|Side One:||Side Two:|
While my new records tend to be kept in quite good shape (including the sleeves, though a little seam-splitting from shipped sealed ones is occasionally an issue–but I’m not overly picky most of the time), I have bought some real clunkers, condition-wise, in my used travels. As we go on through my collection, you will eventually start to see black “X”s in the top right corner of sleeves in permanent marker. This may horrify some, but it was really just the “dump stock” for a record store I frequented in high school–mostly a metal/industrial/punk store, so when I was buying some of the stuff I buy, it wasn’t really for their market, and went into that bin. I do recall, actually, my good friend John (see all references to “best friend in high school and college”) picking up a truly dilapidated copy of Who’s Next from those bins (noticeably scratched) becuase it was only $1. This record, I honestly don’t remember where I got. You can see the thing’s been sellotaped (why do none of us have a non-brand-based term for this tape in wide general use? At least this one isn’t pejorative…) around two sides, is suffering some extreme ringwear, and generally just looks well-used. The inner sleeve with lyrics (this particular edition was originally pressed with one–it’s actually the first U.S. press from ’72) is long gone, replaced with a plain white sleeve that has also been taped up, albeit with masking tape.
I do sort of like the used look for an album that I buy almost more because I feel–personally–as though I should have it. Sort of like Abbey Road or Pet Sounds–or most things that show up on almost every “best albums of all time lists”. I’m more likely to listen to it in various expanded, cleaned up forms, as these albums tend to be respected when remastered, and I never was exposed to them as full-length album recordings on vinyl long enough in my youth to get used to the sound. And I’d never replicate my dad’s favourite purchase of all time–speakers that were previously display models, acquired on the cheap and moved around for the last few decades. They do sound pretty fantastic too, for the–uh–record.
As I said, I don’t listen to this album on vinyl much. Actually, truth be told, I don’t listen to this album much. I, like many people I know who have any taste in the “weirder” sides of music, prefer the “Berlin Trilogy” era of Bowie, his “triptych” of albums (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) created with Brian Eno in the late ’70s–and I grew up more with the Let’s Dance-ish Bowie, for the nostalgia end of things. It’s not that I don’t like Ziggy (or Hunky Dory, or The Man Who Sold the World, or Aladdin Sane…), I just tend to gravitate toward Low and Station to Station first.
The acknowledged inspiration for this blog, though, is the attempt by a non-music-person (self-described as such) attempting to run through the entirety of the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, leaving semi-daily commentary on each throughout. I say “inspiration”, in that a lot of the writing leaves something to be desired. The writing on this album, for instance, basically accuses the album of failing to be “interesting” or “experimental”, while another blog in the same vein writes it off as “boring” (though at least, rather reasonably, comparing it to Hunky Dory, which was lost in the shuffle at its time of release, to some extent). Curiously, one also accuses it of not being mainstream–something its #5 chart placement in the U.K. and #10 single (“Starman”) would seemingly have cause to argue with.
And all of that doesn’t really have anything to do with–well, anything but personal expectation. In most regards, this isn’t an “experimental” album: Bowie had redefined himself a few times since he began recording in 1964, having to drop his given family name as a bow to the rising popularity of the Monkees’ own Davey Jones. “Space Oddity” gave him his first hit in ’69, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World had him in a dress on the cover (at least, in the U.K.–the U.S. beat his homeland to the punch and released it a few months earlier with a weird drawing instead) and is often considered the point at which his albums should be attended to, and of course in 1971, Hunky Dory was released, with songs like “Changes” really marking the start of Bowie as we understand his importance today. So his musical ideas, his willingness to change, his flirtations with androgyny–all established. And, external to Bowie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had long since established (however loosely) the popular acceptance of “concept albums”.
What Ziggy does establish, however, is Bowie’s intermittent affectation of “alternate identities”: while his look changed often in the preceding years, it was the character of Ziggy Stardust himself that Bowie chose to inhabit and create that changed this from aesthetics to something more. But even that’s secondary: what The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars does is not oversell itself as experimental (in fairness, if you have no reckoning of the title, it sounds more bizarre–but Ziggy is a rockstar, and the Spiders are his band, so it’s actually a pretty normal and to-the-point title), it just comfortably, confidently sells itself as music.
