Why We Could All Learn Something From David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust
1971 in the last chance salon. Awkward and bizarre singer, two years and three flop singles after his standout number one song and looking more like a one-hit-a-minute wonder, returns from a disappointing promotional tour of America where he shocked and confused all comers singing songs by Jacques Brel in “men’s clothes”. His backing band quit over personal issues, he’s struggling with a half-interested manager and a half-interested label and his side project Arnold Corns broke up after a failed single. Your dumpster is waiting for you, sir.
But then Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits gets his hands on demos of his new songs, records one called “Oh! You Pretty Things’ and was a hit. David Bowie was back in the game. A major new label is coming on board, excited about their two new albums – one full of melodic pop art, the other a load of wacky glam rock songs. They decide to push the second strongest, but how best to present it? Stylish suit and tie? Bowl cut ? A new band called German’s Permits? Nope? What is that? A scarlet-haired kabuki alien super-being from the other side of the world? In a psychedelic leotard? Who is killed if he succeeds? OK…
Among the many things to learn from “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars,” released 50 years ago today (June 16), perhaps the biggest lesson is that it doesn’t is never too late for a great idea. The ultimate example of getting big or going home, Ziggy was a virtually unprecedented artistic leap of faith. A total move on the belief that the record-buying public of the post-psychedelic era would always be captivated by fantasy. This rock music was essentially larger than life. And that pop stars were, under their human shells, otherworldly meta-gods raised specifically to be worshipped, from a parallel dimension where everything and everyone – down to a toothy guy wobbly from Brixton – was awfully fabulous.
There were, of course, precedents. Peter Gabriel had made the name Genesis by staging a theatrical parade of characters on stage, like a solo Edwardian freak show. The so-called “God of Hell” Arthur Brown had been cauterizing his hair follicles for a few years on behalf of his supernatural alter ego. George Clinton and Lee “Scratch” Perry had previously claimed intergalactic birthrights. And although Frank Zappa, Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix never said they were from Mars, everyone knew.
It is exceedingly rare, however, before or since, that an act has taken such a bold and brazen chance with so much at stake. When Prince became a symbol and Bono turned into a cutting-edge Macphisto technology, it was with the safety net of millions of loyal fans. In 1971, on the other hand, Bowie barely had an A&R or two, an overly tight guitar god, and a rhythm section made up largely of favorites of his side. Even its relatively newbie co-producer, Ken Scott, saw “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust…” as practice exercises for working with more up-and-coming artists.
Today’s bold equivalents tend to have learned the art of Bowie’s chameleon. The likes of St. Vincent, Björk and PJ Harvey were in danger of losing the support of strong initial fanbases as they embraced tougher sounds and characters. We applaud the pioneering bravery of such movements, but it’s surprising that there aren’t many more. At a time when streaming has taken over the culture by providing us with increasingly bland facsimiles of what we already love, it’s relatively easy to stand out, and less risky as we all tire of so many indie playlists. and glitchy R&B and longing for something – anything – unexpected.
Many rising acts have the catchy side. Yungblud, Lynks, Yves Tumor, HMLTD, Remi Wolf, Goat Girl and Bree Runway would all own any post-concert bus stop they decide to brave. As, indeed, most of the school of 2022 – looking at many new UK acts, you might assume they were all survivors of the same Haribo factory explosion.
Where, though – outside of schlocky metal and Gorillaz – do the acts come in full Ziggy? The supernatural alter egos with fantastic stories, described in death and Glory Concept’s first albums? Stars who don’t step onto the stage but seem to materialize on it; that you fully believe in having pan-dimensional motherships instead of locker rooms? The next evolution of superior homo?
In an age where familiarity pays, such a project might seem like a Bowie-level risk, a waste of precious Schwarzkopf. But, much like 1971 – when glitter falling from Marc Bolan’s cheek guided a path out of the post-60s smack-rock doldrums – in an ever brighter 2022, screaming for a shock of newness, the stage is set for a jive more cosmic. Take down Starmen, Starwomen and all the rest; our minds, once again, are ready to be blown.