Deep Purple – Deep Purple in Rock (1970)

Warner Bros. Records ■ WS 1877

Released June, 1970

Produced by Deep Purple

Engineered by Andy Knight, Martin Birch, Philip McDonald

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Speed King
  2. Bloodsucker
  3. Child in Time
  1. Flight of the Rat
  2. Into the Fire
  3. Living Wreck
  4. Hard Lovin’ Man

Ah, Deep Purple “Mk. II”.

Why, out of all the bands that have gone through such monumental lineup changes (Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, etc) they are the only ones that seem to have become firmly labeled with “version” numbers is beyond me. Perhaps it’s because the lineup change has such a drastic overall effect on songwriters–we can say “Barrett-era Floyd”¹ and “Peter Green” and “Bob Welch” and so on, to notate the controlling voice’s change. I don’t know–anything would be just a guess, and it’s likely just an indicator of the varying mentalities of fans that Deep Purple’s chose that approach.

Still, “Mark II” has its place highest in the echelons of music, particularly for being so thoroughly entrenched in hard rock when it was rapidly morphing into heavy metal (though most of the albums at the time given that have largely sloughed off that title as it has gained higher and higher minimums of power/volume/aggression/speed/etc over the years). Indeed, if the average person can assign anything to the name “Deep Purple”, it is probably “Smoke on the Water”, their monstrous hit from two albums (and years) farther on, Machine Head. Now, of course, “Highway Star” has gained a measure of fame from its inclusion in Rock Band, so there might be that further connection, but it, too, comes from ’72’s Machine Head anyway.

While I grew up with “Smoke on the Water” as I did with many a classic rock song, it regained strength when I came into my love of Frank Zappa, and the story of the burning casino studio in it. About four or five years ago, I happened upon the 25th anniversary edition of Fireball, the album between this one and Machine Head. The packaging, the tracklisting–it seemed intriguing, and I went ahead and got it. I quickly fell for that album and it’s peculiarities (particularly the romping and somewhat odd “Anyone’s Daughter”, which hasn’t really got an analogous partner on the other two albums, nor the non-album singles), then let myself begin to spiral outward from it and into the other albums from this particular line up of Deep Purple.

Both of the other “Mk. II” albums were indeed released in expanded formats, with Deep Purple in Rock and Machine Head bookending the set with the fewest and greatest number of bonus tracks (Machine Head has an entire alternate mix on a whole separate disc). In my inescapable desire to partition albums under schemata entirely of my own invention but apparently quite convincing (to me, at least), there’s a progression that I think of in many bands–a spark of novelty in the first album that establishes a sound clearly and gains a lot of appreciation as a result, a second album that seems to take that sound and throw out any and all boundaries, and then a third that refines everything learned in the first two²–and that tends to, as a result, often determine and define my preferences (I usually like the second album most). Deep Purple ends up no exception to this–Fireball remains my favourite, and I tend to prefer In Rock after that, and Machine Head last, despite the obvious appeal. It’s not defiance, it just seems to work out that way.

Either everyone agrees with me on Fireball or no one does, as I see it least of all on vinyl, though I admit I don’t look too intently. I picked up this rather beat up copy of In Rock on a trip to a used store I frequented less than most others two or three years back, simply because I was in the depths of my affections for Deep Purple at the time. It has a kind of charm for a record like this to look like this–it’s not an ultra rare disc, so it’s nice to see one that was loved for a good few decades, not treated as a hermetically sealed idol so much as a well-loved piece of momentary joy for someone.

And that’s really how Deep Purple works–not that they can’t be placed on any pedestals, but it’s music that demands enjoyment from listening, as it is built heavily on grooves, whether we’re talking about Gillan’s vocals, Blackmore’s riffing, Lord’s vamping, Glover’s basslines, or Paicey’s flood of fills and feel-based drumming. I have a number of records that have that cute instruction: “To be played LOUD” (eg The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), but Deep Purple in Rock I just kind of instinctively turn up–I do worry a bit about the neighbors, but it feels like the kind of thing that your neighbors would either nod sagely at the playing of, or shrug and admit that it at least makes sense to be playing it loud.

While “Anyone’s Daughter” has no equivalents floating about (from the band in question, I mean), the smaller hit “Highway Star” is hinted at when Deep Purple in Rock opens: “Speed King” is another boastful self-descriptive blast of groove and power. I should mention this is the U.S. issue of the album, wherein the introductory flurry of distortion and wild guitar flailing from Blackmore as well as the first snippet of Lord’s organ introduction is omitted (about a minute and a half). That is a shame, let’s be honest–but the real joy of “Speed King” is the riff that just leaps out of the gate, grounded by Glover’s deep bass, and backed by Paicey’s blasting drums. Gillan immediately makes clear the meaning of the witty description of the song in the gatefold (“Just a few roots, replanted”) as his words reference early Little Richard hits. But it’s all filtered through the riff-based power of a band that would come to define hard rock in many of the best ways. The forward movement of the song is what is most allusive if one knows “Highway Star” already–Ian Paice’s drums are fantastically thoughtful without any sacrifice of power and movement, something that is not as apparent in the later song. Lord and Blackmore³ have a brief interlude where they trade subdued and gentle licks, but it’s returned to the relentless pace of the opening, uninterested in anything more than a pause for anything else.

