see the set list: https://bit.ly/3QrmhVW But it won’t come close to giving you an inkling of the experience.

The Music Hall was not sold out, word was not out, I was what they call in tech an “early adopter.” But I was not prepared for the opening of the show.

The strobes started to flash, “Ode to Joy” from “A Clockwork Orange” started to play over the speakers and Bowie and the Spiders from Mars took the stage and began to play. It was almost as dramatic as that Apple TV commercial Steve Jobs dropped on us in 1984. It was completely unexpected. It referenced a cultural landmark. That’s right, the hit movies back then weren’t fantastical cartoons but brain twisters.

The band came out blasting. 

And that suit that looked green on the cover of “Ziggy Stardust”? Turned out it was silver.

I mean my jaw dropped, everybody was shocked.

And when the band finished their set with “Suffragette City” the audience clapped and clapped for an encore, and eventually Bowie and the band returned.

Although this time the house lights were up. There were no effects. And we’d come right down front, like I said the gig was not sold out, not close, and Bowie spreads his legs, plants his feet and starts singing “Around and Around.” You know, the Chuck Berry song which opened the Rolling Stones’ album “12×5.”

But Bowie’s performance had more intensity, more guts, than either of the famous renditions. Bowie was showing his roots, linking Ziggy Stardust to the beginnings of rock and roll, winking at us, telling us he didn’t just drop out of the sky fully-formed, he had history. We were on an adventure together, and at this point the deal was sealed, you could never get off the train, it’s why I kept buying every single Bowie album thereafter. 

You see Ziggy played guitar…

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