This is where almost all the 1970s-era Bowie fans really got on the bus, including me. Though Hunky Dory rightfully has a phalanx of proponents, the twists and turns, experiments (mostly unsuccessful), and constant reinvention of Bowie’s career up to this point ensured that any nascent fans were unsatisfied most of the time: he was easy on the eyes, but didn’t fit into any boxes for very long. David was talented, everyone saw that, but he was unpalatably unpredictable. You can get away with that if you’re already a reliably-successful artist; the problem was, he wasn’t.
There have been a number of people credited for this major leap in both Bowie’s cohesion as a performer and songwriter; Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and (notably) the influence of both the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Vince Taylor. As usual, throw in what Bowie had recently been reading (especially Nietzsche and Crowley) and what he was reading or seeing just then (notably A Clockwork Orange and Quatermass, but also 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Who’s Tommy,and even Warhol’s Pork show), and his visits to the gay nightclub Sombrero with friend Freddie Buretti, Elton John (according to Elton) and others, then mix well. Gay and bisexual culture is quite prominent throughout Ziggy, and although “subtle” is not a word commonly associated with this album, the references largely (but not completely) fly under the radar for listeners who were already staunchly heterosexual.
The one name that rarely gets sufficient credit for both Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust is Angela Bowie. As the Arnold Corns demos showcase, the two albums were written nearly together, and were in fact recorded back-to-back. In addition to providing Bowie with a “cocoon” writing environment at Haddon Hall (complete with the piano that made such a difference to his composing), she was likely the one who suggested chopping off and dying the long tresses of hair to create a new look (Angie’s hairdresser later refined that early Ziggy look), introduced him to so many people who would influence his work and look (like the London cast of Warhol’s Pork), and generally kept Bowie focused.
This role often gets overlooked, but it was just as important as many of the other elements that helped this breakthrough album come together. For a wife and mother, Angie’s seriously unconventional lifestyle kept Bowie’s inspirations fresh — and likely played a key role in his more-shocking approach to androgyny for Ziggy, as well as (perhaps) addressing that part of his past where he may (or may not) have been more of a “pracitising” bisexual than he would ever be after this album. She was a “kook,” to be sure (this author briefly met Angie in the distant past — and was immediately struck by her, um, free spirit), but she’s also under-credited generally for contributions to both his development as an artist and this particular period of his career. As has already become obvious, Bowie rarely did anything completely on his own, and that was by design.
Though Bowie still wasn’t yet as consistently strong a lyricist as he would become, his ideas were good, his melodies were strong, and the production was again exceptional. Ziggy covers a lot of the ground (thematically) as was the case with the previous two albums, but hits a commercial half-way point (especially musically) between the heavier Man and the lighter Hunky Dory that turned out to be pure dynamite, complimented with a heaping helping of androgyny, a loose “concept” coupled with the first of his “characters,” and splashed with some appropriately scandalous press interviews (including, apparently, the one that drove a wedge between him and Elton, sadly never to be repaired).
To most, this is a landmark rock album — to some, it was a life-changing head-spinner that re-defined sexuality and indeed even rock music at a crucial point in their lives. Whether intentionally or not, Bowie (augmented with The Man Who Sold the World’s UK cover) found a look that attracted both men and women, and blurred those previously-rigid gender and sexual-identity lines towards the butch (whereas the “man dress” had blurred it towards the “nelly”), making it an instant identifier with anyone in their youth who didn’t feel like they quite cut it in the traditional gender roles, and went looking for a “third way.” If Bowie was already something of a gay icon by this point, Ziggy picked up a fair number of lesbians and “bois” with the new look.
This album really did accomplish the worst fears of parents everywhere: it encouraged young people to look beyond the norms, experiment, and perhaps discover new things about themselves at just that age when these aspects of one’s personality were still being formed. Bowie’s wild look and wilder costumes, now brought into the mainstream, were exotic; boys discovered that makeup looked as good on them as it did on girls, and that one could reinvent themselves as whatever they liked. Rock music as rebellion had first flowered in the 1950s with “black music,” and blossomed with political and lifestyle rebellion in the hippie era, but this was something new to this generation: be a girl, be a boy, be an alien (simultaneous both and neither gender). It was nothing less than a re-education in long-lost ceremonial and gender fluidity, coming in an era where Western society in particular had locked itself down almost as sternly as the Victoria era — a period we appear to be going through again, it should be noted.
