Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972), aka Ziggy Stardust, is the quintessential David Bowie album; the one a new fan would likely check out first after exploring one of the many available Bowie compilations. That’s not to say it’s his best album, although it’s definitely on the short list and contains several of his most recognizable songs. Certainly it’s his most sonically cohesive album, and although it straddles the line between rock ‘n’ roll and cabaret, the musicianship of the Spiders From Mars (Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey) always shines through. It’s also a concept album that loosely follows the story of the ultimate rock star who’s chosen by extraterrestrials (I think) to save the world, which only has five years left before all of its resources run out. This explains the opening track, “Five Years,” as it introduces this sci-fi/apocalyptic theme. Musically, this song would’ve fit on his preceding album, Hunky Dory. It starts off with a syncopated rhythm, and slowly builds to a symphonic climax when the chorus kicks in nearly 3 minutes later.
“Soul Love” begins with a slightly funky soul groove before the acoustic guitar brings it into the rock ‘n’ roll realm. I love several things about this song: the way his voice kicks up a notch at “Love is careless in its choosing”; his saxophone playing; the line “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving”; and Mick Ronson’s smooth & melodic guitar solo. “Moonage Daydream” is the first big ROCK song on the album, beginning with its power chord introduction. The verses and choruses are incredibly catchy, and the Ziggy story develops here, as he’s becoming a decadent rock star. Is that a flute doubling Bowie’s sax in the first instrumental section? Also of note is Ronson’s wailing guitar solo during the minute-plus outro. “Starman” is sung from a fan’s perspective with religious overtones (as though God, in the form of Ziggy Stardust, has spoken directly to him). I like how the verse & chorus are two distinct parts that shouldn’t necessarily fit together, but this disparity makes the memorable chorus really stand out.
“It Ain’t Easy” is a decent song with a catchy chorus, and it’s the only tune here not written by Bowie. “Lady Stardust” is apparently about Bowie’s friend & glam-rock competitor, Marc Bolan (of T. Rex). It’s a pretty ballad with a beautiful and sad piano melody (provided by Ronson), and a great hook (“And he was allll-right…”). “Star” pretty much follows the glam-rock template of updating 50s rock n’ roll with a ‘70s attitude, and has a driving beat with those great sha-la-la vocals. The driving, 4-on-the-floor groove of “Hang On To Yourself” captures what Ziggy & The Spiders were all about. It’s fast, with fuzzy guitars, leering vocals, and a huge hook (“So come on, come on, we’ve really got a good thing going on”). The memorable guitar pattern and catchy melodies in “Ziggy Stardust” (one of the first Bowie songs I knew from the Changesonebowie compilation all those years ago) are infectious. Lyrically, it seems like our rock star’s ego is getting the better of him, as he succumbs to the trappings of fame and adulation.
The album closes out with two of his strongest songs. “Suffragette City” is a driving rocker (which probably influenced Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”) that I think is about groupies, and introduced listeners to the phrase, “Wham bam, thank you ma’am.” The epic-sounding “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” ends the story, as I believe Ziggy sacrifices himself to save the world. Two sparse verses lead to a midtempo section where the vocals become more manic (beginning with “Oh no love, you’re not alone”), and the music continues to build until a brief melancholy swirl of strings at the end. It’s a fantastic album with no weak songs. I miss some of the quirkiness of his earlier albums, but that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment. Honorable mention should also go to three of the bonus tracks on the Rykodisc CD version I own: “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Velvet Goldmine” and the Rolling Stones/Faces vibe of “Sweet Head.”
The Spiders From Mars returned for Aladdin Sane (1973), a rawer collection than its predecessor with a new secret weapon, pianist Mike Garson. I don’t think there’s a story linking these songs. Instead, it sounds like Ziggy has just been resurrected to rock (if I may coin a phrase). There’s also a schizophrenic quality to the album, hence the title’s play on the words “a lad insane.” Album opener “Watch That Man” is clearly influenced by the sleazier side of The Stones, where he’s warning a woman to stay away from a man, possibly himself. “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” has a moody, almost sinister sound, with dramatic lyrics (“clutches of sad remains, waits for Aladdin Sane”), cool skronky sax and some astounding piano runs throughout. Garson is truly the star here. I love the vibe on “Drive-In Saturday,” with its refrain of “his name was always BUDDY,” which wouldn’t have been out of place on Ziggy Stardust. Then there’s the Bo Diddley beat on the manic-sounding “Panic In Detroit,” with that great 9-note descending melodic hook. Is he singing about a criminal? A terrorist? The lyrics are abstract, with some disturbing imagery (“He laughed at accidental sirens”; “Kept his gun in quiet seclusion”; “Found him slumped across the table, a gun and me alone”).
