by Joe McNulty
In the early 1970’s, a creature never before seen, except in the imagination of one David Jones, broke into the limelight of popular music and culture in Britain. This extra-terrestrial’s brief existence would pave the way for a new era of musical and cultural exploration, whilst having a profound effect on society, and millions of people worldwide. Ingrained in history as “The Icon” of our generation, contextually, there has been nobody more outlandish and subversive, yet, who was David Bowie? A brave question, considering, this was the one thing he dared not ask himself, not because he feared the answer, but more so, because his evolution as an artist and person, meant this was an impossible question to answer. Not wanting to consider himself to be a single entity, in his own words he wanted to be “ a one man revolution”.
South London born, David Robert Jones, spent almost a decade trying to make it as a musician, having quite a fickle relationship with everything he did, he dabbled in RnB and rock bands, until later becoming a mod. This would be a time of musical experimentation, coinciding with changing his name, to David Bowie. He is even guilty of writing a novelty children’s record, called, The Laughing Gnome, an endeavour that would ironically make him a laughing stock, of sorts, amongst his peers. This creation, influenced by his obsession with Anthony Newly, a pioneer of surreal comedy, and credited with being the inspiration for Monty Python , along with Bowie’s 1967 debut solo album, would become the latest failures in this experimental stage.
Despite failure in his earlier career, Bowie was not shy to educate himself in a multitude of crafts, and seen that no endeavour in this regard would be time wasted in the hunt for artistic brilliance. In meeting Lindsay Kemp, a dancer and choreographer of the avant-garde description, Bowie found a tutor that would not only enhance his onstage ability, but, also, someone who would introduce him to London’s gay clique, whilst having an offstage affair. Kemp, claimed in an interview for the 2013 BBC documentary “David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust” that Bowie “had an enormous sexual appetite”, something that came across on stage and later in his career. From avant-garde mime, to small film roles and even an ice-cream advertisement, David Bowie’s fleeting nature would characterise his career, until synchronicity with the first Moon landing, launched his career out of obscurity and into the popular domain. Space oddity, would be the track that changed everything, receiving massive airplay during the same week as the historic space mission. The single made it to no.5 in the charts and propelled the enigmatic Bowie into the spotlight, if only for a moment.
On the back of this success he released a self-titled studio album that failed to live up to the hysteria of the single, leading to years of depression, ignited by the self-condemning thought of being a one hit wonder. Around this time he had quite a conflicted and confused image, on the one hand he had created this unique masterpiece, Space Oddity, yet this sound had failed to be replicated in the follow up album, which had a more acoustic , folk feeling to it, leaving the record buying public rather mystified as to who or what David Bowie was about. Was he a genius on the cusp of something great, or was their bemusement a mirror image of an artist, who hadn’t quite figured out his own complexities as a musician, or, as a person.
The catalyst for unleashing the genius and the incongruity within Bowie, would be his future wife, Angela Barnett, better known as Angie. It was Angie who would be the most influential figure in terms of encouraging his genius to flourish, and releasing any inhibitions that he had about performing. Through her encouragement to incorporate a more outlandish and theatrical image, Bowie’s most famous creation was beginning to take form. During this period the band “The Hype” was created, but it would prove to be yet another of his less celebrated amalgamations. One positive outcome in this scenario, would be the introduction of Mick Ronson, the guitarist who would complete the sound that Bowie craved, and someone who he would develop a unique onstage sexual chemistry with. Another step in the subversive direction, and another piece of the jigsaw.
The cover of the 1970 Album “The Man who Sold the World” would first truly reveal this transformation to us, in a picture featuring Bowie posing in a flowing flowered dress. Totally going against the denim dominated rock scene of the 1970’s, the album never managed to reach the heights that his unmistakable talent deserved, and it was at this point it emerged that something was missing. A necessary component, to transcend talent into stardom. Enter, Tony DeFries, the man who would help turn David Jones, of Brixton, South London, from a struggling misunderstood artist ahead of his time, into the most celebrated artist of the 20th Century.
On becoming David’s manager, Tony DeFries immediately set to work on financing the masterplan to bring his client to the next level. A promotional trip to New York beckoned, where 24 year old Bowie would become acquainted with his idol Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, (who would inspire the rhythm for his forthcoming albums) and Andy Warhol, while also taking a huge step in his professional career signing to the renowned RCA Records. However, his reluctance to perform his own songs would hijack this momentum. This disinclination, spawned the conception of yet another band called Arnold Corns, fronted by Freddie Buretti miming David’s songs. It would be the precursor to Ziggy Stardust, and despite the failure of the project, it didn’t prevent Bowie’s insistence in using a fictional character to perform his songs. This persistence, would soon pay off.
The Fourth album “Hunky Dory” featuring classic tracks such as Changes, Oh You Pretty Things, Life on Mars and Queen Bitch was a sign of things to come, and became the final stepping stone that enabled Bowie to become his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would not only catapult him into stratospheric stardom, it would also revolutionise music and become the most influential album of the 1970’s and arguably, the 20th century. What the album offered, other than the obvious musical genius on display, was an outlet for the youth of the day to escape the bleakness of recession, the ruthlessness of Tory Britain and the dark shadows of The Cold War era. Ziggy Stardust would represent hope for the “weirdos” of society, those who felt outcast for going against the status quo, opening the doors of possibility to an entire generation and for generations to come. The record was something much more than a music album, it was more like a mechanism for breaking down the barriers of a society that had become suppressed and restrained by closed minded ideology. Musically, the album is impeccable, but, it is the concept behind Ziggy Stardust that truly captures Bowie’s creative virtuosity.
An episode of Top of the Pops on the 6th of July 1972, and Bowie’s rendition of Starman, would be the defining moment of Ziggy Stardust’s arrival. Singing exuberantly arm in arm with Mick Ronson, Bowie has an expression of glee on his face that denounces all his previous debilitating inhibitions and failures, with the realisation that this time he had got it right. This time, was his time, and for the first time ever, his genius would be recognised universally, his talent unquestioned and compositional brilliance celebrated. Not only that, he did it all by staying true to his own integral musical beliefs, and his reluctance to conform to the pressures of popular culture. Instead, he fashioned his own culture, and delivered on his promise to be “a one man revolution”. That moment would be the beginning of a monumental career, spanning five decades, five UK number 1 hits and a discography as long as he was brave. The rest, is history.