“I wanted to define the archetype messiah rock star. That’s all I wanted to do”: the epic oral history of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album

David Bowie posing as ZIggy Stardust
(Image credit: Getty Images)

More than half a century on from his creation,  Ziggy Stardust remains arguably  the most beloved character from David Bowie’s illustrious seven-decade career. Combining glamour and a then-outrageous sexuality, this bisexual alien rock star fell to earth as the 60s dream had turned sour in the wake of Altamont, and the economic boom of the previous decade had finally burst.

The music scene was becoming as grim as the outside world. Clive Dunn’s mawkish single, Grandad topped the charts at the start of 1971 while Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) brought it to a close. By 1972, the likes of Donny Osmond and David Cassidy hit the top spot as compilation albums dominated their respective charts.

Yet from this morass of tedium came a glimmer of hope. First T. Rex brought the glitter to the pop kids while Slade stomped their stack heels hard. And then, as if from nowhere, former one-hit wonder David Bowie introduced Ziggy Stardust to sweep aside all competition to leave a legacy that’s still felt to this very day.

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Having failed to successfully crack America in January 1971, David Bowie returned to the UK. Encouraged by his wife, Angie, and manager, Tony Defries, Bowie developed the idea of the “ultimate pop idol” by combining his underground heroes Lou Reed and Iggy Pop with cult British rock’n’roller Vince Taylor…

David Bowie: I wanted to define the archetype messiah rock star; that’s all I wanted to do. And I used the trappings of kabuki theatre, mime technique, fringe New York music – my reference was The Velvet Underground. It was a British view of American street energy. 

Woody Woodmansey (Spiders From Mars drummer): Angie was a very flash-talking, buzzing American girl. She got him on what he wanted to do before anybody else. So when David had a few doubts in the beginning or when he said, ‘I’m thinking of doing this’, she said, ‘Do it, David!’ If she hadn’t have been there, it might not have gone the way it did. She was very influential. 

Suzi Ronson (hairstylist, later Mick Ronson’s wife): Angela really was a driving force behind David. She was very influential with the costumes. She made him brave. She would have her hair cut first if she thought that he wouldn’t like it.

Dana Gillespie (singer and confidante to Bowie): She was always encouraging him and always on his side. She would always be dressing him and helped with his image. She was always a positive force. 

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During a January 1972 interview with Melody Maker’s Michael Watts, David Bowie unveiled his new Ziggy image and made an outrageous claim that reverberated across the nation…

David Bowie: I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.

Mick Ronson (Spiders From Mars guitarist): When David came out, I felt a bit funny about it. My family took a bit of flak for it. I gave my mother and father a car and somebody threw paint over it.

Trevor Bolder (Spiders From Mars bassist): There were plenty of girls. I think he was spinning them along, but it sold papers and therefore records, so we didn’t give a toss. 


David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars playing live

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: (from left) Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Bowie and Woody Woodmansey (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

While Marc Bolan spearheaded the glam charge with T.Rex by smearing glitter under his eyes, swapping his hippy gear for satin clothing and altering his music for a teen audience and Slade’s Dave Hill became more sartorially outré, David Bowie set about creating something completely and utterly unique.

David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust was this surreal cartoon character brought to life. He was half out of sci-fi rock and half out of the Japanese theatre. The clothes were, at that time, simply outrageous. Nobody had seen anything like them before.

Mick Ronson: Just after Hunky Dory and before Ziggy, there was a lull in the scene; it needed jarring and excitement. Bowie’s dressing us up and the make-up was needed. It wasn’t what I usually did but it was exciting. On stage I became someone else.

Trevor Bolder: We were his droogs. David edged us into (wearing the) clothes. Originally he wanted us to wear bowler hats and boiler suits like in the movie A Clockwork Orange but we refused to do that so he commissioned our stage clothes.

Woody Woodmansey: We were in Liberty in the material department and David and Angie were passing rolls of material down. I thought, ‘Oh, nice – we’re getting new curtains, but they’re a bit bright’. Then a few days later, he got a friend of his in who’s a really incredible fashion designer and we started having the clothes made from the material. The hair came about a month later.

David Bowie: Writing a song for me never rang true. I found it quite easy to write for the artists I would create because I did find it much easier having created a Ziggy to then write for him. Even though it was me doing it.

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David Bowie’s fourth album Hunky Dory was barely finished when he and the band swiftly reconvened at Trident Studios in London to begin work on their following album, which would eventually be released in June 1972.

Ken Scott (producer): One of David’s talents was picking a team to give him exactly what he wanted at any given time. And that team knew what it was supposed to be. We didn’t have to tell each other all the time; we just instinctively knew this is what’s going to happen here, this is what’s going to happen there.

David Bowie: Mick Ronson was very much a salt-of-the-earth type; the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so what you got was the old-fashioned yin and yang thing. As a rock duo, I thought we were as good as Mick and Keith.