It’s hard to underplay what an impact this idea had on people, but one should remember that this was the era in which people dismissed you if you told them Liberace was gay (to quote Harvey Fierstein). Being what we would now call “gender-fluid” and promoting a vision of “omni” sexuality with a blurring of “beauty” differences was a completely new outlook, at least in the mainstream, and it inspired an entire generation to reconsider where they thought they were sexually, or (if they already knew they were a member of the deviant class) to become more open about it.
A big part of why this enlightenment was so successful was the confidence Bowie exuded in selling both the music and the image. This wasn’t one shocking photo of a man in a dress (reassuringly back to pants by the back cover): this was your wild new boytoy your parents would hate and who would lead you down into the secret clubs and basements full of forbidden pleasures. The cover, the band, the publicity stills, the music: even if you ultimately went back to the staid existence of suburban norms, you had seen things (and perhaps done things) you couldn’t un-see or undo. This album made a lot of “normal” kids into very different people. Perhaps it’s a lot to put on Bowie’s shoulders; he was hardly alone in pushing a somewhat androgynous image in that period, but Ziggy just took it all too far — but boy, could he play guitar.
“Sweet Head” (above) was a perfect example of this: although it was ultimately kicked off the album (presumably by the record company if not Bowie himself), it’s a glittering example of Ziggy’s worldview; a killer tune with some great playing (though the lyric is much too explicit and. nowadays, rather too politically incorrect) and indulgence-obsessed sentiments. It’s a raw rocker that really puts it all out there — and though it became an abandoned and forgotten song until Ryko added it to the 1990 reissue, it’s a pretty clear statement of where Ziggy’s (and let’s be frank, Bowie’s), er, head was at.
Speaking of which, some have argued that another cut track, “Velvet Goldmine” — another song rather explicitly about oral sex — was cut along with “Sweet Head” because they are flip sides of the same coin: paens to given oral sex to a man with the former, to a woman with the latter. The lyric is artistic (read: ambiguous) enough that this interpretation may be dead wrong, but both songs were probably judged too explicit. If “Sweet Head” was an outstanding showcase of the Ziggy sound, “Velvet” harked back to more of a Hunky Dory sound, and that also might have led to its removal from the slate that made it onto the album. Unlike “Head,” though, “Velvet” did actually make it to a single — a b-side on the 1975 reissue of the “Space Oddity” single.
That sort of sexual and performing confidence was the linchpin that made this album and the entire Ziggy concept such a success, and influential legend. Bowie undoubtedly knew — long before this album hit the stores — that he had the best band in the land, strong songs, and a look that would create sensation and headlines. This was his best shot at being a star (a point made repeatedly in the album itself), and had it flopped I suspect Bowie’s music career might have faded away at that point.
Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries, was credited with telling Bowie that if he wanted to be a rock star, the secret was to act like and be seen as being one already. This is a rather clever take on the old writer’s key to success “write what you know,” or perhaps “do what you love [like you’re already making the big bucks for it] and the money will follow.” It is likely the genesis point for this album, which was written in large part during Bowie’s tour of the larger-than-life USA promoting The Man Who Sold the World: Bowie invents a “fake rock star” he can hide behind (possibly as “insurance” if the album was yet another flop) in order to put DeFries’ theory about success to the test. He had little to lose, given his track record to that date. Luckily for us all, the trick worked (for Bowie, more than once it must be said).
He again takes co-producing credit with Ken Scott (who also served as recording and mixing engineer on the record), and the band was made up of Ronson, Woodmansey, and Bolder (who took on more duties this time round, as Rick Wakeman was only used on one song — having joined Yes in the interim). George Underwood, the man who was responsible for Bowie’s childhood eye injury (which turned out to be responsible for a good portion of Bowie’s otherworldly visage), did the cover as another mix of old-fashioned hand-coloured imagery with a touch of A Clockwork Orange about it.
