An excerpt from the new book ‘Strange Stars’ explores how classic sci-fi and the works of William Burroughs fueled Bowie’s iconic alter ego
Jason Heller’s book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded is the story of how science fiction influenced the musicians of the Seventies. Out now in hardcover via Melville House, Strange Stars also examines how space exploration, futurism and emerging technology inspired the sometimes-cosmic, sometimes-mechanistic music the decade produced. In this section, Heller delves into the creation of Bowie’s most-famous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.
A small crowd of sixty or so music fans stood in the dance hall of the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth, a suburban neighborhood in southwest London, on the night of February 10, 1972. The backs of their hands had been freshly stamped by the doorman. A DJ played records to warm up the crowd for the main act. The hall was nothing fancy, little more than “an ordinary function room.” The two-story brick building that housed it – “a gaunt fortress of a pub on the edge of an underpass” – had played host to numerous rock acts over the past few years, including Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and Fleetwood Mac. Sci-fi music had even graced the otherwise earthy Toby Jug, thanks to recent headliners King Crimson and Hawkwind, and exactly one week earlier, on February 3, the band Stray performed, quite likely playing their sci-fi song “Time Machine.” The concertgoers on the tenth, however, had no idea that they would soon witness the most crucial event in the history of sci-fi music.
Most of them already knew who David Bowie was – the singer who, three years earlier, had sung “Space Oddity,” and who had appeared very seldom in public since, focusing instead on making records that barely dented the charts. His relatively low profile in recent years hadn’t helped his latest single, “Changes,” which had come out in January. Despite its soaring, anthemic sound, it failed to find immediate success in England. But the lyrics of the song seemed to signal an impending metamorphosis, hinted at again in late January when Bowie declared in a Melody Maker interview, “I’m gay and always have been” and unabashedly predicted, “I’m going to be huge, and it’s quite frightening in a way.” Bowie clearly had a big plan up his immaculately tailored sleeve. But what could it be?
Before Bowie took the stage of the Toby Jug, an orchestral crescendo announced him. It was a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, drawn from the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. To anyone who’d seen the film, the music carried a sinister feeling, superimposed as it was over Kubrick’s visions of grim dystopia and ultraviolence. Grandiloquence mixed with foreboding, shot through with sci-fi: it couldn’t have been a better backdrop for what the pint-clutching attendees of the Toby Jug were about to behold.
At around 9:00 p.m., the houselights were extinguished. A spotlight sliced the darkness. Bowie took the stage. But was it really him? In a strictly physical sense, it must have been. But this was Bowie as no one had seen him before. His hair – which appeared blond and flowing on the cover of Hunky Dory, released just three months earlier – was now chopped at severe angles and dyed bright orange, the color of a B-movie laser beam. His face was lavishly slathered with cosmetics. He wore a jumpsuit with a plunging neckline, revealing his delicate, bone-pale chest, and his knee-high wrestling boots were fire-engine red. Bowie had never been conservative in dress, but even for him, this was a quantum leap into the unknown.
Then he began to play. His band – dubbed the Spiders from Mars and comprising guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, and drummer Woody Woodmansey – was lean, efficient, and powerful, clad in gleaming, metallic outfits that mimicked spacesuits, reminiscent of the costumes from the campy 1968 sci-fi romp Barbarella. The Jane Fonda vehicle had been a huge hit in England, and it became a cult film in the United States, thanks to its titillating portrayal of a future where sensuality is rediscovered after a lifetime of sterile, virtual sex.
In the same way, Bowie’s new incarnation was shocking, lurid, and supercharged with sexual energy. Combined with his recent admission of either homosexuality or bisexuality, as he was then married to his first wife, Angela, Bowie’s new persona oozed futuristic mystique, which Bowie biographer David Buckley described as “a blurring of ‘found’ symbols from science fiction – space-age high heels, glitter suits, and the like.”
But what bewitched the audience most was the music. Amid a set of established songs such as “Andy Warhol,” “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud,” and, naturally, “Space Oddity,” the Spiders from Mars injected a handful of new tunes, including “Hang On to Yourself” and “Suffragette City,” that had yet to appear on record. Propulsive, infectious, and awash in dizzying imagery, this was a new Bowie – cut less from the thoughtful, singer-songwriter mold and more from some new hybrid of thespian rocker and sci-fi myth. These songs bounced off the walls of the Toby Jug’s no-longer-ordinary function room. The audience, whistling and cheering, was entranced. A show eye-popping enough to dazzle an entire arena was being glimpsed in the most intimate of watering holes.
Although the crowd was sparse, people stood on tables and chairs to get the best possible view. The stage was only two feet high, but it may as well have been twenty, or two million – an elevator to outer space designed to launch Bowie into an orbit far more enduring than that of Major Tom in “Space Oddity.”
At some point, amid the swirl and spectacle of the two-hour set, Bowie announced from the stage the name of his new identity: Ziggy Stardust.
