‘Ziggy Stardust’: How Bowie Created the Alter Ego That Changed Rock
“What I did with my Ziggy Stardust was package a totally credible, plastic rock & roll singer – much better than the Monkees could ever fabricate,” David Bowie later said of his definitive alter ego. “I mean, my plastic rock & roller was much more plastic than anybody’s. And that was what was needed at the time.” In fact, what Bowie concocted on 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was more than just a fresh, clever concept. Ziggy was a tight and cohesive song cycle that laid out a visionary direction for pop music, setting a new standard for rock & roll theatricality while delivering his synthetic ideal with campy sex appeal and raw power.
“Listening to [Ziggy Stardust] was a bit like going to college, like the Beatles,” says Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who has covered the album’s “Lady Stardust” in concert. “The songwriting is incredible … [I] loved every single song on the album.”
Bowie had been building up to something like Ziggy Stardust for a while. But the root inspiration for the album’s theme went deep into his past.
During the mid-Sixties, Bowie had met pioneering British rocker Vince Taylor, who had recorded the 1959 classic “Brand New Cadillac” (later covered by the Clash on London Calling). After too many drugs and an emotional breakdown, Taylor had joined a cult and decided that he was an alien god on Earth.
Bowie’s fascination with space travel and science fiction had already surfaced in such songs as “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars?” but he was being drawn toward something grander in scope. “Until that time,” he later said, “the attitude was ‘What you see is what you get.’ It seemed interesting to try to devise something different, like a musical where the artist onstage plays a part.”
He began developing a character based on Taylor, as well as on other eccentrics like Texas “psychobilly” singer Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto. “He always described how he’d take bits and pieces from all over the place, put them in a melting pot and they’d come out being him,” said producer Ken Scott.
Bowie dubbed this new creation “Ziggy Stardust” (first name taken from a tailor’s shop that he saw from a train). As he fleshed out the concept further, Ziggy became an omnisexual alien rock star, sent to Earth as a messenger. Bowie’s plot, loosely, was that humanity was in its final five years of existence, and Ziggy was dispatched to deliver a message of hope: He’s a wild, hedonistic figure (“well-hung and snow-white tan”), but at his core communicates peace and love; he’s the ultimate rock star. And in the end, he is destroyed by his own excesses and by his fans.
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