The “concept” behind this “concept album” (note to future musicians: just admit you’re writing a musical from now on, yeah?) revisits Bowie’s seemingly-endless love affair with doom and despair, but channels that dark energy into a catchy, somewhat gospel-inspired musical direction. Essentially, Ziggy is meant to be an omnisexual rock star who gets contacted by an unseen alien “starman” who arrives on Earth, and in the Earth’s end times Ziggy uses its advice to become a messianic figure, delivering the aliens’ message of love and hope (saviour complex much, Bowie?), only to find that the kids currently have everything they want — and so they’re kind of numb to the finality of it all (unlike the adults, who just lose their minds).
Ziggy’s penchant for excess (ironically to be further acted out by Bowie himself across the next decade) mirrors the collapse of society in the conventional sense. Eventually, the fans and indulgences kill him, but Ziggy is resurrected and used by the aliens (called “the infinites” and described as “black hole jumpers” by Bowie, very much referencing the work of William S. Burroughs) to give them a physical presence. At least, that’s what David has said is the “story” of the album, though there isn’t really that much evidence for all that in the record itself —and even less that any sort of coherent storyline was concocted before the album was released.
Looked at this way, fans will recognise reworkings of most of his darker concepts from previous albums (going all the way back to at least the second album, if not the first) into more alluring formulas by tossing in more sex appeal and dead sharp glam-rock arrangements. The album offers songs to set the narrative (“Five Years,” “Starman”), examples of songs Ziggy performed (“Moonage Daydream”, “It Ain’t Easy,” “Hang On to Yourself,” “Suffragette City”), and songs about Ziggy (“Ziggy Stardust,” “Star,” and “Lady Stardust,” though some of these are pretty clearly patterned on Marc Bolan more than Bowie.
Unsurprisingly, some of the best songs on the album come from the “rough drafts” recorded during the Arnold Corns and pre-Hunky sessions, having had some time to stew. Bowie did indeed want to stage Ziggy as a television special or musical, and clearly intended the story to have an ending (thus substituting Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” for the later “Rock n Roll Suicide”). Had this idea come to fruition, it is likely that songs such as “All the Young Dudes,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Sweet Head,” and the later “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock n Roll with Me” (all clearly written with this album’s motif in mind, and most of which would likely have been included if the longer playing time of the CD format had been around at the time) would have been included to fill it out. Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” would likely also have been used at least as b-sides, as they were at one point or another slated for the album. They all ended up as such, or bonus tracks (or both) in later reissues.
This is unquestionably Bowie’s strongest work to date, and Ronson’s arrangements and piano playing again share much of the credit for the success. Although a bit “first draft”-ish in its lyrics, “Five Years” both sets up the story and paints a number of vivid pictures, just as “Life on Mars” had on Hunky Dory. As often happened on Bowie records, “Soul Love” was a pointer to his next big direction, with some clear R&B influence mixed into the song.
The sole cover song that made it onto the album, Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy,” is an odd choice; it would have fit in better on the The Man Who Sold the World, album as a sort of sequel to “Memory of a Free Festival.” Before we get all that, though, we really should start with the album opener, which is so memorably and startlingly effective at setting the scene: “Five Years” is probably one of the all-time great “story” songs in the history of rock. The “story” of this album starts with the news that Earth’s ecosystem will collapse in five years, and Bowie-Ziggy documents both his own reactions to the news and those of the others. In the song, people pretty much lose their minds and try to make amends or act out their darkest impulses. While the lyrics are very much the observant Bowie’s own visions, the core idea of this came from a poem Bowie used to recite in his cabaret act; passengers on a bush learn that the end is nigh, and immediately plunge into instantaneous relationships, for there is nothing else they can do.
What’s really new with this particularly remarkable song is the blatant use of doo wop-style chording, American slang (“TV” rather than “Telly”) and other techniques to support the apocalyptic lyric. The arrangement is as spectacular as (and borrowed from) “Life on Mars?”, with Ronson showing off his no-Wakeman-but-damn-fine piano and orchestral skills alongside the guitar work, and Bowie augmenting the “reality” of the song with semi-spoken vocals for the verses undoubtedly influenced by Lou Reed, which then shifts to a more powerful sung chorus following the softer opening. The technique lends believability to the storyline at the beginning, and cleverly includes the line that the “newsguy’s” face was so wet with tears “that I knew he wasn’t lying.”
