October 26, 2007

The Olivier of Rock

The 1970s David Bowie was arguably a pretentious postmodern prima donna and a man of a numerous faces who, at his creative height, was constantly and deftly moving from one personality to another and inevitably teetering towards identity crisis, not to mention self-destruction. But, these same tendencies and characteristics helped make him perhaps one of the greatest theatrical actors of the 20th Century – up there with the likes of Barrymore, Olivier, Gielguld, Robeson, Dench, Tandy, Julie Harris and the lot.

The grandiose notions of pretense that he espoused and controlled so effectively elevated his art of acting and took him to experiment with an assortment of images, concepts, and artistic styles like few others before or since. That he did his acting in the music industry should not detract from his cultivated thespian greatness or his mastery of artifice and affectation, key elements in most type of acting and which allowed him to invent and embody so many diverse and interesting characters and to sing with so many distinct voices (and accents).

1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is the album for which he and his rock n roll theater became internationally famous. The fictional killing of Ziggy in the final UK concert is legendary and serves as the image by which many associate this album and the title character, yet the songs themselves only loosely tell the story of the most famous rock n roll alien (all apologies to George Clinton and his Mothership). While Ziggy and his band from Mars is an interesting and novel notion that is eye-catching and represents a brilliant exercise in pop star making, what truly makes the album special is the mastery and manipulation of different stage genres, themes, and settings in an extremely cohesive and competent musical oeuvre.

Ziggy is replete with theatre and seemingly demands audience participation, not unlike some NYC cinema showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Halloween. “Lady Stardust” has the languidly rolling cabaret piano effect that made “Life on Mars” so dramatically moving. “Star” is made for Broadway – the essence of the musical Grease, the famous production created and released for the first time at around the same time of Ziggy. “Hang on to Yourself” is the theatre of idolatry and imitation, referencing and encapsulating Bolan’s adorable and hip-shaking rock boogie of Electric Warrior in one song. How economic! “Five Years” and “Rock n Roll Suicide” are overtly histrionic, yet are enormously captivating and inevitably moving. They provide seemingly perfect bookends and certainly set the tone for the drama, characters, and images in the body of the album. “Moonage Daydream” and, to a lesser extent, “Ziggy Stardust” are the blueprints for another realm of performance and theatrical attitude and face changing – that of glam.

Ziggy is certainly not the first in the long line of Bowie’s impressive interpretive works of the 1970s. Hunky Dory, released a year before Ziggy, also experimented in various theatric styles including the aforementioned cabaret and showtunes. What sets Ziggy apart from its predecessor, however, is its move towards a larger, more unified overall artistic concept and tone (like the setting of a stage with distinct design pieces), something that would define subsequent Bowie albums in the 1970s, from the Orwellian inspiration of Diamond Dogs to the plastic soul of Young Americans and the avant-garde and Teutonic electronic music experimentations of the Berlin series (Low, Heroes and The Lodger). One could even argue that the outer space imagery (notice four songs have the word “star” in them, while another carries the word “moon”) and glam pretences of Ziggy make it the most fantastic, overtly ambitious, and delightfully decadent of the 70s albums. The creation of the title characters and the outrageous and audacious lyrical phrasing (“I'm an alligator/I'm a mama-papa coming for you/I'm the space invader!/I'll be a rock and rollin' bitch for you!", or “There’s a starman waiting the sky/He’ll like to come and meet us/But he’s afraid he’ll blow our mind”) give the music a surrealistic, otherworldly feel, tending towards delightful and guilt free escapism, certainly a nice counterpoint to the somewhat static and drab social and economic environment of 1970s England.

