Rock 'N' Roll Suicide single – FranceWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: February 1972
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
Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture
David Live
Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)
I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74)

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar, saxophone
Mick Ronson: electric guitar
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Woody Woodmansey: drums
Unknown: strings, two trumpets, two trombones, two tenor saxophones, baritone saxophone

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ was the climax of David Bowie’s fifth album Ziggy Stardust, and the show-stopper that ended the final Ziggy concert in 1973.

Although the concept of the Ziggy album was often vague, the ending brought the narrative into sharp focus: Ziggy Stardust was willingly killed by his fans, a suicidal act which ended his stardom at its peak. Yet it was a moment of unity, and with its cries of “You’re not alone! Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful!” Bowie brought pathos and empathy, and a moment of symbiosis between performer and audience.

In 1974 Bowie outlined the concept of the proposed Ziggy Stardust stage play to author William Burroughs. He explained how starmen were also known as the infinites, and they travelled to different parts of the universe, eventually stumbling to Earth.

Ziggy starts to believe […] 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 in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today…
David Bowie
Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974

Musically, the song is straightforward for the first three verses, using just five chords: C, E, F, G, and A minor. It departs dramatically with the lines “Oh no love! You’re not alone/No matter what or who you’ve been”, when it tips into variations of D♭m/A♭m/B/E♭m/B♭m. Bowie often used unexpected chords, but the rule-breaking departure in ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ was one of his most dramatic and thrilling flourishes.

To go from a ’50s rock-flavored thing with an Edith Piaf nuance on it produced that. There was a sense of French chanson in there. It wasn’t obviously a ’50s pastiche, even though it had that rhythm that said total ’50s. But it actually ends up as being a French chanson. That was purposeful. I wanted that blend, to see if that would be interesting. And it was interesting. Nobody was doing that, at least not in the same way. The same approach was being adopted by a certain number of artists from that era.
David Bowie
Performing Songwriter, Sept/Oct 2003

Towards the song’s end the Spiders From Mars vamp on a B♭/B/C/D♭ sequence (“Just turn on with me, and you’re not alone!”). This motif was borrowed by Morrissey on ‘I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday’, released in 1992 and produced by Mick Ronson, and covered by Bowie himself the following year’s Black Tie White Noise.

The opening couplet – “Time takes a cigarette/Puts it in your mouth” – was, Bowie explained in 1997, “sort of [a] plagiarized line from Baudelaire which was something to the effect of life is a cigarette, smoke it in a hurry or savour it”. The source was more likely to have been ‘Chants Andalous’ by Spanish poet Manuel Machado:

Life is a cigarette
Cinder, ash and fire
Some smoke it in a hurry
Others savour it

A key source of influence at this time was Jacques Brel’s 1968 revue Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris from which Bowie covered the songs ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘My Death’. In Mort Shuman’s translation of Brel’s ‘Jef’, “Non, Jef, t’es pas tout seul” became “No love, you’re not alone”. In 2003, Bowie included the cast recording of the revue in a list of 25 of his favourite albums.

Other phrases from the album made their way into ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. ‘Les Vieus’ (‘Old Folks’) contained the lines “Though you may live in town/You live so far away when you’ve lived too long”.

Another influence, though perhaps less obvious, was James Brown, whose 1963 album Live At The Apollo was included in a 2003 list of 25 of Bowie’s favourite albums.

My old schoolmate Geoff MacCormack brought this around to my house one afternoon, breathless and overexcited. “You have never, in your life, heard anything like this,” he said. I made a trip to see Jane Greene [sales assistant at Bromley department store Medhurst’s] that very afternoon. Two of the songs on this album, ‘Try Me’ and ‘Lost Someone’, became loose inspirations for Ziggy’s ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. Brown’s Apollo performance still stands for me as one of the most exciting live albums ever. Soul music now had an undisputed king.
David Bowie
Vanity Fair, November 2003

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ was released as a UK single in April 1974, with ‘Quicksand’ on the b-side. It peaked at number 22 on the singles chart.