I first discovered the song “Cracked Actor” when one of my favorite bands, Big Country, included it on the b-side of a single, and I immediately fell in love with the sleazy feel. This original version reminds me of T. Rex, with the stomping glam-rock beat and heavy, crunchy guitar sound. “Time” has some great barroom piano from Garson, and “The Prettiest Star” has a cool old-timey sax & piano sound, but neither song grabbed me. I’m not sure why he included the full-throttle run through The Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” other than to pay tribute to one of his favorite bands. Everyone’s playing great on this track, but it probably should’ve been a b-side (or included on his next album…see below). The last two songs are true highlights. “The Jean Genie” is yet another stomping number, this time with a John Lee Hooker blues feel. It’s one of his best rock songs, with Ronson’s guitar particularly shining. Does anyone know who the Jean Genie is supposed to be? “Lady Grinning Soul” starts with some amazing piano runs by Garson, then settles into a soulful blues that at times recalls Roy Buchanan’s amazing “The Messiah Will Come Again.” There’s some beautiful, Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar in the middle instrumental section that caught my ear. I know some fans and critics love this album for it’s occasionally hazy production and raw performances, and there’s a lot I like here, but that 3-song lull after “Cracked Actor” makes this more of a nearly great album for me, rather than a masterpiece (although many of the songs are among the best he’s recorded).
Drummer Aynsley Dunbar replaced Woody Woodmansey on the all-covers album, Pinups (1973), but the Spiders From Mars approach to these Bowie favorites from the mid-‘60s carries on the top-notch musicianship of the previous few albums. Most artists record covers albums when they’ve hit a creative dry patch, but this seems to be an exception. There are no revelations here, just straight-ahead readings of songs both well known and obscure (with a couple of exceptions). He covers Nuggets-style garage rock (The Pretty Things’ “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down”), raw British blues (“Here Comes The Night,” best known by Them featuring Van Morrison, and The Mojos’ “Everything’s Alright”), and spacey psychedelic pop (Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” and The Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things”), which are all faithful to the originals. The highlights for me, though, are versions of The Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind” (with more bite than the original, especially Ronson’s guitar tone), The Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” (he captures the rawness of Daltrey’s vocals on “Nothing gets in my way…”) and The Kinks’ “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” (adding a glam-rock sheen to the original’s crunchy guitars). I wouldn’t consider this an essential purchase, but for someone who doesn’t already know most of this material, it’s a solid introduction to some great songs (but in most cases, you’re better off seeking out the original versions). It’s also the last appearance of The Spiders, who were disbanded after the release of this album.
I’ve always been disturbed by the cover art for Diamond Dogs (1974), with Bowie (still looking like the retired Ziggy Stardust) as a half-man/half-dog creature…which you can see on the gatefold sleeve…and especially the woman/bulldog hybrid on the right, who looks like the love child of Heat Miser and a street corner prostitute. The music is also less polished than anything he had previously recorded, with a rawness only hinted at on Aladdin Sane. The most notable change is that Bowie handles all the guitar parts. Originally the album was going to be an adaptation of the George Orwell novel 1984, but when those plans fell through only a few songs from that project were included. At first it seems like a transitional album, but after numerous listens I discovered its many charms. The most well known song here is “Rebel Rebel,” which I’ve enjoyed for a long time. I’ve also performed it with various bands over the years. It’s one of his catchiest straight-ahead rockers with a great guitar tone (Ronson must have been proud…or jealous). I’ve often wondered if this is a tribute, or a scathing rebuke, to the fans that dressed like him.
