1972: David Bowie / The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
by J A Gray
It was late summer 1973, and as I recall Marcus was being bought an LP for his birthday. His first ever. It was Hunky Dory by David Bowie and I was as envious and sulky as only a 7 year old could be. I had little idea who David Bowie was, but that didn’t stop me. I stropped and whined and cried until Mum and Dad gave in. Our parents had their limitations. They weren’t ones for hugs and kisses or saying they loved you. Instead they opted for spoiling me rotten with material things. Terrible really. So they caved and said I could have an LP too. Marcus was understandably peeved that the sacred right of his birthday present had been cheapened like this, but he soon played it to his best advantage by ‘helping’ me to choose which album to have. I don’t remember there being any discussion about who my pick of record was going to be by – the conversation fell straight into which David Bowie LP was it going to be. Marcus rattled off the titles. There was the new one called Aladdin Sane, there was The Man Who Sold The World, there was The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. “Stop right there!” thought I. That was the one for me. From the get go I was always utterly delighted by a long title. Especially one I didn’t understand.
So we went out to the shops and market stalls that sold records. If memory serves we were in Wigan, Lancashire, visiting Grandma (our mother’s mother) for the holidays. I remember Marcus flipping through the records and showing me the different Bowie titles, just in case I wanted to change my mind. He pulled out the Aladdin Sane LP. It had a gatefold sleeve. He opened up the gatefold. And then he very quickly closed the gatefold again. We were both more than a little disturbed by what we’d seen. Mr Bowie appeared to be standing there naked. In lots of makeup. But his…uh…private parts were nowhere to be seen, which managed to be both a good thing and an utterly disturbing thing at the same time. He was like some sort of effete, glam rock Action Man.* It was unsettling enough for me at 7, but Marcus had just turned 13 and was hitting adolescence, so such a strange sexually-charged image really did his head in. Nobody was going to be buying that one on this day, that was for sure. Months later when Marcus did buy a copy, he bought it on cassette tape. Cassettes in those days had very minimal packaging. A simple ‘J’ shaped card with a tiny picture of the LP cover on the front and a list of the songs on the flap and that was about it. So there would be no Bowie in the nude. No, it was definitely Ziggy Stardust for me. And so it came to pass that my first LP record wasn’t by The Beatles, or by Slade (my other favourite group at the time), but by a man I’d barely heard of. That’s how much I trusted my big brother.
Later the same week we went to visit our other grandmother, who we all called by her nickname, Glo**. When we got to Glo’s house, we made for her gramophone. She had this huge cabinet made of deep, dark wood with a record player and a radio in it. It probably dated from some time in the 1950s. It was likely the most expensive thing in her house. Glo was not a rich woman. Her house was two up, two down, with an outside toilet. In the winter we used to pee in a bucket if we needed to go in the night. The rest of the furniture was covered in either vinyl or formica. Unaware of matters relating to class, income or interior design, I loved her house regardless. She had two black vinyl swivel chairs that I used to spend hours spinning around on. And her sideboard may have been bottom of the range, but it was always filled with sweets and chocolate. And I mean filled. If my parents spoiled me, then Glo took things to a whole other level. Her relationship with Dad had been problematic and they were never close. It was only down to Mum that we visited her at all. Glo must have decided to make up for the past by indulging her grandchildren as much as possible. At Christmas she would buy me and Marcus more presents than the rest of our family did put together. Sacks of them. And when we visited we were showered with more confectionary than you could shake a stick of rock at. And of course we loved it. Mum and dad were most likely quietly horrified. Our other grandma, bless her, was totally dismayed and felt she was being upstaged and that we must love Glo more. She was wrong though. Marcus didn’t take too long to figure out that he was being bought. I was too busy being indulged to worry about such things. More toys. More chocolate. Lovely.
