November 2, 2007

It's Not Muthaf7ckin' Ziggy!

David Bowie's legendary The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is about as bad of an album as it possibly could be.


But I love it anyway.

Here's what I mean: given the superb material and the excellent musicians involved, I don't think that this album could be much worse than it is. When I consider the great songs here unto themselves, it amazes me that this album fails to completely blow me away, leading me to ponder a few questions:

Is it overproduced?

Possibly. Only "Five Years" and "Ziggy Stardust" strike me as particularly strong renditions that really do the material justice. On the other hand, "Hang On to Yourself", the raucous badass opener in D.A. Pennebaker's film of the band's final concert, limps onto the middle of side 2 and barely registers. "Moonage Daydream", "Starman", and "Suffragette City" are all as castrated as Wendy Carlos (whose work from the Clockwork Orange soundtrack can actually be heard playing before Ziggy and the Spiders take the stage in the film!): Mick Ronson's playing is not punchy and present enough in this mix, with too much space given to keys, mellotron/strings, and backing vocals instead. Don't get me wrong, these recordings are definitely enjoyable, and it's not as if one has to listen hard to hear the obviously great songs, which remain evident, it's just that they could have been appreciably better.

I'm not just speaking theoretically here, either: both the Pennebaker film, despite a flawed, inconsistent mix, and the 2000ish archival release Bowie at the Beeb offer glimpses of how much more powerful these tunes could be in the hands of these same musicians in less heavily produced contexts. I do not mean to say that the production flourishes were all bad, either, but they seem to wash out much of the feel and impact.

Was too much time and effort spent on promotion and not enough on the album?

Particularly revealing to me on the recent Rock Milestones DVD, which offers a historical and critical overview of the album featuring interviews with bassist Trevor Bolder, drummer Mick "Woody" Woodmansey, and horror Angie Bowie, is how much emphasis was placed on building Bowie up into a rock star at this time by his handlers, to the evident chagrin of these folks (who were all quickly discarded by Bowie once that stardom was attained).

For example, the US tour consisted of the band playing a show somewhere, then partying for a couple of weeks in order to build up a high profile as extravagant, wild rock stars, although the record company had to subsidize it, since Bowie himself was not wealthy yet. While such theatricality is an undeniably critical, integral element of the whole Ziggy Stardust phenomenon, one has to wonder whether the music itself ended up being neglected in the whole process.

Bowie even neglected to finish writing a story about Ziggy in these songs. If this album can actually be viewed as a concept album at all, then that concept is, at best, half-baked, which is not a big problem in and of itself, since it would have worked out fine had the end result been that Bowie employing the concept as a basis for inspiration, since I would never demand adherence to a concept as a qualification for the creation of a rock album. Instead, the song order apparently follows the intact but skeletal remains of the plotline derived from the original concept, when it probably would have made for a better album if he had departed from those plot-related aspects of the concept altogether in order to attain a better flow, limiting the influence of the concept to a mere thematic nature.

Despite some evidence of overproduction weakening the impact of Ronson's playing in particular, it seems like some of these issues may have been resolved, had there a been a more concerted effort to work out the issues with the mix and song order, rather than making it a priority merely to get a product out there for Bowie to promote. I am definitely not sure on this point, but given what we know about Bowie's activities during this period, I have to wonder where the priorities lay.

Did Bowie step on Ronson's arrangements?

This supposition consists mostly of my reading between the lines, but some of the comments made by the interviewees on the Rock Milestones DVD led me to wonder whether Bowie and Ronson's joint production efforts didn't also lead to some compromises that weakened the album. While Bowie undoubtedly was the ring leader here, Ronson held responsibility for arranging much of the studio instrumentation. Bowie frequently insisted on providing his own touches, for which, despite his lack of technical studio expertise at the time, he deservedly acquired a reputation as having an extraordinary ability to select seemingly randomly instruments that would help beef up a tune. Contrasted with Ronson's more technically adept background in evidence on his arrangements, there was plenty of potential for friction there.

Someone on the Milestones DVD (I believe that it was bassist Trevor Bolder) notes how much he would have liked to have seen Mick Ronson given a shot at a whole project, which seems like an odd comment on its face, since Ronson produced multiple albums over the course of his career, so I take this to mean that what he meant to say, in a roundabout way, was that it was a shame that Ronson could had not been given full rein over this project. Yeah, that wasn't going to happen, since, again, this was Bowie's deal, but it leads me to believe that the commenter felt that Ronson's arrangements had been damaged by Bowie.

What about the vast legacy of this album?

Huge and undeniable. . .but even that could have been greater had either of the two films related to this project worked out better!

Unfortunately, the film quality of the Pennebaker film puts a lot of folks off, and, despite a scorching performance, the inconsistent mix is far from ideal. That said, it is great to have any filmed documentation of that tour, but it's a shame that the film remains so underappreciated, mostly due to technical issues.

Then we have The Man Who Fell to Earth, which, although it is an adaptation of a novel, is a solid film that's pretty much about a character that's extraordinarily similar to Ziggy Stardust, who happens to be played by David Bowie. Sounds great, huh? Well, it falls short of greatness, mainly due to one, glaring problem: no Bowie music! At all. Instead, reportedly due to contractual issues, there's a thoroughly unremarkable soundtrack provided by John Phillips (they just had to find a guy who had even bigger drug problems than Bowie's!) that seems like a placeholder for what should have been the tunes from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which is a real shame when one considers how much more vital the movie could have been with those tunes. Another squandered opportunity!

But you love it anyway?

Oh, yeah, the issues aren't that serious, and I'm definitely overstating and overanalyzing them here. If someone digs Bowie, then they'll love this. However, given the material and musicians, it easily should be a top 20 all-time album, but it's not. It should be Bowie's finest album, but it's not.


venerableseed said...

whoa! after reading yours and wags posts somehow it all makes sense.

polchic said...

Jeez, Len, incredible review. I think I'm going to wait for the next album to add my 2 cents. You and wags totally nailed this one.

There is really nothing more to say.

Well done!