‘Ziggy Stardust’ at 50: Musicians discuss David Bowie’s most influential album

bowie ziggy anniversary

The cover of Ziggy Stardust’s 1972 album, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.”

This month marks the 50th anniversary of David Bowie’s groundbreaking album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Bowie’s bold, unique persona and provocative lyrics validated anyone who felt like they were orbiting outside the mainstream. His conviction to be himself, no matter what the consequences, encouraged his fans to respect themselves. Given the number of people who fall into the outlier category, this album — like virtually Bowie’s entire catalogue — connected with a huge number of fans and inspired many artists. It influenced the development of glam rock and is still relevant and engaging today. Though Bowie laid to rest the character Ziggy Stardust in 1973, his evolving styles and personas taught us that we too can reinvent ourselves and reveal deeply hidden parts of ourselves.

In honor of the album’s anniversary, I asked a variety of artists to explain its impact on them. Some responded in detail about the album, while others talked more generally about Bowie.

Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s fifth studio album — featuring his remarkable band the Spiders from Mars that included guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey — was co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott. It tells the tale, to me, of androgynous and theatrical rock star (and Bowie alter ego) Ziggy Stardust, an alien sent to Earth to save it from an apocalyptic end. (I understand that some believe the album was not initially conceived as a concept album and that a theme arose after songs were recorded.)

Bowie takes us on a wild ride, opening with the harrowing “Five Years,” in which we learn that Earth has only five years before its apocalypse; then on to more hopeful songs, including “Soul Love” and “Starman.” “Moonage Daydream,” enhanced by Ronson’s guitar, references the Ziggy character as an alligator, a mama-papa and the space invader. “Suffragette City,” with its pre-punk energy, has lyrics that I cannot connect to Ziggy, but it’s a classic rock tune that gets the meekest of us on the dance floor.

Gloria Steinem wrote in her 2015 book “My Life on the Road” that “there are events that divide our lives into before and after.” She explained that when asked to name such an event, most people “cite an event that gave them a feeling of emotional connection.” For her it was the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston that focused on equity and inclusion. There she developed connections with “issues, possibilities, and women” that engage her to this day.

One of my transformative events was a large gathering on the steps of Federal District Court in Manhattan to protest U.S. military intervention in Central America that combined music and poetry with speeches by the feisty attorney William Kunstler, short story writer and poet Grace Paley, and others. I observed the power of music to create community and support social change.

For many of the artists I interviewed, discovering Bowie was a watershed moment that reminded me of Steinem’s before-and-after dichotomy.

I remember hearing Bowie for the first time in my high school friend’s apartment in Manhattan. This friend, musician/author Chris Semal, was my window into a world beyond Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. He’d crank up Mott the Hoople and Bowie’s music and I’d stare at Bowie’s album covers, attracted to Bowie’s androgynous appearance and drawn to his wild performances. Bowie was way ahead of social norms of the early 1970s and, as Chris has pointed out, in his music you could find “answers to questions you never knew existed.”

Despite his avant-garde appeal, Bowie connected widely by honing his craft and connecting deeply with his fans. This is true for the people I surveyed. Here are their responses:

RICHARD BARONE CLOUDS OVER EDEN

RICHARD BARONE

Richard Barone

When the Ziggy Stardust album came out in 1972, the stage had already been set. David Bowie himself had helped set it, with wisps of androgyny — and by claiming the territory of the known galaxy in “Space Oddity.” His frenemy Marc Bolan had already updated rock ‘n’ roll with strokes of glam, glitter and hits like “Ride a White Swan,” “Hot Love” and, ultimately, “Get It On” — echoes of which can all be heard on Ziggy. In school, hearing the album for the first time in my bedroom, my friend commented “Jeez, that sounds like a T.Rex song” when “Hang On to Yourself” came on. But Bowie’s palette was wide, and theatrical.

An ABC News special at the time reported on soldiers returning home from Vietnam, adjusting to the changes that had taken place in American society since they had been drafted. How did they react when learning that one of the hottest emerging rock stars was loudly bisexual, wore skintight couture, and pretended to go down on his lead guitar player every night onstage? It was truly rock theater, onstage and on vinyl.

