Some artists are lucky if they have one defining moment in their musical career, David Bowie has had far too many to mention. But most certainly one of those moments 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.
To commemorate the album’s release, which happened on this day in 1972, we thought we’d look back at Bowie’s seminal album and try and rank the songs from worst to best. Eleven tracks of pure extraterrestrial triumph make it a rather hard list to complete, especially considering the weird and wonderful point of conception.
The album is a concept album of sorts and was explained by Bowie to his own personal writing hero, William S Burroughs. “The time is five years to go before the end of the earth,” begins Bowie relishing telling his story. “It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. [The album was released three years prior to the original interview.] 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 was in a rock & 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.”
“This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy,” the singer continues, “The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.”
Bowie continues to go into depth about the conception of the persona, allegedly based on the acclaimed rocker Vince Taylor: “Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes ‘Starman,’ which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers.
“They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe.”
The tale is as old as time it would seem, as Bowie draws comparisons with false prophets and the destruction of a hero.”Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world.
“And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song ‘Rock and Roll Suicide.’ As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rogers and Hammerstein of the Seventies, Bill!”
It’s a complicated story that opens up just how much thought went into Bowie’s creations, just how constructed each flare of genius or spurt of sonic exaltation was. It can feel a little baffling. However, one thing is easy to confirm, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars is a conceptual masterpiece.
Ranking David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust from worst to best:
11. ‘Soul Love’
Following ‘Five Years’ is always a difficult feat and ‘Soul Love’ suffers because of it, providing a decidedly more upbeat tone to the preceding track. It’s full of Mick Ronson’s affectations and dripping with Bowie’s growing confidence.
When you hear the singer’s light and airy sax roll into proceedings you know that it was another announcement to the world as Bowie changed the face of rock. ‘Worst’ is all too harsh a sentiment, perhaps ‘least best’ is more appropriate.
10. ‘It Ain’t Easy’
Not unusual for later albums, Bowie included this cover of Ron Davies-penned track ‘It Ain’t Easy’, which featured as the title track for the Three Dog Night album, which has a fair bit of legs itself.
A slight jump back to the days of Hunky Dory, the opening song provided a brief reprieve from the cosmic riffs that were pushing through every crack on the record. Soon ‘It Ain’t Easy’ follows suit and adds another conceptual layer to the album.
9. ‘Hang On To Yourself’
Ladies and gentlemen, Trevor Bolder. The Bowie bassist, and the owner of the most fabulous sideburns of all time, takes the lead on this track as his bassline, dripping in the glimmers of punk rock revelry and is covered in the schmutz of New York City.
The song had been kicking around from Bowie’s previous incarnation with his side project Arnold Corns but had been tightened up a la Lou Reed. Given a more menacing undertone, it links perfectly with Bowie’s vision for the album and provides a glorious moment.
8. ‘Lady Stardust’
Mick Ronson proves that he wasn’t only a guitar man and delivers some beautiful piano moments on the side two opener ‘Lady Stardust’.
Originally demoed as ‘He Was Alright (Song For Marc)’ lyrically, the song saw Bowie dip his toe into the gender-blurring future as he set out his stall as an icon.
As you might expect, the song was seen as an admission of Bowie’s flirtations with glam rock counterpart Marc Bolan before the singer changed it up for Ziggy and highlighted his persona’s pansexuality. Bowie at his finest.
A super-charged track that sees Bowie not only employ a significant narrative device for the concept of the album, allowing our hero to daydream about delivering his message of youth empowerment but yet another reflection of Bowie, the showman.
Rivalling his theatre production Lazarus for ‘musical theatre-ness’, ‘Star’ sees Bowie throw his hips into it and keep the imagery of the intergalactic rock star alive.
6. ‘Suffragette City’
Turned down by Mott The Hoople (the band choosing ‘All The Young Dudes’ instead—not a bad choice), the song remains one of Bowie’s most iconic songs of all time.
