In 1972 David Bowie created one of the most influential cultural icons of the twentieth century in his on-stage alter ago Ziggy Stardust – and acclaimed documentarian D. A Pennbaker was there to capture him on film.
To put it in context, Bowie’s ever-changing restlessness caused him to try on various pop music identities over ten years without making his mark. The closest he’d come was with the wonderful and topical ‘Space Oddity’ to coincide with the moon landing in 1969 but that was ham-strung by the folk music image of the rest of the album ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Fans were confused by being unable to latch onto a clearly-defined style or persona.
It was while producing his ‘Hunky Dory’ follow-up that songs like ‘Life On Mars’ and particularly ‘Queen Bitch’ hinted at what was to come. Helped by his daring wife Angie and the marketing mastery of manager Tony DeFries, Bowie assembled a new band, a new sound and a radical new look. Guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson was a great co-creator in a new array of rock songs, a concept album that finally gave fans a cohesive Bowie showcase and a shockingly vivid setting.
THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS tells the story of a doomed alien who is stranded on earth, becomes a rock star and is finally consumed alive by his fans’ energy. To top it off, Bowie and his group presented an outlandishly costumed other-wordly look on-stage, comprised of Liberty curtain material boiler suits based on Alex’s droogs in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. To complete the physical transformation, each band member had an aggressive punk hairstyle, in Bowie’s case dyed flame-red which prefigured the spiky even shorter hair later adopted by 70s British punk fans and copycat acts. He was now establishing himself as being one step ahead of the cultural curve.
It wasn’t just the intergalactic appearance though that challenged the fans. Bowie went even further in his personal mystique. The front cover of the previous album had shocked and attracted fans with his soft-focus feminine langorous pose in a dress. What was he saying about his own sexuality? In Ziggy Stardust’s androgyny and suggestive on-stage larks with Mick Ronson, Bowie was playing with gender stereotyping to hugely influential effect. In Melody Maker, he stated ‘I am gay’ which was a ground-breaking statement from an emerging high-profile artist on the scene. Even his normally more outrageous wife thought he should at least have hazed it a little by saying he was bisexual. By now, he was paving the way in music and image for the effeminate exoticism of Glam Rock and the later morphing into the grimy hard edge of punk.
D.A. Pennebaker, a famous documentary maker especially of concert films (DON’T LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP) could not have known that his partnership with Bowie to film the last night of his Aladdin Sane tour in 1973 would be doubly historic…
Firstly, the show at the Hammersmith Odeon is a terrific archive of Bowie and his band playing with immense verve and stage-craft, intercut with brief backstage moments of costume changes and Ringo Starr in Bowie’s dressing room during the interval. (A clear indication that by now the young musician had ‘arrived’).
For me, the highlights in the performance are ‘Starman’, ‘Space Oddity’ and a haunting version of ‘My Death’ capturing his soaring vocals in fine voice, coupled with lighting that aptly emphasises the chillingly cadaverous pallour of his skin and cheekbones. The main set climaxes in a transcendent ten-minute rendition of ‘Width Of A Circle’ featuring a blistering prog-rock guitar solo from Ronson, the masculine force of his playing contrasting with the androgyny of his stage ‘character. Bowie meanwhile busts some Lindsay Kemp-inspired mime moves as Ziggy frees himself from the old ‘invisible wall’ gag and flies like a gull mimetically above his former prison.
At times the cameras struggle with the limited set lighting. Ziggy and the Spiders are often framed too minutely in hot red against the blackness, and the hand-held filming draws attention to itself intermittently. Even so, it’s a tremendous attempt at the near impossibility of translating a live event to celluloid and none in music terms would be more historic than this.
Just before the final encore, Bowie comes to the mic and announces to the audience: ‘Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do’. The fans audibly gasp in disbelief. He was killing off his cash-cow creation at Ziggy’s height, a necessary step for an artist unwilling to keep repeating himself. In hindsight though, it may have been fair to have notified the band as they only found out at that moment!
‘Making love with his ego’ it may be, yet ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS is a vital and massively influential moment in concert movies and an inspiration to a whole generation of fans, fashion and future bands.