David Bowie has long been regarded as one of the most chameleon-like personalities in the music world. Over the course of his lengthy career, he has transformed his public self on numerous occasions, almost always accompanied by a dramatic stylistic makeover. Of his many personas, however, Bowie’s most spectacular and most enduring is the combination rock star/spaceman that he dubbed Ziggy Stardust. It would be Ziggy Stardust that would make David Bowie one of the most popular rock stars of the early 1970s.
The seed of Ziggy Stardust was planted early in Bowie’s career. Born in London in 1947, Bowie started playing in bands at the age of 15, inspired not only by American rock singers like Little Richard, but also by homegrown rock stars like Vince Taylor. Taylor made an impression on Bowie with his frantic stage performances and cool attitude. By 1966, however, Taylor’s “wild man” antics had extended to his off-stage life. His indulgences, including extensive experimentation with LSD, resulted in the crazed man Bowie met that year, one who proclaimed himself “the new Jesus” and anticipated the arrival of extraterrestrials. Bowie’s encounters with the damaged former rock star would be a key impetus for the creation of the character of Ziggy Stardust.
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Ziggy took shape over the next several years. By 1967, Bowie was working with the mime and dance teacher Lindsay Kemp, learning how to create characters and communicate drama. A fascination with space and science fiction was revealed in Bowie’s breakout single “Space Oddity” in 1969; a focus on mad, messianic characters was evident in songs like “Saviour Machine” from the following year; and by 1971, an interest in the trappings (and traps) of fame was expressed in songs like “Andy Warhol.” In the fall of 1971, Bowie began to create the album that would come to be called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Pulling together the themes he had been exploring over the previous several years, Ziggy Stardust portrayed the tale of a “starman”-turned-rock star who assumes a god-like position as a proselytizer for the coming end of the world. As Ziggy becomes more popular, he descends into debauchery and madness. His disciples revolt, and Ziggy ends as a “rock and roll suicide.”
Released in June of 1972, Ziggy Stardust was David Bowie’s most successful album up to that time. The album and its single, “Starman,” both went Top 10 in England. Accompanying the record was a concert tour for which Bowie fully assumed the persona of Ziggy Stardust. Dressed in attention-getting costumes with his hair dyed bright red, Bowie inspired legions of imitators to adopt the Ziggy style. In England, the album and tour had much to do with kickstarting the “glam-rock” era of theatrically oriented rock.
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Over the next couple of years, David Bowie continued to play Ziggy Stardust. Bowie soon became so immersed in the Ziggy persona, however, that he began to play the character both onstage and off. Like his model for the character, Vince Taylor, Bowie himself seemed to lose touch with reality. In July of 1973, alarmed by his loosening hold on himself, Bowie as Ziggy Stardust abruptly announced his retirement at a concert in London. Bowie would never play Ziggy again.
David Bowie’s career would follow many more evolutions in the coming years, but the “starman” he created permanently changed his place in the musical firmament. Forty years later, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust remains one of Bowie’s most influential achievements.