Starman: How Ziggy made a superstar out of Bowie

“Everybody was convincing me that I was the messiah. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy.”

hey are the words of David Bowie, years after he created — and then killed off — his most celebrated alter ego. The Ziggy Stardust character, album and tour took him from critically acclaimed fringe attraction to mainstream sensation. Even if the whole thing threatened to drive him off the rails, it ultimately made him an ever-changing artist whose extraordinary body of work will live as long as music is loved.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars may not be Bowie’s best album, and chances are most aficionados wouldn’t name it as their favourite, but it is surely his most important. It took him to a completely new level and made him part of the zeitgeist.

The moment that turned Bowie into a superstar arrived with a Top of the Pops performance of Starman, one month after the album’s release. Already noted for his gender-bending theatrics and playfulness around his sexuality, Bowie — garbed and coiffured like an alien rock star — draped an arm around the shoulder of Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson and looked coyly into the camera.

It would come to be seen as a seminal TV moment of the 1970s and continues to inspire: last year, the Dublin band Thewlis released a debut single, The Boy Behind Bowiewhich was inspired by that Top of the Pops performance.

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David Bowie and Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops in 1972

Ziggy is also the theme of this year’s Dublin Bowie Festival, which returns as an in-person event post-pandemic. John Brereton, its director of the festival, says the album’s importance should not be underestimated.

“It was the album that made Bowie,” he says. “He’d been around [making music] since 1963 and while he had a hit with Space Oddity, that was looked upon as a gimmicky single, especially when it was matched up with the moon landing. But it felt as though he was back to square one, despite making such brilliant albums as The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. They were commercial flops. But something special was brewing under the surface and he started working on Ziggy as soon as Hunky Dory was released. I think he knew this was going to be the one.”

Gone was the fey, dress-wearing, long-haired dandy and in his place came an androgynous, orange-haired, futuristically attracted figure. British pop had never seen the like and Bowie was determined to enthral and provoke. He had the songs for it too.

“When the Ziggy tour started, he was playing to small crowds, but very quickly he was selling out venues, and getting regular radio play and becoming a star. The momentum just built and built.”

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Brereton was just about old enough to remember the excitement generated by Ziggy, although at the time he didn’t like glam rock. The appreciation for that aspect of Bowie’s career would come later. “It’s astonishing to think back to 1972 and to realize just how creative and productive he was. He was writing songs that would be hits for others, and he [alongside Ronson] produced [Lou Reed’s] Transformwhich is one of the defining albums of that time.”

The Dublin-based collective Salty Dog No Stars will perform both Ziggy Stardust and Transform albums at a show in Whelan’s as part of the festival next weekend.

Liam Mulvaney, from the band, believes Bowie’s creatively fertile early 1970s should be regarded in the whole. “To me, it’s sort of Bowie #2. He had made some very interesting music before that. But I can’t divorce Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane from each other.

“Glam rock had become so big then, and image was everything, but there’s something very throwaway about [Marc] Bolan and Slade, but there’s something a bit more baroque in the storytelling on Ziggy Stardust. If you gave me a choice, I’d go for Hunky Dory every time — but nobody bought Hunky Dory. Ziggy seemed to chime with the times, somehow, and songs like Five Years and Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide have a dark undercurrent to them.”

Flower power was well and truly over by 1972 and music reflected a more troubled, complicated era. For all the glamor and theatrics, Bowie did that through the Ziggy character too.

Shane O’Brien — aka Shobsy — cut his teeth as frontman of the Dublin band State Lights but is now determined to forge his own path as a solo artist. He has long been obsessed with the work of David Bowie and, together with Soda Blonde, he made a film, Turn and Face the Strange, in which he reinterprets Bowie’s early ’70s songs. It will be shown at the Light House Cinema, Dublin, on Wednesday.

“Shape, Ziggy Stardust is in the top three of Bowie’s albums,” he says. “That transition from Hunky Dory to Ziggy was one of the most important cultural moments in music. It was a concept album, but unlike Sgt Pepper, for instance, there was also a live component, a show that you could go and see. Bowie was possible, and although it started small, it grew quickly. There was a sense that he knew this was his moment and he was going to go for it.”

There were 191 shows over the course of 12 months — a prodigious touring schedule — and on July 3, 1973, Bowie effectively killed off Ziggy at the Hammersmith Apollo. The show was filmed by the king of rock documentary-makers, DA Pennebaker, and is essential viewing for any Bowie fan.

For Shobsy, Bowie’s willingness to kill his darling is the mark of a daring artist with boundless self-confidence. “He could have stayed doing that for a lot longer — the audience was there and growing all the time — but instead he wants to burn it down and start again. And soon we get another incarnation, Aladdin Sane.

“As a young artist, I find that willing to change and try new things incredibly inspiring. If I want to be a new person tomorrow, musically or artistically, I can do that. That’s something that’s been afforded to me and all artists because of people like David Bowie.”

Cork musician Stephanie Rainey, who is in the midst of an Irish tour this month, says Ziggy Stardust is an album that first grabbed her as a teenager and continues to weave its spell.

“The album is dreamy and concept-driven and despite being ‘out there’, it’s also super-accessible,” she says. “Songs like Starman and Suffragette City are great songs and easily allow you to become a David Bowie fan.”

Rainey says Bowie came of age at a time when mainstream pop could be esoteric and risk-taking. “What we’re missing in today’s music are artists like David Bowie, and people who will stand the test of time. Maybe that sounds really negative, but how many times today do you hear something new and think, ‘This is important. People will be listening to this and talking about this in 50 years’ time.”

Rainey’s Cork compatriot Rob Carlile is similarly enthused. He has just released his debut album, Mentally Illmatic. “Ziggy Stardust is a very inspiring work and it fuses an accessibility with concept and quirkiness,” he says.

“It was the album that was the real gateway to Bowie for me. I’d heard the hits, of course, and after buying Hunky Dory and loving it, Ziggy was the natural next step. What’s thrilling even all these years later is to see a really talented artist reinvent himself and, of course, that’s something he continued to do for his entire career.

“It was very hard to put Bowie into a box — he was always looking for the next thing. Ziggy may capture him in a moment of time, but people still fall in love with it today because the songs were so good. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing.”

The Dublin Bowie Festival is on now. Its theme is ‘Celebrating 50 Years of Ziggy’ and includes performances, talks and much more

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