When David Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust, it could have been career suicide. However, he knew the longer that he kept the alien rock star alive, the quicker the allure of Ziggy would wear. Bowie didn’t want to be stuck in the same lane forever, and when Ziggy was flying higher than ever before, he made a career-changing decision that nobody saw coming, least of all the crowd inside the Hammersmith Odeon.
Very few artists would have contemplated throwing a persona as wildly successful as Ziggy to the flame. While the allure of dining out on a profitable creation for the rest of their career is an enticing one, Bowie couldn’t bear the thought of being defined by one singular creation. Instead, he would rather risk it all than live a life bereft of risk or adventure.
Bowie’s gambler instinct is what separated him from the rest of the pack, and he knew that if he was smart enough to envision Ziggy in the first place, that he’d have no problems with his next persona. Nobody knew who the man behind Ziggy really was, and the mystique surrounding the character helped cement him as the ultimate rockstar.
The most important facet to the rise of Ziggy wasn’t his androgynous appearance, nor was it his otherworldly charm, the only thing that truly mattered was the strength of the music. As long as Bowie kept that up, then his flock were sure to follow him onto his next venture.
It had been a life-changing eighteen months for Bowie spent as Ziggy, his first show in character took place at the unglamorous Market Borough Hall in Aylesbury, and by the time the finale rolled around, Bowie was firmly placed at the zenith. During that run, Bowie played more shows than some artists do in a decade, and following the Hammersmith Odeon show, it was clear a break was due — but what happened stunned everybody.
Not even Bowie’s band was aware that the performance would mark their final concert with Ziggy, signalling the end of an era and one that had just entered its stride. Stardust was retired in perhaps the most epic way imaginable. Along with the Spiders From Mars, they ripped through an astonishing 18-song set made up predominantly of Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, and Ziggy Stardust material rather than his late ’60s work. At one point, Jeff Beck even joined the band on stage for an incredible medley of ‘The Jean Genie’ and a delectable take on The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’.
Everything in the show was ultimately overshadowed by Bowie’s shocking speech, which remains one of the most notorious moments in music history, and the news quickly spread around the world like wildfire. “Everybody, this has been one of the greatest tours of our life,” said David Bowie, standing on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon and clad in a sheer mesh top and glittery trousers, panting as if the gravitas of the situation had just dawned on him.
“I’d like to thank the band, I’d like to thank our road crew and I’d like to thank our lighting people,” he added, “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest,” he said, to an even louder cheer. “Because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.”
The reaction of the crowd to Ziggy’s retirement announcement is hard to separate the fact from fiction. Rumours of that famous night have snowballed over the years, and allegedly a mass orgy broke out in the stalls after they were dealt with the fatal news about Ziggy. Bowie’s pianist Mike Garson later said, “I heard all those stories about what was going on in the audience and I tend to believe them. I remember seeing crazy stuff.”
That infamous evening at Hammersmith Odeon could have had a cataclysmic impact on Bowie, and he may have never reached such a pinnacle again. In the long term, killing off Ziggy Stardust when he did would be recognised as being even more genius than creating him in the first place.