“I’m going to be huge, and it’s frightening, in a way. I know that when I reach my peak and it’s time for me to be brought down, it will be with a bump.”
That’s what David Bowie told the British magazine, Melody Maker, in January 1972, five months before he unleashed his fictional rock messiah, Ziggy Stardust, upon the world. Although Bowie was predicting the near-term course of his own career, he might well have been offering a preview of the prevailing theme featured on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which, by then, was already in the can.
In retrospect, the loosely fabricated concept behind Ziggy seems silly. Extraterrestrial arrives to save a dying earth, extraterrestrial becomes rock star, extraterrestrial is destroyed by adoring fans. But the music that housed that cartoon-like narrative remains breathtaking.
Led by the late great Mick Ronson, Bowie’s backing band (which also featured Mick Woodmansey on drums and Trevor Bolder on bass) was an exquisitely tight ensemble –a hard, sinewy muscle powering Bowie’s pristine pop compositions. In the process of combining the prevailing styles of his two previous albums – the molten glam-metal of The Man Who Sold the World, and the cabaret pop of Hunky Dory – Bowie and his backers (dubbed the Spiders) delivered, in essence, a new style of music.
Ronson’s role in this achievement cannot be overstated. Filling in for Rick Wakeman, who spurned Bowie’s invitation to become a Spider, and instead joined Yes, Ronno played beautiful piano (on the very same keys featured on the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”) on tracks such as “Five Years” and, especially, “Lady Stardust.” Moreover, Ronson’s gift for string arrangements, integral to such previous songs as “Changes” and “Life on Mars,” gave “Starman” and “Rock and Roll Suicide” a cinematic sweep.
But it was, of course, Ronson’s sensational guitar work that was truly indispensable to the album’s sound. Employing the simplest of setups – a 200-watt Marshall amp, a Crybaby wah, and his ever-present ’68 Les Paul Custom (a “Black Beauty,” stripped to its natural wood finish), Ronson bolstered Bowie’s material with dazzling six-string arrangements. Delivering elegant riffs (“Hang on to Yourself”), explosive power chords (“Ziggy Stardust”), and sustain-drenched solos that soared toward otherworldly dimensions (“Moonage Daydream”), the late guitarist proved himself to be one of the most versatile sidemen of all time.
Bowie, quoted in David Buckley’s essay in the booklet accompanying the 30th Anniversary 2-CD edition ofThe Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, summed up Ronson’s contributions:
“A perfect foil and collaborator, Mick's raw, passionate Jeff Beck-style guitar was perfect for Ziggy and the Spiders. It had such integrity. You believed every note had been wrenched from his soul.”
Bowie continued: “I would also literally draw out on paper with a crayon or felt tip pen the shape of a solo. The one in “Moonage Daydream,” for instance, started as a flat line that became a fat megaphone type shape, and ended as sprays of disassociated and broken lines. I'd read somewhere that Frank Zappa used a series of drawn symbols to explain to his musicians how he wanted the shape of a composition to sound. Mick could take something like that and actually bloody play it, bring it to life.”
Released on June 6, 1972, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was hailed, in most quarters, as a masterpiece. In America, however, glam rock failed to take hold, and Bowie soon moved on to Stones-like rawk (Diamond Dogs), Anglo-fied soul music (Young Americans, Station to Station), and groundbreaking art rock (the “Berlin trilogy”). For many, however, Ziggy epitomizes an era during which pretension – coupled with brilliant music – could be an art-form unto itself.