Starman! – The Story Of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust

Originally printed in our 2013 NME Originals special on David Bowie, Tom Howard looks back at one of Bowie’s greatest creations – Ziggy Stardust

July 5, 1972 was the day everything changed. The day David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey went on Top Of The Pops dressed like glamorous aliens to perform ‘Starman’. To introduce Great Britain to Ziggy Stardust And The Spider From Mars with three-and-a-half minutes of perfect pop. Bowie played his blue acoustic guitar like a prop and pointed his finger seductively down the camera. Ronson’s wailing guitar soared. Bolder’s intergalactic bass throbbed as his silver sideburns swayed. Woody’s drumbeat kept it all together. Ronson and Bowie shared the mic, as they often did in the studio. When they’d been to the BBC bar earlier, everyone thought they were Doctor Who extras. They were different. They were weird.

“David was desperate to get us on Top Of The Pops,” says Bolder. “And as soon as we did it, it just went. It was literally overnight success.” Success that changed the four men forever, propelled by the songwriting genius of David Bowie. On that day, Ziggy rose. And on July 3, 1973 Ziggy would fall. This is the story of David Bowie’s fifth album, ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’, the masterwork that would immortalise him as the world’s best pop star. The man who invented Brett Anderson’s slur, Björk’s theatricality and Morrissey’s showmanship, and made Ian Curtis want to be in a band.

Became the special man” – ‘Ziggy Stardust’

Rewind to June 1971 and this influence over pop music seemed unlikely. Bowie’s first three albums – 1967’s ‘David Bowie’, 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ and 1970’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ – tanked, even though they were all brilliant, and he was gearing up to write ‘Hunky Dory’. But he didn’t have a band. Drummer Woody and guitarist Ronson had played on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, but it hadn’t gone well.

“The last track we recorded was ‘Black Country Rock’,” says Woody. “And we hated how Bowie sang it like Marc Bolan, so Mick and I didn’t want to perform it live. We had a gig at Leeds University, and Mick and I went up in a taxi while Bowie drove his car. We got to a crossroads with Leeds one way and Hull the other. I said, ‘Do you fancy going home?’ and Mick said, ‘Yeah.’ So we left, and he did it acoustically. We went back to Hull and started a band called Ronno. A while later we got a call from Bowie saying, ‘I’ve got new management, I’ve been writing and you’re the only guys who get where I’m at.’”

So Woody and Ronson hopped in a car to London, with Ronno bandmate Trevor Bolder in tow. Bowie wanted Woody and Ronson to play with him on John Peel’s Radio 1 In Concert show on June 3, 1971. When they arrived, Bowie’s bassist Herbie Flowers couldn’t do it, so Bolder stepped in.

“I had to learn 12 songs on Sunday afternoon,” he says. “And then on Monday we did it, which was quite nerve-wracking.” The nascent band stepped up to the mark though, and indeed, Bowie dug the trio’s vibes so much he kept them all to record ‘Hunky Dory’ at Trident Studios in Soho, central London, which they recorded with in-house producer Ken Scott, a man with The Beatles on his CV. The sessions were quick, but Bowie decided not to tour the album because he had ideas for the next one. “‘Hunky Dory’,” says Woody, “wasn’t about playing live.” It was about Bowie making the transition “from folk to rock’n’roll, saying, ‘I’ll show you I can write. I can do piano, I can do guitar, I can do rock, I can do whatever.’ It was a songwriting album.” Plus, as Bolder puts it: “He’d had four flops already, so it was was kind of now-or-never situation.” The difference between ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘…Ziggy…’, said Bowie to Ken Scott, was that it was gonna be “more rock’n’roll”. He left it at that.

His ideas for the different aspects of the album came from different places. Ziggy Stardust, the figurehead, was based on a tragic British musician Bowie met in Paris in the mid-‘60s called Vince Taylor, who wrote ‘Brand New Cadillac’ (later covered by The Clash on ‘London Calling’) and supported The Rolling Stones in 1964 before losing his mind after boshing too much acid. The germ of the Spiders From Mars came from Bowie’s first trip to America in January 1971, where he decided he wanted his own version of a back-up gang like Iggy & The Stooges or Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.

The idea for the ‘look’ came from a fascination David Bowie had with being better than Marc Bolan, and an interest in music as theatre. And the songs? They simply came from Bowie’s brain, obsessed as it was with space, Japanese culture and fame. He wasn’t shy about taking inspiration from other people, and said at the time: “I’m a person who can take on the guises of people I meet. I’m a collector, and I collect personalities and ideas.” But the fact he wanted to go one further than all of his influences and combine the lot was, says Bolder, because “he wanted to change the music industry. He thought it was boring.”

