It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
It took David Bowie five albums to make a record that brought together all of his artistic obsessions: theatrical excess, science fiction, sexual ambiguity, youthful rebellion and hard-swinging rock 'n' roll. Ziggy Stardust was a very loose concept album about a godlike rock star from outer space who comes down to blow our minds and various other things, then sloughs off his flesh and sends his spirit into his adoring audience. It transformed Bowie from an eccentric cult item into a major star whose weirdest aspects were the hottest things about him, and it's still the cornerstone of his reputation as an artist. It didn't come out of nowhere, though. Guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey had been playing with Bowie for a couple of years, and bassist Trevor Bolder had joined his band for the previous year's Hunky Dory. Bowie had already been building a reputation as a songwriter and producer for other artists whose sense of power and glamour had something in common with his own. (He produced Lou Reed's Transformer and Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes, and mixed the Stooges' Raw Power, during breaks in the Ziggy tour.) And Ziggy Stardust paid homage to some of the musicians who had inspired Bowie's own work.
In the early '70s, Bowie figured that he might have more potential as a songwriter than as a performer; "Moonage Daydream" and "Hang On To Yourself," in fact, first appeared on a single by a band called Arnold Corns. An admirer of the hard-touring Herefordshire rock band Mott the Hoople, Bowie wrote "Suffragette City" for them. They turned it down, telling him they were breaking up. It was the next song he offered them, "All the Young Dudes," that convinced them to stay together, and became their biggest hit. With its string-bending riff and dreamy sung-spoken lyrics touching on suicide, youth rebellion, apocalypse and the performer-audience relationship, it's practically an auxiliary Ziggy song (and had joined the Spiders' set lists by the end of the Ziggy tour). Bowie produced the album of the same name in mid-1972 (with a bit of help from Mick Ronson), between Ziggy tour dates. His touch can be detected elsewhere on the record, too, notably on the opening cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," a song that had first been released less than two years earlier.
The working title of "Lady Stardust" was "Song for Marc," and it's easy to read Ziggy Stardust as a meditation on what had happened to Bowie's old friend Marc Bolan, the frontman of T. Rex. (Bolan had played on an early Bowie single, and Bowie had opened for T. Rex on tour not as a musician but as a mime.) In 1971, Bolan suddenly became a megastar in the U.K.; Electric Warrior was the best-selling British album of the year, and "Hot Love" (a song that kind of goes on forever) topped the charts for six weeks. He set the glam-rock template on which Ziggy Stardust built "Starman" is, in its way, a particularly Bolan sort of song. By 1973, Bolan was saying things like "I don't think that David has anywhere near the charisma or balls that I have...He's not gonna make it, in any sort of way." They eventually reconciled, and Bowie and Bolan performed together on the latter's TV show Marc nine days before Bolan's death in a 1977 car accident.
The Cracked Actor
Bowie's always been fascinated by the Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel, whose songs were grim, theatrical and heartbreaking. Brel's catalogue is a swamp of repackagings and best-ofs, but this is a solid collection of most of his best songs, including "Au Suivant" (recorded by both Scott Walker and Alex Harvey as "Next"), "Le Moribond" (familiar in English as Terry Jacks's "Seasons in the Sun"), "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (which Nina Simone sang as "If You Go Away") and, of course, "Amsterdam," which was in Bowie's repertoire from 1968 to 1972. He recorded a version of it for Ziggy Stardust, but ended up effectively replacing it with his own Brel-inspired "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." On the Ziggy tour, he traded "Amsterdam" for another Brel song, "My Death."
The Rock ‘n’ Roller
Bowie's flaming-red hair dye and guitar-fellating antics got all the attention, but the secret of the Spiders from Mars was that they were a club-hardened, R&B-soaked rock 'n' roll band. That meant that they knew the Chuck Berry songbook backwards and forwards. Bowie and his band covered "Almost Grown" the lead track of Berry's 1959 compilation Berry Is On Top for a BBC session in mid-1971. The Spiders' fascination with that era of Berry's music didn't stop there; for most of the Ziggy Stardust era, "Round and Round," their version of Berry's stop-and-start crowd-pleaser "Around and Around," was a staple of their live set. (The band recorded it at the Ziggy sessions, and actually briefly considered naming the album after it.) And Mick Ronson copped more than a few licks from classic Berry.
The Velvet Gold Miner
John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's brilliant 1998 stage musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (rewritten for the silver screen in 2001) concerned an androgynous, charismatic rock 'n' roll frontperson confronting the specter of his former collaborator's pop success. It was a familiar scenario, and the show happily acknowledged its significant debt to Bowie, both in its sound and in its overall worldview. (Bowie, in return, co-produced the version of the show that played in Los Angeles in 1999.) Some of its songs seemingly emerged from the same spaceship as the Spiders, especially "Midnight Radio," which is essentially "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" played sideways. More broadly, though, it's a paean to the possibilities that Ziggy Stardust opened up: rock as theater and vice versa, gender-play that tangles machismo and glamour up with each other, an audience that lifts up its hands and becomes the show.