By Will Barber Taylor
David Bowie was one of the most prolific, imaginative and interesting musicians of the twentieth century. He sold millions of records worldwide and has influenced every musician that has come after him. If he were alive today, he would be 75 years old. Sadly, he is not but his work lives on and this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of his most iconic albums – Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
The idea behind the album and the character of Ziggy was a simple one – a strange, ethereal androgynous rock god who has come from the stars to “let all the children grove it” before the Earth’s destruction. Bowie has spent the past few years experimenting with how to not only present himself but also to present his music. Throughout the late 60s he had had difficulty finding any fame or monetary success until the release of Space Oddity in 1969.
Inspired by the Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey a film that Bowie had seen at his local cinema, the otherworldly sound of single helped send Bowie high into the public imagination and helped give him a brief taste of fame. Yet he was determined to not be a one hit wonder and, knowing his creative potential, didn’t wish to simply become a one hit wonder.
Between 1969 and 1972 Bowie produced four albums, though one The World of David Bowie was really a means of repackaging songs from his previous album 1969’s David Bowie. Despite the creative genius that it clearly present in the last two albums The Man Who Sold The World and Hunky Dory, they attracted little public attention.
It is perhaps ironic that during this period of little commercial interest Bowie produced some of his most famous songs including The Man Who Sold The World, Changes, Life on Mars? and Queen Bitch. Whilst the songs and albums would go on to achieve retroactive public admiration at the time there was little interest. Critics were generally positive, but they weren’t able to force the public to buy Bowie’s work.
On the 7th of January 1972 Changes was released as a single alongside another song Andy Warhol. It failed to chart and like its parent album the previous year, Hunky Dory, spectacularly flopped. Despite this Bowie was not undeterred. He knew that his musical style was simply ahead of the curve and that if he could just get a lucky break then he would be able to reap the rewards he justly deserved.
The chance would come in July 1972. Bowie had finished recording Ziggy in February of 1972 and the album was released in June of 72 with the first single for the album being Starman, released in April of that year. Both Starman and Ziggy did well enough for Bowie and his band “The Spiders from Mars” to be invited to preform Starman on Top of the Pops.
This would be Bowie’s third live performance on the programme, having previously appeared in 1969 when Space Oddity had been released and in 1971 when he performed Oh! You Pretty Things. Yet it would prove to be third time lucky as his performance on the 6th of July 1972 would be the one that would propel him into stardom.
The mesmerizing and electric performance was so powerful that it sent both Starman and Ziggy zooming up the charts with Starman entering the top ten not long after the Top of the Pops appearance. The rest as they say, is history.
The reason that Ziggy was able to do so well was down to two main things – its lyrical brilliance and its presentation. All of the songs are not only catchy but also interesting enough that they stay with you. In the same way that many of the Lennon-McCartney songs of the Beatles years were able to stay with people decades after they were written and recorded so was the Ziggy album. Its appeal was not so much that it had a narrative structure (the songs don’t need to be listened to in order and indeed many people listening to the album both then and now would likely miss the story) but rather that it represented a new wave of music that was so unlike what had come before. Bowie combined this presentation with lyrics that had real significance for those listening – the opening song, “Five Years” has endured so much because its presentation of the frailty of humanity is a theme that people can engage with readily.
Similarly, the deep need for someone to come and make our lives feel more exciting and imaginative lies at the core of “Starman”. It was why so many people engaged with Bowie’s Top of the Pops performance – it spoke to their need to enjoy a much more vivid and vibrant life than that many people found in 1970s Britain.
This is why the album is so significant in pop culture history; it offered a new musical experience that seemed radical and not confined to the at time drab world of early 70s Britain. Bowie provided that experience and as such ensured his place in the musical hall of fame. He would go on to produce so much great work following Ziggy but for many people he would always be that strange colourful figure who brightened up their lives with one of the most imaginative albums of the 20th century.