Why David Bowie Killed Ziggy Stardust, 50 Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today, on the stage of London’s Hammersmith Odeon, David Bowie killed Ziggy Stardust.

Of course, it was not a conventional murder: Ziggy was Bowie’s creation, a character he’d invented, a vessel for his rise to fame behind his blockbuster 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.” The album sparked one of the fastest and most meteoric rises to superstardom in pop-culture history and created something of a self-fulfilling paradigm, involving the rise of the titular rock star whose fame went to his head and maybe died, maybe didn’t. After nearly a decade of trying and mostly failing to become famous as himself, Bowie apparently figured it might be easier to do it as someone else — a “totally credible plastic rock star,” as he would later describe it.

He was right. In just a year and a half, Bowie had rocketed from a one-hit wonder to one of the most iconic pop stars the world had ever seen, with some of the greatest music of the era. In this almost unparalleled 18-month hot streak, Bowie created three classic albums — “Hunky Dory,” “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane,” featuring songs like “Changes,” “Life on Mars?,” “Starman” and “The Jean Genie” — as well as helming three albums for other artists: Lou Reed’s “Transformer” (featuring the New York bard’s biggest-ever hit, “Walk on the Wild Side”), Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” the generation-defining title track of which Bowie wrote. But like many such creations, Ziggy turned into a Frankenstein-like monster that, exacerbated by drugs, idolatry, overwork and the trappings of fame, threatened to devour its creator, causing an identity crisis that Bowie — like countless other artists who’d wonder where the self ended and the star began — would struggle with for many years to come.

It was also one of the most manic periods of activity any major star had undertaken before or since: Bowie was essentially on tour for the entire period, playing nearly 200 concerts on three continents, and when he wasn’t performing, he was recording, in photo or video sessions, figuring out wardrobe and imagery, and plotting. There were more mundane, if colorful, real-life complicating factors as well: His manipulative, Svengali-like manager, Tony Defries, and aptly named MainMan management company (whom Bowie would ultimately pay upward of $50 million to separate from and obtain the rights to his recordings); dissention and rebellion within the Spiders, Bowie’s backing band that was also a part of the Ziggy storyline; and not least, a seriously undersold upcoming American tour that needed a good reason to be canceled.

And so, on the Odeon stage — in front of five thousand fans, journalists and documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s camera crews — on the last show of the biggest British tour in history, before “Rock and Roll Suicide,” the climactic song that closed both the “Ziggy” album and nearly every concert he performed during this era, Bowie stunned the world: “Not only is this the last show of the tour,” he said, “but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”

The audience’s shrieks can be heard in the live album and film of the concert. The news made headlines across the world: “Bowie Quits,” the New Musical Express trumpeted; “Bowie Bows Out,” said several others. It was as if the Beatles had announced their retirement from the stage of Shea Stadium in 1965.

Of course, it wasn’t the last anything for Bowie, except pretending to be the character he’d grown bored with. The following week he’d board a train for France, where he and most of the Spiders would record a new album. Within three and a half months he’d be playing a concert with them as well; in less than a year he’d launch a major American tour, sporting a totally new look, sound and vision.

But that was it for Ziggy — the “we” in Bowie’s statement presumably referred to himself and his alter ego. And although he’d play many of the era’s iconic songs on his next tour and throughout his career, it was never as the character that had vaulted him to stardom. Indeed, he wouldn’t play the two songs that opened nearly every concert of the period, “Hang on to Yourself” and “Ziggy Stardust,” for another five years — and once he did, it was from a safe distance. After so many self-reinventions, the six songs from the album that were played in the middle of the otherwise audience-challenging 1978 setlist took on the air of a nostalgic look at photos from one’s adolescence.

But its legacy is monumental, and not only musically: The false retirement has become a trope of the entertainment world, and every time a healthy and relatively young musician announces one, the world waits for the seemingly inevitable comeback. And intentionally or not, Prince took the entire conceit — the character based on oneself, the rise-to-superstardom storyline, and even the false retirement — to an even bigger level with his “Purple Rain” album, film and tour just a dozen years later.

It all grew from the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973.

