Behind the Strange Album Cover for David Bowie’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’

David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust. The two names, the two personalities are synonymous with one another thanks to the artist’s 1972 breakthrough record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars.

From the space-aged references to the imaginative, even weird lyrics, the story of Ziggy Stardust, a bisexual alien rocker, is a remarkable way to make a name for yourself. But would Bowie have it any other way? Below, let’s dive into the story of the album and the record’s unassuming, dimly lit album cover.

The Music
Before we get to the album cover, let’s take a quick look at the music on the album. Ziggy Stardust is a character in the LP, a sexually curious alien rock superstar. While Bowie has said that the album wasn’t originally conceived as a complete concept record or rock opera, it basically turned into one. The album, thus, tells the story of the spaceman and it’s a narrative that has since followed Bowie as he has helped flesh out the character, both literally and figuratively.

While many of the songs on the LP have since become classics, from “Moonage Daydream” to “Starman,” its lyrics highlight issues Bowie seemed to have with the world, his world on Earth. From politics to drugs to sex to business and fame, the album provides a bird’s eye view of the time it was written. As all great art is a mirror, this one was a bit more like a telescope.

But with those observations, Bowie also aims to bring a sense of hope to his listeners. For the character is not superficial. Anything but, really. Ziggy was inspired by many influences, from Jimi Hendrix to Iggy Pop and even British singer Vince Taylor, whom Bowie had met after Taylor had a nervous breakdown and identified as part-god, part-alien. As for Ziggy, himself, Bowie sings of the glam frontman as a “well-hung, snow white-tanned, left-hand guitar-playing man.”

The Album Cover
Shot by photographer Brian Ward, the photo was recolored by artist Terry Pastor. The two had previously worked with Bowie on the album art for the 1971 LP, Hunky Dory. The thing that’s strange about the cover is that most fans would expect a big closeup photo of Bowie in his striking Ziggy Stardust makeup, with the lightning strike across his face. But instead, Bowie is surrounded by a cityscape, brick buildings, cardboard boxes, and cars. It’s not in your face, so to speak. It’s subtle.

It’s hard to make out, but Bowie is also holding a guitar, a Gibson Les Paul used by one of the musicians who played on the record. Perhaps the overall effect Bowie was going for was an innocent observer just turning their head and seeing this person—this thing, this creature—on a random city block. But it’s really Ziggy. Blond hair, confidence out the wazoo.

The actual photo was taken on January 13, 1972, in London off Regent Street. Bowie, who had the flu, left the studio that he and his band, the Spiders, were working in to get a few shots before the natural light was gone outside. They began to shoot the photo just as it started to rain.

K. West
Other than Bowie himself, perhaps the most prominent part of the image is the big yellow K. West sign behind him. As the album became a big success and sold tens of thousands of copies, the company K. West began to complain to RCA Records, writing a letter that read, “Our clients are Furriers of high repute who deal with a clientele generally far removed from the pop music world. Our clients certainly have no wish to be associated with Mr. Bowie or this record as it might be assumed that there was some connection between our client’s firm and Mr. Bowie, which is certainly not the case.”

But the company soon cooled over time and it became both used to and then appreciative of the association, as fans of Bowie’s—some of whom thought there was a secret message in the sign, “K. West” meaning “Quest”—would come to the location to shoot their own photos, as if on a pilgrimage. The company, though, left the location in 1991. Yet, the new owners of the area, The Crown Estate, put up a commemorative plaque where the sign used to be.

The Back Cover
Bowie gave his listeners instructions with the back cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars. He wrote, “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” To which many replied, albeit perhaps without words: Aye aye, Captain!

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