If you think we’re gonna make it then you better hang on to yourself” – ‘Hang On To Yourself’

One thing that still remains unclear, 40 years on, is whether ‘…Ziggy…’ was planned as a concept album, or if that part of the story was a happy accident that helped to sell the idea to the public. Producer Ken Scott thinks the latter: “I don’t see it. To me three songs link together – ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Star’, because they’re all about the same person – and after that it’s a bunch of songs that work together.”

Woody goes along with this: “Nothing was mentioned about ‘a concept album about a band that grows up.’” Bolder, too, is unconvinced by fancy notions of a grand narrative behind the record: “I’ve heard people say it’s about a guy who comes to save the world from outer space. But to m it’s just songs.”

Only Bowie knows if he planned it, but he certainly planted the see to help the idea grow. In a January 1972 Melody Maker article – written after ‘…Ziggy…’ was recorded but before it came out – he spoke about “this fictitious pop group”. And people went with it. “David loved the myths,” says Scott.

Sessions for ‘…Ziggy…’ started at Trident Studios on November 8. 1971, and it was bashed out in 10 days. This was normal in the ‘70s, especially for artists like Bowie who had no money. Also, as Scott says: “Record contracts at the time were for an album every six months, so you couldn’t take your time. Plus David didn’t like being in the studio. He’d get very bored, but there was a ‘we’ve got to get it’ excitement about it. And he’s the best vocalist I’ve worked with, so all his vocals were first take.” Have a little think about that. Listen to Bowie forecasting the end of the world on ‘Five Years’. One take. Listen to the “Oh no love, you’re not alone” on ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ that sends terrified shivers down your spine. One take.

There’s a live ‘feel’ to the tracks, because, says Woody: “You’d have three takes. If it went to four it was a bad session. Sometimes you didn’t know the track so you were like ‘Holy shit!’ and he’d just go ‘OK, TAKE!’ He made you play on a knife edge. You couldn’t go for anything you weren’t 110 per cent committed to. If you messed up it was a big deal. We’d always look at it as musicians and be like, ‘There’s a bum note in there,’ and he’d just say, ‘It’s good, I like it.’”

Despite what you tend to assume when you see pictures of a golden moon protruding from Bowie’s head at this time, there were, says Ken Scott, “no drugs whatsoever. The only booze was a couple of beers. We were very professional, but still easygoing.” So on November 15, 1971 they finished. They took it to the record label, and RCA exec Dennis Katz said he didn’t think there was a single on the album. In the history of The Best Decisions Ever Made In Music, this is up there. Bowie wrote ‘Starman’, and planned cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Around And Around’ (retitled ‘Round And Round’ by Bowie) was dropped. As would become clear, Bowie would’ve been nothing without ‘Starman’.

I felt like an actor” – ‘Five Years’

In the period that followed, with the album nearly finished, the real fun started. Bowie lived in Haddon Hall in Beckenham, Kent, between 1969 and 1972. Bolder, Woody and Ronson moved in June 1971 for the making of ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘…Ziggy…’. It was kind of a commune, had a hippy vibe, was bohemian, and kooky. Bowie was an effeminate actor-type obsessed with the galaxy, so it surprised no-one when he started wearing weird clothes. “I just don’t like the clothes you buy in shops,” he said.

The first ‘…Ziggy…’ show was scheduled for January 29, 1972, at the Friars Club in Aylesbury, and ideas were forming in Bowie’s head. “He’d say to us, ‘We’re gonna put on a show, so I want you to wear this,’ says Woody. “And Mick was just like, ‘You can fuck off, I’m not wearing that!’” He’s bring out the materials in blue, gold and pink and it was like, ‘Who the fuck’s gonna wear pink?’ And he was like, ‘Well, Trevor looks good in blue and Mick looks good in gold, so you’ve got the pink. You have to be a man to wear pink.’” So I was like, ‘Um, yeah, OK.’”

Bolder says: “Wearing the costumes was different. But as it took off we got more into it. When I joined I had a full beard, ‘cos I was in a blues band. Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles had full beards, and I shaved the middle and the ‘tache off and was left with droopy long sideburns. So we kept those. It took months to develop each member’s image. Mick and I got so comfortable with it we’d go out in Beckenham in costume.”