Super-charged with the electric riff that Ronson conjured up, this was Ziggy and his Spiders in top gear.
Often thought of as the kind of songs the band would sing, a notion punctuated by the final shrieks of “Wham, bam thank you ma’am!” and gilded by the glitter of glam rock glory that rings out with every note.
5. ‘Ziggy Stardust’
The anthemic song introducing Bowie’s listener to the persona he had created in the fullest detail could have easily been lost to the cutting room floor.
As the idea for the basis of a pop song, the idea of telling the tale of a well-hung, snow-white, alien rock lifeform is a little out there, but somehow Ronson and Bowie bring it all back down to earth.
In the end, the song becomes a cautionary tale as Ziggy arrives on earth in the middle of the final five years of the planet’s existence. He comes with a message but is soon too wrapped up in his own ego and alienates everyone around him. Bowie’s vocals are near perfection, and Mick Ronson has his hand on one of the greatest riffs in rock.
4. ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’
Some songs need explaining, some songs that need a little extra investigation, but David Bowie’s ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’ needs just one thing: to be heard.
The track not only directly deals with the ideas of overwhelming loneliness but does so in the most sumptuous and spotlit way imaginable.
Bowie kicks the song into gear after a build of slow-paced acoustic musings when he yells, “Oh no, love, you’re not alone!” in desperation. Like Ziggy, Bowie was always keen to connect with his audience and deliver his message; for an artist as ubiquitously unique as Bowie, that message was that being different was finally a good thing.
3. ‘Moonage Daydream’
Another song leftover from Bowie’s time with Arnold Corns, ‘Moonage Daydream’ is one of the singer’s most iconic tracks of all time, neatly typifying everything that Bowie was and remains to this day. The song may well be the archetypal Ziggy Stardust tune, but the Spider from Mars stole the show on this one.
Across the entire record, Ronson’s sound is formidable, but there’s one moment that typified Ronson’s work — the solo on Bowie’s iconic track ‘Moonage Daydream’. It lands around the 3:12 mark, and after Bowie utters “Freak out. Far Out.” (following a ream of extraordinary lyrics), Ronson lets snarling an alien life form escape from his guitar.
Perfectly capturing the bizarre and crazed intensity of the song, Ronson’s sonics mirror that of a terrifying yet beguiling machine from another world. It would not be a ludicrous notion to think that without it, the song would struggle to land as heavily as it did and continues to do.
2. ‘Five Years’
Arguably one of the greatest opening songs of all time, this track is beautiful for many reasons and all of them are David Bowie’s magical and mystical lyrics. In it, he manages to authentically describe a scenario where the “earth is really dying” and the world is need of Ziggy and his Spiders.
The landscape of the seventies was a strange place to be and Bowie seemed intent on capitalsigin on it. Using the speedy modernisation of the globe, Bowie set about his idea of the impening apocalypse. Somehow, he does it all with charm and wit.
The real moment of joy comes through when Bowie delivers a line that typifies the singer’s off-stage personality; he breaks the fourth wall and addresses his audience directly, “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlour”. It was this sentiment of connection that kept Bowie in the business for decades.
We may have disappointed Bowie by picking ‘Starman’ as the album’s best song—he never did like predictability—but we can’t avoid the sheer power, strength and continued pertinence of the singer, or perhaps we should say, The Starman’s anthemic number.
The song is finely crafted with lyrics that are not only perfect for the album but also keep a pop audience engaged. Musically, Ronson and Bowie’s vision is perfectly enacted but perhaps the song’s shining moment is that fabled octave-leap on “Star-MAN”. It’s a musical trope which has launched many a career, just ask Judy Garland, and here it is employed to perfection.
Aside from the concepts and the intergalactic time travel, the real note of this song is that it added yet another moniker to the growing list of ways David Bowie was becoming an icon. Arguably only after ‘Starman’ was Bowie as we know him born.