Thanks to an older brother’s fairly extensive record collection, the soundtrack to my ’70s teenage years was supplied by the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Bowie, Black Sabbath, John Martyn, ELP, The Beatles, Hawkwind, Jethro Tull, The Stones, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Hendrix, Yes, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, and many more. The fact that said brother is just now in the process of booking tickets for us to see tribute band Think Floyd (yet again) indicates that this is the kind of music which I still enjoy, all these years later.
Early musical obsessions, with their irresistible tug of nostalgia, tend to be resistant to cool, detached evaluation; but mustering as much objectivity as I can, I think my musical heritage stands up pretty well to re-appraisal: I still find inspiration from the musicianship, ambition, and inventiveness of so many of the bands and artists of that era.
While some of the paraphernalia surrounding the music may have dated, the BBC4 documentary on Bowie’s Ziggy era – David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust – brought back all the excitement of hearing the Ziggy album when first released. The now famous clip of Bowie’s Top of the Pops appearance, singing Starman, still takes me straight back to when I watched it as a youngster – a time when I was pretty much gripped by all things Bowie.
Stuart Maconie writes in The Mirror:-
The image that everyone remembers, the one that’s seared into the national consciousness, is the one of Bowie, wonky grin, stick-thin and carrot-topped draping a limp, louche arm around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulders, pulling him into the embrace of the harmonies, the near kiss of Starman’s glorious chorus while mums all over Britain tutted over their knitting and dads in lounge doorways muttered something unrepeatable.
More than the image, though…:-
…many others had found Bowie and his song [Starman, from the Ziggy Stardust album] so transfixing, so spell-binding, so utterly different that it cast the rest of the charts into sharp relief. This was stranger and darker and more joyous all at once.
The Ziggy story is itself a little convoluted – alien rock star comes to the dying planet Earth to save humanity but gets a messiah complex and is eventually destroyed by black hole-jumping entities called The Infinites who have landed in Greenwich village.
…what really counts is the music. Euphoric, dramatic, plaintive sci-fi ballads played with swagger and pout, warm and seductive but at the same time surreal and dangerous.
All these years later, that ‘surreal and dangerous’ album boasts a blue plaque. As mentioned in this BBC article, the plaque marks:-
the spot where [Bowie] was photographed for the cover of his album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Talking of Bowie album covers, his next release – Aladdin Sane – is perhaps even better:-
Aladdin Sane is probably, with Ziggy Stardust, my joint favourite Bowie album. The BBC4 documentary reminded me about one of the great musicians who made a particularly powerful contribution to the album – the fantastic jazz pianist Mike Garson. The famously anarchic solo on the title track still astonishes and delights. Here’s a nice description from
Chris O’Leary about that track (on his Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog):-
All of this [the first part of the track] is prologue for Garson’s solo. Garson has already undermined the verses, playing spiky lines that crash against Bowie’s vocal and Mick Ronson’s rhythm. Now he performs a magic trick.
Garson, in Trident Studios with Bowie, Ronson and producer Ken Scott, was asked to play a solo for “Aladdin Sane” over a simple set of chords (A to G to A, repeat indefinitely). Bowie gave Garson no guidelines, just told him to play what he liked. Garson did, and Bowie shot down his first two tries (a blues and a Latin-tinged solo). Bowie told Garson to go further out. On tour, Garson had told Bowie stories of the ’60s New York avant-garde jazz scene—of watching free jazz hierophants like Cecil Taylor. That’s what I want, Bowie said. So Garson sat down and played, off the top of his head and in one take, what is likely the finest rock piano solo recorded that decade, if ever.
Garson’s solo, at first listen seemingly random and chaotic, has a structure—it moves from dissonance and disturbance to the reassurance of memory, then breaks apart again, churning and spinning, until it’s finally yoked back to serve the song. The first chorus (2:04 to 2:21) opens with Garson playing a jarring four-note pattern that disintegrates, splintering into pieces; the second (2:22 to 2:40) is mainly his long, manic runs along the keyboard. The third (2:41 to 2:57) is a list of quotations—”Rhapsody In Blue” and “Tequila,” likely others (maybe a hint of “On Broadway,” which Bowie sings a part of in the outro). The fourth (2:58 to 3:15) kills that indulgence with three bars of furiously pounded chords and ends with the saxophone wending its way back; the fifth (3:16 to 3:33) is the return to earth, as Garson, bowing to time, plays the bassline midway through.
If you are interested in hearing more of Mike Garson, he has an excellent solo album – The Bowie Variations – where he plays jazz versions of Bowie music.
Also, if you haven’t heard the late Mick Ronson’s solo album Slaughter on 10th Avenue, I highly recommend it.