How did Glo afford all this? Well she mainly went without. I don’t think I ever even saw her eat. She was on these pills called Do-Dos. Before they changed the formula, these were basically prescription amphetamine. Glo would talk and talk and talk, and her appetite was, of course, virtually non-existent. She would serve up dinner to the four of us and we’d sit at the table and dig in. Glo didn’t sit down with us. She would stand over the table and talk to us. Strike that. She would talk at us. She would apologise for the food with the phrase “is it pretty awful?” either to receive compliments or because she lacked self-assurance. (Actually, she was arguably the best cook in our family – basic traditional English fodder, but always decent quality.) She would go on to talk about how various other distant relatives either preferred “a wet plate” (ie with lots of gravy) or “a dry plate” (ie with little or no gravy). She would urge you to take more and more food by insisting that a roast potato or a Yorkshire pudding was “crying out for you”. She would talk about which shops she’d gone to in order to buy each of the things we were presently eating. On and on and on. Standing there. We’d ask her to sit down and join us. I don’t recall her ever doing that. Not once. What a strange lady.
Pudding was usually something simple and really just for me and Marcus. Often it was Angel Delight. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Angel Delight is a sort of instant mousse that you make up from sachets of powder mix and milk. I recall one day that we were eating either the strawberry or raspberry kind. Either way it was bright pink.*** Glo was in mid flow. She would tend to mainly address my mum, but in truth she wasn’t really focussing on anyone. Driven to absolute distraction by all this inane prattle, Marcus started filling his cheeks with it, then squeezing it out again through his teeth, all the while staring at Glo and daring her to notice. It was dripping down his chin and making him look like soemthing from The Excorcist. At this point he turned towards me in order to freak me out. I laughed so hard. I was in hysterics as it was quite possibly the funniest thing I’d ever seen. I was also shocked at how daring he was prepared to be. As was Mum, who was stretching her legs past me to kick Marcus’s shins underneath the table whilst hissing at him. Glo just about noticed there was a minor disturbance of some kind but no more than this. Marcus sat there with a daft grin on his pink and gloopy face, having proved his point that when Glo was in full flow it really didn’t matter what you did, she’d continue just the same. And so she did.
But anyway, Glo had this huge record player. She liked her music well enough, but I do wonder where such a mighty thing came from. The downside of playing records on the gramophone was that we suspected that the needle hadn’t been changed since the day it had been set up. Marcus reasoned that she probably barely used the thing, so that we were probably OK to risk it. He went first and we heard Hunky Dory. He was alright this Bowie bloke. I liked what I was hearing. But I wanted to hear my record. Then my turn arrived and somebody put it on for me. I was way too nervous about doing something wrong if I tried to do it myself. Record players were scary things and records were delicate and easy to scratch.
Side one, track one: Five Years. As I was listening, I read the words that were printed on the inside sleeve. What a great song! So dramatic. You were right there with him. Now I couldn’t necessarily understand everything he was singing about, but Bowie was insistent about one thing in particular – we only had five years left to live. That much I could fully grasp. So, filled with dread and fear, I turned to Marcus and asked him the question that was now burning my lips. Was Bowie telling the truth? Did we really only have five years left before the end of the world? God love me, I had no concept of songs containing fictional story lines. I’ll never forget Marcus’s reply. Oh yes, Bowie was telling the truth alright, but there weren’t five years left. There were four. Because Ziggy Stardust was already a year old – he’d released it last year! In a blind panic I ran off to find my mum who very kindly explained that my big brother was being ever so slightly cruel.
Marcus tells me that Mum was far more concerned with the lyric “this mellow thighed chick just put my spine out of place” from Sufragette City and was concerned about whether I should be being exposed to this sort of stuff. Of course the lyric went right over my head. I didn’t even notice that he sung this until Marcus emailed me last week to share his recollections. But thank goodness we hadn’t opted for Aladdin Sane with that centrefold picture and Bowie singing about wanking!