Like an artifact from some alien civilization, Bowie’s fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, was unveiled on June 16, 1972. By then, Ziggy had become a sensation. After the Toby Jug gig in February, concertgoers embraced Bowie’s new persona in music venues around the UK. Attendance swelled each night, as did a growing legion of followers who dressed themselves in homemade approximations of Bowie’s outlandish attire.
Just as the album was released, he and the Spiders appeared on the BBC’s revered Top of the Pops program, performing the record’s centerpiece: the song “Starman.” For many of a certain age, watching Bowie on their family’s television that evening was tantamount to the Beatles’ legendary spot on The Ed Sullivan Show in the United States eight years earlier. “He was so vivid. So luminous. So fluorescent. We had one of the first color TVs on our street, and David Bowie was the reason to have a color TV,” remembered Bono of U2, who was twelve at the time. “It was like a creature falling from the sky. Americans put a man on the moon. We had our own British guy from space.”
Musically, “Starman” was an exquisite and striking slice of pop songcraft, exactly what Bowie needed at that point in his career. Lyrically, he smuggled in a sci-fi story that centers around Ziggy Stardust, who was both Bowie’s alter ego and the fictional protagonist of the Rise and Fall concept album, as loose as it was in that regard – it is more a fugue of ideas that coalesce into a concept. Through the radio and TV, an alien announces his existence to Earth, which Bowie describes in lovingly rendered sci-fi verse: “A slow voice on a wave of phase.” The young people of the world become enchanted and hope to lure the alien down: “Look out your window, you can see his light /If we can sparkle, he may land tonight.” But that alien is reticent, and his shyness makes him all the more magnetic.
Bowie sang the song on Top of the Pops clad in a multicolored, reptilian-textured jumpsuit, which Melody Maker called, “Vogue’s idea of what the well-dressed astronaut should be wearing.” In that sense, “Starman” is a self-fulfilling prophecy: before he could truly know the impact the song would have, he used it to describe its effect on Great Britain’s young people in perfect detail. He was the starman waiting in the sky, and the kids who saw him on TV soon began to dress like him, hoping to sparkle so that he may land tonight.
If Bowie intended “Starman” to be an overt reference to [Robert A.] Heinlein’s Starman Jones, the book he loved as a kid, he never publicly confessed to it. But the admittedly sketchy story line of Rise and Fallparallels another Heinlein work: Stranger in a Strange Land, the novel that had influenced David Crosby in the ’60s and, later, many other sci-fi musicians of the ’70s. The book’s hero, Valentine Michael Smith, comes to Earth from Mars; in Rise and Fall, Mars is built into the title. And both Valentine and Ziggy become messiahs of a kind – androgynous, libertine heralds of a new age of human awareness. Bowie claimed he’d turned down offers to star in a film production of Stranger in a Strange Land and had few positive words to say about the book, calling it “staggeringly, awesomely trite.” Be that as it may, he clearly had read the book and developed a strong opinion of it – perhaps enough for some of its themes and iconography to seep into his own work.
The opening song of Rise and Fall, “Five Years,” elegiacally delivers a dystopian forecast: the world will end in five years due to a lack of resources, and society is disintegrating into a slow-motion parade of perversity and moral paralysis. It’s a countdown to doomsday, with the clock set at five years. The song’s ominous refrain, “We’ve got five years,” is sung by Bowie with increasing histrionics, his voice sounding more panicked and deranged as he repeats the phrase. “The whole thing was to try and get a mocking angle at the future,” Bowie said in 1972. “If I can mock something and deride it, one isn’t so scared of it” – with “it” being the apocalypse.
“Five Years” set a chilling tone, but Rise and Fall didn’t entirely wallow in it. The coming of an alien rock star named Ziggy Stardust is relayed in a multi-song story that’s equally melancholy and ecstatic, tragic and triumphant. On tracks such as “Moonage Daydream,” “Star,” and “Lady Stardust,” Bowie wields terms such as “ray gun” and “wild mutation.” He also claims, “I’m the space invader,” as though he were channeling the ideas of his sci-fi heroes Stanley Kubrick or William S. Burroughs, particularly the latter’s 1971 novel, The Wild Boys.
As Bowie explained, “It was a cross between [The Wild Boys] and A Clockwork Orange that really started to put together the shape and the look of what Ziggy and the Spiders were going to become. They were both powerful pieces of work, especially the marauding boy gangs of Burroughs’s Wild Boys with their bowie knives. I got straight on to that. I read everything into everything. Everything had to be infinitely symbolic.” The photos of the Spiders from Mars inside the album sleeve of Rise and Fallwere even patterned after the gang of Droogs of A Clockwork Orange; Droogs are mentioned by name in the Rise and Fall song “Suffragette City.” Furthermore, Bowie posed on the back cover of the album, peering out of a phone booth – just as though he were that other cryptic British alien who regularly regenerates himself and is often seen in a phone booth (specifically a police call box), the Doctor from Doctor Who.