Another song that got some radio play was “1984,” its disco groove making this the funkiest tune he had done, but that was offset by the apocalyptic lyrics. “Big Brother” follows, keeping with the Orwell theme, and although the melody isn’t super catchy, there’s a lot going on musically to keep this interesting. There’s also a great pre-chorus: “Please saviour, saviour, show us, hear me, I’m graphically yours.” Going back to the beginning of the album, with the one-minute long “Future Legend,” we’re introduced to some grimy images (“The last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare”; “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats”). All was clearly not well in this world, and why on earth does he quote the melody from the standard, “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered”? This song leads into “Diamond Dogs,” where Bowie shouts, “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide” to a crowd before it turns into a 4/4 rock tune. It’s a cool song, but at 6 minutes could’ve used some editing.
There’s a sweet suite of songs in “Sweet Thing,” “Candidate” and “Sweet Thing (Reprise).” He starts “Sweet Thing” in a low crooning voice and eventually ends up in a high register. The arrangements throughout are top-notch, with Bowie playing a pretty lead guitar on the first song and some jazzy sax that segues between the second & third songs. Lyrically it’s a dirty scene, where it eventually becomes clear he’s been looking for cocaine (“Is it nice in your snowstorm, freezing your brain?”; “It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you”). “Rock ‘N Roll With Me” could almost be considered a power ballad. I can see lighters waving as the chorus is repeated in the outro. There are some tasty guitar leads and a great gospel influenced chorus (“When you rock ‘n roll with me, no one else I’d rather be…”). There’s also the ominous, monotonous, almost dirge-like “We Are The Dead,” and the circular melody of “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” which closes out the album to the repeated refrain of “Brother, who who, shake it up, shake it up, move it up, move it up.” This is a dark and occasionally disturbing album, and I’ll need to be in a particular mood when I listen to it in the future. It’s not for the faint of heart. Initially, it paled in comparison to the records that preceded it, but I’m glad I spent so much time with it these past couple of weeks, as I have a new appreciation for the musical departure Bowie took on this album.
Next time you hear from me, I’ll be discussing a few albums I’m not very familiar with, including a live album recorded on the Diamond Dogs tour and the two studio releases that preceded his late-‘70s “Berlin Trilogy.” It should be quite a learning experience for me the next couple of weeks. Thanks for checking in, and if you have any insight into these releases, I’d love to hear from you.
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Hey Rich- I’ve heard many times that the “Jean Genie” was about Iggy Pop. Seems to fit too. Nice Heat Miser ref. too!
Brian, that totally makes sense about Iggy being the Jean Genie. Good call. Also, glad you liked the Heat Miser reference. I always wondered if anyone else felt the same way about that cover. Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked the write-up.
If you like the artwork on Diamond Dogs, check out the book Rock Dreams – a truly bizarre collaboration between the artist Guy Peellaert and NME write Nick Cohn. It’s extraordinary!
Thanks for letting me know about that book. My book-reading time is pretty limited these days (I’ve been stuck at around page 50 of the Keith Richard autobiography since last summer), but hopefully that won’t always be the case. I’m always looking for good music-related books.
It’s (mostly) all pictures…won’t take long!
Ah, that makes it easier. Thanks!
Great stuff – I’ve been listening to Aladdin Sane and I’m feeling the same ‘almost great’ vibe so far. Then again I suppose Hunky Dory & Ziggy aren’t the easiest preceding albums to surpass!
Thanks. Glad you agree about Aladdin Sane, and good point about those other albums being tough acts to follow. Even if it was released at a different point in his career, it’s still just a song or two away from being truly great. Of course, he had several more of those type of albums to come.
You still don’t like Time? That’s by far my favorite on Aladdin! One of Bowie’s most dramatic and cinematic songs. Ziggy is a masterpiece of course, but I wish it was produced like Aladdin, which is much more rocking and sleazy. The guitars on Ziggy Stardust (the song) are so damn buried in the mix…
I’ll have to give “Time” another shot next time I play Aladdin Sane. At the time of revisiting these albums it didn’t make a big impression on me, but perhaps I’ll feel differently in the future. Good point about the productions of those two albums. In the end it all comes down to the songs, and there are so many great ones on both of them.
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