But it was the musicality that put it over. Having worked with his friend, producer Tony Visconti — who also, incidentally, produced T.Rex — on two previous albums, Bowie had learned from one of the true greats, and neatly appropriated elements of Visconti’s influence on Ziggy: supportive strings, high, expressive backing vocals, the unique blend of strummy acoustic and crunchy electric guitars. Bowie put it all together on Ziggy, adding a visual dimension inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” other sci-fi flavors, a bit of mime, kabuki and cabaret, a dash of Dali, lots of moves from Iggy Pop/T.Rex/New York Dolls … It was like a rock ‘n’ roll smoothie with everything cool thrown into the blender.

Two years later, growing up in Tampa, I got to see Bowie on his brilliant Diamond Dogs Tour. Moving to New York, I was thrilled to first meet David Bowie on the dance floor of the rock disco Hurrah! in the early 1980s. He was unassuming and polite. We exchanged smiles, chatted about the band onstage, and went our separate ways. Then, in the late 1990s, I was doubly thrilled when Tony Visconti invited me to sing harmony vocals on a couple of songs he and David were recording. One, a cover of John Lennon’s “Mother,” was released as a single on what would have been David’s 74th birthday in January 2021. In the studio, Bowie was just as polite, just as pleasant, just as down-to-earth as I would want any intergalactic superstar to be.

Lately, my pal Glenn Mercer of the Feelies and I have been performing some of David’s mid-1970s masterpieces, including songs from Ziggy, in our show “Hazy Cosmic Jive.” The title of the show itself comes from a line on the album (from “Starman”). There is no denying his influence — Bowie’s story and his songs dwell inside of me always.

GLENN MERCER

Glenn Mercer

I first became aware of David Bowie after hearing The Man Who Sold the World when it first came out. I found it rather dark, but compelling nonetheless. Shortly after that, I listened to Hunky Dory. I loved it and became a Bowie fan. Then, I heard Ziggy Stardust and became an even bigger fan. I especially liked how it reflected his love of early rock ‘n’ roll, particularly on cuts like “Suffragette City” and “Hang On to Yourself.” (The original version of the album included a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around”). Overall, it struck a good balance between the songs that sound a little like musical theater and the ones that rock out.

At the time, concept albums were in fashion and this one was vague enough to allow our imaginations to fill in the blanks. Who was Ziggy? Elvis? Hendrix? Most likely an amalgamation of all his heroes, but it was fun searching the lyrics for clues.

What amazes me about the record is that it is such a potent example of self-realization. Bowie had a strong desire to become a rock star so he created a character who is a rock star, then by embodying the character he was able to actually became a star. The fact that he then went on to become an icon is even more amazing.

In 1972, I bought my first electric guitar. I’d been playing bass for several years and I began to teach myself how to play guitar as well. I found this LP to be a great inspiration for the type of player I wanted to be. Mick Ronson’s style is very tasteful and always serves the song. He never overplays or shows off but somehow his skills still shine through. Throughout the record he displays an impeccable tone that is unique and personal, and his riffs have become indelible.

When I began playing in cover bands, songs from Ziggy would often be in our set, and now I’m playing them again with Richard Barone (along with Dave Weckerman and Bob Torsello) in a band that celebrates our favorite records from that time period.

A true measure of a record’s lasting impact is in its ability to transport you back to the moment when you first embraced it. A key element in that process is in the way it’s able to convey a rich atmosphere and a unique mood. This Ziggy record does that so well. Its impact can still be felt today.

CRISTINA ARRIGONI

WILLIE NILE

Willie Nile

This album stands out for me as a testament to Bowie’s search for freedom and individuality and his commitment to self-expression. I saw it clearly affect people in a very deep way. It gave them the strength and faith to believe in themselves and follow their own dreams.

Bowie was well aware of the influence he had and he put it to good use. He helped bring people out of their shells and darkness and into their own light. That’s a great gift from an artist who had so much to give.

Here’s to the one and only David Bowie!

janis ian interview

KEITH STOKES

JANIS IAN

Janis Ian

My wish list of performers I’d like to have worked with and/or met is small, and he’s on it. I saw him in New York during the Thin White Duke Tour (The White Lights Tour, astonishing) and in (the play) “The Elephant Man.” I probably watched (the film) “The Man Who Fell to Earth” two dozen times. What an incredible talent.

Frankly, I envied him his boldness, and his ability to attract equally bold partners. I remember when Diamond Dogs came out because Brooks (producer Brooks Arthur) and I were recording Between the Lines, I believe, and we just kept staring at the cover and saying “What? Wow.” But I didn’t fall in love with him until Young Americans.

