Tag Archive: Mick Ronson


Ziggy Played Guitar

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – David Bowie – 6/6/1972

By now we know that David Bowie was one weird cat. If songs about space travel, superhumans, and sex with the devil weren’t enough to tip you off, there’s the outlandish dress and wild makeup. My God, the cover of Hunky Dory is a photo of him inspired by a WWII-era German actress. And if by 1972 you’re still not convinced, he takes on a full-blown persona and presents a combination of music, theater and pageantry, complete with a storyline about an alien come to save a dying planet Earth. Just try to ignore him now.

Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s first real “character,” a fully realized other person he could be in his stage show. All his public appearances were in the guise of Ziggy, and he had a complete profile of how Ziggy would act, talk and behave. Never before had an artist appeared to lose himself so completely. It was like a Broadway show every day with Bowie; it looked like he didn’t just want to play this character, but be this character.

His band got into it too, actually giving themselves a name for the first time, the Spiders From Mars. They dressed up in costume just like Bowie, and had alter-egos. The band and Ziggy himself could still be recognized as Bowie and company; that was the beauty of it. It wasn’t an identity crisis or a case of DID; it was all a show, like an actor playing a part in a movie. Indeed, Bowie began referring to himself as an actor instead of a musician.

As a lot of things in the musical sphere do, this whole Ziggy Stardust thing traces right back to Sgt. Pepper. The concept of that album, plain and simple, was a fictional band that the Beatles playacted. David Bowie is simply doing the same thing. I say “simply,” though it isn’t simple at all. The biggest difference is that the Beatles just wanted to escape the confines of the world’s expectations of them. Bowie’s interest is different; it’s a combination of transcending his humanity (or pretending to) and putting on a good show. And what better way to be a non-human that to be an alien?

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (its full name) is a concept album, not the first and certainly not the last. The storyline in the album itself is loose and rather hard to trace, though Bowie had a pretty specific progression in mind when he recorded it. But Ziggy Stardust the album is just one piece of how he was going to tell this tale. The concerts performed during the last half of 1972 were another piece, but still not the whole picture. What can be defined as “the whole picture” never really came to fruition. If it had, I’m guessing, it would have ended with the assassination of David Bowie at one of his concerts. His murder might have been staged, but it might not have been.

Though even with a plotline in mind, most of the songs on Ziggy Stardust can also be interpreted to be about real things. Ziggy himself, while a fictional character created by Bowie, is a criticism of the then-current music industry. And like a good novel, the fictitious Ziggy world bears out and reveals things about the real world.

Bowie & guitarist Mick Ronson – yes, that’s what it looks like

The story doesn’t even matter (I can’t believe I just said that; my mother would be so ashamed). It’s kinda hackneyed and doesn’t really have a point. The show and spectacle isn’t even the most compelling thing, at least not for me. It’s the music. I don’t really care if Bowie never wore a scrap if makeup, if he was a bespectacled accountant from Surrey with a passion for collecting Beanie Babies. With this album, he created some of the best music ever. Whatever else he did – and he did a lot – it shrinks in comparison. Ziggy Stardust isn’t great because of the grand showmanship it displays or the overarching scope it represents; it’s great because of the music.

Next: cheer up – the world’s gonna end in five years, anyway.

Andy Warhol

Ah, Andy Warhol; his presence is felt in rock and roll history yet again. The mad times of the 60s were over, and the differently mad 70s were off and running. Andy had lost only a little of his relevancy, being viewed as an elder statesman of pop culture rather than an active participant. He still created art, and he still inspired art, as well. And being the astute and cutting observer of culture that he was, David Bowie’s attention was of course turned to Andy for a bit.

The song “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory is probably the most accurate poetic statement of how Andy and the Factory actually were. Mind you, how they actually were is bound to be a little different from the prevailing public opinion; I wasn’t born yet and if you’re reading this, chances are you weren’t either. Bowie provides a razor-sharp glimpse here, clean as a surgeon’s scalpel. “Dress my friends up just for show / see them as they really are.” What more need be said?

I know how Andy must feel here, being talked about as if he’s not even in the room. Celebrities enjoy that kind of thing; Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” But the ultimate awkward silence moment came when Bowie invited Andy to the studio to hear the finished product before he released it. He played it for him, and Andy didn’t say anything. Bowie waited a few moments, and Andy still didn’t say anything. They were just staring at each other, Bowie waiting expectantly to hear an opinion on his art. Andy must have felt like a person does when they have that dream in which they’re naked in a public place.

When Andy finally spoke, he commented on Bowie’s shoes. The two of them then proceeded to have a 10 minute conversation about shoes.

Months later, Andy said in an interview that he thought the entire song was a heartless comment on his complexion. “Andy Warhol, silver screen / can’t tell them apart at all.” Even if this isn’t a purposeful reference to Andy’s paleness, I can’t hear it without instantly thinking of Andy’s lily-white, emaciated face. And I chuckle a little.

The vinyl flip is the super-campy burst of glam silliness “Fill Your Heart,” and the album turns to more traditional and guitar-oriented material after that, starting with “Andy Warhol.” Mick Ronson is one of the great guitar heroes of the 70s in this humble writer’s opinion, but he wears a different hat for half-plus of the record. His string arrangements, while not worthy of a Broadway play, fit in perfectly with the ironic song-and-dance timbre of Hunky Dory, most especially on “Fill Your Heart.” It’s almost a vaudeville routine.

