It seems like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust arrived at a critical time. The hippie counterculture was halting to a slow and painful stop; at the very least, it had lost its momentum, and its musical embodiment was starting to diverge at different intersections. At the same time, Black Sabbath came bursting onto the scene with its doom and paranoia. Led Zeppelin was looking towards fantastical worlds of mystic mythologies and pulling inspiration from that source. Pink Floyd, the cerebral hippies, had lost their psychedelic leader, Syd Barrett. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were all dead. People were now looking for different places for answers besides protest and free love. Despite all this, music still had a lot going for it. We were about to head into another golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.
In the meantime, bubbling in the undergrowth, David Bowie was in search of a new identity; his label and those working around him knew he had the potential and the artistic drive to do incredible things. Of all the people who knew this, Bowie himself knew it the most, and his frustration began to equal his natural curiosity. Hunky Dory had already shown the start of Bowie’s brilliance, with songs like ‘Changes’ and ‘Life on Mars’, his loyal fans were in eager anticipation of what he would do next. Prior to getting into music, Bowie had experimented with pantomime, acting, Buddhism, and kabuki theatre. For his next trick, these would all prove key ingredients for what he was about to become; a space alien to bring news of the world’s inevitable doom. It was the birth of Ziggy Stardust.
“I used the trappings of kabuki theatre, mime technique, fringe New York music – like my references with The Velvet Underground.” The journalist from CBC then adds to Bowie’s comments – “like Suffragette City?” In the interview, Bowie confirms the journalist’s words: “It had that energy value. It was a British view of American street energy. So Ziggy for me, was a very simplistic thing. It was, what it seemed to be: an alien rockstar and for performance value, I dressed him and acted him out – I left it at that.”
In that very moment, Bowie switches the mood of the conversation by shifting its aim towards the journalist. “But other people reread him and contributed more information about Ziggy than I put into him.” Referring to his masterpiece of an album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, he commented: “I put three viewpoints into the album, from three different areas. Maybe the character himself would appear and then there would be two other statements from two other people, all on one album, which was kind of confusing. It was the way an author would write a book. It hadn’t been utilised that much in records.” Then Bowie, with a forlorn edge, ends his statement, “It took a long time to shake him off.”
The dark side of Ziggy Stardust is often overlooked. Because of the sheer exhilaration and fun of the character, many may not realise that a part of the appeal of Bowie’s new role was the doom and message of the annihilation of planet Earth that the space rock star carried with him. Many would find refuge in this as sort of a reprieve. This element of doom is of a very dark nature, one that expresses a dystopian future of Britain. “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust was also a product of the era’s ecological anxieties and general post-sixties gloom. The album’s scenario, established in the opening cut ‘Five Years’, is that the planet is ‘really dying’, with just five years of resources left.'” This was according to the music journalist, Simon Reynolds who saw, with a keen eye, the darkness of Ziggy Stardust.
The ingredient for this aspect of Ziggy was derived from one of the forgotten original rockers of Britain; what many would consider Britain’s Elvis Presley. Vince Taylor, in the late 1950s and ’60s, showed signs of early promise but would find most of his success in continental Europe and, perhaps, he burnt out a little too soon. In Bowie’s pre-Ziggy Stardust days, when he was a teenage mod and fronting his band the Lower Third, he regularly bumped into Vince Taylor. By this point, Taylor’s prime had come and gone, and he was something of a wash-out who began losing his mind after consuming too many substances.
Bowie recalled his early encounters with Taylor, stating: “One day, on Tottenham Court road he took out a map of the world and put it on the pavement. All these people were walking past us, and he was showing me where the aliens were keeping their arms and encampments.” This would be a far cry from the sort of underground legend Vince Taylor once was. One of Taylor’s only songs that is still played in any meaningful way, is The Clash’s cover of ‘Brand New Cadillac’. However, it was this disintegration of Taylor’s mental health and sanity that would provide Bowie with a vital piece of the Ziggy Stardust character – Vince Taylor’s rock and roll religious fanaticism.
Bowie also saw Vince perform later on and would comment on it. “He came out on stage in white robes and said he was Jesus Christ. It was the end of Vince – his career and everything else.” Ziggy Stardust, a space alien who was, part rocker, part doomsday prophet, part androgynous high-priest and above else, a paradigm of sexual liberation – Bowie created this masterpiece of a character who would come at the right to save the teenagers from boredom after the hippie counterculture fizzled out.
Listen to the original ‘Brand New Cadillac’, written and performed by Vince Taylor, below.