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The Story Behind The Song: David Bowie's 'A Clockwork Orange' inspired hit, Suffragette City'

Some artists are lucky if they have a singular defining moment in their musical career, David Bowie had far too many to mention. But most certainly, one of those moments, a zeitgeist reflection of the changing world and the artist who was leading them there, was when he formally introduced the world to his rock and roll alien, Ziggy Stardust, in his titular album. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars not only went on to define a generation of glam rock kids who sat glittered and glitzed, ready for their rocket ship out of mundanity, but set out David Bowie as an artist unlike any other.

Encapsulated within the album was a ream of songs that told the story of Ziggy and how, in his attempt to save humanity, he had found himself cast as the rock star in the world’s fateful production. Across the entire album, some moments deserve huge recognition as some of Bowie’s finest work. Spread across various styles and genres, the glam rock king really kicked it up a notch for one track in particular, ‘Suffragette City’. However, the song was never set out to be on the record at all.

The track was originally written for another band but was turned down by Mott The Hoople. The band’s leader, Ian Hunter, said of the track, “I didn’t think it was good enough,” instead opting to take ‘All The Young Dudes; off Bowie’s hands as their next single. Of course, it would prove to be a hit for Mott the Hoople and Bowie was left with trying to fit the song onto the album. However, with the music inspired by the 1950s superstars like Jerry Lee Lewis, it became the replacement for Bowie’s Chuck Berry cover, which had been slated for the album. Though the ‘Round and Round’ cover was officially replaced by ‘Starman‘, it was ‘Suffragette City’ that provided the balance to allow the switch.

Super-charged with the electric riff that Ronson conjured up, this was Ziggy and his Spiders in top gear. It’s one of the fiercest moments on the album and saw Bowie transcend into a fearsome rocker. Often thought of as the kind of songs a truly extra-terrestrial band would sing, it is a notion punctuated by the final shrieks of “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!” (a line Bowie stole from Charles Mingus) and gilded by the glitter of glam rock glory that rings out with every note. It’s about as perfect a moment in Ziggy’s career as you’ll find because it encapsulated everything he was at the time: sexual, dangerous and ultimately unpredictable.

The song acts like a sexually charged dancefloor filler as Bowie delivers a garbled storyline that sees our protagonist lament the errors of his flatmate in stopping him from getting laid. The track’s unusual set of lyrics and delivery may well have been inspired by Bowie’s newly adopted “cut-up” technique of lyric-writing, something he learned from Beat writer William S Burroughs, but are more keenly linked to Anthony Burgess’ landmark novel and Stanley Kubrick’s ultra-violent film, A Clockwork Orange.

Bowie had already completed much of ‘Suffragette City’ before he and Mick Ronson went to see the Kubrick film in January 1972, but the film did influence the final track. “I liked the malicious kind of malevolent, viscous quality of those four guys [in A Clockwork Orange],” recalled Bowie in 1993, “although the aspects of violence themselves didn’t turn me on particularly…Even the inset photographs of the inside sleeve for Ziggy owed a lot to the Malcolm McDowell look from the poster—the sort of sinister-looking photograph somewhere between a beetle, not a Beatle person, but a real beetle and violence.”

Bowie would draw on Burgess’ career-defining Nadsat dialect used in the book too. “The whole idea of having this phoney-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak,” the Starman continued, “that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet.”

There’s a good shout for saying that ‘Suffragette City’ is one song that typifies everything we know and love about David Bowie. As well as being all the things that Ziggy was too, the aforementioned adventurous rocker with a penchant for sex, it also saw Bowie the artists draw from his own life, the culture around him and literature to provide a sincere vision of how rock and roll should be. It’s a timeless song that should be played loudly at every opportunity.

The song was initially released as the B-side to ‘Starman’ but found a brand new release in 1976 as a stand-alone single.

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