Jun 16, 2022
By Austin Saalman
The apocalypse, as predicted throughout much of art and literature, is to be an extravagant event: the ultimate destruction of an inherently flawed planet, a bombastic pageant of thunder and hellfire, the huddling populace its unwilling centerpiece. David Bowie, while recording his fifth studio album during a tumultuous era not dissimilar to our own, surely recognized this, as the late rock icon’s vision of the end times arrived sprinkled with glitter and wound in spandex. Perhaps it is comforting that an androgynously beautiful, musically prodigious Martian savior would arrive in the nick of time to comfort the anxious youth of a decaying, war-torn human hellscape in its final few years of existence. Of course, the fact that over time, said “leper messiah’s” message of hope is ultimately eroded by the same vices plaguing the rest of us, ultimately resulting in his undoing, is all the more fitting, and Bowie’s delivery of such a narrative renders The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars an ideal “end of the world” record, whose 50th anniversary could not be any more relevant than it is today.
Bowie, then a rising star basking in the success of the previous year’s well-received Hunky Dory, catapulted himself to superstardom by tapping into humanity’s most primitive fear: the prospect of encroaching oblivion. Though its plotline is loose, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars bears an imperative message, largely conveyed through its earth-shattering glam rock melodies. Here, we find Bowie displaying his first great persona—a glamorous amalgam of original extraterrestrial rocker Vince Taylor, Bowie’s friend and collaborator Iggy Pop, cult performer Norman “Legendary Stardust Cowboy” Odam, and rock and roll martyr Jimi Hendrix, among others—on what is arguably his most influential album, conveying the most pressing sociocultural concerns of an era and representing the zenith of one of rock’s most significant subcultures. Ziggy Stardust remains the quintessential glam recording, a monumental portrait of Bowie’s star on the rise, showcasing some of his most remarkable artistic abilities.
Opening cut “Five Years” introduces Earth in its twilight, reports of the planet’s imminent demise reaching the weary public by way of a weeping anchorman. In the announcement’s immediate aftermath, the track’s protagonist witnesses a number of disconcerting sights as he digests the reality of his mortality. “I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor drinking/Milkshakes cold and long/Smiling and waving and looking so fine/Don’t think you knew/You were in this song,” he then recalls, such unexpected pleasantries allowing some removal from the visions of a woman hitting some children and a desperate cop kissing the feet of a priest. “We got five years,” Bowie eventually wails. “That’s all we’ve got.” This proclamation is quickly reinforced on the subsequent “Soul Love,” which details both life on earth in the shadow of destruction and Bowie’s final transition from his ’60s self into his Ziggy persona, offering nods toward his early R&B/soul and rock and roll influences. In contrast, “Moonage Daydream,” on which the character of Ziggy Stardust is officially introduced, presents the sound with which Bowie would rise to prominence, with fan favorite “Starman” and hidden gem of strikingly alien beauty “Lady Stardust” expanding upon the album’s innovative formula. The latter, a wistful tribute to Bowie’s bandmate and understated genre architect Mick Ronson, is one of his greatest songs, and seldom receives the recognition it so clearly deserves.
Other less prominent, though nonetheless remarkable tracks include rollicking Elton John homage “Star” and jangling proto-punk effort “Hang On to Yourself,” though such inclusions remain within the shadows of monumental guitar anthem “Ziggy Stardust,” scrappy hard rocker “Suffragette City,” and, perhaps the album’s ultimate moment of creative triumph, devastating closer “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” on the latter of which Ziggy is obliterated onstage, as an adoring audience looks on. Bowie sings some of his greatest lyrics here (“Time takes a cigarette/Puts it in your mouth,” “You walk past the café/But you don’t eat when you live too long,” “Don’t let the sun blast your shadow/Don’t let the milk floats ride your mind/So natural—religiously unkind”), humanizing both Ziggy and himself in ways he seldom did, allowing the listener a window into the fog of exhausted depression brought on by the stress of rock and roll excess. “You’re not alone,” Ziggy utters his famous last words, assuring his fans. “You’re wonderful gimme your hands.”
While Bowie did not necessarily lay the foundation of glam or punk (such credit is reserved for the likes of Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop, and The Velvet Underground), he certainly did more than many to broaden their scope and further their influences. A culmination of the rampant paranoia and desperate nostalgia of the early-’70s, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars sought to reflect the anxieties of a dying world and reimagine the cliché “sex and drugs” narrative of its era’s rock scene, effectively challenging society’s perception of both. The album set a fresh standard for Bowie, which he would swiftly meet on the following year’s spiritual sequel Aladdin Sane, though the former remains the late icon’s most recognizable musical contribution.
An artist is fortunate to produce a single masterpiece in a lifetime—that David Bowie did so at least four times in a decade is both extraordinary and enviable. If Hunky Dory represented the artist officially hitting his stride and Station to Station his apex, then The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is the sweet spot between innocence and experience, inspiration and mastery, promise and greatness achieved—the point at which one is both “too old to choose it” and “too young to lose it.” Half a century on, Ziggy still holds up, its dual sense of sorrow and grandiosity as prophetic as ever.