The album’s themes
Aside from the focus on stardom and celebrity, a theme of dystopian decadence runs throughout The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.
The scene is set in the opening ‘Five Years’: breaking news that the world was ending, and the rapid disintegration of society as people reacted in panic and dismay. At the other end is the climactic, redemptive ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, which found Bowie at his most messianic, a leader urging his followers to “gimme your hands – ’cause you’re wonderful!”
The messiah figure was the titular Ziggy, the frontman of the Spiders From Mars who gave hope and a sense of belonging amid the chaos of the end times. Ziggy was the seductive saviour, the rock ‘n’ roll messiah who wins the hearts of his teenage fanbase, alienates parents, and who eventually dies a victim of his fame after being destroyed by the fans.
Bowie’s fixation with extra-terrestrial exploration had been established in 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’, and returned here with the song ‘Starman’. The final song to be written and recorded for the album, ‘Starman’ was a last-minute addition at the insistence of RCA executive Dennis Katz, who saw the song’s hit potential.
The space theme of ‘Starman’ gave a further dimension to the Ziggy concept, much of which was, in truth, a post-hoc construct. This is confirmed by the early running order which omitted crucial songs, and the album’s initial title ‘Round And Round’.
There’s always been this whole thing about Ziggy being a concept album, but it really wasn’t. There are only two rock albums that I would 100% consider concept albums: Tommy and Quadrophenia by The Who, and that’s because they were written as a complete piece, whereas Ziggy was just a patchwork of songs. Yes, they fit together very well and one can weave a story from some of them, but when you consider that ‘Round And Round’ was originally there in place of ‘Starman’, it doesn’t make much sense as a concept. How does ‘Round And Round’ ever fit into the Ziggy story? It’s a classic Chuck Berry song. How does ‘It Ain’t Easy’ fit in with the Ziggy concept? That was taken from the Hunky Dory sessions. All this about Ziggy being ‘Starman’ is bullshit. It was a song that was just put in as a single at the last minute at the record label’s insistence. So while it’s true that there were a few songs that fitted the ‘concept’, the rest were just songs that all worked well together as they would in any good album.
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust
In February 1972, four months prior to the album’s release, Bowie gave an interview to a US radio show in which he outlined the broad themes of the record:
It’s a little difficult, but it originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up, because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story of Ziggy, so at the moment it’s a little fractured and a little fragmented…
So anyway, what you have there on that album when it does finally come out, is a story which doesn’t really take place, it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, who could feasibly be the last band on Earth – it could be within the last five years of Earth. I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in. The times that I’ve listened to it, I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album, but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time when I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me.
This relatively straightforward backstory would eventually mutate into something far more grandiose and fanciful. In November 1973 Bowie was interviewed with writer William Burroughs for Rolling Stone magazine.
At the time Bowie was planning a musical and television production based on the Ziggy story. The song’s reinterpretations required further development and refining of the album’s concept, and the stage show was also to have incorporated newer music and themes from Bowie’s later releases.
Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock and roll band and the kids no longer want rock and roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. ‘All The Young Dudes’ is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.
Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.
Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.
Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense. And it would be a continuing performance, first eating up Shaftesbury Avenue.
Bowie: Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes ‘Starman’, which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch onto it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don’t have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is traveling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.
Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist on our world. And they tear him to pieces onstage during the song ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’. As soon as Ziggy dies onstage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science-fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rogers and Hammerstein of the Seventies, Bill!
28 February 1974