Is it worth a listen? The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

British rocker David Bowie’s breakthrough album about a space alien who turns into rock n’ roll messiah.

The iconic album cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Taken at 23 Heddon Street which has since become a site of pilgrimage for David Bowie fans.

Brian Ward

The iconic album cover of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. Taken at 23 Heddon Street which has since become a site of pilgrimage for David Bowie fans.

“Oh no love! You’re not alone.” 

David Bowie reassures the audience in ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide,’  the final song of his fourth album, 1972’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Bowie was this illustrious and progressive figure within the music industry and community; he was known for his changes with his music as well as his ambiguous sexuality for a number of years. Bowie was a figure of comfort for those who didn’t feel that they fit in, for those who weren’t sure of who they were. 

His music reflected that, as it didn’t quite fit in with the mainstream. His music was at times strange; that’s why it had taken Bowie sometime to really hit it off with the mainstream audiences. Then for some this image of his turned them off from listening to his music. For social studies teacher Steve Rittenour, had seen Bowie as being the “guy he had the lipstick on was wearing like the suits.” This led to him not listening to Bowie when he was kid.

David Bowie being swarmed by fans while in his guise “Ziggy Stardust.” Bowie would stay in the guise even after performing, everyone wanted a piece of Ziggy. (Mark and Colleen Hayward) 

While Rittenour was more turned away from Bowie due to the image surrounding him, another teacher got turned away from Bowie more due to his music. Middle school social studies teacher Rex Baldwin says “it’s not for me; kind of too theatrical and to me kind of not real. The music that I usually listen to has more I can relate to, and I don’t think I just couldn’t relate to it.” 

That’s completely understandable, looking from a mainstream perspective of Bowie’s music it’s not exactly the most approachable. His music is truly fantastical at times, even just the idea of them. With the album Bowie tells the story of a space alien that comes to earth to prevent the destruction of Earth. However, Ziggy ends up becoming a rockstar, gets consumed by his own ego and ends up dying to the kids, explained in the 9th track of the album ‘Ziggy Stardust.’ 

Promotional image showcasing The Spiders from Mars. The farthest to the left is bassist Trevor Bolder, left center is drummer Mick Woodmansey, right center is Ziggy Stardust himself, David Bowie and then farthest to the right is guitarist Mick Ronson. (RCA Records )

In the album Bowie of course portrays Ziggy, so who are the Spiders from Mars? Well, you had guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, and drummer Woody Woodmansey. With that you have ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’, they would perform as the touring band. This hadn’t been Ronson’s first stint with Bowie, he had been on his 2 previous albums, 1970’s “The Man Who Sold the World” and 1971’s “Hunky Dory.” He would stay with Bowie for two more albums, 1973’s “Aladdin Sane” and “Pin Ups.”

It was an album that kind of looked at a darker side of a star’s life and this was before albums like ‘Hotel California’ from The Eagles so it was remarkable in that regard. 

After all, the whole image of Ziggy was developed from rockstars Bowie had known in late 60s and early 70s such as Iggy Pop of the proto-punk band The Stooges (‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, ‘Search and Destroy’), Lou Reed of the avant-garde rock band The Velvet Underground (‘Femme Fatale’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’), and Marc Bolan of the glam-rock band T. Rex (‘20th Century Boy’, ‘Jeepster’).

A photo taken of David Bowie (On the left) and his sources of inspiration for the character of Ziggy Stardust. Iggy Pop of The Stooges (Center) coincidentally wore a t-shirt of the band T.Rex whose lead singer Marc Bolan was another inspiration, as well as Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground (On the right) . (Mick Rock )

They provided the inspiration that Bowie would then take and create this character of Ziggy, the two main songs that go over the character of Ziggy are ‘Moonage Daydream’, arguably one of Bowie’s most iconic songs, and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ which describes his rise and fall. 

This is the big appeal of the album, Baldwin felt that it “tells a story. I’m a big fan of of storytelling and you know, I might enjoy a good make believe story and I think that it has those elements there.” The opening track is one of the songs that tells a story, ‘Five Years.’ As an album opener it  grabs your attention; it gives you a reason to listen to the rest of the album. It’s hard for me to pick specific lyrics from this song because all of them are so strong, the layers within these scenes are just mind-blowing honestly. The emotion Bowie sings it to really displays that feeling of helplessness; there is nothing else the narrator can do then just remember all these scenes all around, the faces, the people, that’s all he can do and you feel that. One of my all time favorite lyrics really emphasizes that, “And it was cold and it rained, so I felt like an actor.” 