Bob Dylan

But things change to a more rock tone, though the sarcasm and cutting wit aren’t reduced at all. “Song for Bob Dylan” and “Queen Bitch” are much the same as “Andy Warhol,” blurring the line between homage and devastating criticism. The subject of “Song For Bob Dylan” is rather obvious; Bowie addresses the dual nature of Dylan, commiserating with his desire to be somebody else while criticizing his efforts to hide his true nature. “Song For Bob Dylan” comes right after “Andy Warhol,” which is a little ironic considering Andy and Bob’s simultaneous affections for the same girl (pop superstar/media trainwreck Edie Sedgwick).

“Queen Bitch” is harder to penetrate, though. I’ve read from more than one source that it’s a tribute to the Velvet Underground, but I just don’t see it. It makes intellectual sense, since Bowie was very buddy-buddy with head Velvet Lou Reed, but I don’t hear “Queen Bitch” and get a Velvets picture. The word-scheme and meter are a little similar to “I’m Waiting For the Man,” but “Queen Bitch” has so much more energy and drive than anything the Velvets did. Regardless, it’s a great song, and one of the best on Hunky Dory.

The American press always makes more out of something than is actually there, and Bowie is no exception. “The Bewley Brothers” is his little joke on them. With this song, he invites those silly Americans to speculate at its possible meaning, and gives them plenty of fodder. In reality, though, the song isn’t really about anything. Like a college student majoring in literature, we dissect and dissect ‘til our dissectors are sore, and all the while Bowie is giggling that we’re wasting our time.

Hunky Dory can be most fully enjoyed in hindsight, knowing that the next album, Ziggy Stardust, builds upon the foundation it created. But even in the mere moment of the end of 1971, in a here-and-now context, Hunky Dory challenges us and takes us for a wild ride. How could Bowie get better?

Amazingly, he does; just wait.

Being born in 1981, my experience with anything that happened before then can only be theoretical and historical. This includes the Vietnam War, and my only experiences with it were reading The Things They Carried in college and watching the movies Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Add to that the numerous protest songs written during the 60s, like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Fortunate Son” and “Revolution.” But perhaps the strangest song about Vietnam I’ve ever heard is David Bowie’s “Running Gun Blues.”

Distinct from the more obvious tunes in this genre, “Running Gun Blues” takes a more cynical and disturbing tack. The narrator is a deranged Vietnam soldier who’s not in it for God or country or glory, but for killing. His childlike mirth at murder that you get paid to do and his utter disrespect for life may not do as good a job at generating action as the “stop the war!” anthems, but it definitely makes you squirm in your seat. Bowie’s voice lends happy madness to what is somewhat victorious music, not dark or foreboding like its predecessor “After All.” The song fits right in with Bowie’s motif of deconstructing our society till we see the simple, the ugly, what needs to change.

In “Saviour Machine,” things take a turn for the epic. There is a quick and nervous rhythm perforated by horns, and Bowie takes on a slightly more operatic quality to his voice. The lyrics tell of a dystopian future – there’s that phrase again; Bowie’s all about the dystopia – in which citizens are completely reliant on an intelligent, self-aware supercomputer. I’m picturing thousands of people in orderly rows and dressed in the same white smock, bowing down prostrate to a monolithic metal structure 80 stories high, with blinking lights and 50s bleeps and bloops, perhaps with a mondo antennae on top in the center sending out buzzing magnetic waves that look like Zs or lightning bolts.

In the song, the “savior machine” is programmed to do whatever it takes to serve the continuation of the human race, but people have become so dependent on the machine that it starts killing people to get them to start living again; essentially, it’s creating a common enemy by becoming it.

For some reason, “Saviour Machine” calls to my mind Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A supercomputer was constructed to calculate the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything; it came up with 42. Another supercomputer had to be constructed to figure out what the question was, and that was the planet Earth. Just before it was supposed to spit out its findings, the Vogons blew it up to make room for a hyperspatial express route and… You get the idea. Don’t panic.

Then comes “She Shook Me Cold,” a very metal and bombastic song. It goes for the extremely heavy and turns out too sludgy for its own good. It’s little more than an opportunity for Bowie’s guitarist of choice, Mick Ronson, to show off his shredding skills. The Bowie/Ronson combination was right up there with the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter, Oreos and milk, hydrogen and oxygen. Ronson was Bowie’s secret weapon, a juggernaut backing up a brilliant star. He’s one of the most underrated guitarists of the 70s, as well as one of the best. Ronson stayed by Bowie’s side for 5 albums, making his exit after Pin Ups and transitioning into a brief solo career.

David Bowie was the leader of a revolution, one complete with adherents like T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. It’s called glam rock, a reaction to the hippie free love and social activism. It used the trappings of 1930s Hollywood glamour and spacey science fiction stuff and combined them with the sexual liberation of the hippie movement. But in 1970, it was still a little ways from happening. 1970 was a very interesting year, one between settings, a pause in the cycle of rock and roll. The hippies were either becoming businessmen or Jesus People, being disillusioned by Altamont. The guard was in the process of changing. David Bowie and his ilk were right there waiting when it did. And the whole stinking world would be theirs.