Station to Station is probably the one that influenced me most. The way he and his colleagues used sound as backdrop instead of foreground, and then reversed those on a dime. The way he phrased. The cojones to sing “Wild Is the Wind” when Nina Simone had done such a definitive version. And “Golden Years,” such a heady blend of basic pop and what would become punk, alt-rock, whatever you want to call it, with some strains of metal thrown in.

He was ridiculously, absurdly brilliant.

SUZZY ROCHE

Suzzy Roche

I’ve met my share of famous people, and most of the time it’s awkward. I imagine it’s difficult to be famous and hold on to your humanity in social situations. But I had an encounter with David Bowie which is hard to describe, and one I rarely talk about because it was deeply intimate, and most definitely not sexual.

He came to see The Roches in London at the very beginning of our career. Backstage, his assistant told me that David would like to take me out, and he would send a car the next night to pick me up. I assumed he meant all three of us, but I was wrong. In fact, when I arrived at his apartment with my sister Terre, he said, “Oh, you’re here, too?,” which was embarrassing, and I remember he was wearing one of those shirts with the tiny alligator on it that golfers wear.

First, he played the song “Fashion” from his upcoming album. Then we went for a sightseeing tour, in a couple of cars, with a small entourage. We drove past Buckingham Palace, and we attended a play in a tiny theater. The play was American. I don’t remember the name of it, but all the actors were British, and each was speaking in a different American accent. I don’t think David cared for the play, and our whole row got up and left in the intermission. Next stop was a club called Hell.

It was David Bowie Night and people were dressed up in costumes based on his different personas: Ziggy Stardust, etc. No one recognized him.

After our visit to Hell, David and I got separated from the group, and we could not find his car, so we walked for what seemed to be hours, at one point through a garbage dump. It was then that I understood why he had asked me out. He implied that he recognized something in me, and he wanted to tell me what it was like for him to be an artist. The experience was surreal, almost like he was a creature from outer space imparting some kind of secret knowledge to me. I was young, and his generosity towards me was profoundly influential. I don’t know what he saw in me or why he bothered to reach out to me in such a deep way. But I will never forget his kindness and his gentleness. The evening ended as the sun rose, and we met the rest of his friends, including my sister, for breakfast.

JOE BOUCHARD

Joe Bouchard (solo artist and member of Blue Coupe, formerly of Blue Öyster Cult)

I do love that Bowie album. Certainly, my favorite of his catalog, though I like Hunky Dory a lot, too.

It was the early days of the Blue Öyster Cult and we’d spin that Ziggy album night and day. It’s such a well composed piece of art that really set the mood of the times.

I actually got to see his tour in Nashville that year. Mick Ronson was a standout on that show, too.

BOB GRUEN

TAMMY FAYE STARLITE

Tammy Faye Starlite

I revere David Bowie — his magnificent voice, his music, his oblique lyrics filled with mystery and yearning, his elegance, his specificity of movement, the sense of decadence-by-proxy that I felt when I first saw the “Ziggy” film, putting glitter on my face without realizing my superficial understanding of his macrocosmic ethos, the profundity of his artistry.

The Ziggy Stardust album is so emotionally affecting, evoking a time when life seemed rapturous, sparkling, with a majestic wink to the glorious dissolute — yet transitory, finite, and all the more achingly valuable because of its implicit end … He was an artist of contradictions, he challenged the idea that “authenticity” is linear, because in his work, his “self” was prismatic, undefinable, chimerical. He opened up a world of pretense as the deepest manifestation of reality, and when he sings the line “You’re not alone” he shatters all the internal fears we possess, and allows for the greatest freedom, a benediction of acceptance.

MARK PLATI

Mark Plati (worked extensively with Bowie in the ’90s and ’00s)

I was a 1970s teenager, and David Bowie was somewhat omnipresent in my musical coming-of-age. There was an ad from around 1979 that went something like “There’s Old Wave, There’s New Wave, and There’s David Bowie.” Nothing could be more true, as over that decade there seemed to be a different David Bowie with every album release.

This was the album-rock FM ’70s, so a song like “Ziggy Stardust” could be heard on the radio pretty regularly. As a budding musician, I was intrigued by some of the odd choices and directions the song took. I simply had to learn how to play it. Fast forward to 1996 when I first worked with David, and he was somebody else yet again. The first record I worked on with David was Earthling, an album of songs steeped in techno, and drum and bass. It was simply the latest stop on his journey, which is what it felt like to be in his orbit. Over the course of my time with David he never did the same thing twice, and I never seemed to do the same job twice. I began as a recording engineer and synth programmer, and ended up playing guitar in the band and being musical director. I was fortunate to arrive at a time when I got to perform “Starman” and “Ziggy Stardust” with the man himself.