“Bloodsucker” eases the pace a bit, but pumps the “groove” quotient up to compensate. Glover’s bass rides under a tangled lick from Blackmore, but controls the sound, giving the bottom end the motor of the snaking movement of the song. Paice is happy to largely just keep the beat this time, though he continues to do so with great flair. Lord gets to turn the burners back to a simmering feeling, drawing out the emanations of the groove to a stretched, low-slung rest. But he’s not left to just this, as he gets a higher end solo that is turned in for another of the same from Blackmore–neither is overly long, even as they trade back and forth, each just a few bars to show off and flutter at the song’s melody and feel. Gillan’s voice is defined primarily by the stomping shuffle of Paice’s drums, but when he lets loose on that shrieking “Oh, no no no!” (not to be confused with the song “No No No” from Fireball, of course), he really makes his, ahem, voice heard and gives the song his own little inscription.

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising to me that “Child in Time” is the most appealing part of the album amongst the folks I know–either I know people who have no interest in Deep Purple, or I know people who like them whose taste is more readily ascribed to progressive rock bands, at least of the Pink Floyd variety, if not the more nerdy King Crimson set (this should not be taken as insulting–when we get to “K”, we’ll actually have a poll for Crimson, as I own enough). “Child in Time” is something like the amalgamation of hard rock, jam band, and progressive rock: it’s a ten minute epic song, filled with noodling, vamping, and slow, deliberate movement toward intended ends. With the heated coals of the beginning–gentle, sparse ride from Paice, majestic organs that cross the solemnity of church organs with the ominous nature of horror movie kinds–Gillan naturally chooses a lower voice to keep the song in the proper place, Glover and Blackmore largely just following Lord’s lower-pitched left hand. The mood Lord has established for us is borne out in the words Gillan sings: “Sweet child in time you’ll see the line/The line that’s drawn between good and bad/See the blind man shooting at the world/Bullets flying taking toll”. Gillan’s voice increases in power and pitch at the third line, but drops back low again after that, only to climb to an extreme with the next: “If you’ve been bad oh, Lord I bet you have/And you’ve not been it, oh, by flying lead/You’d better close your eyes/Oh! Bow your head…” and then from that extremely passionate warning turns to the shrugging, “If only you’d listened sort of tone,” as he sings “Wait for the ricochet…” His voice is gentle, singing only “Oooh-ooh-ooh…” repeatedly now, as Glover begins to push the band upward with a huge swathe of low end cutting through the track, Gillan’s “oohs” traded for “aahs” (writing really can’t do this justice, you know), which gradually expand and grow with the rest of the track, to shrieking, impassioned, wordless expression–before Paice turns the track martial with emphatic drumming, alongside Lord’s rhythmic pounding of keys. Blackmore slinks in his best solo on the album, soulful and wildly appropriate, as the entire song suddenly takes on a lolloping gait, charging forward instrumentally on the blazing fingers of Blackmore, his lead part like sparks from the flames now risen from those opening coals, the song burning faster, brighter, higher, harder, louder, sharper until it climaxes with a lead from Lord instead, which stops short, and returns to the slow roasting opening instead at just the right moment, but leaves Lord still playing a lead part.
Amazingly, the words I typed above are the only ones Gillan really sings in the song, and he begins to repeat them here, sounding like a revelation–like new lyrics, despite the fact that they are nothing of the kind. The song climbs and climbs as before, until it collapses into a chaos of distortion and sound, a final destruction that emphatically and appropriately punctuates the song and the side.

Side two returns us to the sounds that opened the album, though “Flight of the Rat” is a bit more at ease than the energetic “Speed King” or the groove-laden “Bloodsucker”. Maybe that’s appropriate–the title does imply a different kind of travel (be it air-travel or escape). Everyone’s a bit more relaxed, oddly, as if this is a palate cleanser following the beauty of “Child in Time”–it’s a more “fun” track, as much of the second side is.  It’s another long track (around eight minutes), but it’s more of a steady one than the rollercoaster of its predecessor, and its introspective lyrics are the opposite numbers-wise–they take up more of the left side of the gatefold than any other song, though this largely reflects the brevity of the lines. The interlude for instrumental show from Lord and then Blackmore (which eventually stops for a pretty great wah-wah “breakdown”) only furthers the feeling that this track is sheer enjoyment in a can, so to speak.

“Into the Fire” is probably the album’s heaviest track, in that more indefinable sense: Blackmore and Glover are crushing with their strings, and chug along with immense weight. Paicey pounds out a thumping rhythm with some semi-Moon-esque fills that give it a great flavour, while Gillan ups the feeling of a relative of “Bloodsucker”, as his words are dragged along in the wake of the song’s rhythm, until that pause at the end of each stanza where he let’s loose: “Into the FI-IRE!” he yells, not the shriek of “Child in Time” or “Bloodsucker,” but a more throat-scorching bellow that seems to belch up flames of its own, throwing smoke and ash into its sound. Just foot-stomping beauty, here.