You feel his despair for the fact that he can’t do anything to stop the destruction of Earth in five years. It sets up the general story of the album perfectly, and everything else just builds upon it. 

It’s a powerful song that follows the narrator as he describes the scenes he sees after the “News guy wept and told us Earth was really dying.” Bowie’s descriptive lyrics here are strong, just the way he describes the scenes perfectly, the scenes come to life in the song.

The cover of the single release of ‘Starman’ in the U.K. ‘Suffragette City’ was also on the release. (RCA Records )

‘Starman’ is the most popular song from the album, and it’s actually the reason why the album itself got as much attention as it got upon its release. The song was released as a single, and it peaked at no.10 on the UK Singles Chart, and this led to the album reaching no.5 at the time. This is really the defining song of the album honestly, it mixes the story telling of the other songs while also just being a pretty good pop song honestly. It has a catchy sing along chorus inspired by glam rock band T.Rex, and it has such a nice pleasant melody that it’s almost impossible to not like it. It’s about the message the starman, Ziggy, is giving, “Let the children lose it, Let the children use it, Let all the children boogie.”

‘Ziggy Stardust’ is the central track to this album, this is the one all about the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars. He started off just playing the guitar for this group, but eventually he grew bigger than the band so they ended up becoming “Ziggy’s band.’ Ziggy grew a huge fan following and was loved, but the band didn’t really appreciate that. They didn’t like how Ziggy was getting more of the attention, and the band was jealous of it, they even thought of breaking his left hand that used to play the guitar with.

My personal favorite verse from the song is the final one where it talks about how he fell, “Making love with his ego. Ziggy sucked up into his mind, ah like a leper messiah. When the kids had killed the man. I had to break up the band.”

This also happens to be my favorite song from the album as well, I love the lyrics and the instrumental on this track. Even the way Ziggy sings describes the feelings of the band, you feel that jealousy, that spite coming from them, but you also feel that despair when Ziggy falls in the end. He was this great talent, lost by his own ego. The tragic tale of Ziggy Stardust.

Bowie as an artist some may turn a blind eye to, they may feel that his music would be too far out for them and they won’t enjoy it. That was certainly the case with Rittenour, he had never listened to a Bowie album before Ziggy Stardust for this, and it “surprised me … Like this was totally new but I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it.” However not everyone will feel the same, in the case of Baldwin he did appreciate the story Bowie told through the album it was still something that he struggled connecting with. He stated his feelings very clearly, “It’s not something I want to pop in the CD player every week personally.”

So what do I think of this album as a whole?

The backside of a physical release of the album showing the track list as well as who worked on the album. (Brian Ward )

‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ is an album that is really like no other which perfectly complements Bowie, he was like no other musical artist. For his entire musical career he was pushing the boundaries, and constantly moving forward with his creativity. The challenges that would confront him he would persevere against, Bowie would find his greatest commercial success with his 1983 “Let’s Dance” which is his best-selling album to date.

However that doesn’t make Ziggy Stardust any less of a significant album for Bowie’s career, in my opinion this is my favorite Bowie album. The Bowie I know is best displayed in this album. His creativity with the lyrics, the rocking of the instrumentation, and the emotion he sings with. He puts so much feeling into his singing on this album just listen to songs like ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide’ with his desperate pleas, the crying of ‘Five Years’ in the outro of the song. To quote Bowie himself, “I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rolling b***h for you” in songs like ‘Moonage Daydream’ and the surprise hit ‘Suffragette City.’

The influence of the album, and even Bowie himself is still felt to this day even for those who may not exactly be Bowie fans like Baldwin you have got to “appreciate the artistry of the whole idea that he was creating.”  For that reason I would rate ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ as being an album everyone should listen to at least once in their lifetime/10. Even if you don’t think you’ll enjoy it who knows, you may be pleasantly surprised by it just like Rittenour was.

Once more I’m encouraging you to listen to this album and discuss your thoughts regarding it with myself or others and if there is anything you think I should check out tell me about it. I’m always looking for new stuff to listen to.