“Everyone has convinced me that I am the Messiah. I got hopelessly lost in the imagination.”
hey are the words of David Bowie, years after he created—and then killed—his most famous alter ego. The Ziggy Stardust character, album and tour propelled him from critically acclaimed fringe attraction to mainstream sensation. Though it threatened to throw him off course, it ultimately made him an ever-changing artist whose extraordinary body of work will live on as long as music is loved.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars It might not be Bowie’s best album, and most aficionados probably wouldn’t call it their favorite, but it’s certainly his most important. It took him to a whole new level and made him a part of the zeitgeist.
The moment that made Bowie a superstar came with one top of the pops performance of starman, a month after the album’s release. Dressed and coiffed like an alien rock star, Bowie was already known for his gender theatrics and playfulness about his sexuality, slipping an arm around Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder and glancing coyly at the camera.
It would go down as a seminal TV moment of the 1970s and continues to inspire: last year Dublin band Thewlis released a debut single, The boy behind Bowiewho was inspired by it top of the pops Perfomance.
Ziggy is also the theme of this year’s Dublin Bowie Festival, which returns as an in-person event in the wake of the pandemic. John Brereton, his director of the festival, says the album’s importance should not be underestimated.
“It was the album that Bowie made,” he says. “He had been close by [making music] since 1963 and he had a hit with him space oddity, which was seen as a gimmicky single, especially when coupled with the moon landing. But it felt like he was back to square one despite having made such brilliant albums as The man who sold the world and Best order. They were commercial flops. But something special was brewing beneath the surface and he set to work on it Ziggy as soon as Best order was published. I think he knew this would be the one.”
Gone was the cowardly, dress-wearing, long-haired dandy and in his place was an androgynous, orange-haired, futuristically clad figure. British pop had never seen anything like it and Bowie was determined to captivate and provoke. He also had the songs for it.
“If the Ziggy Tour began, he played to small audiences, but very quickly venues sold out and he got regular radio plays and became a star. The momentum built and built.”
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Brereton was just old enough to remember the excitement this created Ziggy, although he didn’t like glam rock at the time. Appreciation of this aspect of Bowie’s career would come later. “It’s amazing to think back to 1972 and see how creative and productive he was. He wrote songs that would become hits for others, and he [alongside Ronson] produced [Lou Reed’s] transformerwhich is one of the formative albums of that time.”
Dublin-based collective Salty Dog No Stars will perform both Ziggy Stardust and transformer albums at a show at Whelan’s as part of the festival next weekend.
The band’s Liam Mulvaney believes Bowie’s creatively prolific early 1970s should be viewed holistically. “To me it’s sort of a Bowie #2. Before that he had made some very interesting music. But I can’t get divorced Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane from each other.
“Glam rock was so big back then and image was everything, but there’s something very disposable about it [Marc] Bolan and Slade, but the storytelling is a little more baroque Ziggy Stardust. If you gave me the choice, I would choose Best order every time – but no one bought Best order. Ziggy seemed to keep up with the times and like songs 5 years and Rock ‘n’ roll suicide have a dark undercurrent.”
Flower Power was finally over by 1972, and the music reflected a more troubled, complicated era. For all the glamor and theatrics, Bowie did the same through the Ziggy character.
Shane O’Brien – aka Shobsy – cut his teeth as the frontman of Dublin band State Lights but is now determined to forge his own path as a solo artist. He has long been obsessed with the work of David Bowie and has co-directed a film with Soda Blonde, Turn around and face the stranger, in which he reinterprets Bowie’s songs from the early ’70s. It will be shown at the Light House Cinema in Dublin on Wednesday.
“For me, Ziggy Stardust is in the top 3 of Bowie’s albums,” he says. “This transition from Best order to Ziggy was one of the most important cultural moments in music. It was a concept album, but different Sergeant Pepper, for example there was also a live component, a show that you could watch. Bowie was accessible, and although it started small, it grew quickly. He felt like he knew this was his moment and that he was going to try.”
There were 191 shows over the course of 12 months – an amazing touring schedule – and on July 3, 1973, Bowie killed Ziggy at the Hammersmith Apollo. Filmed by DA Pennebaker, the king of rock documentaries, the show is a must see for any Bowie fan.
For Shobsy, Bowie’s willingness to kill his loved one is the hallmark of a daring artist with boundless confidence. “He could have done this much longer – the audience was there and growing – but instead he wants to burn it down and start over. And soon we’re getting another incarnation, Aladdin Sane.
“As a young artist, I find this willingness to change and try new things incredibly inspiring. If I want to be a new person tomorrow, musically or artistically, I can. That’s something that has been made possible for me and all artists by people like David Bowie.”
Cork musician Stephanie Rainey, who is in the midst of a tour of Ireland this month, says Ziggy Stardust is an album that grabbed her as a teenager and still fascinates her to this day.
“The album is dreamy and concept driven and while it’s ‘out there’ it’s also super accessible,” she says. “Songs like starman and City of the Suffragettes are great songs and make you easily become a David Bowie fan.”
Rainey says Bowie grew up at a time when mainstream pop could be esoteric and risk-taking. “What we’re missing in today’s music are artists like David Bowie and people who will stand the test of time. That might sound very negative, but how often do you hear something new today and think, “This is important. You will still hear and talk about that in 50 years.”
Rainey’s Cork compatriot Rob Carlile is similarly enthusiastic. He just released his debut album, insane. “Ziggy Stardust is a very inspiring work that combines accessibility with concept and whimsicality,” he says.
“It was the album that was the real gateway to Bowie for me. I had heard the hits of course and after purchase Best order and to love it Ziggy was the natural next step. What’s still exciting even all these years later is to see a really talented artist reinvent himself, and of course that’s something he’s been doing throughout his career.
“It was very difficult to pigeonhole Bowie – he was always looking for the next thing. Ziggy may catch him in a moment but people still fall in love with him to this day because the songs were so good. After all, that is the most important thing.”
The Dublin Bowie Festival is happening right now. The theme is ‘Celebrating 50 Years of Ziggy’ and will include performances, talks and more
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