While my copy crackles with the best of them, it actually lacks any locked grooves or major skips (a few prior albums did have some of these, but I’m not trying to be that specific in reviewing my collection), it is most apparent as the album opens: “Five Years” is a quiet track at open, Mick Woodmansey slowly fades in on drums, with a solid and firm but relatively quiet beat, eventually punctuated by a simultaneous chord from guitar and piano (I’d bet on Bowie and Mick Ronson respectively, though I’m not proficient enough to know for sure with studio recordings being what they are). Trevor Bolder’s bass is similarly punctuative, with Ronson’s piano eventually building a more complete melody, as Bowie sings of the coming death of Earth, five years away now. His first slowly comes to the fore, beginning as distant and exaggerated, some lines echoed back to emphasize the space of the track. Strings (arranged by Ronson) eventually add to the song’s growing power and strength. “Smiling and waving and looking so fine/Don’t think you knew you were in this song/And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor/And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there/Your face, your race, the way that you talk/I kiss you, you’re beautiful, the way that you talk” he sings, his voice growing in passion as the song finally crescendos, Ronson echoing his vocals with the title of the song, professional to Bowie’s growing hysteria, as the strings begin to swirl and the song becomes more chaotic, Bowie eventually screaming the title as he repeats it–and then it shuts down, and we’re left with only a few measures of Woodmansey’s gentle drumming.
“Soul Love” is almost like a new opener after the prologue of “Five Years” (which has been established, in the “story” of the album as effectively a description of just what it claims–the time limit set on the existence of earth, the rest being the story of an attempt to reconcile the world with that fact via Ziggy himself). It’s largely a gentle song, acoustic and building quietly, some bongos and other midrange percussion, hesitant, shy saxophones, until the buildup to the chorus: suddenly we’re faced with the distorted guitar that had hidden in the background, sparkling out for a few quiet notes here and there. Bowie’s voice and the guitar build to a drum fill and then the chorus–“Inspirations have I none/Just to touch the flaming dove/All I have is my love of love/But love is not loving”. All the song’s energy is exerted seemingly at once, and then spent, it relaxes with a brief saxophone solo from Bowie before it restarts the process–but chooses, instead, to follow with a guitar solo that mirrors that sax solo the second time.
The album is basically loaded with songs that will catch your ear, though some might be weird as actual singles–the progression of “Five Years”, for instance. “Moonage Daydream”, however, is a happy fit as a single–which it was. The distorted, dramatic crunch of the opening is only brief, as it backs away to an acoustic that blends into a piano. “Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah”, Bowie suddenly sings, to more of that initial riffing and a pattering tom fill from Woodmansey. Ronson doesn’t quite give in to the acoustic this time though, but keeps his playing a little less apparent than it is for that final choral line. The second time ’round, though, sax another woodwind I couldn’t identify if I tried follow it for an amusing little melodic line that gives way to the far more somber inclusion of another string arrangement. Ronson gets to work in a real guitar solo eventually, introduced by the deliberate echo effect placed on Bowie’s voice. The solo eventually begins to wash out and reverberate back over itself, echoing as if in a cave, giving it a huge sound, though it is overtaken in the outro by strange whistling electronic noises.
The biggest hit for the album, “Starman”, was apparently taken by some as a sequel to “Space Oddity”, which is understandable, as the thrumming low-end of the acoustic strumming of the opening echoes the sound used for that earlier hit. But when Woodmansey bumps the song in, the strength of Bolder’s bassline, alongside the earnest relaxed tone Bowie takes for the verse keeps it in different territory. The pounding piano line that leads to the string-backed chorus and the increased passion of Bowie’s vocal furthers the distance from the somber tonality of “Space Oddity”. When it gives way to an electric lead from Ronson that keeps the strings, it’s even more cheerful–as it should be, the “Starman” of the title is the possible saviour of the world before its end. When Bowie sings that chorus, it’s almost as if he’s got an arm around the listener, and is pointing up at the sky, conveying a sense of awe and camaraderie as he warmly informs us of this hope.