Ken Scott: Ziggy Stardust didn’t start as a concept album. It Ain’t Easy was left over from the recording of Hunky Dory

Angie Bowie (wife and mover and shaker): David is a fantastic musician, because his approach is not studied, it’s by ear. He has an ability to pluck a song from those first moments he plays with an instrument.

Ken Scott: His greatest talent was performing in a studio. Ninety-five per cent of the songs he recorded were done one take, first take from beginning to end.  

Woody Woodmansey: Mick didn’t really know how good he was. He would do a solo first take, never played it before and it would blow us away.

Ken Scott: The mainstay of the whole story – the ‘man coming from up there somewhere’ – is Starman. That was the last thing recorded for Ziggy Stardust and… it was never meant to be on the album. The album was sent into RCA and they said, ‘The album’s great but we don’t hear a single. Can you go and record a single?’ Of course David could! He goes away and comes back with Starman and then suddenly the whole album is a concept album.

David Bowie reaching down towards the audience while performing live

(Image credit: Steve Wood/Express/Getty Images)

With the album in the bag, David Bowie took to the road in his new guise as Ziggy Stardust. Starting in tiny clubs, the band’s popularity began to rise throughout 1972, which culminated in two sell-out shows at the Rainbow Theatre in London.

Kris Needs (journalist and author): He told me: “Next time I come back (to Aylesbury Friars), I’m going to be something different. I’m going to be a big rock star.” And sure enough, the following January in 1972 he returned as Ziggy Stardust. It was the first time in the world he’d played as Ziggy Stardust and he came out to the Beethoven music from A Clockwork Orange in his silver jumpsuit with the Spiders and nothing was going to be the same again.

David Bowie: During the very early days of Ziggy Stardust, we often used to play these fairly grotty clubs. Backstage one night I was desperate to use the bathroom. I was dressed in my full battle finery of Tokyo-spaceboy and a pair of shoes high enough that it induced nosebleeds. I went up to the promoter – actually I tottered over to the promoter – and I asked, ‘Could you please tell me where the lavatory is?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, look down that corridor? On the far end of that wall? You see that sink? There you go.’ I said, ‘My good man, I’m not taking a piss in the sink.’ He said, ‘Listen son, if it’s good enough for Shirley Bassey, it’s good enough for you.’

Nick Kent (journalist): I went to the first official Spiders From Mars gig in London at Imperial College. After four bars of Hang On To Yourself, the PA just stopped. Bowie was standing there, and for a split second, you could see the panic in his eyes, thinking, What the fuck am I going to do? And what he did was put his hands on his hips in this really camp way, and proceeded to give a rundown of what he was wearing. He just did this camp routine, and then after about a minute, the sound came back on. In that minute, Ziggy Stardust’s destiny was manifest.

Mick Rock (photographer): The fellatio picture is one of the most striking images from the Ziggy period. If you look at the picture, he’s chomping on Mick’s guitar. He was hugging Mick’s buttocks in a cute way, but he only did that because of the way Mick was swinging his guitar around.

Kris Needs: Bowie returned to Friars for a third performance on 15 July.

Trevor Bolder: Friars in Aylesbury on 15 July was the big one. That was sold out. Everybody wanted to see the band. So that was when we realised it was taking off. 

Lindsay Kemp (dancer and mentor): That Rainbow show was a big shock. When I saw how he captured an audience of thousands and knew exactly what to do. It was absolutely electric – I was numb from beginning to end.

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust was released in June 1972. A loose concept album, it’s held together by the idea of an alien, bi-sexual rock star who visits the Earth during its last five years before being killed by his fans. Straddling the gap between the serious rock album market and the singles-orientated pop charts, it rocks hard on Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City and Hang On To Yourself and revels in the pop sensibility of Starman and Soul Love.

Crucial to Bowie’s meteoric rise was his appearance on Top Of The Pops on 6 July 1972 to perform Starman. For many fans, this was the moment they irrevocably fell under Bowie’s spell.

Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran): I think people have forgotten the significance Top Of The Pops had throughout the 70s. It really focused the entire nation on music, on what was going on.

Trevor Bolder: We went to the pub together; nobody knew who we were. Top Of The Pops changed all that. 

Joe Elliot (Def Leppard): Starman on Top Of The Pops – that blew me and everybody away.

Trevor Bolder: We did it live, straight through, and then went to the BBC bar. People kept coming up to us and asking if we were in Doctor Who.

Robert Smith (The Cure): I immediately put on some of my sister’s make-up. I loved how odd it made me look, and the fact that it upset people. 

Mary Conelan (writing to the David Bowie fan club): David Bowie on Top Of The Pops – it took hours for the grin on my face to wear off! Auntie Beeb has gone Bowie-mad! The establishment has now recognised you as a STAR, David. Long may it last!

Trevor Bolder: It all happened after that night. We went out on the road and did a British tour, and where we’d [previously been] playing to maybe 50-60 people a night in small venues, we were selling them out. 