Of course, I would be remiss to focus entirely or disproportionately on the fantastic and grandiose exercise in imagination and dramatic myth-building that is Ziggy. Beyond the makeup, allusions to the solar system, and pompous strut, Ziggy is bursting with great swinging and even soulful rock n roll. The great Mick Ronson guitar riffs of “Moonage Daydream” and “Ziggy Stardust” are well known and have been commented on countless times. And, the sped up Lou Reed NYC swagger with the Elton John/Little Richard rock piano in “Suffragette City” has fed classic rock radio for years now. But, how about the steady, swaying, and seemingly effortless groove between the loud outbursts of guitar-led insistence of the chorus on the song “Soul Love”? A most friendly tune made even more captivating by its internal heterogeneity. The backing singing on the album, often by Bowie himself, in the chorus parts is also noteworthy as they provide some sublimely soulful moments. Check out the “ohh, ohh, ohh’s” in the background of the overdubbed chorus vocals of Bowie in the aforementioned “Moonage Daydream”. They provide the melodic soul that drifts and elevates and, not unlike the elements of “Soul Love”, creates a catchy contrast with the raucous blasts of guitars as Bowie screams “Freak out in a Moonage Daydream, oh yeah!” The energetic, earnest, and proud chorus of “It Ain’t Easy”, carried in part by a gliding slide guitar and the sound reminiscent of early 1970s southern rock of the States, is yet another example of the pure rock groove and soul of the album. In sum, the sound of Ziggy still holds its weight today despite the somewhat dated image gimmickry associated with the album.

Rolling Stone magazine has listed Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars as number 35 on its list of the 500 greatest rock n roll albums of all-time. Considering the prolific and high quality – not to mention flat out influential – album output of Bowie in 1970s and taking into account that Ziggy is what really put Bowie on the pop and rock map, the number 35 seems ridiculously low. Perhaps the album Low could vie for serious top 20 consideration for its tremendous influence on later music trends and artists, but a safer bet for the rather conservative and traditionalist Rolling Stone would be Ziggy, an album that along with its predecessor, Hunky Dory, helped usher in an extremely innovative period for Bowie and, more generally, in rock n roll (see explanatory footnote below). Indeed, the 1970s production (and later influence) of Bowie rivaled the amazing streaks of creativity of both the Stones and Beatles, both of which benefit from numerous albums each in the Rolling Stone top 30. In this light, then, number 35 for Ziggy seems rather unjust.

Admirers of Bowie can take refuge in the fact that he almost single-handedly spearheaded his own artistic zenith, whereas groups like the Beatles and Stones relied upon more than one person. Of course, given the dramatic shifts in character, sound and vision (to almost borrow the title from one of his songs) that he almost continually sought, Bowie was mostly and inevitably a one man theatrical show with a relegated supporting cast. Top billing for their great interpretive art is what the Gielgud’s and Olivier’s received. Logically, then, Bowie deserved the same.

Footnote: Despite the ongoing excesses of 70s Cali singer-songwriter rock and stadium rock, the 1970s also marked a period of stimulating and influential – although less popular – experimentation, part of it inspired by the works of Bowie and Eno, among others.


venerableseed said...

It is sort of ridiculous that #35 is as high as Bowie could warrant. I guess the individual critics' polls totals were calculated by an 'independent service' but still. Someone should have stepped in and said 'I don't care Bowie needs to be in the top 10. I'm going to fudge the totals'.

Ancient Scientist said...

So you're advocating that Jann Werner (Rolling Stone's longtime editor) do the opposite of what he did recently as President of the Board of the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, venerableseed. In the most recent elections, the Dave Clark Five ("Bits and Pieces," "Glad All Over," "Because") got the votes for induction and Werner stepped in an denied them because he wanted the Hall to stop representing old, crusty, unhip acts and move into a cooler, more modern set.

Which is like your grandpa buying an 8-Ball jacket to fit in with the cool kids... or something.

Ancient Scientist said...

O - great post Eurowags. I especially liked the statement that Bowie is like Olivier but on a rock n' roll stage.

LenBarker said...

Excellent, eurowags! That's one hell of a post.

Eurowags said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
venerableseed said...

so that explains Grandmaster Flash's Furious Five rather than Dave Clark's?