The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album coverWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: 15 November 1971
Producers: Ken Scott, David Bowie

Released: 16 June 1972

Available on:
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Bowie At The Beeb
Live Santa Monica ’72
Live Nassau Coliseum ’76
Stage
Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78)
A Reality Tour

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, piano, vocals
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Woody Woodmansey: drums

‘Five Years’ set the scene for David Bowie’s breakthrough Ziggy Stardust album: an apocalyptic vision of society crumbling at the end times.

The song speaks of a dystopian nightmare in which Earth enters its final five years, for reasons undisclosed, and the ensuing panic, violence, and attempts at redemption.

‘Five Years’ is bookended by Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey’s metronomic 6/8 drum rhythm, which lingers on after the ending cascading strings, electric guitar squalls, and Bowie’s genuine weeping.

Well, we chatted about it, and we knew it was about the end of the world and pretty depressing. David said – I need a beat that sets it up for what’s coming. I thought – oh yeah, put it on my shoulders! I remember at the time being a little bit tempted by a nice drum roll and a cymbal splash and a flashy bit – but then I said to myself – it’s the end of the world, you’re not gonna do that!

I played us in, and David just said – that’s it! We all just got into the mood of it being the end of the world. I remember when we recorded it, he was actually in tears. He was doing the vocal and he was actually crying.

Mick Woodmansey, 2018
Music Republic Magazine

The lyrics

The setting of ‘Five Years’ is panoramic, beginning with the micro – the quaint market square (speculated to be Aylesbury’s, where the first Ziggy show took place) filled with the comically mild spectacle of sighing mothers – to the macro – the woman hitting small children, the vomiting “queer”, a policeman genuflecting at a priest’s feet. The Americanisms (the cop, the Cadillac) show that Bowie was finally setting his sights on a global audience in his all-out bid for fame.

Bowie also breaks the fourth wall, addressing a figure contentedly sipping milkshakes while the world ends around them, “Smiling and waving and looking so fine/Don’t think you knew you were in this song”.

Okay, well if this is going to be an inevitable situation with the chronicles of rock, and one must presume that it will be, then I would strive to use that position to promote some feeling of optimism in the future, which might seem very hypocritical related to ‘Five Years’. There the whole thing was to try and get a mocking angle at the future. If I can mock something and deride it, one isn’t so scared of it. People are so incredibly serious and scared of the future that I would wish to turn the feeling the other way, into a wave of optimism. If one can take the micky out of the future, and what it is going to be like… Its going to be unbelievably technological. There isn’t gong to be a triangle system, we aren’t gong to revert back to the real way of life. That’s not going to happen. It’s certainly not a new thing, my God I haven’t got any new concept. I juggle with them, but what I’m saying, I think, has been said a million times before. I’m just saying again that we’ve gotta have some optimism in the future.
David Bowie
NME, July 1972

In 1974 Bowie and author William Burroughs were interviewed together by Rolling Stone magazine. Burroughs asked about the concept of the Ziggy Stardust album.

The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of a 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.
David Bowie
Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974

In February 1976 Rolling Stone published an extract from Bowie’s aborted autobiography, The Return of the Thin White Duke, in which he suggested that his half-brother Terry Burns had inspired ‘Five Years’:

My records were selling and I was being a man in demand. I thought of Vince [Taylor] and wrote ‘Ziggy Stardust’. I thought of my brother and wrote ‘Five Years’. Then my friend came to mind, standing the way we stood in Bewlay Bros. and I wrote ‘Moonage Daydream’.
David Bowie

Another source may have been Roger McGough’s poem ‘At Lunchtime – A Story of Love’, which Bowie had recited in his cabaret performances of 1968. In the poem, travellers on a bus are overcome with sexual abandon after hearing that the world is to end at lunchtime – a ruse by the narrator to initiate lovemaking.

The buspeople, and therewere many of
them, were shockedandsurprised, and amused-
andannoyed, but when word got around
that the world was coming to an end at lunchtime,
they put their pride in their pockets
with their bustickets and madelove one with the other.
And even the busconductor, feeling left
out climbed into the cab and struck up
some sort of relationship with the driver…

And the next day
and everyday
In everybus
In everystreet
In everytown
In everycountry

People pretended that the world was coming
to an end at lunchtime. It still hasn’t.
Although in a way it has.

‘At Lunchtime – A Story of Love’
Roger McGough

Bowie sang ‘Five Years’ and ‘Stay’ on The Dinah Shore Show in 1976. Prior to the performance of ‘Five Years’ Shore gave some tantalising information on its origins:

David told me, interestingly enough, just as he walked over to the bandstand, that this is a song that was the direct result of a dream he had.
Dinah Shore