Bowie was very dismissive of what he called the “pantomime rock” of Alice Cooper, and wanted to do it properly, theatrically. Woody says: “He made us see it from a stage viewpoint. He’d say, “You go and see a rock’n’roll band and it’s just, ‘Ooh, white lights’, or, ‘Ooh, green light’, but that’s not really using light. So we’d go to theatre productions in London to see what effect light had with scenery and got into using lights to add atmosphere to a song.” Bowie’s explanation for an elaborate stage show was: “I just like startling people.”

With the Spiders on board, it started coming together, and Bowie’s bright red mullet was conceived in December 1971, when hairdresser Suzi Fussey was invited to Haddon Hall by Bowie’s wife, Angie. Bowie’s aim was to distinguish himself from fellow glam rocker Marc Bolan, a man he dismissed as he did Cooper.

I could make a transformation as a rock’n’roll star” – ‘Star’

As excitement for Aylesbury built, so did the PR campaign. In January 1972 Lou Reed asked Bowie to produce his upcoming album, ‘Transformer’. Then he landed a killer blow in the January 22 issue of Melody Maker when he ‘came out’ to Michael Watts, saying: “I’m gay, always have been. Even when I was David Jones.” And as planned, the January 29 Aylesbury show was buzzing. Ziggy and The Spiders were unleashed.

It was the first time Bowie ever licked Mick’s guitar strings. And at the end of the show he ripped off his blouse and threw it at the crowd. Freddie Mercury was there. Roger Hunt was there. Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter was there. Everything was ready for take-off.

But then it just… didn’t. A 12-date mini tour followed, in February. “Even after Aylesbury, we were thinking, ‘Are we going a bit too far?’” says Woody. “So we did these shows and got booed off, basically. We were getting bottles and all sorts flying at the stage, and being given the finger. We pulled in bodyguards ‘cos it looked like we were getting rinsed every night. We never finished. It was very dangerous.”

Five months later, on June 6, 1972, ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ came out. It sold 8,000 copies in its first week. Then Ziggy and his Spiders performed ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops. Then NME put “Britain’s high-priest of camp” on the cover to report on the album going to Number Five. It stayed in the charts for 106 weeks. Later that year the previously ignored ‘Hunky Dory’ went to Number Three in the wake of Bowie’s breakthrough success, ‘The Man Who The Sold The World’ to Number 26 and ‘Space Oddity’ to Number 17. Ziggy And The Spiders had risen.

Just watch me now” – ‘Star’

People moan about the modern music industry creating stars too quickly, but post-TOTP, Bowie’s stardom was instant. People also moan about bands being forced to put out music before they’re ready, but Bowie was churning an album out every six months, His talent was pure, his talent was righteous, and he was finally famous. In May ’72 he told NME’s Charles Shaar Murray: “Ziggy’s my gift to you.” The “you” was the world, and the world wanted a piece. And so the touring began.

It started in the UK in August 1972. Then in September a 22-date American tour began and lasted until December. Instantly, the craziness started. “It was the ultimate,” says Woody. “The experience, the police escorts, the fans. Exactly what a rock’n’roll tour in America should be like.” The Americans, as Bowie had predicted to Ken Scott, loved it. Mostly. “Some American fans would come to every gig within a thousand miles,” Says Woody. “But down south you’d get a different reaction. Once we stopped at a café and some cops came over and said, ‘We know you’re playing the shows, but please don’t go outside.’ There were people round there shooting hippies, and we were waaaaay beyond hippies. So we had to stay inside.”

Then, on the way to Japan in January 1973, they stopped off in Moscow that proved to be entirely unprepared for their future-forward stylings. “We were pretty wild-looking back then,” says Woody. “And we got a message on the plane asking us to stay seated, and we thought there was a photographer or something. Four guards with machine guns got on and took us round the back passages of the airport to a little room and said ‘We can’t let you go out in public, we’re not allowed, you’ll cause a riot’. They’d never seen anything like us. We weren’t even in our gear on the flights, but Mick had bleached blonde hair with red, yellow and green strips in it and we wore silver bangles. So stepping on a plane full of Russian businessmen was pretty freaky. Bowie wanted to see Red Square, so they arranged a blacked-out limo with a little slit in the window, and it drove us around Red Square and back to the airport. Nobody in Moscow saw us!”