There are a few moments where the lyric hasn’t aged well (references to “the black” and “the queer,” the observation of a woman attempting to kill “tiny children” after losing her mind), but they remain effective at painting a picture of the myriad reactions to such news (the same news, incidentally, that all the young dudes were carrying — is your mind blown because when I figured that out, mine certainly was). Bowie’s description of Ziggy having to “sing the news” because rock as entertainment was dead — a reference, perhaps, to the return to the “folk” era of political and protest songs that had only recently (in 1972) fallen completely out of fashion (ironically due in part to the rise of entertaining-but-hedonistic “glam rock”) — was never more clearly illustrated as it is here.
“Five Years,” as much as or more than any other song on the album, hits Bowie’s goal of “song as painting.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, painting became a strong interest of his in later years, and indeed it is perhaps just as well that music videos weren’t in fashion when this came out — listeners’ imaginations were fired by the lyrical imagery throughout this album in a way that any actual visualizations would have failed miserably to capture.
“Soul Love” is, as mentioned, a clear path to Bowie’s later interest in soul and R&B that would eventually lead to Young Americans, but of course if you’ve ever played sax for any length of time you probably chose the instrument in part because of interest in the black roots of rock, blues, R&B, or at least ska music. More importantly, the song serves as a kind of zoom-in/close-up of the world-ending despair offered in “Five Years,” which is probably why it segues into it rather quietly — a change of perspective on much the same scene.
In the song, a mother grieves for a dead soldier of a son, two lovers are besotted with new love, and a priest blindly believes an invisible and all-knowing power cares for him. In this now-ending world, though, all of these are even more exposed as delusions than they already were. The mother’s son “died to save the slogan,” while the lovers’ “idiot love will cause the fusion,” and the priest is at least happy, but “blind” to reality. This is the kind of morose stuff Man Who Sold the World was full of, but this time wrapped in a beautiful R&B melody, albeit a bit undercut by Bowie’s wailing but merely serviceable sax playing. This Ziggy fellow certainly seems to be done with the concept of love, and Bowie himself in an interview in 1976 disparaged love as a “draining” thing, referencing (10 years after the fact, and while he was still married to Angie) the heartache he had experienced losing Hermione Farthingale. Although recorded innumerable times by other artists later, here’s my present favourite cover version:
As with “Five Years,” “Soul Love” likewise segues into the next song, “Moonage Daydream,” again to connect the three numbers that are sung by pre-alien contact rock star Ziggy. This song — if you’re trying to make a somewhat-coherent storyline out of this thing (which is more than Bowie did with it) — is what Ziggy does for a living: fake rock songs from a fake rock performer, only now he’s been contacted by an alien being. The album version is fantastic by comparison with the rather limp “Arnold Corns” version, thanks mostly to Ronson (both on guitar and orchestral arrangements), along with Trevor Bolder’s clever bass and of course Scott’s production. The opening gambit (which screams “entrance music”) was probably the most electrifying song opening that came out that year, and really kicks off the “rock” portion of the “glam rock” manifesto here by finally (finally!) amping up the electric guitars to be the dominant sound for the first time thus far on the album.
Like “Five Years,” this song oddly enough was inspired by the music of the 1950s young Master Jones heard in his youth. The opening line of “I’m an alligator” was said by Bowie’s band mates to have come by way of Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator,” while the piccolo-and-baritone-sax solo in the middle was inspired by a b-side song (“Sure Know a Lot About Love”) by The Hollywood Argyles. As with many great rock songs, the lyrics don’t make any sort of conventional sense, but certainly sound great; since I first heard the song, I’ve always been amused by the lyric “the church of man-love is such a holy place to be,” though in truth Bowie is almost certainly reverting to a UK-ism there, talking to the listener and saying that “The Church of Man, luv, it’s such a holy place to be.” Given his alleged escapades during this time and earlier, you can read it either way; perhaps that is what Bowie really intended.
