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David Buckley:
The Ziggy Stardust Chapter

Bowie's Ziggy was the composite doomed rocker, his creation perhaps unthinkable without the succession of famous rock deaths (Brian Jones, Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison) which occurred at the time. Another immediate influence on his creation was Stanley Kubrick's film version of the Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange, at the time of writing still banned from being shown in the UK. A surreally cruel film, Bowie 'deviolenced' the Clockwork Orange look for The Spiders' earliest costumes. The inside photographs of the band on the album sleeve, portraits of four grotesquely artificial street urchins, was intended as a direct homage to the look of the film. Bowie had, in fact, toyed with the idea of taking to the stage wearing a bowler hat like the film's leading character, played by Malcolm McDowell. Bowie referenced the 'droogies' (the name given to the film's gang members) in his own 'Suffragette City', written months after the release of the film in 1971. Most importantly, Bowie borrowed the film's soundtrack, a haunting, synthesised version of various Beethoven suites by Walter, later sex-changed into Wendy, Carlos. This music heralded Ziggy's arrival on the stage in 1973, and later, on the Sound And Vision Tour in 1990, was used to announce the arrival of the sombre-suited walking jukebox of that year.

The Kabuki monster in full flight; Aladdin Sane in concert, 1973 (Rex)

But perhaps the biggest influence of all on Ziggy came not from Iggy, or from Vince Taylor, or from rock music at all, but from Japanese culture. First, Bowie has said that Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto was '100 per cent responsible for the Ziggy haircut and colour'. Second, Japan's influence on Ziggy came from its peculiarly stylised theatre. Bowie was fascinated by Japanese kabuki and No theatre and appropriated their essence for the Ziggy/Aladdin Sane shows, giving his performances the air of a secularised ritual debasement of one of the most formal of theatrical presentations.

In the West, Japan was traditionally viewed as an 'alien' culture, at least in the way that it was represented in the tabloids. It was often crudely caricatured as an incomprehensible, rule-bound society in which ritual humiliation was the order of the day for its citizens. Bowie's Ziggy dignified Japanese culture and showed him open to ideas outside Anglo-American rock. Bowie helped internationalise pop, starting a long-running fascination with the East. He later became one of Japan's biggest idols, and has retained an interest in the Far East, travelling extensively, particularly in Indonesia. The result, sartorially, of this kabuki appropriation, was a violent clash between the logic of the rock gig (connection and camaraderie) and that of kabuki theatre (stately though garish formality).

The use of kabuki styles in rock performance was an innovation. Some of the costumes for the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane shows were actually first used in kabuki theatre, others were designed for Bowie by Kansai Yamamoto, again based on traditional designs. The overall visual effect of these shows was that of a blurring of 'found' symbols from science-fiction space-age high heels, glitter suits and the like - with kabuki-style garments whose effect was to signify the codes of another culture, one alien to Western society. In the context of the times, Bowie's appropriation of kabuki theatre was, for a Western pop audience, in equal measure unsettling and fascinating. And kabuki was innovative and cool: for instance the Mawaributai - a revolving stage now a staple in some glitzy rock shows - was invented in Japan almost 300 years ago.

Kabuki was perfect for the Ziggy show in that, by its very nature, it is a 'gender-bending' theatrical form. In kabuki theatre, all parts, both men and women, are played by men. Its androgynous nature was elevated by Bowie to a position of fundamental importance. It was the kabuki aesthetic of visual excess, its garish though formal juxtaposition of colours, which attracted Bowie while he was drawing the Ziggy character ('some cat from Japan .. . well hung and snow-white tan'). The Ziggy haircut hinted at the 'Siamese' style of hair and the heavily made-up red or gold lips, black eye-liner and blusher, set against the whitened pallor of the rest of the face, echoed the make-up used in kabuki theatre. The constant changing of costume, so evident in both the Ziggy and Aladdin Sane stage shows, also had its origins in kabuki. A change of kimono meant a change of personality. Bowie explained these costume changes as a way of expressing new facets of the personality, particularly necessary in his portrayal of the schizoid Aladdin Sane.

Like all the best pop creations, Ziggy was brilliantly photogenic. His angular and vulpine face with its high cheekbones is one of the most distinctive in the business. Around the end of 1971, Bowie lopped off his long, mousey hair and had it cut into a cute spiky blonde bob. Space-age jump suits and high-heels were in. Bowie had seen a photo of a girl with red spiky hair in a 1971 issue of Honey magazine. The photo had been taken by Kansai Yamamoto, and this is what drew Bowie's attention to Kansai's costumes (Kansai would later be commissioned to produce some of Bowie's stage costumes in the Ziggy period). Sartorially this signified the end of his dalliance with the singer-songwriterisms of Hunky Dory (although his golden locks always looked rather more feminised and simply beautiful than the hippy-era centre parting). The Ziggy crop was considered short for the times, and was neat and punky, but not extraordinarily eye-catching. However, what it helped to do was make short hair the gay haircut (in an era when many straight young men and women had long hair). As 1972 wore on, the hair became redder (courtesy of a German product called Red Hot Red), longer and cut into the trademark spiky Bowie look (in fact, this was the Aladdin Sane look). But the original Ziggy look wasn't the immediately recognisable carroty explosion we would now associate with the character. Rather, Bowie looked like a puckish, slightly more feminised version of Peter Pan, an ageless male youth traditionally played on stage by a woman. This Peter Pan analogy is, therefore, quite fitting, even more so in the light of the following extract from this 1911 text:

'I thought all fairies were dead,' Mrs Darling said.