Crowd reactions were on Beatlemania levels. At the peak of it, Bowie was sneaking into venues because screaming girls would queue outside just to try and touch him. There are YouTube videos of girls bawling their eyes out after he’d outwitted them and snuck in round the front, instead of round the back where they were waiting. “The fanmail we’d get was mad,” says Woody. “We’d meet people and they’d go, ‘We know you’re from Mars’. There were so many of them, and they’d all say that.” David Bowie said at the time: “I seem to draw a lot of fantasies out of people.”

I never thought I’d seen so many people” – ‘Five Years’

By now, Ziggy’s entourage was megastar massive. Bowie had ‘wardrobe mistresses’ to tend to different parts of his stage outfit, and people like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed were always hanging about. During the interview with Charles Shaar Murray, Reed entered the room at one point and Murray wrote: “I hoped to get him to join in the conversation, but he just came over and kissed David.” There were superstars too. “Occasionally Paul McCartney would come to rehearsals,” says Bolder. “Him and Linda, and Ringo, and Mick Jagger, and a lot of hangers-on from the Andy Warhol crowd.”

There were non-celebrities infiltrating the inner circle as well. Mike Garson was a pianist based in Brooklyn who was brought in to play keyboards on the US tour and was, at a time when it was still sexy and funky, a Scientologist. He tried to spread the L Ron Hubbard love around, and managed to persuade Woody to get involved. “He introduced me, and I’ve been one ever since,” he says. “People didn’t mind apart from in a social aspect ‘cos when I got into it I’d start reading books on tour. And you can’t read if you’ve just downed 19 tequila sunrises. So I kind of stopped drinking. It meant more to me than doing all of that. So that started to change my viewpoint.”

He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar” – ‘Ziggy Stardust’

Bowie, too, was going through a spiritual awakening, but was acting it out through the medium of Ziggy. “He had to do the show every night,” remembers Woody. “And write ‘Aladdin Sane’, and do interviews. But people didn’t want to interview David Bowie, they wanted to interview Ziggy. It became… odd. He was kind of always in character, you know” Bolder agrees: “One minute he was David Bowie, then he was this big star. He’d become Ziggy, and it was having an effect on him.” Bowie admitted as much in a 1973 interview: “I’m a character when I go onstage, and I believe in my part. That’s how I do my stage thing. I’m an actor.” But the man who created it all was crumbling under the pressure. The first major cock-up was 1973 at Earls Court, where the bad sound and dodgy vocals were described as “verging on rock’n’roll suicide” by Nick Kent in NME. There also came a point when the Spiders stopped buying into Bowie’s ideas. “He started saying things like: ‘I want you all dressed in black,’ says Woody. “And in the shadows, and the playing to be souly and funky. It wasn’t my thing.”

So on July 3, 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon in west London, Bowie announced that this was the last Ziggy show. It was the first Woody and Bolder had heard of it. Woody says: “We were just thinking, ‘Is it the truth, or another one of his stories?’”

The July 7, 1973 issue of NME confirmed it with a headline that read “BOWIE QUITS” and Bowie saying inside: “That’s it. Period. I don’t want to do any more gigs and the American dates have been cancelled. From now on I’ll be concentrating on various activities that have very little to do with rock and pop.”

Ziggy was dead. Gone. Forever. Except in David Byrne and Talking Heads. In Alex Kapranos and Franz Ferdinand. In Madonna. In every idea Noel Fielding’s ever had. In the very concept that a pop star can have a persona. In Nicki Minaj. In MIA. In Lady Gaga. In Robert Smith. He created a monster, and he had to kill it. As Trevor Bolder points out: “He couldn’t be Ziggy Stardust for the rest of his life.”

Where are the Spiders? – What Bowie’s crew did after Ziggy died

Ken Scott

Stuck with Bowie to record ‘Pin Ups’, before taking his knob-twiddling fingers to work for The Tubes, Devo, Supertramp, Missing Persons and Level 42.

Trevor Bolder

Brought his intergalactic bass to ‘Pin Ups’ and has been in Uriah Heep since 1976, apart from a strint with Wishbone Ash from ’81 to ’83.

Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey

The July ’73 Hammersmith Odeon gig was Woody’s last show with Bowie. He married his girlfriend June a week later at a scientology ceremony and formed a band, Woody Woodmansey’s U-Boat.

Mick Ronson

Played with Bowie on 1973’s ‘Pin Ups’ before parting ways. Ronson released six solo albums between ’74 and ’81 and got himself an NME cover. He then collaborated with T Bone Burnett, Elton John, Morrissey and Ian Hunter from Mott The Hoople, and had a wild time in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975 and 1976. He died of liver cancer in 1993, aged 46.