The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Ziggy took it to a whole new level. The philosophical musing and emotion of Hunky Dory mixed with The Man Who Sold the World’s sci-fi storytelling, the acoustic mixed with the rock music, but never sacrificing emotion. His vocal delivery and hooks got even better on this album. I think his previous two albums could be a little wordy at times, especially the former, but it was distilled on this album to absolute perfection. It’s as sing-a-long as Life on Mars?, rocks as hard as The Man Who Sold the World, and it’s no surprise that the album was a classic.

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When I was in high school, I loved the album for the sci-fi aspects of it (I was really into fantasy and sci-fi), but now I love it for the way the songs are put together. Soul Love has always been one of my favorites for its killer hip-hop beat and grooviness, even though every time I read about the album it’s never talked about as a highlight.

The same goes for Starman. I was also just getting into Doctor Who at the time (no surprise), and there was someone on YouTube who was making like music videos for each Doctor set to some music, and the Fourth Doctor had Starman. At the time, he was my favorite Doctor, and so this song always reminds me of that kind of charm, wit and recklessness, and really it works almost too well.

It Ain’t Easy also gets a lot of hate. Actually, Bowie’s whole thing of doing a cover on every album gets a lot of hate (and to be honest, usually it’s the worst song on the album, too), but I really like it. It’s hard and fits in with the rest of the weirdness with its lopsided guitar melody and huge chorus. I love the transition b/w verses and chorus, because there’s a sense of anticipation as you know it’s about to explode, because it quiets down right before.

The running time on these songs also makes me so happy. I liked the two minute wham bam thank ya ma’am songs on the 1966 collection of pre-debut songs, and it’s similar here with lots of 2-3 minute songs that pack a punch like the way a great punk song does. Even when the song runs up to four minutes, it’s so streamlined that it slips all the way through as if it were just a minute.

Other than the obvious songs, I’m not sure what the other fan favorites are. Was Lady Stardust a big hit? It’s amazing for me. Bowie is as good singing ballads as he is slick pop jams, and Lady Stardust reminds me of Oh! You Pretty Things with its meandering piano.

I mentioned the choruses on the album early, because jeepers creepers, they are good. I love this kind of simple hook that’s so easy to sing-a-long, too, and Bowie uses simple things like “lalala”, “ooooooh”, “oh yeah”, “hey man”, and the like to amazing effect. That’s definitely part of what made this album such an instant classic. Hang On To Yrself is the perfect example, a really lightweight song that’s so catchy for its no-nonsense guitar and that incredible “oh come on, oh come on” chorus. It’s such an ear worm.

The title track is a show-stopper, and I think a lot of show-stopping numbers are love/hate, because either they work for you or they don’t. It’s the climax of the album, not nearly as lightweight as the songs coming before it, and it kind of stops the album in its tracks. But man, that guitar hook!! When I used to hear this on the radio, I always thought it was cool, but when I got the album and listened to it closely, I could follow the guitar all the way through the drums and “aw yeah”ing, and I started to love it even more. This song makes me want to play guitar so badly.

You can’t talk about this album without talking about Five Years or Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. They’re the perfect opener/closer combo, a call of unity.

Hunky Dory

It opens with a big bang, Changes, a huge contender for his best song. I was swayed on that a few years ago. Gosh, it’s just perfect though isn’t it? The title alone tells you what a good place Bowie was in here. Everything was just hunky dory for him.

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Piano is the best instrument, and there’s a lot of piano jams, ballads, and everything in between on the album. Rock music is overrated, and as much as I may like The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory is really more my style. Piano is as much a tool to expand your music as it is an instrument itself. The guitar is a very noisy instrument, meaning that it doesn’t always leave a lot of room for other things to take the stage, but the piano often is a jumping point for great lyricism. It’s why I love Paul McCartney so much, his piano songs were lovely, and Bowie is even better. The lyrics here are taken to a much higher level than his previous albums, opening up some recurring themes of loving your peculiarities, and adding a little more philosophy and life-musings.

It’s sequenced so well too, with every song transitioning perfectly, one of my favorite transitions being from Oh! You Pretty Things to Eight Line Poem, which isn’t a strong song on its own, but that’s wonderful and lovely in context. Pretty much every song flows from one to the next like water going from glass to glass. Fill Yr Heart’s final kick is the first note of Andy Warhol!

The arrangements are beautiful as well, from the tone of the acoustic guitar to the violins that all swell together and aid Bowie’s voice and lyrics, elevating them to huge levels. Quicksand comes to mind immediately when I think of a fantastic example of the way strings were used on this record.

And I know that Bowie’s first instrument was the saxophone, but this is the first time we really get to hear that in full force.

It’s not all heavy existentialism and philosophy. If you thought there was whimsy on Space Oddity, just wait until you hear Kooks. It’s an absolute delight. Then there’s the underrated highlight Queen Bitch that’s one of the catchiest songs, like, holy cow.

Life on Mars? is almost revolutionary for me. I really got into David Bowie in my last two years of high school. I got a car, and I always listened to him while driving. That’s when I started checking out his proper albums outside of the compilation album I had had before. I had tears in my eyes every time I listened to Life on Mars? I remember I was meeting my dad and my brother for breakfast. I took my car, and my dad and brother left to go there together, and it was only a five minute drive but I bellowed out Life on Mars? during those five minutes with tears down my cheeks when I arrived. Bowie had that effect. He’s big and dramatic but at the same time intimately emotional. I think that was one of the keys to his success. Like Valentine from Stranger in a Strange Land, Bowie was like an alien that inspired and brought people together in an emotional way. It’s taken to literal levels one album later.

The Man Who Sold the World

There’s a really interesting article about this album on the AV Club. Space Oddity already had the seeds of Bowie’s path sown, but this album cemented it. I love the story about how his rock band mates weren’t sure what to expect playing with a folk singer, but obviously Bowie is just a great songwriter. Whether it’s rock or folk, it’s good.

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From the first song, The Width of a Circle, you can hear that they’re really a tight band. The bass is fantastic and really pins the song down, especially during that little walk down it does at around the five minute mark when the song loosens up a bit. I guess that’s Tony Visconti. I mean, this is basically like a prog song.

Mick Ronson goes hard as well. It’s not exactly written in that AV Club article, but I read once where he was really instrumental in figuring out the sound of the album. In any case, his presence IS instrumental, because he contributes a whole lot to the heaviness. He’s especially great on She Shook Me Cold. I read that this got some comparisons to Led Zeppelin, but his guitar style and sound doesn’t sound all that much like Jimmy Page (it sounds more like Brian May of Queen to me, if I have to make a comparison), and the songwriting is so different from theirs.

You can feel that this is much more of a band effort though. Throughout the album, this full band feel is a part of what makes this album feel so together and fulfilling. The drums, the guitar, and the bass all have a presence as big as Bowie himself. I read that there was a lot of jamming involved when making this album, and you can hear that quality in Width of a Circle but also just the opening of Saviour Machine, which I like a lot for the solo and the guitar tone.

All the Madmen has always been one of my favorites. I like the lyrics and the presentation of it. It’s got a lot of quirky instruments and a killer melody. It’s menacing and sympathetic at the same time.

Black Country Rock is also really cool, because I’m a big T. Rex fan as well, and he emulates Marc Bolan perfectly. The vocal delivery even when he’s singing normally is great. I love the verses where he’s nimbly jumping over the words. That’s a kind of melody that really works for me, and the guitar riff is hypnotizing as well. Some of Bowie’s vocal delivery on this album is awkward, but it’s interesting even when it’s a little strange at times.

After seven songs of hard rock, it’s kinda strange getting to the title track. It’s a classic, even better than Space Oddity for me. The previous seven songs were more drums/bass/guitar, but the title track is very distinctive. It’s got a saucy latin rhythm, the warbling synth that adds a whole lot of warmth, that amazing percussion instrument that I don’t know the name of – you know the one you scratch with a stick – and just a totally different feel from the rest of the songs on the album. The chorus is out of this world.

This and Hunky Dory are definitely a pair, forming each one half of the sound that would be Ziggy Stardust. It’s so cool revisiting this. I don’t think I had listened to this in years outside of the title track.

Space Oddity

The jump from his debut to Space Oddity is huge. He’s traded in the silly children’s songs for child-like whimsy and star-gazing, and it’s like he’s found his path all of a sudden. Listening to this in retrospect, you can hear it all in this one album, his true debut album. It’s not just the lyrics either (a big upgrade here), but the instrumentation and songwriting as well. Still folk, but more rock.

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Space Oddity was the kind of career-defining song that most musicians probably want and also want to run away from. It’s rough in comparison to the songs he would be writing by the time he was Ziggy Stardust, but it’s looking out to the same point in space with a strong emotional core. Listen to “I think my spaceship knows which way to go” and don’t cry, that’s a dare.

The rest of the album is just as varied and interesting as Space Oddity though! There are a number of cool folk-rock tracks like Unwashed, the strongest being Janine. That should be on every David Bowie best of list. Bowie goes hard with one speak-singing vocal under a shouted vocal, and the guitar is so catchy.

 

At a whopping 10 minutes, Cygnet Committee is a clear show of the kind of songwriting he’d do on The Man Who Sold the World, it’s like a test pilot for The Width of a Circle, and although it’s a little overlong for me for the style, it’s cool.

