Wham, bam, thank you ma’am: David Bowie’s artistic and commercial breakthrough was lewd, leering, cocked-and-preening, a spectacularly transgendered masterpiece that was down for whatever. Glam rock may have had British radio in thrall, but Bowie took the tart confections of bands like the Sweet and Slade and gave them heft, treating them not just as glib, bawdy come-ons but as life-or-death manifestos.
And so Ziggy opens wide on a bustling London street market, busy with ineffectual cops, abusive mothers and street-corner prophets balefully warning, “Five years — that’s all we’ve got.” Bowie didn’t know how right he was — Ziggy was released in 1972, which meant its opening song inadvertently foretold the arrival of punk’s anarchism and the resulting pop culture fragmentation. With such a short fuse ’til Armageddon, the rest of the album sets about doing the only thing left to do: partying. Ziggy is fabulously wasted, the grand theatricality of Hunky Dory giving way to a kind of seedy, back-alley burlesque. “Star” finds Bowie turning ’50s doo-wop inside out, the breathless “Hang On to Yourself” bites T. Rex’s zip-gun boogie but revs it up to racing speed, and “Five Years” is such an indelible prologue that neo-glamsters My Chemical Romance rewrote it virtually note-for-note to open their Black Parade 34 years later. The record seems to comment on itself as it goes: “Lady Stardust” (which was also in part about Marc Bolan) tells of a beautiful superstar with “makeup on his face” struck by tragedy and spectacular show-closer “Rock & Roll Suicide” finds its protagonist sliding slowly out of his own body, watching himself on stage even while he assures his audience, “You’re not alone!” (so effective is its ability to unify society’s freaks that John Cameron Mitchell openly appropriated its form to write Hedwig & the Angry Inch‘s masterful “Midnight Radio.”) Bowie disappeared completely into the character, overhauling his wardrobe to include sheer blouses, opulent, flowing dresses, a shock of red-hair and a healthy helping of face paint. He created and then became the transsexual alien he sang about.
Guitarist Mick Ronson deserves just as much credit for Ziggy‘s highs as Bowie. He zags through the proto-punk “Suffragette City” with a sneer and a smirk and buries the cover of “It Ain’t Easy” beneath a doomy avalanche of riffs. Time has eroded all traces of its rock-and-roll-spaceman narrative — upon its release, Bowie gave a long interview to no less than William S. Burroughs in Rolling Stone laying out the album’s convoluted and, frankly, ridiculous “plot.” (Short form: alien named Ziggy comes to earth, warns us of the end of the world, brings us a message of love but ultimately succumbs to vice and dies in a drug haze — your basic Venusian Behind the Music.) What remains is its legacy, how it turned Bowie from mincing prima donna to bona fide, by-the-balls rock star, the kind that proudly sank to his knees to famously mock-fellate Ronson on stage at Oxford Town Hall.
Rivals were jealous: Marc Bolan, who had beaten Bowie to the glam rock punch, derided him resentfully in interviews and doubters in the press complained that Bowie nicked his entire act from hundreds of pre-existing sources. As if that should matter: Bowie may have borrowed some of Ziggy‘s best ideas, but he doesn’t just steal, he elevates. After years of searching, in Ziggy Bowie crystallizes his own identity and solidifies — finally and grandly — the scattered, inchoate affectations of British teenage misfits looking for their voice.