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Music

Why The Spiders from Mars avoided the photoshoot for David Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' album cover

Today marks quite the week for glam-rockers; not only do we see Roxy Music’s groundbreaking eponymous debut record reach its half-century, but its twin, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, arrives at the same milestone. 

If Bowie’s fourth album, 1971’s Hunky Dory, marked his early rise to success, 1972’s Ziggy Stardust saw the starman truly arrive. The concept album defined glam rock, laying out the blueprints for the ensuing decade, alongside the sterling work of Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry, which continue to inspire musicians to this day. 

The ubiquitous beauty of the album is captured in both the image and the music – sound and vision if you will. The music follows the plotline of a futuristic world in peril as news readers tell of impending armageddon. The first track, ‘Five Years’, sets the precedent that we only have five years left on Earth. However, the androgynous martian rock star, Ziggy Stardust, is here to save the world. 

The conceptual thread follows Stardust through the highs and lows of his time on Earth as Bowie brings his matured sound to its dizzying peak. Sadly, the rock ‘n’ roll life gets the better of him, and the album leaves us with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’.

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Matching the glitter and darkness of the album is the striking aesthetic of the packaging. The front cover of the record shows a defiant-looking Starman in a colourful body suit with his guitar in hand, and one knee raised up and resting on a box. Meanwhile, the cold, dark and damp street symbolises the bleakness of the apocalyptic concept.

Discussing the album’s packaging design in 1993, Bowie said: “The idea was to hit a look somewhere between the Malcolm McDowell thing with the one mascaraed eyelash and insects. It was the era of Wild Boys, by William S. Burroughs … [It] was a cross between that and Clockwork Orange that really started to put together the shape and the look of what Ziggy and the Spiders were going to become … Everything had to be infinitely symbolic.”

The iconic, damp and dingy photograph was taken on January 13th 1972. Bowie and the Spiders had been in photographer Brian Ward’s studio on Heddon Street in London when Bowie suggested that they take the photo shoot outside just before they lost the natural light of the winter’s day. 

It seems natural to us that Bowie should appear solo on the album cover. After all, he appeared solo on almost all of his prior and later album covers. However, the initial intention was to have the whole Spiders From Mars backing band in the shot for Ziggy Stardust

At the time, the headstrong Bowie was battling the flu yet he was adamant to step outside, dressed as he was, into the rain for the shoot. Meanwhile, the Spiders – who clearly couldn’t foresee the album’s subsequent success and its cover’s timelessly iconic image – decided to stay inside, shielded from the adverse weather conditions. 

Speaking to Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 6 recently, the last surviving member of The Spiders from Mars, drummer Woody Woodmansey reflected on the day of the photoshoot. Radcliffe asked: “You were all there, but David was the only one who would go outside because it was raining and the rest of you didn’t want to go out. Is that right?”

Woodmansey replied: “Yeah! Us northerners stand out, ‘We’re not going out there! It’s raining! [Laughs] … Rock ‘n’ roll, you know… rock ‘n’ roll.”

Shortly after, Radcliffe interjects: “So you could have been on the cover of one of the greatest albums of all time but you didn’t go outside because it was raining?” 

Woodmansey answered regretfully but still in good spirits: “Exactly, yeah. We could have stood in the background with an umbrella, you know what I mean? The Spiders from Hull!”

Shedding light on the reason for such unforgivable actions, Radcliffe offered: “I mean, you didn’t want to go out in the rain in those days because you had really impressive hair. I mean, you didn’t want to spoil that, did you?” To which Woodmansey replied, laughing: “That was probably the reason!”

Listen to the album’s concluding track, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, below.