This brings us to “Starman,” which really establishes the alien part of the “plot” of the album. Bowie seems to be using the concept of an alien with a universal message of love and happiness as a device to (continue to) work out his feelings about religion. On previous albums, he has explored his conflicted feelings plenty, but — while expressing plenty of spirituality — never quite seemed comfortable with embracing any of the established structures (“Saviour Machine” being only the most obvious example). Bowie was hardly the first to explore the idea that our ideas of religion spring from extra-terrestrial sources (the book Chariots of the Gods came out just a few years before, and was a mainstream hit), but the use of this metaphor allows Ziggy to promulgate values and beliefs often adopted by religions, without actually being seen as “religious.” In the lyric, the “Starman” is apparently only understood and embraced by the youth, compared to the fear and misunderstanding of the parents (“Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright”), mirroring the reaction authorities had to Jesus in the Bible.
As O’Leary notes, the image of Ziggy Stardust as a great hard-rocking album is at odds with the singalong pop catchiness of most of its numbers, including the more anthemic melody of “Starman” (and “Soul Love,” “Lady Stardust,” and others). O’Leary also slyly draws a parallel from Ziggy and the “stranded” alien to the concurrent Jon Pertwee years of Doctor Who, where the god-like and enlightended Time Lord was exiled to Earth for a period, and mostly worked to bring peace between humanity and various invading threats about which the general public could do nothing. Bowie was a big Doctor Who fan his whole life, according to Pegg, and thus it is most amusing that one can (with only a little finessing) draw comparisons between the constant regeneration (and periodic genre shifts) of the venerable UK TV show and his own career — right down to both of them seeing a return to form in the late 90s after an extended decay, ahead of a full-fledged revival in the early 21st century.
As with “Life on Mars?”, the chorus in “Starman” also relies on a vocal leap (take straight from “Over the Rainbow”), up a full octave. The outro is, um, “inspired” by more Bolan, and thanks to the above memorable miming of it on Top of the Pops ahead of the album’s release (note how he looks dead-on to the camera with a come-hither gesture on the line “I had to phone someone / so I picked on you-oo-oo”), the single made it into the top 10. Really, this should have been the end of Side One on the original album, but instead we’re treated to a straight-up rock song, performed exactly to specifications, which has no discernible connection to the concept of the overall album. Given the wealth of alternative options that would have both tied in better and given Bowie royalties for having written them, why “It Ain’t Easy” is on there at all is a puzzler. There’s nothing wrong with it, certainly, but it is a far more “basic” rock song (albeit memorable and oft-covered) that one can only speculate was intended as a palette-cleanser before Side Two gets cued up.
The second side kicks off with another song every bit as lovely and soulful as “Soul Love,” the aforementioned tribute to Marc Bolan, “Lady Stardust.” Bowie and Ronson invent a few things on this record, but this is where the gender-bending really kicks in. In addition to referring to Lady Stardust as “he” throughout, the lyric clearly has “Ziggy” strongly attracted to Bolan (“I smiled sadly, for a love I could not obey”). Bolan and Bowie had a mercurial relationship, appearing to be quite close at times, and estranged rivals at other points. I don’t pretend to know the highs and lows of their relationship, but I’ll note that Bowie had something of a similar relationship to Mick Jagger, though in the other direction — he would (with affection) diss the Stones early on, but got friendlier with Jagger (very friendly, allegedly) later, culminating in a collaboration decades later.