Bowie also drew from work of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Born Norman Carl Odam, the Texan rockabilly artist released a twangy, oddball 1968 single titled “I Took a Trip (On a Gemini Spaceship)” that Bowie wound up covering in 2002; it was from Odam that Bowie borrowed Ziggy’s surname. And after going on a record-buying spree while touring the United States in 1971, he bought Fun House by the Michigan proto-punk band the Stooges, whose outrageous lead singer was named Iggy Pop. He jotted down ideas on hotel stationary while traveling the States, resulting in a name that was a mash-up of Iggy Pop and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Ziggy Stardust was a fabricated rock star, one whose sleek facade flew in the face of the era’s reigning rock aesthetic of laid-back, unpretentious authenticity. Instead, Bowie wanted to puncture that illusion by taking rock showmanship to a previously unseen, self-referential extreme.
When it came to Bowie’s urge toward collage and deconstruction, Burroughs remained a prime inspiration. A pioneer of postmodern sci-fi pastiche as well as the literary cut-up technique, in which snippets of text were randomly rearranged to form a new syntax, Burroughs straddled both pulp sci-fi and the avant-garde, exactly the same liminal space Bowie now occupied. Rock critic Lester Bangs accused Bowie of “trying to be George Orwell and William Burroughs” while dismissing him as appearing to be “deposited onstage after seemingly being dipped in vats of green slime and pursued by Venusian crab boys” – a description that sounded like it could have been cribbed straight from a Burroughs book.
In 1973, Burroughs met Bowie in the latter’s London home. The meeting was arranged by A. Craig Copetas from Rolling Stone, and the resulting exchange was published in the magazine a few months later. In the article, Copetas observed that Bowie’s house was “decorated in a science-fiction mode,” and that Bowie greeted them “wearing three-tone NASA jodhpurs.” The ensuing conversation ranged across many topics, but it circled around science fiction – and in particular, the similarity Bowie saw between Rise and Fall and Burroughs’s 1964 novel Nova Express, a surreal sci-fi parable about mind control and the tyranny of language.
In an effort to convince Burroughs of the similarity, Bowie offered one of the most revealing analyses of Rise and Fall as a work of science fiction:
“The time is five years to go before the end of the Earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of a lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have all lost touch with reality, and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock & roll band, and the kids no longer wanted to play rock & roll. There’s no electricity to play it.”
Bowie went on:
“[The environmental apocalypse] does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.”
Curiously, it took him another twenty-six years before casually revealing in an interview that a sci-fi song called “Black Hole Kids” was recorded as an outtake during the sessions for Rise and Fall. He called the song “fabulous,” adding, “I have no idea why it wasn’t on the original album. Maybe I forgot.”
But Bowie dropped the biggest revelation about Rise and Fall in the 1973 conversation with Burroughs. Ziggy Stardust, according to his creator, is not an alien himself; instead, he’s an earthling who makes contact with extra-dimensional beings, who then use him as a charismatic vessel for their own nefarious invasion plan. But like Frankenstein’s monster being erroneously called “Frankenstein” to the point where it seems senseless to quibble with that usage, Ziggy Stardust continues to be widely considered the alien entity of Rise and Fall. Considering the shifting identity and gender of Bowie’s most famous alter ego, that ambiguity may well have been his intention. Talking to Burroughs, he ultimately labels Rise and Fall “a science-fiction fantasy of today” before reiterating its similarity to Nova Express, to which Burroughs responds, “The parallels are definitely there.”
Rise and Fall has always been as fluid as Bowie’s facade itself. Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion cast a shadow over Ziggy Stardust, especially the glammy incarnation of the many-faced character known as Jerry Cornelius – who was adapted to the big screen in 1973 for the feature film The Final Programme. It coincided with Ziggy’s own ascendency, not to mention the New Wave of Science Fiction and its preference for fractured narratives and multiple interpretations over linear stories and pat endings.
During their mutual interview, Burroughs brought up the then-current rumor that Bowie might play Valentine Michael Smith in a film adaptation of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Bowie again dismissed it. “It seemed a bit too flower-powery, and that made me a bit wary.” For his part, Bowie’s fellow sci-fi musician Mick Farren of the Deviants later admitted he always thought Michael Valentine Smith was a major influence on Ziggy Stardust. “I was certain someone would call him out for plagiarism,” Farren said. “Nobody did.”
Bowie may have denied his affinity for Stranger in a Strange Land by his boyhood go-to author Heinlein, but he was not shy about professing his love for one of the authors Lester Bangs compared him to: George Orwell. Almost as a footnote, Bowie told Burroughs, “Now I’m doing Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on television.” That project would never come to pass, but it would lay the groundwork for his next, less famous sci-fi concept album – a jagged, atmospheric song cycle that plunged Bowie into the darkest extremes of dystopia.