It certainly could be argued that the fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars began almost a year to the day before that final concert — on July 6, 1972, when Bowie’s culture-shifting performance of “Starman” was aired on Britain’s most popular music television show, “Top of the Pops.” With groundwork laid by the just-released album, a long string of U.K. concert dates and several highly strategic interviews — including one in which Bowie announced his then extremely controversial bisexuality — he and his Spiders From Mars, guitarist/bandleader Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey, took Britain by storm. Their snow-white tans, glam costumes and dyed hair struck a fatal blow to the earthy imagery of the fading hippie era, which Bowie would describe in his 2002 “Moonage Daydream” memoir as “some kind of denim hell.”

For a generation of future musicians, it was the equivalent of the Beatles’ 1964 appearance on “Ed Sullivan Show,” including Boy George, U2’s Bono, the Clash’s Mick Jones, Siouxsie Sioux, the Cure’s Robert Smith, Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths, John Taylor and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, David Gahan of Depeche Mode and countless others. (Variety documented Bowie’s rise in an extensive article last year.)

But that was just the beginning. As the group played a series of concerts across England cementing that popularity in the summer of 1972 (which Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees called “the Summer of Ziggy Stardust”) and drove both the album and single toward the upper reaches of the U.K. charts, Bowie and Defries plotted the next phase: conquering America. After a pair of rapturously received, highly theatrical concerts at London’s Rainbow Theatre in August, Bowie (who’d developed a fear of flying after a terrifying storm during a flight the previous summer) boarded the QE2 at Southampton on September 12 and set sail for New York.

Bowie had traveled in America twice during the previous year, had met Andy Warhol and key scenemakers like writer Lisa Robinson and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, and witnessed the vibrant music communities in New York and Los Angeles. But never before as a star, let alone one powered by the level of popularity and controversy he’d generated in England. Bowie and Defries’ approach was essentially, “If you act like a superstar, they will believe you’re one,” so limousines, five-star hotels, press blackouts, arena-sized concerts and a sprawling, self-important entourage were the order of the day. Despite his relatively low recognition, this worked like gangbusters in major markets like New York and L.A. — where Bowie played rapturously received concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the latter documented on the “Santa Monica ‘72” live album — and pockets of popularity like Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia.

“Bowie at the time wasn’t famous,” recalled Ron Delsener, who promoted the Carnegie Hall show, in the recent documentary “Ron Delsener Presents.” “But to me, the whole thing was theatrical. Now, the [venue’s] booker was very, very dubious about having someone who looked like David Bowie play. So I went down there and said, ‘He’s playing a character called Ziggy Stardust, an alien from far away,’ and [convinced her]. And Bowie knocked it dead.”

“I can tell that I’m totally into being Ziggy by this stage of our touring,” Bowie wrote in the liner notes to the “Santa Monica ’72” album. “It’s no longer an act: I am him.”

But the long, haphazardly booked tour had many low points as well. The shows in places like St. Louis and New Orleans were sparsely attended, and the nearly 50-person entourage would often sit idle for days, at ludicrous expense, in places like Kansas City and Phoenix.

“We should not use limousines other than to and from gigs or to and from studios or for transportation of Bowie,” Defries thundered in an all-staff memo dated October 22. “We are attracting too many followers and carrying them with us. Every extra person who stays with us at a hotel is an extra room-service charge. GROUPIES SHOULD BE SENT HOME WITHOUT BREAKFAST!”

Adding to the expenses, the ultimately fatal discord within the band began when the core members of the Spiders discovered that virtuoso pianist Mike Garson, who’d joined the tour in September, was making literally ten times as much per week as they were. They received raises, but mistrust had been sown.

However, as the polarized tour progressed, Bowie’s vibrant next phase began to take shape. He and the band grew more confident amid the bigger stages and superstar treatment. His hair, makeup and outfits became even more lurid and otherworldly — in a fit of drunkenness, inspiration or both, he shaved off his eyebrows, which he would not grow back for three years.

And most significantly, the wild people and experiences of the tour spawned a powerful set of new songs, which would become the “Aladdin Sane” album (unofficially subtitled “Ziggy Stardust in America”). “Jean Genie,” based on the indelible riff of the blues standard “I’m a Man,” grew from a singalong on the tour bus and meeting Iggy Pop. It was quickly recorded in Nashville and issued as a single in November while the group was still on tour. “Watch That Man” was inspired by decadent evenings at New York’s legendary Max’s Kansas City nightclub and starred actress/ rock socialite Cyrinda Fox (who later married both New York Dolls frontman David Johansen and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler) as “Lorraine.” “Cracked Actor” is about an aging, vindictive Hollywood star; soul singer Claudia Linnear is the stunning femme fatale in “Lady Grinning Soul.” “Panic in Detroit” featured the city’s post-apocalyptic atmosphere, after the devastating riots of the late ‘60s, and another appearance from Pop. And Bowie’s next single, “Drive-In Saturday,” about a future society where people have to learn how to make love again, was sparked by some strange domes he saw from his train as it traveled from Seattle to Phoenix.