I also had great problems following the Ziggy Stardust story. There seemed to be some attempt at a story. The name Stardust popped up more than once for starters. It didn’t help me that I thought the song Lady Stardust must have been about Ziggy’s wife when it’s actually about the gender-bending titular hero. I wasn’t quite sure who, if anyone, died at the end of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. Hadn’t Ziggy himself already died in the Ziggy Stardust song itself? In later years I realised that this wasn’t a tightly-plotted linear concept album. Rather it had a loose theme, but the rest was as open to your own imagination as you wanted it to be. I stopped worrying about all that long enough to just rotate on one of Glo’s swivel chairs and simply enjoy the songs. Five Years, Soul Love, Moonage Daydream, Starman, Star, Hang On To Yourself, Sufragette City, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide – solid gold every one. Lady Stardust I didn’t like at first, probably because I thought it was a girl’s song, but I love it now. The one cover song, It Ain’t Easy, was OK too, if not quite up to the standards of Bowie’s own songs. Marcus said he preferred Hunky Dory. That was OK because I preferred Ziggy Stardust.
A few years down the line though I had temporarily lost all interest in Bowie and swapped Ziggy Stardust for Marcus’s copy of Rubber Soul. But many years later still I found myself yearning for, and returning to, the albums I first heard in my childhood. It all seems to come round again. Now when I hear either album I’m stunned by how brilliantly they have both stood the test of time. Bowie managed to reinvent himself many times in his career, and could still deliver the goods long after many of his contemporaries had dried up. He kept himself fresh by working with different co-conspirators and sidemen, and for me there was much to enjoy right up until 1980 or so. But nothing really turned my head as much as the two albums I first heard when I was a young boy. And though these days I tend to agree with Marcus that Hunky Dory was the better of the two, Ziggy Stardust is a mere heartbeat below it in the rankings. Neither album requires you to reach for the skip button. The hooks come at you thick and fast. The words sound as inventive and as barking as ever they did. Mick Ronson, Bowie’s secret weapon in those days, plays a blinder. As does his co-producer Ken Scott. Bowie always surrounded himself with talented people whose talents complimented his own. The songs may have been written by Bowie, but those fantastic arrangements and sound textures were often down to Ronson and Scott. Brian Eno and Tony Visconti would play similar roles later in the decade.
A lot of people, most of them a little older than me, had their teenage heads turned around and rearranged forever by the Ziggy phenomenon. Either by watching Bowie on Top Of The Pops singing Starman, or hearing the album, or just getting an eyeful of the hair and the outfits. In Britain he shaped the early 70s nearly as much as The Beatles had done ten years previously. He was a multicoloured spaceman rocker sent down to brighten up a monochromatic world. And for me he’ll always be the man who scared me witless when he sang “five years, that’s all we’ve got!”.
* Action Man dolls were notorious for having realistic hair, but not realistic genitals. In fact, they had none at all. Bowie would reprise his naked-but-with-no gentleman-parts stunt in the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth.
** After Gloria Swanson. All the ladies in her typing pool gave each other Hollywood names back when she was a younger working woman, and being as how Glo was a movie fanatic she adopted it for life. Her real name was Lillian.
*** Marcus insists it was butterscotch flavour, with a hue he likens to dog diarrhoea. I insist that there’s no way he would have treated his favourite flavour of Angel Delight with such contempt. The jury remains out on this one.
N.B. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is currently available, in remastered form, as a ’40th Anniversary Edition’. It is also available as a limited edition set which includes the original album on both CD and vinyl, plus a DVD which includes 5.1 mix of the album with three bonus songs. The older ’30th Anniversary Editon’ was a double CD pack with the second disc devoted to outtakes, demos and alternate mixes, however many fans had issues with certain mastering errors, including parts of the album being edited out or the stereo image being reversed, which prevented it from being definitive. Some fans still swear by the 1990 single disc edition on Rykodisc which contained the album plus three bonus songs. Others say that the definitive Ziggy CD has yet to be released and defiantly hang on to their vinyl originals.
My other nominations for 1972 albums of merit:
Richard Thompson / Henry The Human Fly
Stephen Stills / Manassas
Neil Young / Harvest
Nick Drake / Pink Moon
Sandy Denny / Sandy
Funkadelic / America Eats Its Young
Todd Rundgren / Something/Anything?
Grateful Dead / Europe ’72
Stevie Wonder / Talking Book
The Rolling Stones / Exile On Main St.