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Review of the Ziggy Stardust album (1/4)

by Terry Atkinson - Phonograph Record Magazine (July 1972)

If you believed more in life, you would devote yourselves less to the moment.  But you have insufficient capacity for waiting - or even for laziness.   Everywhere resound the voices of those who preach death, and the earth is full of those to whom death must be preached.  Or "eternal life": it is all the same to me - provided they pass away quickly! - Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Turn and face the strange changes.  Like - ho, ho, look out you rock "n" rollers - Apocalypse. Is rock and roll the baby of the current apocalyptic concept, with its supermarket variety of possible manifestations?  How's it gonna come? When's it gonna come? Marc Bolan says he's got less than ten years to live.   David Bowie gives everyone five, tops.

In the meantime: The Last Mad Dash...the hanged man's hard-on.   Boys, toys, electric irons and TVs, a girl my age went off her head, cops, Cadillac's, news guys, violence, sex, dope and rock n roll! Which just gets zippier and zippier, especially when the blokes doing it think they're gonna die soon - this is the end - so that you get just-in-case-this-is-the-last-one ultimate works of art and craziness like David Bowie's THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS. Uh huh.

Bowie's rampant schizoid brilliance is along the same zig-zag lines as that of the artists he admires: Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Iggy Stooge, Syd Barrett.  And like that of some others he may or may not admire: Vincent Van Gogh, R.Meltzer, William Burroughs, Don Rickles, Ken Russell, Wild Man Fisher, Kim Fowley, Jackson Pollock, Ludwig Van Beethoven.  Men whose conscious states hover around the line between genius and madness, between creativity and a wild, scattered sort of super-perception, some slightly on one side of the lines, others just across it on the opposite side, many flying back and forth.

Bowie, with his last three albums, and especially with ZIGGY, has implanted himself quite solidly on the genius-creative side.  And yet he has not strayed too far from the line: the wildness is still there.  Unlike Van Gogh and Barrett, he has not let his ardor burn without control and self-care; and unlike Bolan, he has not allowed a system of order to cramp his powers.

And David Bowie's just as smashing on his album.  Why not?   After all he is Ziggy Stardust, the rock n roll Starman.

Ziggy played for time
Jiving us that we were voodoo
The kids were just crass
He was the nazz
With God-given ass
He took it all too far but, boy could he play guitar!

Actually to be Ziggy, who "really sang" and played that guitar that way, sort of your total fave-rave, Bowie - being in some respects mortal - called on the help of his own Spiders from Mars, and boy can they play. In the Drone-Chord-Riff Olympics of '72 Mick Ronson, the man behind the man on Bowie's last three albums, might have to give up the gold and silver medals to Townshend and Page, but I think he'd be a good bet for third place over the other competitors who come to mind (even Beck, Tommi and Blackmore).  Bowie and then-producer (and bass player) Tony Visconti gave Ronson practically free rein on THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD, and Mick (not unlike Bowie at the time) came off erratic - mostly brilliant but sometimes sounding completely lost.  So on HUNKY DORY he got a muzzle put on him and he plunked away most humbly except on "Queen Bitch." ZIGGY is for him, as well as Bowie, a peak of effectivity.   Mick Woodmansey has also been along for the ride, and is too better than ever sounding much like the clean ratatat of T.Rex's drummer which is just fine.  When Bowie and Visconti severed ties after MAN, Trevor Bolder was added on bass, and he's up to it.

THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD, HUNKY DORY, and ZIGGY STARDUST have proven David Bowie to be the Master of the Nice Touch.  The albums are jam packed with Nice Touches, and you put enough of those together, and you've got immortal music.   (Bowie's first two albums, LOVE YOU TILL TUESDAY - also issued as THE WORLD OF DAVID BOWIE - and DAVID BOWIE, are merely good).  For example, the crowning Nice Touch used to be the superbly haunting repetitive code ... the "zane, zane, zane - ouvre le chien" of All the Madmen" on MAN and the "please come away" of the "Bewlay Brothers" (on HUNKY), sung by  a multi-multi-voiced Bowie (he always does all the voices, which represent varying characters in imitation or spirit evocation) in what must be the most purely mystical and brain-melting fade-outs in all of rockdom.  The best batch of many types of Nice Touches on ZIGGY is the Perfect Rock Exclamation.  David always knows just at what time, and with what volume, and with what tone to deliver an "oh yeah" or "oh" or "ooh" or whelp or sigh.  He makes his own alterations and amendments to traditional interjections too, as with the substitute for "one more time" in "Suffragette City": "Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am".  Note also the magnetized swishy-brat two-syllable repetitions that serve as the matrix of "Suffragette City" ("Hey Man") and "Hang Onto Yourself ("come on").  Neo classic.  Which shows in the structure, too.  Some of the songs, as in the past, are homage's, semi-imitations, employment's of admitted styles: the Who in "Star" (hear the Pinball Wizard opening?), Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys in "Suffragette City" T.Rex and Ray Davies and Velvet Underground and who else in "Hang Onto Yourself" among others.

And, its a concept album!  The story of how into a despairing, dying world, a star from the stars and his band come and thrill all and then Ziggy gets bumped off - rock n roll assassination - by envious-adoring fans.  Actually, only the second side is story proper.  Though the songs on the first side relate, they are mainly separate entities.

Side One is made up of five excellent if somewhat subdued songs which serve as a tasty prelude to the almost continually zapping second side and even go beyond the role of appetizer in two cases: "Soul Love", which is a description of how love is all important, multiform, and too often degenerate ("idiot love") yet not without worth even in that form, set in a lovely and haunting melody and featuring a Bowie plastic-sax solo; and "Starman", a blissfully hopeful ballad-boogie about a very modern mystical revelation (via radio!), with a scrumptiously Ronson guitar tune following the vocals twice, lastly to so gorgeously fade.  The other three songs on Side One are the album opener, "Five Years" stating the despair that gives excuse for ecstatic creation as well as tears, thereby setting the scene: "Moonage Daydream", a sci-fi sex three-quarter-speed rockers - very spacey electronic echoes and squeaks; and the only non-Bowie-penned song Ron Davie's "It Ain't Easy" well done indeed but a slight mistake as an end to Side One, seemingly a filler after "Starman's" right finish fadeout. (Ed. As it happens "It Ain't Easy" was cut during the HUNKY DORY sessions.)

Then Side Two: on one level, Ziggy's story; on another, hopeful-fearful autobiography.  "Lady Stardust" is the wondrous image of the rock star, the composer-singer-player, as animus ("his animal grace") and anima ("Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace") and animus ("he sang all night long") all mixed up with beauty and without care.  The song is a ballad-tempo prelude to four straight super-rockers:

"Star" THIS IS IT, The first three seconds tell you this is the kind of song that rock's all about.  Absolute energy and happiness.  A nonchalantly ambitious song about how nice it might be to be a rock n roll star, Well it would be a change...

I could make a transformation as a rock n roll star
So inviting to play the part
I could play the wild mutation as a rock n roll star
I could do with the money....

Knock-you-off-your-seat stops and starts, tap-dancing-up-and-down-the-stairs drum punctuated by the fluffiest rolls, and finally:

I could fall asleep at night as a rock n roll star
I could fall in love alright as a rock n roll star
Just watch me now

Watch him now?!  What's he been doing for the last three minutes?!   Anyway, it's onto " "Hang Onto Yourself" a taste of what Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars could lay down before Zig got bumped off.  Zowie.  Tigers on Vaseline.

"Ziggy Stardust", the song slows things down only slightly to summarize the story of Ziggy's talents and assassination, told from at least two view points - one of the Spider's and one of the assassin's.  Still rockin.

And even after Zig's demise we get another example of his hits; or you can fit in that way anyhow, if you're concerned with structure.  This is as "Suffragette City" a dizzying classic.

"Rock n Roll Suicide" is the Tony Newley-Bewlay Brothers wind-up to the whole thing, with an uplifting ending ("You're not alone, gimme your hands!") that's a little too strident to be taken completely seriously and little too truthful to have its conviction totally dismissed.

ZIGGY is the perfection in popular recorded sound.

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---This page last modified: 13 Dec 2018---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)