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The Story Behind the Song: How David Bowie created 'Starman'

Ziggy Stardust once had a dream and, in his dream, he was advised by something called ‘the infinites’ to write a message of hope, that despite the world ending in a matter of five years, Ziggy would have to deliver the news of belief to the youth of the masses, explaining that they are now the leaders of the world – the future. This ‘message of hope’ is David Bowie’s second and milestone hit, ‘Starman’.

In an interview with the American writer William Burroughs for the Rolling Stone, Bowie explained that he wanted to turn Ziggy Stardust into a musical. “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. The album was released three years ago,” said Bowie to Burroughs. 

When he wrote his fifth and life-changing album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, he had envisioned creating a musical out of the album. Within this context, imagine ‘Starman’ as the central musical theme of the show; it is played at the beginning of the musical and at the end of it. 

The song truly solidified Bowie’s character of Ziggy Stardust within the minds of impressionable youths as the rock alien’s anthem. ‘Starman’ was the first single for the record and would secure Bowie’s imminent rise to fame. The story of ‘Starman’ is told from the perspective of someone listening to Ziggy Stardust’s message from the sky.

Bizarrely enough, despite this song being Ziggy’s manifesto, it was the last song to be written for the record, almost as an afterthought. He wrote it in response to the head of RCA, Dennis Katz’s request for a single. It would end up replacing a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Round and Round’. It was written in the same session as the tragic denouement of the album: ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’.

“So, we came out of the studio and in about a month he had written ‘Starman’ and we were back in the studio by January,” Spiders From Mars’ drummer, Woody Woodmansey recalled. “It was an obvious single! I think Mick and I went out in the car after David played it for us the first time, and we were already singing it, having only heard it only once.”

He continued: “It might seem strange, but we just hadn’t done anything that commercial before. I always thought Bowie had that ability, that any time he felt like it, he could write a hit single. He just had that feeling about him. I think he chose not to right through his career. If he felt like it, he would write one, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t. That was just the impression of working with him. It’s not a fluke to be able to write all those amazing tunes.”

How did Bowie write ‘Starman’? Legend has it that he took the octave jump in Judy Garland’s ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and adapted it to the chorus of ‘Starman’. When Bowie performed it at the Rainbow Theater in August of 1972, he would sing “there’s a starman, over the rainbow”.  

1972 was glam rock’s year, and Bowie paid full attention to it; after all, he would play an integral part in influencing it. The key ingredients that went into the song were T-Rex’s ‘Telegram Sam’ and the Motown song ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ by The Supremes, which is where Bowie got the idea for the ‘morse code’ sound from and uses it on the instrumental bridge leading into the chorus. Spiders from Mars’ Mick Ronson, while he doesn’t always receive the credit that’s due, helped Bowie tremendously with the arrangements of his songs, and ‘Starman’ is no different. 

The moment where everything changed for David Bowie and when he truly became famous was when he and The Spiders from Mars performed ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops. This particular show became just as important as when The Beatles played on The Ed Sullivan Show in the ’60s. 

Lol Tolhurst from The Cure said about this influence: “I remember sitting on my couch at home with my mother, watching this spectacle unfold, and at the point where Bowie sang the line, ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you,’ he pointed directly at the camera, and I knew he was singing that line to me and everyone like me. It was a call to arms that put me on the path that I would soon follow.”

This is only one example, but ‘Starman’, Ziggy’s message to the youth of planet Earth, will forever remain as essential and vital as it was the day it came out. 

Listen and watch the Top of The Pops version, below.