One of the great things about working in a collapsing industry is the cornucopia of possibilities that begins to open up of all the stuff you could do instead. In the past 18 months I have toyed with becoming: a speechwriter, a radio shock jock, a YouTube cult, a think tank senior visiting fellow, a TV star, a corporate communications director, an internet entrepreneur, a self-help book author, a Buteyko guru, a truck driver at an Australian mine, a gold bug, a fixer, an after-dinner speaker, a stand-up comic, an MEP. Some of it might actually happen.
So I think I have a pretty good idea what David Bowie was going through in 1972 in the run-up to recording Ziggy Stardust — whose 40th anniversary was celebrated by Jarvis Cocker and friends in a BBC4 documentary this week (Friday). Bowie knew he was destined to be something really special. He just couldn’t quite make up his mind what, that’s all.
You can hardly blame him for his confusion. For ten years, by that stage, he had been slogging away at his showbiz career, mostly to little effect. He’d dabbled with being: a mod ‘face’, a mime artiste (with Lindsay Kemp), a winsome folkie, an actor in an ice-cream commercial, a novelty pop one-hit wonder (‘Space Oddity’ — which went to number one on the back of the Apollo 11 landing), Tony Newley…
Had his career as a proto-Tony Newley taken off, one commentator observed, Bowie might easily have ended up in light entertainment. Instead, the first Bowie experiment that truly caught the public imagination was his proto-glam rock concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Within three days of performing it on Top of the Pops, he had gone from virtual nobody to Beatles-like levels of adulation — mobbed wherever he went, desperate girls camped outside his home, quite unable to go shopping without being given everything free.
I still think Hunky Dory (released just six months earlier) was the finer record with subtler, catchier, better-written songs. But what it didn’t have was the ‘nazz’, or the ‘God-given ass’, or the haircuts, or the white and red zigzag face paint, or the shiny silver spacesuits or any of those other essential superficialities that would lead to Bowie’s becoming not only the most adored British pop star of the Seventies, but also the most influential of the Eighties.
You couldn’t quite call it the triumph of style over content (not with songs as great as ‘Five Years’ or ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’), but image and front definitely came first. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the way Bowie conquered America that same year. He simply went out there and — with the connivance of his new record company RCA — pretended to be much more famous than he was.
So, Bowie and his entourage of fellow musicians (among them Iggy Pop), groupies, freaks and hangers-on, travelled everywhere first class, flanked by bodyguards in karate outfits, and spent six extraordinary weeks living on room service at the Beverly Hills Hotel. In the process he mutated into the weird pop star persona he’d invented to make himself famous, with nearly disastrous consequences for his mental and physical health. Bowie was canny enough to see this, which is why in July 1973 he announced — to much shock from his audience, and even more from his guitar-, drum- and bass-player (who hadn’t been forewarned) — at a concert in Hammersmith Odeon that it would be the last show he’d ever do.
‘It was a cruel and cutting blow but it had to be done,’ Bowie once admitted in an interview (though not on the documentary in which — ever elusive — he didn’t appear), revealing the shard of ice that runs through the heart of so many successful artistes.
While there’s no doubt that Bowie had some natural talent and was consummately professional (‘Ninety-five per cent of every vocal I’ve ever done with him was recorded in one take from beginning to end,’ recalled his producer Ken Scott), he would never have got as far as he did without his back-up team. It was, for example, his first wife Angie who pioneered his haircuts (volunteering to get hers done first so he wouldn’t feel too scared). And in the classically trained arranger, pianist and guitarist Mick Ronson, he was blessed with — according to one commentator — ‘one of the greatest rock musicians in history ever’.
Ronson — like his fellow Spiders, drummer Woody Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder — was a working-class lad from Hull who initially wanted no truck with all that poncy gender-bending nonsense. When Ronson first saw his flamboyant Ziggy stage costume, his response was: ‘I’m a musician. I’m not ****ing wearing that.’ Listening to the two surviving lads now (Ronson died in 1993), it was clear that their Ziggy period represented an hallucinogenically dream-like interruption of normality rather than anything remotely connected with real life. Maybe there’s a lesson there. We all would have liked to have been Ziggy Stardust. But maybe true contentment lies in being a Spider instead.