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50 years on: Is David Bowie’s masterpiece 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars' the greatest album of all time?

@TomTaylorFO

In 1972, the prelapsarian dream of the ‘60s was in the gutter, but a certain David Bowie was gazing up at the stars, and from his lowly perch he was seeing further than any of the giants gone before. However, he was no idle voyeur in this matter, he was about to risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss. As he once said, “If it’s wearing a pink hat and red nose and it plays the guitar upside down, I’ll go and look at it. I love to see people being dangerous.” Bowie was about to get very dangerous indeed. 

Of all the assets that Bowie brought to the table, the superlative that shines most seraphically is just how revolutionarily daring he was as an artist—it is in this aspect that he excelled way beyond any of his peers. After all, at this point, the ‘60s dream might have been in the gutter, but his musical hopes weren’t far from joining it in the rubble of what could’ve been. 

At Glastonbury ’71 he basically announced his resurrection: “I’ll try and be serious for a second… I just want to say that you’ve given me more pleasure than I’ve had in a good few months of working, and I don’t do gigs anymore because I got so pissed off with working and dying a death every time I worked, and it’s really nice to have somebody appreciate me for a change.” You might have thought he’d play it safe after that, but Bowie was about to do anything but. 

This move and the masterful album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would define his lurid legacy. “I think Bowie inspires a healthy disrespect and disregard for rules in so many artists,” Pale Wizard Records label head, responsible for the new covers album Ziggy Stardust 50 Years Later, Tim Hilleard told me. “He had a devotion to his music that was fearless, and Bowie has definitely influenced me to think outside the box with regards to what I do.”

The life and times of Ziggy Stardust

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It has forever been a mark of Bowie’s influence in this regard that his inspiration echoes in everything we hear. As Hilleard continues: “The fact that his music inspired such a range of heavy rock artists to contribute to our Ziggy tribute album is testament to his wide-reaching influence.” Bowie is a transcendent artist and his output coloured everything with a kaleidoscopic swirl of imagination once he opened pandora’s box of possibilities with Ziggy Stardust. 

It is here where many people go wrong with their interpretation of ‘The Starman’. When Keith Richards said, “It’s all f—king pose. It’s nothing to do with music,” presumably the bearded wheeto between his creaky bum cheeks grew jealous of his mouth because of the amount of sh-t that was coming out of it. Rock ‘n’ roll by definition is all pose. The Rolling Stones are all pose, and it doesn’t detract from their output either. As Sam Shepard said of one of the progenitors of this practice: “[Bob] Dylan invented himself.”

Continuing: “He’s made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him. Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn’t to figure him out but to take him in. He gets into you anyway, so why not just take him in? He’s not the first one to have invented himself, but he’s the first one to have invented Dylan.” From the gyrating ways of Mick Jagger taking up the full-frontal style of James Brown to the snarling of the Sex Pistols and beyond, image is an invention, it’s just that Bowie’s was far beyond the imagination of anyone else’s.

That same Sam Shepard quote could quite easily be applied to Ziggy in a meta-sense, provided you ran it through a far-out filter of William S. Burroughs, the Japanese theatre, and sci-fi rock. As Bowie said himself, “The clothes were, at the time, simply outrageous and nobody had seen anything like them before.” Ziggy Stardust truly was a thoroughbred original. 

You might note that the album itself hasn’t even been mentioned yet and that is for a pertinent reason. Music has blessed us with countless masterpieces of all genres, moods and intents, thus, crowning a definitive greatest is like picking out a best day in history—things are far too subjective. However, when you lay it all out on paper, very few albums, if any, have achieved the sheer scope and depth of Bowie’s opus with such unwavering brilliance in between. This is the true mark of Bowie’s output. 

Just as Dougie Payne of Travis told us of Hunky Dory, “I think it’s the best record ever made, but I don’t even know if it’s my favourite Bowie album,” Charlie Steen of Shame echoes this sentiment when he told us, “Although his record Low probably held a higher place than a lot of his other work for a long period of my life, I would have to go with the [Ziggy Stardust] album as it’s the one I go to the most at the moment.”

And Hilleard also added: “I wouldn’t say it’s even the best Bowie album for me personally, though it is damn close to being the best of his large and varied discography. However, Ziggy is a very special album that stands alone in the catalogue for a multitude of reasons and its influence on numerous genres is clear for all to see.”

That is the singular feat that the record achieved. It stretched beyond the magnificent songs into new horizons. It was the moment that Bowie welcomed you into his own bohemian oeuvre, and for many fans, every other album has seemed somewhat shallow, in comparison, ever since. And on a subjective front, personally, I think it’s just about the finest collection of songs ever too. 

It is a mark of the legacy of this collision of artistry and vision that the horizons of Ziggy continue to stretch and the joyous inspiration remains unabated. As Steen recalled to us: “I’ll never forget the day he passed away. We were at practice in Camberwell and walked with Jason and Candy, who owned the rehearsal space, up to Brixton. Never have I seen something like it and I doubt I’ll see anything like it again. The streets were chocked, and the traffic was at a stand-still, the pedestrians and the drivers both chanting along to the great David Bowie.” It’s an in-memoriam scene that conjures up notions of a World Cup Win. 

Steen continues, “There seemed like no greater way to commemorate a hero who has brought joy into so many lives. The proof was in the streets as to how much he brought to humanity. I wouldn’t like to meet the person who turns their ears down when he comes on the speakers, I’d question their qualifications as a human.” And the song they were singing was ‘Starman’.

As ever, it seems that Bowie is not simply a musical hero, but a transcendent figure whose influence is interwoven as a gilded thread bringing dalliance of substance into our dismal daily lives. There is, forever, a starman waiting in the skies and he still showers down his slew of heavenly half-notes, scintillating ‘Moonage Daydream’ guitar solos, the spine-shuddering poetry of ‘Five Years’ and brilliantly bombastic outfits forevermore. 

That would’ve made it a masterpiece on its own, but behind this brilliance of great music and invention is the majesty of visceral cognizance. Ziggy reflected the world back to us in a wall of mirrors that made sure it would never be the same again, without hanging up the playfulness of art at its most innocent for even a second, and he did it all on a near-39 minute record without an ounce of fat. “I hope you and Ziggy will be very happy, Ziggy’s my gift to you”.

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You can find out more about the covers album David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust: 50 Years Later by clicking here.