David Bowie was a man of duality and his songwriting reflects that. Woven into his work is a tapestry of art, ideas and influences. As he once said of Ziggy Stardust: “He was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of Japanese theatre.” This kaleidoscopic mix is what made his universe so alluring.
However, beyond all the fanfare and gaudy surface, it also meant that there was depth to his work. On occasion, this depth often made his output difficult to wade through and fathom. David Bowie said that Bob Dylan brought a new intelligence to songwriting and Paul Simon furthered that when he said, “With Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun at the same time.”
That same irony is central to many of Bowie’s mixed messages, and he claims with the classic ‘All The Young Dudes’ that people got the wrong end of the stick. The song was a Ziggy Stardust leftover that he offered to Mott the Hoople to revive their career. Thus, it follows on from the same five year terminal diagnosis that Earth receives in Ziggy’s universe.
As Bowie explained to the author William S. Burroughs when Rolling Stone paired the two iconoclasts together in 1974: “The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of a lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything.”
Ziggy Stardust was a saviour in waiting as Bowie continued: “Ziggy was in a rock and roll band and the kids no longer want rock and roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. ‘All The Young Dudes’ is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”
At the time, Bowie was concerned about the dream of the 1960s becoming stilted and jaded. Thus, Ziggy was a shocking proto-punk creation that sought to revitalise inventiveness and the verve of culture. The song is more of a call to arms than a celebration of the way things were going as many people have interpreted it.
The anthemic tune was one of many that were left off his masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. As a half-finished piece, Bowie thought that tapping into the mindset of a band he largely admired would help to get it over the line. This move is key to understanding the way that Bowie approached his work.
As he once explained: “I was never unaware of my strength as an interpretive performer, but writing a song for me, it never rang true. I had no problem writing something for, or working with Lou Reed, or writing for Mott the Hoople. I can get into their mood and what they want to do, but I find it extremely hard to write for me.”