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Rolling Stone Magazine - 27 August 1987
The 100 Best Albums of The Last Twenty Years #6:
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars
David Bowie, RCA, Released June 6th, 1972
"I'm going to be huge," David Bowie told a reporter toward the end of 1971. It was a typically outrageous comment by the former David Jones, who had been making records since 1964 but had only just released his fourth album, "Hunky Dory." The follow-up to that LP, however, was already in the can - and his fifth album was the one that would break his career wide open, turning him overnight into the international pop presence he has managed to remain to this day.
Rock's first completely prepackaged persona, Ziggy took rock theatrics and pan-sexuality to a new peak.
"Ziggy Stardust" presented to the world - rock's first completely pre-packaged persona. It also defined the glitter-rock moment of the early Seventies and took rock theatrics and pan-sexuality to a new peak. Most of all, despite the calculated feyness of its presentation, "Ziggy Stardust," packed an exhilarating sonic wallop.
The keys to "Ziggy's" success were several: eleven excellent songs, all but one composed, down to the last reverberating riff, by Bowie (the exception was Ron Davie's much-covered "It Ain't Easy"); an immaculate and unmannered production by Ken Scott; and explosive backup by The Spiders From Mars - in retrospect, clearly the most exciting band Bowie has ever had. Bowie met guitarist Mick Ronson in late 1969 and quickly recruited him to play in a short-lived group called The Hype, which also included his then producer, Tony Visconti, on bass. Before long, Ronson brought in drummer Mick Woodmansey to help Bowie record a single version of "Memory of a Free Festival," a popular song from David's second album. Ronson and Woodmansey had worked together in their native Hull, in the north of England, in a blues band called The Rats, which had released two obscure singles. By the spring of 1971, Ronson and Woodmansey had been joined in London by yet another Rat, bassist Trevor Bolder, and the soon to be Spiders From Mars were complete.
Ziggy was a dissolute "plastic rocker" whose fictive saga was loosely based on the career of an obscure American rock & roll singer named Vince Taylor.
The Spiders made their vinyl debut backing Bowie on a single, credited to Arnold Corns (a Bowie side project), that paired "Hang On to Yourself" and "Moonage Daydream," two songs that would later be recut for the "Ziggy" LP. For the "Hunky Dory" sessions they were joined by the future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Then, in June [Ed: November] 1971, Bowie took his trio into London's Trident Studios to begin work on "Ziggy Stardust." Behind the board (a simple eight-track) was Ken Scott, who had started out as an engineer on two earlier Bowie LPs and had become his producer with "Hunky Dory." Bowie, who had previously been a bit of a hippie, told Scott that "Ziggy" was going to be a real rock & roll album. Several of the songs he had written for it had already been tested before concert audiences, and on LP they were to be connected within a concept - the prefab legend of Ziggy Stardust, a dissolute, ambi-sexual "plastic rocker" whose fictive saga was loosely based on the career of an obscure American singer named Vince Taylor, whom Bowie had encountered on the streets of London some years earlier. The character's concocted surname was borrowed from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, one of Bowie's label mates when he was with Mercury Records. And Ziggy, as Bowie later told ROLLING STONE, "was one of the few Christian names I could find beginning with the letter 'Z'."
Ziggy was a very shrewd move: it presented Bowie, the fledgling artiste, as an established rock star. In early January 1972 he created an image to match the character, cropping his Garbo-length hair and dying drop-dead yellow for the album cover, which was photographed in rain-soaked Heddon Street, just off London's Regent Street. He put the finishing touch on his new persona in the January 22nd edition of "Melody Maker," telling writer Michael Watts, "I'm gay, and always have been." (Later Bowie would characterised that remark as "probably the best thing I've ever said.")
If Bowie's Ziggy character provided the album's unifying concept - aligning apprehensions of personal doom ("Rock 'n' Roll Suicide") with more universal forebodings ("Five Years") - the music itself derived much of its startling power from Ronson's howling, Jeff Beck-influenced guitar: a Les Paul run through a 200-watt Marshall amp and, rather anachronistically, a wah-wah pedal. "I only used the wah-wah pedal for the tone," says Ronson, a classically trained musician who also wrote the album's string arrangements. "That's how come it had a very honkin', Midlands sort of sound, you know? And then I had a rotten little fuzz box that never used to work. But basically it was just guitar straight through an amp." The result, especially on "Suffragette City," the album's most ferocious track, was a whole new level of guitar-rock aggression.
Released on June 6th, 1972, "Ziggy" was immediately acclaimed a hit. "I wasn't at all surprised "Ziggy Stardust" made my career," Bowie subsequently said. "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star - much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody's."
And, as the legion of Ziggy clones who still pop up at Bowie concerts confirms, more enduring as well.
Recorded at Trident Studios, London November 1971 to January 1972. Producers David Bowie and Ken Scott. Engineer Ken Scott. Highest US Chart Position Number Seventy-Five. Total US Sales 800,000.
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