“Star,” which was originally demoed as “Rock n’ Roll Star,” is for me one of the most interesting tracks on the album. The piano banging opening reminds me of Brian Eno’s “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” and John Cale’s early piano work, the backing vocals remind of the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita,” and the parting shot of “just watch me now” is also taken from the Velvets. It’s such a perfect example of glam rock that it wouldn’t have been even slightly out of place in The Rocky Horror Show. The song was actually written even before Hunky Dory was recorded, lending credence to Bowie’s later claim that Hunky was in fact a contractually-required album rather than the bold and much-loved artistic statement we have all thought it was all these years. It is both wonderfully catchy and, frankly, more autobiographical (“I could do with the money”) than he might have admitted at the time. It was certainly more prescient than he could have imagined. Bowie actually offered the song (in an earlier form) to another band, the Chameleons, who recorded their own demo:
The song mirrors Ziggy’s aspirations, or maybe how Bowie saw himself at that moment: successful as an artist, but not yet really a star. For all his talk about his work and his art, it is his naked ambition that shines most brightly (alongside his amazing looks and obvious talent) across the singles and records up to this point, and in hindsight it seems clear that his taste of commercial success with “Major Tom” was the fuel that drove him forward to this point. He wouldn’t know how well the album did (or what a powerful influence it would be) until after it was released, but from this point onwards we are no longer dealing with David Jones, the Bromley bloke struggling to be a financially-successful artist; we’re dealing with Bowie the rock star from here on out, and that made quite a difference — particularly for the next five years of his career.
Even here, at his most commercial, however, Bowie’s essential weirdness peeks out from under the covers. In the song, he compares his desire unfavourably to that of a soldier fighting in “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, and also to some friends who is out to save the nation (or the world), but the song remains the anthem of anyone who ever posed in a mirror with a hairbrush for a mic. The next track, “Hang on to Yourself,” completes this second trilogy of songs on the album: “Lady Stardust” is how Ziggy is seen (or wants to be seen) by his audiences; “Star” is both his worry that people “will see the faker” and his goal; “Hang on to Yourself” is a song Ziggy performs. “Hang on” was another song that was written and demoed early; indeed it was conceived and recorded while Bowie was on his first big US tour, where he met Gene Vincent (who may or may not have been present at the recording, depending on who is telling the story).
Ironically it is this song, and not the eponymous “Ziggy Stardust” track, that serves as the start point for this album. This was, according to interviews, Bowie’s first attempt to write a song for his “fake rock star” concept which he was developing. America, the very land of “fake it till you make it” and artifice as reality, no doubt provided plenty of grist for Bowie’s imagination mill. In addition to a demo recorded in the US, it was also part of the Arnold Corns project, and came out quite differently, as you can hear here:
And with that, we finally get to the meat of the album: Ziggy’s requiem. Wait, isn’t that in “Rock n Roll Suicide,” you ask? Nope, it’s here in the title track. If we follow Bowie’s (loose and articulated only after the album was recorded) “storyline,” the aliens and the kids who selected Ziggy as their spokesperson now decide to kill him off, only later (in “Rock n Roll Suicide”) to be reanimated in order for them to deliver their message to humanity directly. Or that was all bollocks, and Bowie deliberately announced his “death” at the last Ziggy show as a way of making the song a self-fulfilling prophecy, or perhaps — sensing what an enthusiastic cult he had created as he toured the album — killing the character off out of fear of becoming exactly what he was singing about.
In the meantime, we get this biographical song of Ziggy at the height of his powers, possibly recounted by one of band members themselves (“Weird and Gilly” are said to be nicknames Bowie had for Bolder and Woodmansley, respectively, though others claim “Gilly” was one of Bowie’s schoolmates who had attitude). Ronson beautifully builds on Bowie’s demo to give Bowie’s acoustic playing a rock edge and greater credibility to the Ziggy character. They lyric mixes great insight into the life of rock-n-rollers (“just a beer light to guide us”) and some — well, let’s be frank, substandard lyrics (“the kids were just crass, he was the nazz”). As a word painting, though, the success of the song is unmistakable — for all those that never got to see Ziggy-Bowie in concert on that tour, the imagery of the lyrics (supported by the endless stream of “outrageous” photos of Bowie in costume as Ziggy and his electric haircut and colour) fired the imagination and filled in the details.
To cement the deal, we get one more straight-up rock-n-roller song to remember Ziggy by, “Suffragette City.” a very 50’s-inspired rave-up that, had Bowie not been a mediocre player, would have had Clarence Clemons-level sax fronting the mix. The lyric is again deliberately androgynous: the singer desperately wants his bedmate/boyfriend to clear out the flat for a while so he can bring over a girl to have sex with. Ronson and Bowie, who O’Leary notes saw A Clockwork Orange shortly after release, were apparently quite inspired by it — and that amps up the arrangement as well as puts the lyrics in context with Alex’s sex scene in the movie (you’ll note the use of the term “droogie” as he tells Henry “don’t crash here, there’s only room for one and here she comes/here she comes”). Any young fellow who’s ever been anxious to get some “alone time” with a “new friend” will see this as their anthem, despite the light reference to homosexuality.
