Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)

It's 'Stairway to Heaven', isn't it?

Or The Wall. Or Sgt Pepper, or 'Paint it Black' or 'My Generation'. It's Never Mind the Bollocks and it's also that Bryan Adam song about doing everything for you. It's even Wet Wet Wet nicking the Troggs' thunder with 'Love is All Around' (I've just horrible flashbacks to my wedding and the vile music played for the first dance. Shudder. I wanted 'the Ship Song' by Nick Cave, I might add, but that's an entirely different story...)

In short, it's the David Bowie album that even people who don't like music have heard of. the same could be said of Let's Dance, probably with more legitimacy, but you'll both have forgotten about that by the time I get round to Bowie's 80s albums.

It's also the Bowie album which has suffered most due to fan over-familiarity. I mean, I adore Bowie, but I'd be more likely to stick on the Tonight than Ziggy 99% of the time. Ziggy's better - but I've heard it a million times.
So, in order to keep my own interest from flagging, how about constructing the fantasy album that could have appeared straight after Hunky Dory?

To start with, our imaginary album could grab everything recorded by Bowie's proto-Ziggy project, Arnold Corns. It's not a huge amount of music, to be honest (especially once you dump the two tracks by the band that Bowie doesn't sing on), but what there is is brilliant.

I particularly love the Corns' version of 'Moonage Daydream', complete with different lyrics and melody, which replaces the stonking metal sound and fury of the Ziggy track with a far more Hunky Dory-esque soft glam track, reminiscent far more of Mott the Hoople than Ziggy-era Bowie. I love the way the track stops and starts suddenly, the way the lyric is far more (day)dreamlike and Bowie's high-pitched vocal. The repetitive forty five second guitar break at the end, while Bowie appears to be trying to start a Mexican wave ('Whoooaaaa!'), I can live without though, to be honest.

This version of the track (and we could, if we wanted, include the John Peel 'In Concert' version of 'Looking for a Friend' which does have a Bowie vocal) was never considered for Ziggy Stardust, but there are several tracks which were considered and then dropped for one reason or other.

It's not hard to see why a cover of Chuck Berry's 'Round and Round' was dumped. Intended to serve as an in-album example of the sort of music which allegedly made Ziggy famous, it's a lovely idea, but unfortunately it's rather a dull and routine sort of song - surely not the sort of thing that made Ziggy a 'leper Messiah'! Equally 'Holy Holy' is a re-recording of a track once intended for Hunky Dory and Bowie has rarely been one to look backwards.

Perhaps instead of those two tracks we could have 'Bombers', one of the very few tracks which was once intended to feature on a nameless album between Hunky Dory and Ziggy? More a Hunky Dory funny, folky sort of song than a rocking Ziggy one, 'Bombers' would segue nicely from the Corns track, and work as a quick mood lightener before moving onto the maudlin grotesquerie of Bowie's cover of Jacques Brel's 'Port of Amsterdam'. Probably the most squalid lyric in Bowie's back catalogue, the track actually appeared on an early official Ziggy track listing but listening to it now it sounds more Brecht than Brel, and definitely more suited to Baal than Bowie's alien rock star.

Continuing the outsider theme of 'Amsterdam', how about throwing 'The Shadow Man' into the mix next? It isn't a rock number by any means, but it has one of Bowie's most in your face vocals and drips passion and sorrow and alienation ('See his smile/Made of nothing but loneliness') and segues brilliantly into one of my favourite Bowie obscurities 'Tired of My Life'. Admittedly it sounds more like a Space Oddity out-take than a post-Hunky Dory one, but the quiet despair of 'Tired of my Life' is a decent choice to follow on from the noisier horror of 'Amsterdam', and so it gets the nod over other contenders.

Kicking off the flip side and serving notice that side two will be more rocky, 'Velvet Goldmine' is one of the best of all Bowie out-takes. The track is one with a reasonable claim to be the nearly man of Bowie tracks, having been originally recorded for Hunky Dory, nearly made Ziggy, appeared as a b-side without Bowie's permission and eventually ended up appearing on Best of Bowie compilations. Apparently it was pulled from Ziggy for being 'too provocative' but the lyric isn't exactly gay porn and times have changed in any case. It makes an excellent opener for side two of our putative lost Bowie album (n.b. this is a vinyl album with two sides; this is 1973 after all).

How did 'Sweet Head' fail to make the actual Ziggy Stardust album? Lyrically it's a perfect fit for the rest of the album, with the first verse plausibly being sung in response to the narrator of 'Five Years' and the chorus ('Sweet head, give you sweet head/(spoken)While you're down there...') being a far more explicit version of that in 'Velvet Goldmine'. It's also a cracking tune, with real Ziggy-style guitars throughout.

A bit quieter now, but just as emotionally sturdy and almost as good a song - How Lucky You Are. Starting with battered, single key piano, then Bowie's stilted, flat vocal, it sounds nothing too astonishing to begin with. Schoolboy rhymes in the first verse and a little pedestrian bass it seems fairly obvious why it never made an actual album. But then the chorus kicks in with a roll of drums and Bowie's vocal moves up an octave or two and it turns into something altogether better. It's a shame it's only demo quality, but I'd like to have heard a proper studio version. Either way it deserves better than to be forgotten.

I think we might need to make side two a four track one, rather than the intended five. The problem is that, although there are other unreleased Bowie tracks in the period, they tend to be fairly straight-forward demos of songs which made Ziggy. A piano led version of the title track, a couple of different versions of Lady Stardust (one subtitled 'Song for Marc' just to make it clear who Bowie is singing about) and then we've got to wait for the Diamond Dogs out-takes to find anything of similar quality to the Hunky Dory/Ziggy ones.

So to sign off, let's bookend the album with Arnold Corns - in this case, the Corns' version of 'Hang onto Yourself', which manages to be just as different from its Ziggy counterpart as 'Moonage Daydream', but achieves that effect by going in the opposite direction. With Bowie's most exaggerated American accent ever, this is as obvious an attempt to do a Velvet Underground track as the far earlier perviness of 'Little Toy Soldier'. The first line, in fact, is sung in as close to a Lou Reed impersonation as anyone's ever done and the lyric ("Thought we had a good thing going, and you know and Mama had a thing on/My baby got out last Monday and me I'm on a radio show") with its suggestion of prison and non-sequitur ending could be straight from the Reed Book of Song Writing.

So there you go - an album to fit between Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust. Maybe its best it never happened though because, as someone once remarked, if Sgt Pepper is the ultimate 60s album, Ziggy fills the same role in the 1970s.

Tracklisting to the imaginary album

Side 1

Moonage Daydream (Arnold Corns version)
Shadow Man
Tired of My Life

Side 2

Velvet Goldmine
Sweet Head
How Lucky You Are
Hang onto Yourself (Arnold Corns version)

And finally, from the actual album, the performance of 'Five Years' which remains one of my all time favourite Bowie moments.

Five Years on the Whistle Test


  1. Super post.

    I've been listening to Reality a lot this month. Not sure why I didn't pick it up when it first came out, but there are some very good tracks on here.

  2. I love reality -it'd be in my top ten Bowie albums without doubt.