There’s one song on the album not written by Bowie, and it’s “It Ain’t Easy”, which closes Side One. It was written by Ron Davies (not to be confused with Ray Davies of the Kinks). It gives Bowie a chance to pull out the harpsichord (how on earth do I seem to have so many albums with harpsichords? Or was I just not paying any bloody attention and they’re near ubiquitous?) and play along to nothing but the rhythm section–until that huge chorus: the harpsichord drops, an acoustic begins strumming aggressively, a wailing guitar lead, pounding drum beat, and a huge vocal from Bowie. It ends on a pair of leads, one on a slide–all of a kind that isn’t inappropriate for a man who came out of a country family in Tennessee (Davies, that is, of course).
I always look at the tracklist for the latter half of Ziggy and wonder at these songs that occupy Side Two. I can’t seem to imprint those titles in my head. I know they’ll be familiar when I hear them, but can never place them from titles alone. As the piano introduction to “Lady Stardust” began, I knew I’d heard it and felt relaxed. When the drums and Bowie’s vocal starts, with its theatrical bent, holding notes on a light vibrato, his voice opened up, I know I’ve heard it, but then the hint comes: Oh, yes. I know this chorus. I even find it in my head on occasion. In keeping with its actual words (“And he was all right/The band was all together/Yes he was all right/The song went on forever/Yes he was all right/And he was up all night/Really quite paradise/And he sang all night/All night long”) there’s the sense of an eased, discussion of someone at neither a climactic peak nor a downfall, just a moment of established comfort. There are people to watch Ziggy, but there’s not the pressure to maintain a building momentum, just to stay with things in place. And Bowie and the boys sound like this as well, like the moment where a ballad comes out in a show, the kind that eventually was marked by waving lighters.
“Star” also tends to throw me (indeed, as I typed the tracklisting–and yes, I type those, I don’t paste them–I was sure I’d misread/remembered, or someone else had goofed and some tracks were garbled. I sincerely couldn’t remember there was a song named “Star”). Rollicking piano and moving beat define the song–sounds I recognized as soon as I heard them. Bowie and the backing vocals moving to that insistent beat, the pounding piano; they all sound like a call back to a certain period of the prior decade, though the distorted guitar riffing that enters midway through the song keeps it placed firmly in its actual time. Interestingly the guitar lead that marks the brief instrumental passage before the second verse pushes it backward in time just a bit again, though not quite as far–perhaps the late 1960s. And it makes sense again–Ziggy is an established star now, and by the end of the song, a sort of complacency arrives musically, with a more contemporary guitar lead than the previous one.
I was gathering all my usual resources (mostly to avoid making really stupid, avoidable mistakes, if I can) and saw “Hang on to Yourself” described as proto punk and thought this was absurd, but it suddenly clicked. While the handclaps and the subdued vocal of the chorus don’t fit too well with this notion, the semi-surf, rolling riff that opens and permeates the song is actually rather punk-like. Think more Ramones than anything else–the more “bubblegum” end of punk, and it’s actually quite reasonable. The solo is another light one, though a good one. By now Ziggy is being asked by the Spiders to keep a grasp on himself–and stay grounded–for them to keep going, which is hinted by the motion of the song and the final repetitions of “Come on, come on” that slowly fade the song out.