The album proper concludes with the requisite resurrection/redemption song, originally slated to be Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” but replaced in favour of “Rock n Roll Suicide,” a sort of hybrid number: it starts off as a Brel-like ballad (Specifically “Jef,” which includes the words “you’re not alone” in its lyric), then builds up (again employing the trick he used in both “Life on Mars?” and this album’s “Five Years”)to a chanson belter in the style of Edith Piaf, and finishes with a theatrical version of a deranged James Brown finalé, with a Beatles-esque last stabbing note on violas as the cherry on the cake. It was, according to reports, Angie’s idea to have a concluding number with a big finish that would double as the show closer on stage, and of course it worked tremendously well. In his 1966 cabaret act, Bowie used to end with the Rogers/Hammerstein number “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and he was surely thinking of it as he wrote the ending for this song. As the end of an emotional journey, the song is devastating — and was made more so when Bowie announced at the last Ziggy show that it was the last concert he (Ziggy, not Bowie) would ever do. The audience was in shock with disbelief. Always leave ’em wanting more.
Although Bowie would go on to further explore theatricality in rock concerts, from an emotional standpoint I don’t think he ever got closer to the goal than this: subsequent tours and even another couple of “concept” albums (what became Diamond Dogs and much later on, 1. Outside) never again completely enveloped an audience as much as the story of a man who became an alien and rock god, even as disjointed and unclear as the “story” is presented on the record. The trick, though, was that the concept was underwritten and under-explained enough that fans filled in the details themselves, making the final impact nearly as great as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play.
When it comes to a recommended version of the album, there is no single CD version I can suggest, as the best option really depends on how completist you want to be about this album. For the purposes of this review, I selected the 1990 Rykodisc reissue, remastered by Dr. Toby Mountain from the original tapes. It sounds a bit over-bright but good, and has what is now considered a modest number of bonus tracks, including the contextually important “Velvet Goldmine” and an outtake version of “Sweet Head” from the Ziggy sessions, as well as the demos of “Lady Stardust” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Annoyingly, it also throws in an unwarranted 1979 remix of the “John, I’m Only Dancing” single. The more recent 40th anniversary reissue (from EMI/Virgin) finally corrects the horrors of the 2002 30th anniversary reissue with a fresh (well, 2012 – heh, “Five Years” ago!) remastering, but the single-CD version contains strictly the original album with no bonus tracks (so that’s the best one if you just want the original album, straight up).
The 2002 EMI/Virgin 30th anniversary version had the potential to be really great, as it had a second CD with a tonne of relevant bonus tracks (including the two cover songs that were recorded for the album but tossed very late in the day, “Port of Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round”), but it reversed the original left/right channels (what?) and edits out the segues between some of the songs (what what what?!). The sound is also quite a bit muddier than the original release, but it packs in many bonus tracks of interest, such as the two Ziggy songs from the Arnold Corns project that were later re-recorded for Ziggy (“Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself”), along with the original “John, I’m Only Dancing” non-LP single, a 1971 re-recording of “Holy Holy,” a “new mix” of “Moonage Daydream,” and an alternate version of “The Supermen,” – the latter of which is also on the Ryko version of Hunky Dory.
For the truly “compleat” 1971–72 version (beyond just the original album), you’d need to get the Ryko and the 30th Anniversary EMI/Virgin version and cobble together your own CD, ending up with two versions of “Sweet Head” but leaving off the alternate “The Supermen” (since that rightly belongs with Hunky Dory) and the 1979 remix of “John.” The 40th Anniversary version is by far the best-sounding, but the bonus stuff includes only Ken Scott’s 2003 remixes of album tracks. Someday, a definitive edition will be released, I am sure, but until then getting all the right material together in one place is a DIY affair.