Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

David Bowie has always enjoyed an inflated reputation based primarily on being there first. He anticipated, and arguably initiated, the trend toward increased theatricality in live rock performance. This made him extraordinarily successful throughout the 1970s, most notably in the beginning of the decade, when he performed as Ziggy Stardust.

The Stardust character was an androgynous (note the influence of Bowie’s scarlet mullet on contemporary lesbian hair-fashion) outer-space rock star, dressed in tight clothing by Japanese designer Kansai. The songs on Bowie’s album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars told his story, and the concerts he played as Ziggy sold out across England. This was attributable to the hothouse atmosphere of the British music scene, which is centrally governed from London (whatever London likes, it hypes, and the outlying cities acquiesce). But Bowie/Ziggy also made it big in America, a substantially greater achievement.

It was musical quality that put Bowie over the top in the Ziggy years. The Spiders were a great rock band, led by lead guitarist Mick Ronson. The tunes on the Stardust album were some of the best Bowie would ever release. Indeed, once the band dissolved, following the concert documented in this film, he flailed about quite a bit, artistically. Bowie spent the rest of the 1970s, and much of the 1980s, surrounded by high-end sidemen, never again achieving the musical power that can only be found within an organic rock band.

This film records the final Ziggy Stardust concert, performed in London. It’s a solid rock show, mixing material from the Ziggy album with a few earlier songs. There are a few moments of backstage ennui, every half-hour or so. Bowie flops in a corner of the dressing room, smoking and chatting distractedly with then-wife Angie or with Ringo Starr, before donning a new costume and heading back to the stage. During one of these interludes, Ronson takes an epic guitar solo of a type now impossible to essay, or appreciate, in any non-ironic sense. That, not Bowie’s makeup and pantomimes, is the true relic of a bygone era.

The film was directed by D.A. Pennebaker, the most utilitarian of the famous documentarians. He records the action without attaching any agenda to it; it’s just a job to him. A performance like this one offers many opportunities to question the nature of the performer-audience relationship, or a fan’s investment in fiction (many listeners in these years thought of Bowie as Ziggy, accepting his invention as reality), but Pennebaker doesn’t bother with any of them. The audience is barely shown at all. He’s interested in capturing a visually exciting rock concert, something which can admittedly be a challenge.

What’s surprising, viewing this film after reading innumerable magazine articles looking back at the then-shocking theatricality of the Ziggy performances, is how straightforward a rock show this actually is. Aside from Bowie’s wardrobe, there’s very little of the spectacle that bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper would bring to American arenas only a few years later. It’s not the kind of overblown, Vegas-esque extravaganza so many acts, from U2 to Britney Spears, take on the road these days. It’s just a really good rock concert. In 1973, that was enough.

Phil Freeman

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust