My first experience of the legendary David Bowie was watching the film Labyrinth as a child, directed by famous puppeteer (among many other skills) Jim Henson. At the time, I was perhaps too young to appreciate the meaning behind the songs, or the prominence of his package – but it has stayed with me as a fun, beautiful, and brilliantly bizarre movie. If you’ve never seen David Bowie throwing a human child into the air, then you’re in for a real treat – click below to experience Dance Magic, one of five songs which Bowie recorded for the film.
Apart from this, I’ve delighted in the classic Let’s Dance, I’ve joyfully witnessed his cameo in Zoolander, and I have known his general importance in the music industry – but when I think about it, I’ve never really known a lot more than that. After hearing the deeply sad news of David Bowie’s death, I was moved to find out more about him – in particular, I’ve decided to look at Ziggy Stardust, arguably his most iconic creation. I hope that anyone else who is a little bit ignorant like me will find this interesting, informative, and a way to remember just one aspect of what an incredible and influential artist and person he was.
Now of course we’ve all heard of Ziggy Stardust, and I’m pretty sure everyone in the world can recite at least two lines from the single Starman; despite its being released over forty years ago. But I hadn’t realised that he was not only an alter-ego (see Nicki Minaj and Roman Zolanski), but also a character.
So who is Ziggy Stardust? Well, according to Ken McLeod (2003), he was created by David Bowie during the blossoming of a space and alien theme in popular music, which had been influenced in particular by the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. With this and the rise of various protests against the Vietnam War, institutional racism, and gender discrimination, influential artists began using aliens and space in their music to represent freedom through the use of “mind-expanding” drugs, as well as sexual and political liberation. And so was born The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie’s 1972 album which narrates the story of a bisexual, androgynous alien rock star from his success to his Rock n Roll Suicide. It became clear that this was not just a fictional character but an expression of his self, as Bowie began to introduce himself as Ziggy Stardust on tour and in interviews.
The life of this character was cut short at London’s Hammersmith Odeon (now known as the Hammersmith Apollo) on 3rd July 1973, when Bowie announced that this would be Ziggy Stardust’s last tour; but this iconic glam-rock character representing freedom of self-expression has remained massively memorable and influential, with the album rated one of TIME magazine’s 100 “greatest and most influential” releases since 1954. Ziggy Stardust launched Bowie’s career into enormous success, and turned him into an icon for all those who felt alienated from society’s expectations, who felt that they didn’t fit in; it gave them someone like them to admire, look up to, and be inspired by. Even Bowie’s coming out as bisexual separated him from many heavy rockers of the 70s such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, who were considerably more heterosexual.
Even beyond the character’s death, he continued to influence Bowie’s music; Aladdin Sane (from Bowie’s 1973 album, Aladdin Sane), was a persona that Bowie described as “Ziggy goes to America” (as written by Nicholas Pegg, 2006). This character stemmed from mixed feelings on his experience of the Ziggy Stardust tour; he wanted to be up on stage performing his songs, but not constantly surrounded by attention and unknown people. Later, he told friends that the album title – a play on words, alternatively read as A lad insane – was inspired by his half-brother Terry Burns, who had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
His last persona came in the form of the Thin White Duke, whose performances would use harsh white lighting as their only prop – a huge departure from the expensive glam-rock displays that Bowie had put on with his previous characters. Bowie referred to the Duke as “a very nasty character indeed”, with the title song of his album Station to Station describing him as “throwing darts in lovers eyes”. In his book titled Low, Hugo Wilcken (2005) describes the Duke as “a chilly, Aryan elitist” with “Nietzchean overtones, and the morbid self-absorption of a nineteenth-century German romantic”. However, his fascination with Nazi culture was simply an interest in the occult; in particular, with Heinrich Himmel and his search for the Holy Grail. Yes, you did read that correctly. That is a story for another time.
So there you have it! A little piece of David Bowie’s history in the form of Ziggy Stardust and others. I hope you’ve learned at least one new thing about his life or career (I definitely did!), and that we will never forget the incredible contributions that his art and music brought to so many people.
Album of the Month: David Bowie “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”
Classical Album Sundays (2012)
All-Time 100 Albums.
Classic Album Sundays Presents: The Story of David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”
Classic Album Sundays (2013)
The Complete David Bowie
Nicholas Pegg (2006), Reynolds & Hearn (Richmond, Surrey)
David Bowie’s “Low” (33 1/3)
Hugo Wilcken (2005), Continuum International Publishing Group (New York, NY)
Flashback: Ziggy Stardust Commits ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ at Final Gig.
Andy Greene (2012), Rolling Stone
BBC, Historic Figures
Jump They Say
Pushing Ahead of the Dame (2012)
Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail
Channel 5 (2013)
Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music.
Ken McLeod (2003), Popular Music: Vol 22, No 3.