The ballads are really so nice too, reminiscent of his debut but with more relatable and interesting lyrics and vocal style. An Occasional Dream is lovely, but Letter to Hermione is both the loveliest and one of Bowie’s best songs, period. It reminds me a lot of Tom Waits’ Martha, and I love this kind of wistful sentiment in my folk songs.

 

The album closes with a three-song run of some super hippie but super wonderful anthemic songs. Wild-Eyed Boy takes the fairy-tale feel of his debut and repackages it in a narrative of the self. Memory of a Free Festival uses a droning instrumental backdrop to hold down Bowie’s story of love before a sing-a-long ending chorus. I hate to do it, but I’m gonna – it’s very “Beatles”.

From the very beginning, Bowie was preaching togetherness and love. I think that’s awesome.

David Bowie

This is so corny. I remember when I first listened to this in 2010, I really didn’t want to listen to these songs more than once. I appreciate it a whole lot more now than I did then though, even if it isn’t totally for me. Still, there are some things that I really like here.

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For starters, it’s not at all like those 1966 songs which were more like the rock songs of that time. This is much more folky. Well, really it sounds like it’s for children despite some adult lyrical content. I may like cute things, but I still don’t listen to children’s songs. In fact, earlier in the week during my break in the teacher’s room I read an AV Club article about The Man Who Sold the World, and about how the band he had gathered together had been really skeptical about the music they’d be making with Bowie, since he was a folk singer and they were rock music players who didn’t care for folk. As it turns out, Bowie isn’t good at writing folk songs. He’s good at writing songs, period.

The instrumentation and actual songs aren’t bad at all. I would love to hear these all redone the way he would later do London Boys on Toy. The piano sounds wonderful, the string arrangements are great, and the horns remind me of early ELO in a very good way. The vocal melodies and style just don’t do a thing for me though. It’s storytelling, and it goes a lot with what I’ve read about early Bowie. Since even the ’60s, he wanted to do plays and musicals, and around the time this came out, I read that he had been working on a play. Not surprisingly, as it turns out, Bowie was a big fan of Syd Barrett, because these have a really similar feel to the kind of music Barrett was making at the time.

The whole album may not be for me, but there were a couple songs I really liked and will definitely be revisiting. Love You Till Tuesday has amazing string accents, a melody that’s toe-tapping catchy, and the dorky charm of his debut works wonders here.

When I Live My Dream is another essential one. It opens with the Be My Baby beat, and it’s so touching and cute. I’m sitting here listening to it now and can’t help but smile and tear up a little.

Bowie 1966

David Bowie is the most important musician in music for me, and after his death last month I wanted to do a retrospective listening. Listening through, I appreciate him more than ever before, but to be honest, I just wanna enjoy some tunes and talk about him.

 

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So, this is the only release I’ve actually never ever listened to. Except for the Laughing Gnome, I’d never heard any of his pre-debut album music, so this is really cool to hear now. I know there are bigger anthologies of his super old songs, but I grabbed this one because it was released last year for record store day. It’s pretty short, but it’s a lot of fun.

One of the pleasures of listening through David Bowie’s discography is being able to hear how he came to where he was, from the very beginning to the end. I was reading articles about him, and I read a quote where he apparently said when he was 9 or 10, “I am going to be a rock star”. That was just something he had decided to do when he was young, and he committed to it. Bowie did so much in his life, he was tireless, and a real icon for had work and persistence and passion. He obviously loved what he did.

This is a really fun release, just six songs, and they all sound like 1966. You can hear the Monkees, the Who, and the Beatles in this. But surprisingly it doesn’t really sound like his debut album. This is way less peculiar than that, but it really is a lot of fun. I never cared for his early songs before, but nowadays I can really appreciate this kind of music. I used to bomb the Beatles’ early music, too, so I’m glad I’ve grown out of that. I love that all the songs hover around the two minute mark, and they’re restlessly catchy.

One definite high is Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which has a great chorus and a really propulsive rhythm with great drums and a cool melody. Bowie’s storytelling singing is in strong form here, and he can put a lot of passion into his voice when he sings “IT’S TOO LATE NOW, I WISH I WAS A CHILD AGAIN, I WISH I FELT SECURE AGAIN!!” before jumping into the chorus. It was the song that kickstarted his renewed interest in his own early work in the late ’90s and early ’00s, so I think it’s a really important song in making David Bowie who he was.

The other song I think is definitely essential is Do Anything You Say, with cool drum fills and nice guitar.

There’s another release (Early On) with these songs with the most comprehensive collection of his pre-debut songs, but I like this because it’s pretty short and a selection of the best.