It’s been five years since Ziggy Stardust left us, and we’re still broken-hearted. Thankfully, we have a library of brilliant tracks to remind us of his genius. Chris Flackett celebrates five songs from David Bowie’s Glam Era.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that David Bowie completely changed the way I looked at music. I would have been a little kid, perhaps seven or eight-years-old, when I first really noticed him for the first time. I wasn’t a sophisticated kid, being more interested in pro wrestling and Super Mario than anything else. I did like pop music, and the mid-nineties charts were gloriously eclectic in hindsight, but I wouldn’t have said I had caught the music bug proper then; I was not yet ready to trail around musty smelling record fairs for frustrating hours like some Tin Pan Alley trainspotter, hunting for the most attractive obscurity at the best price (with my small hands and deep pockets). Bowie opened the door to this world and made it glamorous, sexy, mind-bending even. Very quickly, I found myself loving the alien.
Although I love the majority of Bowie’s different eras (the man’s work compares to a pop version of a fine artist’s different periods), it was his glam era, from 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World album to 1974’s Diamond Dogs approximately, that really captured my imagination first. Literally four small years, a blink in the eye of time. Yet this period saw Bowie transform his public presentation (and arguably his private one too), change public perception of what a pop star could be and look like, and of course, the world of the pop charts as he, alongside Marc Bolan’s T. Rex, ushered in an era of decadence, glitter, androgyny and fantasy that looked back to the past and brought it screaming into the future. True, not all glam music of the early 70s holds up (Mud, anyone?). But, at its best, like Bowie, it brought colour, excitement and mystery into the grey, workaday, tea-chips-and cigarettes world of early 70’s Britain (and certainly the England of my childhood in the nineties).
I would be sat strapped in the back of my parents’ car, seven or eight years old, and depending on the mood, my mum and dad would either have Signal One (the local radio station) or BBC Radio One playing, exposing us to the latest in chart action. Otherwise, they’d have Signal Gold on, and I hope describing it as a Golden Oldies station doesn’t offend anyone. Because in hindsight, the station’s mix of old Motown singles, Two-Tone, New Wave, Roxy Music, Beatles and of course Bowie would lay the foundation for my entirely consuming passion for music to this date.
It was the glam-era Bowie the station focussed on and therefore really captured my imagination. Who was Major Tom and what had happened to him? Who was the Starman and why were our parents frightened of him? Why had Mickey Mouse grown up a cow? Why was the Rebel’s face a mess and, hell, why was John upset by the mere act of dancing? Many of these mysteries I have solved by simply growing up, but the sense of seductiveness from these images strongly remains.
They feel like freeze-framed moments of streams of conscious outpourings from seedy backstreet characters in dystopian futures—appropriate when you consider William S. Burroughs’s influence on Bowie’s writing at the time. Meanwhile, with the help mostly of Mick Ronson, the music Bowie put out was equally raunchy, arty and beautifully melodic, quoting from the past, draping it in knowing sexuality, and giving it the sensual artistry of the kind of mime performance Bowie would practise on stage at the time.
That Bowie would outgrow and arguably transcend this period is, I think, one of the keys to his longevity. But the fact remains that the music he produced during this period is rich, subtly subversive and transformative. This was the music of its moment and also beyond it. No wonder the fascination remains.
Here, then, are my Top Five Bowie songs from his Glam period:
“Time” Aladdin Sane
It wasn’t just Kraftwerk and Conny Plank productions that Bowie took to his heart from German culture. “Time” brings in European-sounding, vaudevillian, semi-burlesque pianos, conjuring images of Christopher Isherwood novels and the movie Cabaret, works of art that captured the decadent spirit of Berlin in the 1920s. But the vamp, like the lyric, is a little uneasy, its body held tensely as it shimmies across the stage. As we know, beneath the make-up was a crisis of the psyche, and “Time” plays this crisis out with outrageous theatricality.
Mick Ronson’s harmonised guitar licks over the verses are empathetic to the lyrics, maintaining a kind of dignified grace in the face of their histrionic squeals. Bowie, meanwhile, sings like a grand dame and yet the pain slips through time and again; while namechecking his then-recently deceased friend, Billy Murcia of The New York Dolls, or when he tells someone, possibly himself, “goddamn, you’re looking old.” Here he was, Aladdin Sane, possibly the biggest pop star in Britain, dazzling legions of adoring glam kiddies from numerous stages across the land, and he was riding the stately descending and rising melody of the chorus with the mournful “we should be on by now“, like an out-of-work actor waiting for their big break.
Theatre, art, drama and a personality crisis; a perfect song, in other words.