Also recorded but not included were Bowie’s version of “All the Young Dudes,” a supercharged revamp of his 1972 single “John, I’m Only Dancing” (which was originally slated to close the album but dropped at the last minute), and an incomplete, multi-part song titled “Zion” that featured snarling guitar work from Ronson and a haunting intro and outro that would later turn up in the 1974 “Diamond Dogs” track “Sweet Thing.” Bowie recorded a wordless guide vocal that offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the song could have been.

Not surprisingly, the group’s appearance attracted stares everywhere they went in early ‘70s America, recalls RCA staff engineer Mike Moran, who flew to Nashville to handle the “Jean Genie” session. “They all said they wanted to go [the popular restaurant] Lum’s for lunch,” he tells Variety. “I said ‘I’ll just order in’ — remember, this was the days of redneck Nashville. But they said, ‘No, we want to go out.’ So I said okay, and we get in the car. These guys have orange hair and purple outfits, and as I’m driving out of the parking lot I see my friend Jim Fogelson, who was president of Capitol Records in Nashville. He sees me in the car with these guys and nearly drops dead. But we got to Lum’s and everybody had a ball — people stared at them, but everyone was polite.”

Bowie’s appearance masked his no-nonsense approach in the studio. “He usually did just one or two takes of his vocal, and he and Mick Ronson worked very closely and were great together,” Moran, who worked on several other Bowie sessions during this time, recalls. “He was the most professional person I ever worked with.”

Finally, in December, just hours after shooting a last-minute video for “Space Oddity” — the three-year-old song that had been Bowie’s first U.K. hit and, newly acquired by his label, RCA, would soon become his highest-charting U.S. single to date — where his exhaustion is evident, Bowie boarded the RHMS Ellinis and sailed for home.

Not that he’d get much rest while there. The band almost immediately launched into a short tour of England — including a Christmas Eve return to London’s Rainbow — performed their explosive live version of “Jean Genie” on “Top of the Pops” (incorporating the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” into the finale), and finished recording the “Aladdin Sane” album, which featured an indelible cover image by photographer Brian Duffy. The photo debuted the lightning-bolt slash across his face that would become the iconic symbol not only of Ziggy and the lurid imaging of the era, but of Bowie for decades to come.

“The flash on the original Ziggy set was taken from the high voltage sign that was stuck on any box containing dangerous amounts of electricity,” Bowie wrote in 2002. “I was not a little peeved when Kiss purloined it [for their logo]. Purloining, after all, was my job.”

After just a few weeks of frantic preparation and final album sessions, the new look and single, “Drive-In Saturday,” were premiered on the BBC’s “Russell Harty Show.” Days later, Bowie and his new backing singer and traveling companion, childhood friend Geoff MacCormack, boarded the SS Canberra en route to New York.

The new album and look would be accompanied by a new sound — bigger, louder and more bombastic than its tastefully restrained predecessors — and Bowie and the band launched into several days of rehearsals at RCA’s New York studios in preparation for the first date, a Valentine’s Day performance at the iconic Radio City Music Hall. The band had gotten a lot bigger, with the three Spiders and Garson now joined by two horn players, second guitarist John Hutchinson and MacCormack (who would later call himself Warren Peace) on backing vocals and percussion. Along with several “Ziggy” highlights and nearly the entirety of the new album, the 90-minute set featured a cover of Jacques Brel’s haunting “My Death.” “Space Oddity,” which had previously been performed acoustically by just Bowie and Ronson, was now a full-blown production with a wild video introduction: On a bootleg recording of the concert, an audience member can be heard saying, “This is incredible, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” The stage was bookended by a pair of elevated white discs bearing the “Aladdin Sane” lightning bolt.

