1971 in the last chance saloon. An awkward, oddball singer, two years and three flop singles on from his out-of-the-blue Number One song and looking more like a one-hit-wonder by the minute, returns from an underwhelming promo tour of America where he shocked and confused all-comers by singing Jacques Brel songs in a ‘man-dress’. His backing band have quit over personal issues, he’s lumbered with a half-interested manager and quarter-interested label and his side project Arnold Corns have split after one failed single. Your dumpster awaits, sir.
But then Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits gets hold of demos of his new songs, records one called ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ and has a hit. David Bowie was back in the game. A new major label comes on board, keen on his two new albums – one full of melodic art pop, the other a batch of balls-out glam rock songs. They decide to push the second the hardest, but how best to present it? Snazzy suit and tie? Bowl cut? New band called German’s Permits? No? What’s that? A scarlet-haired kabuki alien super-being from the end of the world? In a psychedelic leotard? Who gets killed off if he gets successful? Okaaaay…
Of the many things to be learned from ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’, released 50 years ago today (June 16), perhaps the primary lesson is that it’s never too late for a big idea. The ultimate example of going big or going home, Ziggy was a virtually unprecedented leap of artistic faith. An all-in move on the belief that the record buying public of the post-psychedelic era would still be enthralled by fantasy. That rock music was quintessentially larger than life. And that pop stars were, beneath their human-like shells, otherworldly meta gods bred specifically to be worshipped, from a parallel dimension where everything and everyone – right down to a bloke with wonky teeth from Brixton – was freakily fabulous.
There were precedents of course. Peter Gabriel had made Genesis’s name by taking on a theatrical parade of onstage characters, like a one-man Edwardian freak show. Self-styled “God of hellfire” Arthur Brown had been cauterising his hair follicles for some years in the name of his unearthly alter ego. George Clinton and Lee “Scratch” Perry had already been claiming intergalactic birth-rights. And although Frank Zappa, Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix never actually let on that they were from Mars, everybody knew.
It’s phenomenally rare, though, before or since, for an act to take such a bold and brazen chance with so much on the line. When Prince became a symbol and Bono transformed into a tech-rocking Macphisto, it was with the safety net of faithful fanbases of millions. In 1971, on the other hand, Bowie basically just had an A&R or two, a guitar god in over-tight and a rhythm section made largely of sideburn on his side. Even his relatively novice co-producer Ken Scott saw ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust…’ as practice runs for working with more high-prospect acts.
Today’s daring equivalents tend to have learnt the art of the chameleon from Bowie. The likes of St. Vincent, Björk and PJ Harvey risked losing the support of solid initial fanbases as they took on more challenging sounds and personas. We applaud the avant-garde derring do of such moves, but it’s surprising there’s not far more of it about. In an age where streaming has conquered culture by feeding us ever-blander facsimiles of what we already like it’s relatively easy to stand out, and less risky as we all tire of so much playlist indie and glitchy R&B and crave something – anything – unexpected.
Plenty of rising acts have got the eye-catching bit right. Yungblud, Lynks, Yves Tumor, HMLTD, Remi Wolf, Goat Girl and Bree Runway would all own any post-gig bus stop they decided to brave. As, indeed, would most of the school of 2022 – looking at many new British acts you might assume they were all survivors of the same Haribo factory explosion.
Where, though – outside schlocky metal and Gorillaz – are the acts arriving full Ziggy? The supernatural alter egos with fantastical back stories, outlined in death and glory concept debut albums? Stars that don’t take to stages but seem to materialise on them; that you fully believe have pan-dimensional motherships instead of dressing rooms? The next evolution of homo superior?
At a time when familiarity pays, such a project might seem like a Bowie-level risk, a waste of valuable Schwarzkopf. But, just like 1971 – when the glitter falling from Marc Bolan’s cheek was guiding a path out of the post-’60s smack-rock doldrums – in an ever-brightening 2022, crying out for a shock of the new, the stage is set for a more cosmic jive. Come down Starmen, Starwomen and everything in between; our minds, once more, are ready to be blown.