“Drive-In Saturday” Aladdin Sane
It’s not often you hear a complete feel-good masterpiece with the subject of the failure of sexual expression at its heart, but this is David Bowie we’re dealing with. A glam sci-fi tale set in a near-future where people have forgotten how to get it on and are either laughed at for trying or have to rely on stimulants such as the viagra-like Sylvian to provoke arousal. It was interesting that Bowie picked up on the idea of role-playing as a way to express desire; consider that he had been role-playing himself into success over the previous few years with his 100% committed portrayals of the characters of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
Years before the Sixties superstars were nailed to history as archetypes; Bowie picks out Mick Jagger and Twiggy as figures to aspire to reignite the fires of passion. Later, he’ll depict the step by step seduction process, idealising the fifties and the sixties as a golden age of romanticism, something to be re-enacted and ritualised, as if following the gestures of the past step by step could reproduce the physical act of love since lost to time. You didn’t get all this from David Essex!
Musically, the song reproduces the sweet, sticky feel of a hot summer’s night, when moving through the air is like moving through treacle and each movement is slow and easy. The song models the romanticism of the past as portrayed in the lyrics by reverting to a beautiful doo-wop style structure and arrangement, while the chorus soars—if you can keep your heart from jumping with joy as Bowie breaks out into a yelp of “his name was always Buddy“, then you might want to recheck your pulse.
“Moonage Daydream” The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Bowie had lived through the free love of the 1960s and had seen it curdle into the weird, sleazy sex of the 1970s. As a Velvet Underground fan, I’m sure Bowie was more comfortable—or at least more fascinated—with the latter. Other songs of the era such as “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head” revelled in the muck, as it were. And then there was “Moonage Daydream”…
Introducing the character of Ziggy Stardust officially to the narrative of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie slips in references to anal sex (“pink monkey bird“) and homosexuality (“the church of man-love is such a holy place to be“), mixing it in with pop-art science fiction (“keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe“; “freak out in a moonage daydream“) to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of seedy, neon, futuristic sexuality like something straight out of Burroughs.
The music, however, suggests that romance isn’t completely dead. The sensual layering of Mick Ronson’s thunderous electric power chords and Bowie’s gentle acoustic strumming entwine like star-struck lovers, while Bowie’s saxophone caresses the listener’s ears. Meanwhile, the song’s chorus is a true fists-and-lighters in the air, put your arm around the nearest stranger singalong. Weird sex never sounded so beautiful.
“Suffragette City” The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Here it is, the song from which this article takes its title, and one of the sexiest, punkiest, most visceral songs Bowie ever put to vinyl. This is the sound of someone putting jet fuel underneath Mick Ronson’s guitar playing as his Little Richard-meets-Velvet Underground raunch swaggers propulsively on a line of muscular major chords. The rest of The Spiders rise to the challenge, bashing out a pugilist’s rhythm with glitter boxing gloves, working themselves up to the knockout punch of the concluding two-chord vamp between A and F Major as Bowie interjects with cries of “Alright, Alright“, “too fine” and the famous “wham, bam, thank you mam!” The sheer rush of exhilaration never sounded so seductive.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was one of the key catalysts for the glam era’s artistic thinking, and Bowie makes the debt plain here with his reference to droogies in the lyrics. And whatever’s going on in the world of Bowie’s Nadsat Nasties, it’s certainly a world of frustration, with mellow chicks squeezing things they possibly shouldn’t be squeezing and irritants named Henry who won’t leave our humble narrator alone, o my brothers. But just the sheer rush of the music is enough to carry frustration when you’re young and beautiful, and, as Bowie concludes, his Suffragette City is “outta sight, she’s alright.”
Perfection in just 3 minutes 24 seconds.
“Queen Bitch” Hunky Dory
It’s a well-known fact that Bowie was under the twin spell of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in the early 70s. This number was Bowie trying on Lou Reed and not doing a bad job at all while at the same time still sounding remarkably like himself. He also sounds like he’s having fun, something that was perhaps in short supply for Bowie during his mid-seventies troubles.
There’s a real hip-swinging shake to Bowie’s acoustic strumming, sexing up Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” for the emerging glam era. Ronson brings raw, earthy lust to the equation, his crunching electric guitar blasts acting as aural cock thrusts into the face of decency and taste. It’s no wonder a whole generation of bored boys and girls fell at the feet of Bowie and Ronson.
Meanwhile, the lyrics show a mix of Bowie either self-consciously trying out Reed-esque hip talk or laughingly parodying it (“Sister Flo“, “cruisers“, queens and run-down hotels) while throwing in his own amused, whimsical lines for added effect (“in her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat” never fails to make me happy). Joyous parody or the birth of glam: either way, we all win.
What do you think of my choices? Did I get my selections right? Or are you furious that I’ve missed out “Life on Mars” and “Ziggy Stardust”? Let me know in the comments below!