1970-73

David Bowie’s first album of the Seventies, The Man Who Sold The World, was recorded from April to May 1970, and first released in the US in November that year.

Six years later, Bowie described it as the product of one of his most prolific drug periods.

Well, The Man Who Sold The World is actually the most drug-oriented album I’ve made. That was when I was the most fucked up. Young Americans probably is a close second, but that is from my current drug period. The Man was when I was holding on to some kind of flag for hashish. As soon as I stopped using that drug, I realized it dampened my imagination. End of slow drugs.
David Bowie
Playboy, September 1976

Bowie’s remarks to Playboy were made at the height of his cocaine addiction, and while he was happy to speak of the past – even potentially exaggerating his prior use – he downplayed his current habits. It is furthermore advisory to note that none of his collaborators on The Man Who Sold The World recalled him using drugs to any great degree at this time.

There wasn’t much debauchery until we went to America in 1972. I never saw Bowie do any drugs [in 1970], or even drink much. He might have had the odd lager, but that was it. The rest of us were the same. As I mentioned before, Mick [Ronson] was raised as a Mormon so when I first met him in Hull he didn’t drink or smoke, or even touch tea and coffee. In London, though, that gradually changed: one weekend I saw him rolling a cigarette and then he actually had some coffee. Next thing I knew, he was trying a lager. Eventually we smoked a bit of grass, but that was it. We knew that drugs like cocaine existed, and that a lot of rock bands took them, but they seemed very distant from where we were and we had no plans to make them part of our lives.
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie

The first recording session for Bowie’s fourth album, Hunky Dory, took place on 8 June 1971, with the recording of ‘Song For Bob Dylan’. A break of several weeks then followed, and towards the end of the month Bowie and Ronson appeared at the first Glastonbury Fayre festival. The sessions resumed in July.

Bowie’s first Glastonbury appearance was on 23 June. Before his early morning set, he stayed at the farmhouse at Michael Eavis’s Worthy Farm. In 2000 Bowie wrote of his memories of that time, which included a bottle of cannabis tincture, magic mushrooms, and an audience of the “dazed and glazed”.

All I can remember is staggering out of the Worthy Farmhouse at some ungodly hour. I had been ensconced in there for some of the night, drinking and smoking and such like with the tremendously talented Terry Reid and Linda Lewis. None of us were in the best of shape. No curfew in those days so I was playing to a mainly sleeping crowd. They awoke benignly enough and gave me much encouragement as I fumbled through about nine songs. I accompanied myself on poorly played guitar and an even worse outing on a Woolworth’s electric organ. A Dutch girl, even more stoned than myself, insisted on jumping onstage to duet with me on the then completely unknown ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. All in all, a delightfully light and silly couple of days, all Tolkieny and mushrooms and ‘Oranges’…

Ah! Now I remember why I want to do it again. I left my Bipperty-Bopperty hat there, in the farmhouse. I wonder if it’s still on the chair? With my bottle of cannabis tincture? Also, I can’t resist the idea of encouraging all those slightly dazed and glazed peeps to give their voices full throttle to a chorus or two of a song or three. Just one last time. Oops! I’ll never say ‘never again’, again. Possibly.

David Bowie
Glastonbury tour diary, Time Out

Bowie’s commercial breakthrough, 1972’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, brought him hit singles and international fame. The Ziggy Stardust Tour kicked off in Aylesbury on 29 January 1972, and ended in London on 3 July 1973, having traversed the UK, North America, and Japan.

Ziggy Stardust was actually drug-free apart from the occasional pill: amphetamines, speed…

When we first started doing Ziggy we were really excited and drugs weren’t necessary. The first eight months were real fun and then it soured for me. I went to America and got introduced to real drugs and it all went pear-shaped.

David Bowie
Q magazine, October 2003
Embed from Getty Images

A key influence at this time was Lou Reed, the former frontman of the Velvet Underground. In December 1966 Bowie’s then-manager, Kenneth Pitt, had returned to England from New York with an advance acetate copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album became hugely influential to Bowie, who performed ‘Waiting For The Man’, Reed’s tale of scoring hard drugs in Manhattan, live well into the 1970s, and recorded it four times for BBC radio. In August 1972 Bowie co-produced Lou Reed’s Transformer album with Mick Ronson and Ken Scott.

Another major influence and collaborator was Iggy Pop – in 1973 Bowie co-produced and mixed the Stooges’ Raw Power. Pop was a heroin addict who later relocated to Berlin with Bowie in an effort to clean up.

Bowie and the Spiders From Mars recorded Aladdin Sane in between tour dates between October 1972 and January 1973. It became Bowie’s first UK number one album, and spawned the hit singles ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Drive-In Saturday’.

The final months of the Ziggy Stardust Tour saw Bowie consolidate his star status, but the pressure was taking its toll. He had become subsumed by his Ziggy character, blurring the lines between his creation and true personality.

Bowie had also begun using cocaine during the final US leg of the tour, which lasted four weeks from mid-February 1973. This led to mood swings, and his close associates found him increasingly unreachable.

I had a blast at first, y’know, but it wasn’t the character, it was me that did it. Because, OK, I was doing great, having a helluva time, and then around the end of that Ziggy period was when I first found drugs in a major way. If that hadn’t happened, I wonder how different life would’ve been for me. Maybe… but I can’t dwell on that.

In all seriousness, that’s why it all went wrong. Starting the drugs, then, in that way, when I was virtually on top of the world. I was having a ball, y’know? I can’t say it wasn’t fun: it was fun. The whole of that time was terrific. But then after late ’73, I really got into… stuff…

I’d play up to [the blurring of the character lines]. I enjoyed playing up to it, y’know, it was a laugh, it was fun. But when you’re actually doing that and you’re drugged out of your mind, it becomes an altogether more serious matter. Because then you really do get into it. In an unhealthy fashion. You’ve gone away, and you don’t really come back out of it again.

David Bowie
Uncut, October 1999

The core members of the Spiders From Mars – Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey – were also disgruntled at their wages being lower than later arrivals in the band, which led to a showdown between the musicians, Bowie, and his manager Tony Defries.

The shock news that Bowie had been on cocaine throughout the last US tour did explain his strange and often antisocial mood and behavioural changes, his distancing himself from the band. And it helped me to begin to understand his refusal to defend the Spiders when Defries had been so dismissive in the meeting over financial matters.
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey
Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie

Bowie’s burgeoning love of cocaine was shared by elements of his US fanbase, although the high cost of the drug still kept it away from many younger fans.

If you think the Ziggy shows in Britain were decadent, you should have been on the US tour. They were wild. In Detroit and Michigan, which were unhinged rock cities, a lot of people were taking drugs at gigs. Those gigs were like Fellini’s Satyricon. If you went into the toilets people were openly having sex, everyone was taking Quaaludes or cocaine; it was mad, completely mad.
Nick Kent
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Nick Kent was a writer for the New Musical Express, who was hoping to arrange an interview with Bowie. He was invited to a party in Bowie’s hotel suite on 2 March 1973, after the second of two shows in Detroit.

As the word had got out, the suite was full of a whole bunch of Detroit street life. There were a lot of really messed-up people in that room, and Bowie was kind of alarmed. He couldn’t escape. He wasn’t on drugs and he looked completely straight. There were a couple of girls who tried rolling a joint and they were kicked out. He was very paranoid about anything to do with drugs, as he didn’t want to get busted. He also didn’t like anything to do with marijuana, and he was alarmed by people’s behaviour at this party. It was in his personal suite and he couldn’t leave, which was a mistake. He looked out of control.
Nick Kent
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones