In honor of Ziggy Stardust’s 40th anniversary, here’s a fine clip of the first extant performance of “Suffragette City.” A couple of things to note:
1) This is only the second-ever Ziggy and the Spiders show, from Imperial College, London, on 12 February 1972 (French TV filmed this, I believe).
2) The audience had literally never heard “Suffragette City” before. It had yet to be released on album, and in fact the band had only recorded it the previous week.
3) Brian May and Roger Taylor are in the audience. Afterward, May tries to get the roadies to tell him how Ronson is getting his guitar sound.
4) It rocks, naturally.
(Embedding apparently doesn’t work, so click through).
The only thing that ‘anniversaries’ of David Bowie albums do for me is remind me how sad I feel that his career got cut off so suddenly. I mean, the full circle is there: he was David Jones, and suddenly he was David Bowie to everyone in the world. Then suddenly he was David Jones again and David Bowie was gone. I’m more excited to hear what everyone else has to say about Ziggy (just as I was excited to read about RAM this week, or Station to Station last year). Mainly because I’ve never had much to say about it myself.
It’s never been my favorite Bowie album. I didn’t even quite like it much at all on first listen. “Five Years” appealed to me. That side of the melancholy I related to, I understood, I desired to hear.
I don’t know if I’ve quite related my first true exposure to David Bowie. I was 13-14, and I was bored out of my mind. I looked at every CD I owned, and wanted to hear nothing. Everything was old to me— nothing looked satisfying. I ventured out to my parents’ immense collection, which was haphazardly alphabetized. I skipped around until a name stuck out as familiar. It was Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” I pulled it out and looked at it, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I’d heard it before, for one. Second, I wasn’t really in the mood for fierce tears at the moment.
So I put it back and grabbed the next CD: it was Young Americans. I recognized the name of that Bowie guy— I’d seen the name on the mixtapes my Mother made in the 80s. I checked for more and found two: Station to Station and Hunky Dory. Which was perfect, because my CD player had three slots. By luck of the draw, it was Young Americans that went in first, and from the first hit of the introductory drum fill, I was hooked. I knew before he even broke down and cried that this David Bowie was going to define my life for awhile.
He still does, but Ziggy’s rarely been a part of that definition. My parents bought me Ziggy because they felt like it was important for me to hear it— they were 14 and 17 when it came out, perfect ages to hear it, just like me.
But as I said above, it didn’t quite click at first. I tried, but couldn’t even get to “Starman.” I told my parents this, admitting that I hadn’t even listened to the back half of the album. “You mean you didn’t hear Suffragette City?” I hadn’t.
“Ian. Sit down.” They sat me down in the living room, and told me to be quiet. They too remained silent, until a jet engine went off in my face. They’d turned the stereo up literally all the way to the top. And watched me as I was bombarded by the excellence of the song— by “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am,” the lesson was learned. I understood Ziggy, no doubt about it.
Of course that’s what it took. It says it right on the cover: to be played at maximum volume. But as someone said, probably David Buckley in his biography, was that written on the cover because the mix was a little tinny? Yeah, probably. The sound, while revolutionary in its content, isn’t exactly vibrant. It’s a thin reedy piece of work. It always has been. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has always represented far, far more than it contained. The album is often confused for the images that came after it. And not even the images Bowie had in the video above. Ziggy is synonymous with Aladdin Sane, as far as our subconsciousnesses are concerned. There’s not even a song from the Ziggy period that’s a universal go-to Bowie song— not even “Suffragette City.” That distinction goes to just before (Space Oddity) and far after (Most singles from Let’s Dance).
Ziggy’s 40 now. Good for Ziggy. But when Young Americans turns 40, it’s not going to get a massive reissue (whether or not said reissue is slipshod or sublime). If anything comes out of this re-release, I kind of hope it’s a re-evaluation of the album in the context of Bowie’s best work. Ziggy’s a top-heavy record. Take Side A and leave it in the canon, so you can make room for the swaths of his 70s songs that don’t see the light of day.
In any case, despite all I’ve said, the video above does rock. It’s immense, and an amazing moment that we should be thankful for— just as we should be thankful for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, warts and all.
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