Lyrically, “Living Wreck” is beyond odd; its witty description relates it back to groupies, while the lyrics themselves imply a groupie fallen all to pieces (“You took off your hair/You pulled out your teeth/Oh, I almost died of fright…”). So far as I’m concerned, it’s best to look past them (or take a bit of humour from them, at best). Blackmore’s riffing, particularly following Gillan’s first stanza, part muted, and hanging out firmly in the mids, is engaging and dirty in the best sense that guitars can be. The bassy bridge (a mix of Glover and Lord at the low end of his keys) booms and shakes the track under a meandering, casual lead from Blackmore, an unusual sound for him on the album, especially with its pinched, thin, mid-range tone that gives a crustier feel to the track on the whole.

The album closes with “Hard Lovin’ Man”, which gives Glover an unusual (but brief) spotlight at open, to slide back and forth on a line that defines the arc of Paicey and Blackmore’s charging feel for the song. A burnt, crispy drone of semi-distorted keys (yep!) emanates from Lord’s fingers, and turns that chugging gallop into something different, banding itself around the other three instruments. It turns into a peculiar, semi-off lead from Lord, that, as per usual, turns instead to a lead from Blackmore, who turns in a typically sparkling performance, one that seems to rustle and shake within a carefully controlled, limited space to keep it tied closely to the song as a whole. The whole thing collapses into absolute chaos, defined by the stereo-panned howls and squalls of distortion from Blackmore.

I have a longstanding affection for the hard rock vein of classic rock, particularly the kind that didn’t explode so completely as to define itself as itself, instead of a component of the whole (I’m looking at you, Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham!) and lose track of where it fit within the grand scheme of rock music–indeed, I have a hunger for the kind of sounds that seem to have fallen out of the 1970s approach to hard rock, lacking in pretension, dripping with fist-pumping kinds of energy and the histrionics and groove that made it so appealing in the first place, so much so that I once wrote about my favourite modern instances, and you can hear some strains of it in the last band I wrote about, Davenport Cabinet.

Deep Purple in Rock (and, to be fair, Fireball) really sate that craving quite well–In Rock perhaps managing it more thoroughly, if not as well, thanks to the “pure rock” approach to the album as a whole. It’s always interesting to gather the different thoughts about bands like this–today, a coworker actually mentioned the band purely by chance, he of an age to know them more as former “contemporaries”, and was semi-surprised to find I’d just been listening to the band. Friends into classic rock don’t bring them up much, but tend to respect them, and my father has one of his “strange” opinions when it comes to them–his preference is for the Rod Evans era, and albums like The Book of Taliesyn, though I suppose this isn’t too great a surprise considering he and I have always differed on the “harder” and “heavier” elements of rock music (we’ll have more fun with this contrast with later artists, I think!).

I think In Rock serves as a good place for anyone to go who has an attitude like mine: I don’t like being coloured by (ie, magnetically drawn to) a familiar single like a gravitational pull–the desire to hear the familiar is strong in almost all of us (if not, discounting extreme willfulness, all of us period), and it makes it hard, sometimes, to get a feel for an artist or an album when there is that point of inevitable attraction in a work. In Rock does have “Child in Time”, but this is both an extremely long track and also only the kind of track you’re likely to be familiar with when crossed fingers at the “progressive” nature’s chances of appealing to highbrow sensibilities encouraged someone to pass it on as “proof” of Deep Purple’s quality. Yeah, I’m kind of cynical–I’m wary of a lot of communities surrounding that word, and the occasional recursive interest in “proving” the value of things.

I think Deep Purple stand pretty well on their own, without the need to prove they aren’t “dumb rock”, nor to prove that anything that is (or could be) is not inherently valueless.

As a final note, though, I hate typing the title of the album. Is it In Rock? Is it Deep Purple in Rock? Obviously, the cover is a sort of pun and requires the whole phrase, but does that mean it was a play wherein the title was attached to the artist to make it work, or the original intention? No, this doesn’t really matter, but these things tend to stick with me anyway.

¹”Barrett-era”–doesn’t that just sound nice, as a phrase?

²This idea has been applied (quite subjectively) to numerous artists over the years. Mostly by me, and no one else. I keep it because I like how it fits together in my brain.

³If you don’t know this–yes, seriously, those are the members’ names. I know it sounds like some kind of fantasy heroes. I’ll admit, too, it’s less fun to refer to them as “Jon” and “Ritchie” respectively.


Day Twenty-Seven: David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

RCA Victor ■ LSP-4702

Released June 6, 1972
Produced by Ken Scott and David Bowie

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Five Years
  2. Soul Love
  3. Moonage Daydream
  4. Starman
  5. It Ain’t Easy
  1. Lady Stardust
  2. Star
  3. Hang on to Yourself
  4. Ziggy Stardust
  5. Suffragette City
  6. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

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