Trying to imagine popular culture without the influence of David Bowie’s copper-headed prefab rock star alien is practically impossible (or at least a lot less interesting) but the aspect of Bowie’s breakthrough album and the resulting phenomenon that usually gets overlooked is the music itself. Like Marilyn Manson’s music today (though he’s yet to come up with anything as insidiously catchy as “Hang On To Yourself,” but give him time), Bowie’s contributions to the pop music lexicon have been overshadowed by the eye shadow of his characters. Unlike some of the lesser glam acts that followed in Bowie’s platformed footsteps, the tunes on The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, somewhat loosely held together by the concept of the Earthbound exploits of the interplanetary rock star, strangely avoid the trap of being so much dated, post-hippie nonsense.
Kicking off with the ‘50s-styled opener “Five Years,” then setting off on slinkier, more soulful territory with “Soul Love,” Bowie and band (featuring gardener-turned-guitar hero Mick Ronson) establish early on that the album could almost serve as a travelogue of the history of pop music, as seen through the eyes of both the alien protagonist and his adoring fans. You’ve got the unbridled rock n’ roll hysteria of “Suffragette City” (all together now: “Wham bam, thank you ma’am!”) and “Star,” which is delivered with a no-nonsense, workmanlike sensibility by the Spiders while being carried over the top by Bowie’s amped-up croon. There’s the trippy frippery of “Moonage Daydream,” resplendent in early ‘70s hallucinatory imagery (“squawking like a big monkey bird,” indeed) and wigged out leads courtesy of Ronson and producer Ken Scott (who never really seemed to receive as much credit in shaping the sounds of Bowie’s early output as Tony Visconti would on later albums). And of course, there’s the big single: the saccharine-sweet “Starman” being the most overtly pop of the album’s 11 tracks, replete with swirly strings, cosmically-conscious lyrics and a chorus that still, some 32 years later, gets arms aloft during Bowie’s current stadium romps.
Bowie was always partial to the pomp side of pop, especially in the early phases of his recording career, and Ziggy Stardust carried all the drama of a Shakespearean play (as seen on acid, of course). “Lady Stardust” is a love song addressed to both the androgynous astro-rocker and to rock n’ roll itself, with its lilting piano motif married to a stadium-sized chorus. And with the title track we have the ultimate glam rock (hell, the ultimate rock anthem), with a riff that would provide air guitarists decades of enjoyment accompanying the tale of the wayward rocker from Planet X, capped off with the dramatic tag that would become the alien’s epitaph: “And Ziggy plaaaaaayyyed…guitar!”
Still, a pop masterpiece is nothing without a killer final act, and it’s with “Rock & Roll Suicide” that Bowie draws the Ziggy saga to a close. Like the album opener, it has the innate heartrending properties of weepy, wall-of-sound shrouded pop classics of a bygone era, married to a message of the redemptive power of rock n’ roll: “You’re not alone!” shrieks Bowie, shouting from some rooftop that exists in the mind’s eye of the listener, staving off the mundane of the everyday with an exhortation to give him our hands, and to follow his lead. And as Ronson tears off another lighter-waving lead and the strings swell to a final, definitive stroke, you’re sent reeling, as if you’ve made the journey back to Earth from some far-flung intergalactic locale, previously visited only in dreams. Truly timeless pop—truly timeless art in general—is transformative; you emerge somewhat different after experiencing it. And in giving in to his own imagination and creating his own world, Bowie changed ours immeasurably, and for that many a pop fan should be eternally grateful.