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(Credit: Alamy)

Music

The Starman lands: Remembering the first Ziggy Stardust concert 50 years on

@SamWKemp

If you were to try and seek out the venue where, on February 10th, 1972, Ziggy Stardust made his astonishing live debut via David Bowie, you’d be sorely disappointed. Because, what was once the crash site of an alien deity come to revitalise the Earth is now, regrettably, a Tesco Superstore.

It was here that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars first performed at the Toby Jug Pub, marking the birth of a star who would go on to shape the next twenty years of British pop music; although, I doubt many people in the small crowd of music aficionados who attended the concert were aware of just how revolutionary Mr Bowie’s alter ego would turn out to be.

Bowie has been celebrated for many things, but his powers of persuasion are rarely one of them. Three weeks before the concert at the Toby Jug, the little known rocker sat down with Melody Maker for an interview in which he declared: “I’m going to be huge. And it’s quite frightening in a way, because I know that when I reach my peak and it’s time for me to be brought down it will be with a bump.” Those words seem to imply that even before his first concert Bowie was inhabiting the alter ego of Ziggy Stardust with perplexing ease, his very language suffused with the imagery of space travel. After reading the now-famous ‘Oh You Pretty Thing’ interview in Melody Maker, an 18-year old pop fanatic, Steve King, was convinced he’d go to the Toby Jug and see this Ziggy Stardust in the flesh. Nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed that night.

The Toby Jug Pub in Tolworth had already gained a reputation for putting on the best up-and-coming bands on the circuit, playing host to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson in the past. All across London, those who had seen Bowie’s otherworldly gaze staring back at them across the printed page or the television screen made their way to Tolworth.

When they arrived, the 60 or so audience members bunched into the cosy venue, expecting some support act before the main event. There was none, only a DJ. After everyone had sunk their share of pre-gig pints, the lights were switched off and the sound technician, fiddling with his cassette player, pressed play on a taped introduction from A Clockwork Orange. Ziggy Stardust – with his shock of red hair – crept onto the stage, rising a full two meters above the crowd.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust (Credit: Alamy)

As King later recounted: “There were about 60 people in the room, mostly aged between 17 and 25, and we watched the concert standing. There were a few tables and chairs at the back of the room but people only used them to stand on for a better view. We were 10 feet away and the energy was just incredible. I had never seen or heard anything like it before. I’m pretty sure he wore the very same combat outfit as on the Ziggy Stardust album cover and The Old Grey Whistle Test. I definitely remember him wearing the same knee-high wrestling boots. I think he wore the same costume all through the set.”

King and the rest of the audience were entranced. As King later recounted: “Bowie had brought theatre to a humble pub gig.” And, at the very centre of this theatrical display – Ziggy Stardust, a character Bowie has credited to two important people.

The first was a man he spoke to after his first Velvet Underground Concert and assumed was the group’s frontman, Lou Reed. It actually turned out to be Doug Yule, Lou Reed’s replacement. “He sat there and talked as though he was Lou and he was talking about how he wrote ‘Waiting For The Man’ and all these things!” Bowie later recalled.“And it was at that point that I realised that, at the time, it didn’t matter to me if this was the real one or a fake one.”

The second major inspiration behind Ziggy Stardust was Vince Taylor, an infamous rock ‘n’ roll singer who eventually lost his mind live onstage. “He fired his band and went on-stage one night in a white sheet,” Bowie remembered. “He told the audience to rejoice, that he was Jesus. They put him away.”

Combining these two influences, Bowie imbued rock ‘n’ roll with the power of myth – evoking, even in his genesis, the story of an innocent creature, who flies too close to the sun and ends up getting burnt.

After watching the two-hour set, Steve King was a man reborn: “I was completely blown away. I was just entranced by the entire performance. It was a heady combination of the best music I have ever heard, tremendous sound, very basic but so effective…I was oblivious to everything and everyone else in the room. I couldn’t blink for fear of missing something.” Clearly, music would never be the same again.

Ziggy would be sacrificially slaughtered during a particularly noteworthy show at Hammersmith Odeon in the summer of 1973, only a short while after the creation was given to the world. Of course, 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.”

Ziggy would make a few appearances over the course of Bowie’s career but only as flashes of the artist’s past. It’s a past that is indelibly entwined with the entire tome of musical history. It may have been a simple “pub gig”, but Bowie made sure that he captured his audience within his imagination and invaded their lives with his potent alien pop star. Ziggy landed and changed the entire universe.