Sometimes David would laugh about a particular interviewer who would always ask him the same question: “Why did you kill Ziggy?” That’s a reasonable thing to ask. Ziggy Stardust was a monster album that changed rock, and it made David an international superstar. People would never tire of “Suffragette City.” Why mess with the formula? I suppose if you’re a true artist, you can’t stop and settle into a particular sound or style and stay creative.

TIA HAYGOOD

MORGAN FISHER

Morgan Fisher (keyboardist for Mott the Hoople, Queen, others)

Almost a year to the day after the Ziggy album was released, I joined Mott the Hoople and suddenly found myself riding high on the crest of a wave that had been launched by Bowie while he was introducing Ziggy to the world.

Bowie had barely finished his album when he heard that Mott were about to split. A longtime fan of the band, he presented them with his song “All the Young Dudes,” which they immediately recorded and transformed into an evergreen rock anthem. Our bassist Overend Watts heard it first and said, “He hadn’t even got all the words yet, but the song just blew me away, especially when he hit the chorus.” Soon after, the band met David and Ian Hunter recalled, “He just played it on an acoustic guitar. I knew straight away it was a hit. There were chills going down my spine. It’s only happened to me a few times in my life, when you know that this is a biggie.”

Our drummer Dale Griffin commented, “We couldn’t believe it. In a little office in Regent Street, he’s strumming it on his guitar and I’m thinking, ‘He wants to give us that? He must be crazy.’ We broke our necks to say yes. You couldn’t fail to see it was a great song.”

After playing it, Bowie told them he would produce the track for release as a single (he later produced the album with the same title). In one stroke, David pulled the band out of the dumps and whirled them into the bigger, brighter phase two of our career, which I was delighted to be a part of. I still am not sure if the song was written just for us, or whether it was a reject from the Ziggy album. No matter — I have seen ecstatic audiences, arms raised, lustily singing the chorus hundreds of times, in 1973, 1974 and again in 2018 and 2019. The Ziggy magic still sparkles. Bless you, David!

hoboken arts and music fest may 1

IVAN JULIAN

Ivan Julian (solo artist, co-founder of Richard Hell & the Voidoids)

1972 was a year when music, (and especially new music) was a sociopolitical force. What would become classic albums were being released one after the other and everyone was anxious to hear where we were going. Then a page turned when Ziggy Stardust was released. Everything about it was new and challenging. Even the inner label boasted of “Dynaflex.” A new type of vinyl that could be almost bent in half without breaking. Truly the future was here.

And then there was the music, which was basically doo-wop and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll but somehow sounded different, with songs about things that we never thought of before.

The ’60’s were all about challenging taboos but on Ziggy Stardust Bowie chose to challenge what was then the last taboo — open homosexuality. This had an interesting effect on teenage suburban America. All of a sudden, the guys that would smash you in the face for having your hair too long were now wearing feathered boas and makeup. Obviously, this record had made quite an impact.

KARYN KUHL

Karyn Kuhl (frontwoman for the Karyn Kuhl Band, formerly of Gutbank and Sexpod)

I saw David Bowie’s Station to Station Tour at Madison Square Garden in March 1976. It was a defining and religious experience for me at 14 years old. The Thin White Duke (Station to Station) will always be my favorite Bowie album with both Low and Heroes coming in second. I saw that tour, too!

I wonder what would’ve happened to me if I saw Ziggy at 10 years old? Would I have spontaneously combusted? I loved discovering that album with the higher register vocals and high energy rockiness, even happy vibe as I was enveloped in the dark-toned Bowie. My favorite has always been the cathartic, transcendent and sexy melancholy of “Moonage Daydream.”

ALICE GENESE

Alice Kg (of the duo Ov Stars, formerly of Gutbank and Sexpod)

David Bowie and his music had a very real influence on me as a songwriter and as a musician … I think I was in high school when he first started to come into my musical world, and he has been a musical influence since then.