'There are always a lot of young ones,' explained Wendy, who was now quite an authority, because you see when a new baby laughs for the first time a new fairy is born, and as there are always new babies there are always new fairies. They live in nests on the top of trees; and the mauve ones are the boys and the white ones are girls, and the blue ones are just the sillies who are not sure what they are.'

The cover which houses the 'To Be Played At Maximum Volume' vinyl album (were we given this directive because the mix was so thin, perhaps?) is now the stuff of rock legend. With his blond feather-cut, Bowie stares rather coyly, his platform boots resting on a dustbin, the detritus of the inner city piled up before him, the lad on the verge of the big time. Suffused with the eerie reflected glow of a wet London night, the picture has a blurry, slightly distorted realism, as if this were not London but a mock-up of it in Moscow or some parallel universe. Even more striking, the back shows Bowie camply entombed in a red telephone box, his hand bent at the wrist, lamely raised to eye level (as if about to limply tap at the window?), the right clasping his hips. Bowie's eyes, half-open, avoid our gaze. The figure in the phone booth looks like a mannequin, an almost lifeless simulacrum of camp. The effect is one of deliberate mystification. The telephone box has been rendered a kind of style laboratory, a sort of one-man-or-woman 'vogueing booth'.

It is quite ironic, given the unnatural, non-realistic essence of London that the cover artwork suggests, that 23 Heddon Street, the venue for the picture shot by Bowie photographer Brian Ward (who later, with supreme irony, went on to work with Gary Numan), has become something of a shrine for Bowiephiles. Bowie has had hundreds of Polaroid's sent to him by young Ziggys, foot on dustbin outside number 23 mimicking the album cover. The 'K. West' sign is now long gone - indeed, the building which looms large over Ziggy has been demolished and rebuilt, but every year hundreds, maybe thousands, of Bowie fans make a pilgrimage to this locale just off Regent Street. A red telephone box has been reinstalled as a sop to the Bowie fanatics and the local council dutifully paints over the Ziggy graffiti about once a month. 'It's such a shame that sign went. People read so much into it, said Bowie in 1993. 'They thought K. West must be some sort of code for a quest. It took on all these sorts of mystical overtones. We did the photographs outside on a rainy night, and then upstairs in the studio we did the Clockwork Orange lookalikes that became the inner sleeve.'

It is rather strange, then, that historically, Ziggy has been taken as a true rocker, or at least as a rocker with an authentic intelligence and as an inhabitant of a real city, on the basis of an album cover that appears to do everything to announce itself as a tampering with reality. This was the essence of Bowie's attraction. Like all the best pop, Bowie's work transformed the mundane, denatured it and blurred the distinctions between lived experience and fictionalised versions of it. It was this crisis, this extremely clever experiment in what could be taken as real and fake, which drove Bowie into even bolder artistic endeavours....(continues)

Back cover photograph by Michael Putland

"As the millennium ends, David Bowie is about to enter his fifth decade of making music. Thirty years on from his first hit single, 'Space Oddity', he remains the most influential rock star of the post-Woodstock generation. Strange Fascination chronicles Bowie's career against the colourful backdrop of post-Beatles pop culture, glam-era gender-bending, eighties corporate schlock and nineties laddish Britpop, and assembles a mass of new evidence about Bowie's studio craft, his concert performances and his cultural impact. Written by writer and long-time Bowie fan, David Buckley, Strange Fascination contains exclusive contributions from many of the leading players in Bowie's career, such as Tony Visconti, Ken Scott, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels and Nile Rodgers. It also includes many previously unpublished black-and-white and colour photographs. With Bowie's new album, 'hours...', scheduled for release on 5 October, and seventeen of his albums, from Space Oddity through to Tin Machine, due for reissue in September, Strange Fascination should delight Bowie's hardcore following and introduce rock fans to the most thrilling body of popular music ever recorded." - Press Release

About the author: David Buckley was born in Liverpool 1965.  In 1993 he was awarded his doctorate from the institute of Popular Music at Liverpool University for his thesis on David Bowie. He is the author of The Complete Guide to the Music Of David Bowie (Omnibus Press, 1996) and The Stranglers: No Mercy - The Authorised and Uncensored Biography (Hodder & Stroughton, 1997). He lives with his wife and two daughters in Munich, where he works as a freelance writer, reviewer and tutor.

---This page last modified: 12 Dec 2018---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)