A couple of days before the concert, Bowie attended a Rockettes performance at Radio City where one of the performers was lowered to the stage from the rafters on a gyroscope. He not only incorporated that entrance into his two concerts at the venue, he went one better when he and the Spiders began the second half of the show by entering on a platform that rose from beneath the stage.

As if all that weren’t dramatic enough, on opening night, at the end of the show-closing “Rock and Roll Suicide,” Bowie collapsed after a fan ran onstage and sounds resembling gunshots were heard. “Nobody knew it was part of the show,” Moran’s wife Linda, who was at the concert, recalls. “You heard what sounded like gunfire, and then police ran down the aisles.”

However, veteran music attorney Kenny Meiselas, who was also at the show, says, “From my vantage point — 10th row center, I’d waited in line all day — it looked like a fan rushed the stage and unintentionally knocked Bowie down, and apparently unconscious, right after ‘Rock and Roll Suicide,’ and Bowie was picked up immediately and swept offstage by his bodyguards. It was probably just an overexcited fan trying to hug his hero, but I never saw anyone confirm what really happened.”

Whatever the case, the four-week U.S. tour was off to a more-than-newsworthy start.

After the last two dates in Los Angeles, Bowie and MacCormack boarded yet another ocean liner and headed off for the singer’s first-ever tour of Japan in April. In a way similar to America, Bowie received a fanatical reception for his five concerts in Tokyo but a far more muted one in the other cities. Likewise, the show’s more graphic songs and costumes — parts of which featured Bowie performing while wearing only a jockstrap — had been toned down out of respect for Japanese culture and the country’s far more conservative crowd control at concerts. However, the experience — and not least several new, Japanese-themed outfits designer Kansai Yamamoto created for Bowie while he was in the country — would evolve the singer’s look even further for the British tour, which was launching in London just three weeks after the final date in Japan.

The Kansai designs “were everything that I wanted them to be and more,” Bowie wrote in 2002. “Heavily inspired in equal parts by kabuki and samurai, they were outrageous, provocative and unbelievably hot to wear under the stage lights.”

Yet again, Bowie and MacCormack boarded a boat — but this time, it was heading to the far Eastern port city of Nakhodka in the Soviet Union, as the pair would travel back home via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, taking more than a week to arrive in Paris with stops in Moscow, Warsaw and Berlin. In Paris, Bowie was greeted by his wife Angie and several journalists, and returned to London — after traveling some 8,000 miles over land — on May 4, just as “Drive-In Saturday” was peaking at No. 3 on the singles chart and the “Aladdin Sane” album debuted at No. 1.

“After an unbelievably long and strenuous tour of the U.S. and Japan, I came to back to England via Russia, Poland and East Germany,” Bowie wrote in 2002. “I was utterly exhausted and the last thing I wanted to do was keep touring but…”

His star had risen even further in the three months he’d been away. By this point he was the biggest pop star in England, and demand for the tour — the most extensive British trek in pop-music history — was extremely high. As was demand on the performers: The tour crammed some 61 concerts, often two per day, across seven weeks. The setlist had been streamlined down to around 75 minutes as well, with several of the “Aladdin Sane” songs dropped and an unusual medley incorporated: The first one combined two songs from “Hunky Dory” — “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars?,” the latter of which would be released as a U.K. single to capitalize on the tour — with his hippie anthem “Memory of a Free Festival”; concerts in the first half of the tour would often feature a massive crowd singalong on its coda, “The sun machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” However, that medley was dropped mid-tour for a different one, combining a different hippie-era song, “The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” with a rousing verse and chorus from “All the Young Dudes” before concluding with “Oh! You Pretty Things” from “Hunky Dory.”

In line with the tour’s smaller venues, the expertly paced show was in two halves, divided by an “interval” (intermission), and saw the group closing the first with a one-two punch of “Changes” and “Space Oddity” and opening the second with a scorching “Jean Genie.”

The tour launched with a high-profile but problematic show at London’s Earl’s Court that was plagued by poor sound and a too-low stage. “No one could hear, no one could see,” Bowie wrote in 2002. “There were fights out there, too. An unmitigated disaster. Lots of nude dancing in the aisles, though.”

A young, denim-clad John Ritchie — later known as Sid Vicious — was photographed outside the concert, wearing a bright red Bowie T-shirt and a respectable approximation of a Ziggy haircut. He’d turned 16 two days earlier.

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