I’m not even going to guess where people place the semi-title track (which is just “Ziggy Stardust”). I was convinced that Hunky Dory had started to outstrip this album with major critics (the kind who reflexively list Sgt. Pepper as the best album ever), but apparently I was deluding myself. I’d think this song is not the most well-regarded of the album (partly because it was not initially released as a single, nor at any point in the album’s life). But that opening guitar lick! I remember being hugely into this song (as well as Hunky Dory‘s “Life on Mars?”) when I first met my aforementioned friend John. He was into punk, and I was getting into Bowie via his singles (though I’d always liked bits and pieces). I was in my horrific moments of “learning” guitar (never really successfully) and this lick always appealed to me, a simple acoustic guitar strumming chords and a heavily riffing electric that turns to a back and forth, higher pitched see-saw then starts backing down to start over–sheer brilliance. Bowie practically eulogizes Ziggy in the song over the more basic rock sound of the song (though in the background Ronson occasionally peels off for wandering noises and guitar harmonics, though quietly). Bowie’s voice suddenly shifts into a creepy tone and moves to the front–both sides of the stereo mix–and Ronson’s electric riffing takes the forefront. It’s not quite heavy in the metal sense, but maybe in the far more metaphorical interpretation from which the sense originated: emotionally weighty. The drum fills that lead into these sections set them up perfectly. And when Ziggy is finally lost to his own messianic self-image, Bowie sings out “When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band” passionately, a bit resigned, a bit angry, a bit sad–and we’re back to that opening riff, which eventually is let ring, and we’re left with Bowie’s final words for the song: “Ziggy played guitar…”
One of the more famed songs on the album, often used for its driving riff and its most famous line, “Suffragette City” is probably the heaviest (now in the “metal” sense) song on the album, from the way the guitars roll in, a synth briefly filling out and strengthening the riffs, it doesn’t really stop for a moment. The head-shaking, “Don’t even think about it,” way that Bowie sings the chorus, the words almost slurring together, with big riffs and synth chords behind it gives it a real strength. After the second, it turns to one of the longer solos from Ronson, followed by another repetition of the chorus, piano pounding loudly in the back. “Suffragette city!” Bowie repeats, a nice downward keyboard line answering him and seeming to round the song to a start when everything starts hammering down at the same moment and leads to that moment of brilliant release: “Awwww, wam, bam, thank you ma’am!”
Ending much as it began, with a quiet acoustic, Ziggy‘s final track is “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. Bowie’s voice is deliberately restrained, even when the acoustic drops and just a thumping kick from Woodmansey leads him through the title of the song: “You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide.” After the second occurrence, the rest of the band fully joins in after a nice drum fill, though a quiet one. Horns announce the beginning of Bowie’s second verse. Partway through it, Bowie becomes more passionate, his words becoming less aligned to the beat, taking their own emotional course, using a string arrangement to increase their drama. “You’re not alone!” he begins to yell, and the backing vocals begin to answer him, the horns increasing in frequency, the horns more prominent and consistent, a guitar lead from Ronson entering–and then the strings play one short note for a good beat, and the album ends.
I am often reminded when I start this album that it has an unusual production style, as compared to my memory and understanding of it. It’s very understated and intimate. It’s not quite like a band playing in a small club, it’s too clear and distinct for that. But it’s all mid-range–the drums are never, ever overpowering, though Woodmansey has and plays a clear role, and does it well. Bolder never aggressively steals the show either. Heck, Bowie’s guitars and pianos and Ronson’s often don’t either. It means that even the quieter, more relaxed riffing of “Suffragette City” or “Ziggy Stardust” (as compared to other artists who had long since released plenty of louder music) stand out that much more without having to increase anything. Now, the album did originally say (as does my copy) “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” As it happens, my immediate next door neighbor on the side my music room is on is the best friend of a coworker (by complete coincidence). I kept the volume at half for my stereo and left it at that–I don’t need to earn any enemies. Still, the production is largely spare and quiet, without being overly spacious or acutely limited in instrumentation or sound. It’s sparse, yet full; distant, yet intimate. I always appreciate settling in to the album for this reason, though there’s always a jarring moment of confusion, as I expect something…bigger from it. Yet, instead, it creates that “size” from its music, from the performances themselves, rather than the volume or aggression of those performances.
As with Sgt. Pepper, I’m not overly inclined to suggest a downgrade of the album–not by any stretch. It still won’t push itself in as my favourite Bowie album, but I think it’s placement in music history is largely justified. Of course, part of that is the influence of “Starman” and Bowie’s performance of it on Top of the Pops, which inspired at least one artist to appear later in my own collection, nevermind the ones I myself am not familiar with.
On a final, relatively silly note, the crackle was simultaneously pleasingly indicative of a well-loved album and distracting. When the needle lifted on side one, it was oppressively quiet suddenly.
- Next Up: Bronski Beat – The Age of Consent