For the Ziggy Stardust album, David Bowie made the decision to move away from the predominantly acoustic style of Hunky Dory, and further into a new style of modern rock.
The way had been signposted in ‘Queen Bitch’, an outlier on Hunky Dory, but which provided a bridge between the hard rock of The Man Who Sold The World and his new material.
Bowie chose to work again with Ken Scott, but initially doubted whether the producer would like his change in direction. He was mistaken, and the four key musicians – Bowie, guitarist Mick Ronson, bass guitarist Trevor Bolder, and drummer Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey – and Scott worked in harmony to realise Bowie’s vision.
A couple of weeks after the completion of Hunky Dory, I happened to run into David Bowie in the hallway at Trident. At some point during the conversation he casually mentioned ‘I’m going to be recording a new album.’ ‘You’re kidding, right? Hunky Dory isn’t even out yet,’ I replied. David went on to tell me that it was his management’s idea to do another album, but he ominously added, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like this one. It’s much more rock ‘n’ roll. More like…’ I don’t remember if he used Velvet Underground or Iggy and the Stooges as a reference to what he was going for, but as I hadn’t heard of either one at the time it didn’t really make much difference. ‘Well, we’ll see,’ I cautiously told him.
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust
Ziggy Stardust owed much to two American rockers, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Although neither were well known in the United Kingdom, they were formative influences on Bowie, and he went on to champion and collaborate with both.
Bowie’s middle class British upbringing was poles apart from their gritty, rock ‘n’ roll decadence. He was, however, an accomplished actor and mimic, and was able to use his talents to create his ersatz rock star hybrid.
In December 1966 Bowie became an early convert to Lou Reed’s former band, the Velvet Underground, after receiving a test pressing of their debut album from his manager Kenneth Pitt. It had a huge effect on the then-teenage singer, although their influence took some time to emerge in his music.
Everything I both felt and didn’t know about rock music was opened to me on one unreleased disc. It was The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The first track glided by innocuously enough and didn’t register. However, from that point on, with the opening, throbbing, sarcastic bass and guitar of ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, the linchpin, the keystone of my ambition was driven home. This music was so savagely indifferent to my feelings. It didn’t care if I liked it or not. It could give a fuck. It was completely preoccupied with a world unseen by my suburban eyes.
Actually, though only 19, I had seen rather a lot but had accepted it quite enthusiastically as all a bit of a laugh. Apparently, the laughing was now over. I was hearing a degree of cool that I had no idea was humanly sustainable. Ravishing. One after another, tracks squirmed and slid their tentacles around my mind. Evil and sexual, the violin of ‘Venus In Furs’, like some pre-Christian pagan-revival music. The distant, icy, “Fuck me if you want, I really don’t give a damn” voice of Nico’s ‘Femme Fatale’. What an extraordinary one-two knockout punch this affair was. By the time ‘European Son’ was done, I was so excited I couldn’t move. It was late in the evening and I couldn’t think of anyone to call, so I played it again and again and again.
New York Magazine, 18 September 2003
In 1971 Bowie flew to New York, accompanied by his wife Angie, guitarist Mick Ronson, and manager Tony Defries and his associate Don Hunter. There, on 9 November, he signed a three-album contract with RCA. The label held a reception party for Bowie at the Ginger Man on East 36th Street, and one of the guests was Lou Reed.
Reed proved a convert to Bowie’s music, and visited him and Ronson at their hotel. It was the beginning of a friendship which endured for many years, and which saw Bowie and Ronson produce and perform on Reed’s 1972 hit album Transformer.
At the RCA reception, Bowie was introduced to music writer Lisa Robinson, and mentioned his love of Iggy Pop’s band the Stooges. Robinson immediately called a friend, music executive Danny Fields, who had signed the group to Elektra and, coincidentally, had Pop staying with him in New York.
Bowie and Pop met for the first time later that night in the back room at Max’s Kansas City, and became firm friends. The following day Pop joined Bowie and Defries for breakfast at the Warwick Hotel, where he took a room next to Mick Ronson’s.
Pop had an authenticity which Bowie still felt he lacked. As MainMan photographer Leee Black Childers later recalled:
Bowie’s infatuation with Iggy had to do with Bowie wanting to tap into the rock ‘n’ roll reality that Iggy lived, and that Bowie could never live because he was a wimpy little south London art student and Iggy was a Detroit trash bag. David Bowie knew he could never achieve the reality that Iggy was born into. So he thought he’d buy it.
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, André Malraux, Legs McNeil, Gillian McCain
A further influence on the music was Bowie’s friend and sometime rival Marc Bolan. By 1971 Bolan had reinvented his hippy folk group, Tyrannosaurus Rex, as the glitzy make-up wearing, moon booted, electric glam stompers T. Rex. Their single ‘Ride A White Swan’ peaked at number two in the UK charts in January 1971, and further releases from that year – ‘Hot Love’, ‘Get It On’ and ‘Jeepster’ – cemented Bolan’s position as a teen idol and rock star.
Bolan’s new status coincided with an overhaul in his image. Prior to an appearance on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops in March 1971, Chelita Secunda, the wife of Bolan’s manager Tony Secunda, daubed spots of glitter under his eyes. The reach of the programme meant that Bolan’s look was an instant talking point, both controversial and inspirational, and signified the moment where glam rock entered the mainstream.
I personally saw him [Bolan] as a person who was a transition between a certain hippie culture and a more flamboyant genre, brought about by what he was to become and dressed in satin vests and velour pants. In any case that was a look borrowed from the Rolling Stones except that in addition, he put glitter around his eyes. He introduced the period but I don’t feel it was glam because he never would’ve worn platform boots. He was very happy with his little hippie shoes from Anello & Davide which is actually where I used to buy my dance shoes. But his position was very interesting – he found himself stuck a bit in the middle, like Johnny Ray between the crooners like Frank Sinatra and rockers like Elvis Presley. Johnny Ray knew that he was there, in the middle, not really a crooner but not yet a rocker…
Folk & Rock Magazine, December 1998