I’ve recently done a podcast with Vinyl and Vision where I spent well over an hour talking about how The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust was an important album in my world. As I’ve grown as a person and as a musician, I’ve connected more and more deeply to my love of this particular piece of music. I loved his ability to write in/for a character, something I’ve struggled to do, and yet when I listen to the songs, I still understand that it is David Bowie through Ziggy Stardust returning to David Bowie. I’m particularly drawn to the songs “Five Years,” “Moonage Daydream” and, of course, “Ziggy Stardust,” and to date have not become tired of listening to them. I was also really drawn to fashion in my younger years and truly connected to his self-expression through fashion and the ability to straddle traditional masculine/feminine/alien dress. Just brilliant.

DON DiLEGO.

Don DiLego (solo artist and member of Fantastic Cat)

By all accounts I was a child of MTV. When I was growing up, I did not have an older brother or sister to turn me onto the classics, or what came before “Video Killed the Radio Star.” So a lot of what I count as my gold standard “desert island albums” came to me a bit later.

Ziggy Stardust was one of those records. It was quite mind-blowing. I was in my mid-20s at the time, and although I was well aware of Bowie’s legend and hits, I was not privy to the albums from where they came. I had just migrated to New York and found myself shockingly with a record deal and an album to make. They had signed me based on three songs that I demoed, but they were not yet attached to a full album. I was looking for some inspiration.

One late night on the subway, I struck up a conversation with a homeless man who, for some reason, seemed important to my life … He told me of his crazy Kerouac-type travels, and that he liked to call himself “The Lonestar Hitchhiker of the United States.” I decided that night I was going to write a concept album about his stories. I began to dig into the best of them.

There are those magical moments where you can recall when and where you were when you first heard a song, or the power it had over you at that moment. When the very first hypnotic drums of “Five Years” began to fade in, I was mesmerized. What a start to an album. And it just kept surprising you even more after that. This was exactly what I needed at that point in my life … my guiding star. It was the album that helped me make sense of what I was trying to do as an artist and the kinds of stories we can tell. In short, an eye-opener. I will forever be in its debt.

VINCENT RUIZ

BOB PERRY

Bob Perry (solo artist and former member of Winter Hours)

I was as a young teen, and still am, inspired by Ziggy any time I put it on or hear a song from it. My older brother and I shared a room growing up. We had a stereo system with an 8-track player and had both The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs on 8-track. My brother, a few years older than me, was going through a glam phase, painting and applying glitter to his platform shoes and “borrowing” our sister’s shirts for school wear. He introduced me to Bowie’s music.

Ziggy was the first record that I connected with both the lyrics and music — the song “Five Years” in particular. Until then, I was tuned into the instruments and didn’t really understand songs. Ziggy opened my eyes. My brother had handwritten the lyrics to every song on loose leaf paper and we kept them in the drawer near the stereo. Every listen for me was in its entirety, and with the lyric sheets. That recording sounds as great to me today as it did then. I will never tire of it. It inspired the fledgling songwriter in me.

JON FRIED

Jon Fried (of The Cucumbers and The Campfire Flies)

When I was in college, I was playing mostly folk, folk-rock and jazz, pretty much no rock ‘n’ roll, until I discovered that a couple of friends of mine would put on Ziggy Stardust and perform some of the songs — a lead singer would don a purple leotard and two other guys would play air guitar holding tennis rackets. Upon seeing them do this, I sat at their dorm room desk and played “drums.” We were under the influence of substances now legal, of course, and had a swell time.

Fast forward a few years when two of the “band” members — we were the Wayland Wailers because the dorm was located over something called Wayland Arch — visited me in my first after-college apartment. They asked if I had the album, which I didn’t, but I said, “Hey, look, I play guitar, why don’t we write our own songs?” They seemed willing. That night we wrote six rock songs, including one called “Cucumbers,” from which Deena (Shoshkes) and I took our band name. These guys and I went on to write a few more songs over the next few years, including one called “Hoboken Halloween” that the Cucumbers played out once or twice.

I hadn’t realized I could write songs like that, just letting them pour out. Not long after, Deena and I started writing songs together.

Without Ziggy Stardust, none of it may have happened.

EDWARD ROGERS

Edward Rogers (solo artist and member of the duo Butler & Rogers, with Stephen Butler)

After hearing the magical music on Hunky Dory, I wondered what David Bowie could possibly do next? Well, he went and formed Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and released a life-changing record — now 50 years old! — when compared to the drab musical scene that was currently popular in America. It still stands out to this day, and it showed a future and a path to a new generation; a shining star that will never fade away.

The dazzling event that proved that Ziggy Stardust was truly the future of music for me was evident on Sept. 28, 1972, when Ziggy and The Spiders played Carnegie Hall in New York and changed the way I listened to music to this day.

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