David Bowie’s story-in-songs about a rock star who could communicate with extraterrestrials, and who suffered the typical ills that accompany stardom, was released 45 years ago this week.
Glam rock meta-fiction
“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” is timeless in its rock essence. There is no other way to categorize the song; the album overall lacks elements of other genres so that it cannot be classified any other way. And, now, in the days after Bowie’s death, realizing that “Ziggy Stardust” as the album is commonly called, is 45, shows exactly how early in rock music history Bowie undertook the landmark work.
This is as close as we are going to get to a title track. Bowie’s aggrieved tenor is perfect for telling the story of the leader of a rock band who also played guitar. Ziggy grew too popular for his bandmates’ liking. Seemingly it is they who narrate at least part of the lyrics, and betray their secret thoughts about what they wanted to do Ziggy.
Structurally the song fails to follow the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus setup. There are verses that are sung in a lower register–are audiences to take this as a whisper? Then, there are verses sung in higher voices, they don’t seem to be the guilty bandmates. The higher voices almost function like a Greek chorus.
The song ends with Bowie declaring that, “Ziggy played guitar.” Too simple for an ending? It is in past tense. How quickly the star has fallen.
One of the ways rock songs gain their staying power with future and current generations of young people is through their ability to teach them to dream. Audiences listen to this song and they long to keep their “electric eyes” on the singer. The song taught at least two generations of rock fans that orchestral instrumentation paired with rock guitars and drums, combined with out-of-this-world lyrics could help them find what is true in themselves.
Piano and guitars compete at thumping out the song’s rhythm. Bowie’s voice drops into an exasperated lower register as he explains he’d rather spend time with a liberated young woman, instead of his needy, same-sex friends.
The song is an outstanding example of early 1970s wild romp rock and roll. The song only seems to slow down when the guitars play alone, grinding to gear up again. The high-intensity, never let up sensibility of the song is what adds to Bowie’s mystique and the song’s staying power.
Music trends change; rock stars pass away. But great albums remain in the hearts of fans who love them.