In the studio

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ was one of the final songs recorded for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

It was taped on 4 February 1972, on which Bowie and the Spiders also recorded ‘Starman’ and ‘Suffragette City’.

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ almost ends the Ziggy album on a downer, but by the end it takes everything up a notch again.
Woody Woodmansey
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie

Unusually, the vocals for ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ were recorded in two discrete parts, allowing Bowie to begin quietly and intimately, before letting go for the finale.

The only track with a completely planned punch for David’s vocal. We needed two distinct vocal sounds for this song, very up close and controlled and then David blasting. We set the level for David to sing quietly and really close to the mic, then recorded the first take of the first three verses and stopped. David stepped back a little, I got a new level setting, we recorded until the song’s end and that’s the performance you hear.
Ken Scott, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

Mick Ronson also arranged the string parts, as he did elsewhere on the Ziggy Stardust album.

The orchestra we used generally consisted of eight violins, four violas, and two cellos (or 8, 4, and 2 as we’d call it), with the violins divided into four first violins and four second violins. There were occasions Ronno would use a smaller string section but also times, as in ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, when he’d add double basses. He actually went all out on that particular track and added a brass section comprising two trumpets, two trombones, two tenor saxes, and a baritone sax. This was one of the few times that the saxes were session players as opposed to David playing them himself.
Ken Scott
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust

BBC recording

Bowie recorded ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ for BBC radio on 23 May 1972.

It was for an edition of Sounds Of The 70s presented by Bob Harris. The episode was taped at London’s Maida Vale Studios, and first broadcast on 19 June 1972.

Bowie and the Spiders From Mars performed four songs at the session: ‘Andy Warhol’, ‘Lady Stardust’, ‘White Light/White Heat’, and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. All but ‘White Light/White Heat’ were included on Bowie At The Beeb.

Live performances

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ was the closing song on the majority of concerts in the Ziggy Stardust Tour, which ran from January 1972 to July 1973. Recordings can be heard on Live Santa Monica ’72 and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

There are so many Bowie songs of the late ’60s and early ’70s that represent so much to me, but I have to single out ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. As a skinny, spotty 14-year-old, bloody from being bottled by thugs on the way to Liverpool Empire in 1972, I climbed over the orchestra pit at the front of the stage. And as Bowie sang “Give me your hand!”, he reached down and took my hand. I was a mess of blood, glitter and cheap, badly applied make-up, but in a state of near religious ecstasy. ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ is a wonderfully structured song. It’s Bowie at his theatrical, Jacques Brel-inspired best. Sometimes I still sing it live to bring back that moment.
Marc Almond
Uncut, March 2008

Bowie occasionally fainted at the end of the song – reports vary as to whether it was genuine, but he was deploying a similar action during his time with The Buzz in the late Sixties. One such instance was at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on 14 February 1973, before an audience which included Salvador Dali and Bette Midler.

It was the ultimate in drama because the encore number was ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ and after the song ended he fell on the floor. He definitely went unconscious for a while and then the doctors, nurses came in and he was fine but… it was scary.
Mike Garson
David Bowie: Sound and Vision, 2002

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ was the last song played at the farewell Ziggy Stardust concert, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973.

During the short intermission, David Bowie had unusually come over to me backstage and asked that I wait for his signal before starting the intro to the final encore number, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’. It seemed obvious to me that David was going to make a little speech of thanks, appropriately at the end of our last show, to his adoring fans at the Hammersmith Odeon.

As the applause rang out for our ‘last’ song, ‘Suffragette City’, David waited motionless in centre stage and I waited as I had been instructed. Some of the band were giving me nervous looks, of course wondering why I had not started the encore. When the applause eventually died down a little, David walked forward to the microphone and raised his hand, signalling for silence. People shushed at the noisy ones until there was silence and David was able to begin his speech.

“Everyone,” he shouted to the crowd. “This has been one of the greatest tours of our lives, and of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us for the longest because not only is it…(pause) not only is it the last show in the tour but it’s the last show we’ll ever do.”

With a brief ‘thank you’ into the microphone, David turned his back on the audience and walked towards me, nodding that I should start my intro to ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’.

John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson
Bowie & Hutch

Photographer and film-maker Mick Rock, who directed promotional clips for ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Life On Mars?’, created a video for ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ using footage from the Ziggy Stardust Tour.

The song also closed the Diamond Dogs/Soul Tour, from which recordings are available on the albums David Live, Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74), and I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74).

Bowie sometimes sang “All you gotta do is win” while performing ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ during the Soul Tour, as heard on I’m Only Dancing. The phrase was later used in the Young Americans track ‘Win’.

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide was revived for the Isolar Tour in 1978, although for later shows it was replaced by ‘Alabama Song’. It was last performed by Bowie during some of the early Sound + Vision Tour dates in 1990.

Previous song: ‘Suffragette City’
Next album: Aladdin Sane