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As Bowie’s star rose, Tony Defries’ MainMan management company took on new clients including Lou Reed, Mott The Hoople and Iggy & The Stooges. Their respective albums – Transformer and All The Young Dudes – were produced by David Bowie while the latter’s Raw Power was remixed by him.

Kris Needs: Bowie plugged into Mott the same way that he’d plugged into Iggy and Lou Reed. He was inspired, but also vaguely frightened, by these highly influential people, so he ended up working with them. They were giving him something. Lou Reed gave him a New York attitude with his lyrics, Iggy gave him the wildest rock star-type mentality and Mott gave him a sense of danger. 

Iggy Pop (Iggy And The Stooges): We did a session in a little room called Western Recorders in Hollywood. It was David Bowie, James Williamson and myself, to mix it. And I think it was done in two days, or a day-and-a-half. The mix on that sounds, to me, a lot like the records David was making at the time. He took off the bottom and at the top and there was a lot of clarity. And you really, really heard the vocal and the lead guitar.

Ian Hunter (Mott The Hoople): He played All The Young Dudes on an acoustic guitar. I knew straight away it was a hit. We grabbed hold of it.

James Williamson (Iggy And The Stooges): I could never stand Bowie personally. I was one of the people saying I didn’t like the mix (of Raw Power), but in retrospect it was actually a good job.

Lou Reed (solo artist): Transformer is easily my best-produced album. Together as a team, (Bowie and Ronson) are terrific.

Angie Bowie: David was very smart. He’d been evaluating the market for his work, calculating his moves, and monitoring his competition. And the only really serious competition in his market niche, he’d concluded, consisted of Lou Reed and – maybe – Iggy Pop. So what did David do? He co-opted them.

David Bowie leans out of a train window with his wife Angie

(Image credit: Smith/Express/Getty Images)

As the tour and promotion continued to roll on, the character of Ziggy began to consume David Bowie.

David Bowie: It became apparent to me that I had an incredible shyness; it was much easier for me to keep on with the Ziggy thing, off the stage as well as on. 

Ian Hunter: He came in with an entourage and he’d gone a bit weird. His clothes were more flamboyant and he was starting to live his image to the hilt. 

David Bowie: I wasn’t getting rid of Ziggy at all. In fact, I was joining forces with him. This doppelganger of myself was becoming one and the same person. And then you start on this trail of chaotic and psychological destruction. You become what’s called a ‘drug casualty’ at the end of it all. 

Trevor Bolder: We lived and breathed the Spiders. As the tour went on, we actually became the characters, to go along with the Ziggy thing. So we tried to live up to people’s expectations of us when we came offstage.

David Bowie: I was having a ball at first, and then around the end of the Ziggy period, I found drugs in a major way. If that hadn’t happened, I wonder how different life would’ve been… But I can’t dwell on that. In all seriousness, that’s why it all went wrong, then, when I was virtually on top of the world. I can’t say it wasn’t fun; the whole of that time was terrific.

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With the British dates ending in triumph, manager Tony Defries booked a 28-date US tour. Employing the risky and expensive strategy of positioning David Bowie as a superstar, the tour fared well on the USA’s east and west coasts, but less so across the mid-west. And while the addition of pianist Mike Garson widened the scope of the music, it unwittingly planted the seeds of the demise of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

Leee Black Childers (MainMan US rep): He had two bodyguards and he dressed then up in karate costumes and they flanked him wherever he went. Everyone assumed then that he was just as big as Mick Jagger or Elton John. And of course he wasn’t. We were having to create this myth. 

Woody Woodmansey: I was sat on an airplane with (Mike Garson) and I was reading a magazine and there was a Lamborghini in it. I went, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ And he went, ‘Why don’t you buy one?’ I went, ‘Yeah, I wish’ And he said, ‘You must be able to afford one’ and I went, ‘Actually, no’. I went, ‘What do you think I get?’ and he went, ‘Well, I know what I get’ and he told me and it was like, three times what I got.

Trevor Bolder: We went to Bowie and said, ‘Unless things change and you give us the money, we’re going home.’

Angie Bowie: David was furious, just furious. ‘They can’t hold me up like that,’ he told me. ‘I don’t care who they are, I simply won’t have that kind of disloyalty.’ From then on, his passive-aggressive machinery engaged gears and the lads’ days were numbered.

A combination of MainMan’s parlous financial affairs, the rhythm section’s perceived mutiny and Bowie’s increasing boredom with the music he’d created saw him finally “retire” Ziggy Stardust at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July, 1973. 

David Bowie: Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is this the last show on the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.

Scott Richardson (confidante to David Bowie and Mick Ronson): 

To break up a band like that is astonishing. I have to credit Bowie with having a lot of courage: to say, ‘I’m not coming back’. 

Trevor Bolder: He’s fuckin’ sacked us!

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As all the children boogie, a trail of those who David Bowie influenced and whose lives he touched are like sign posts on popular music’s highway…

Siouxsie Sioux (Siouxsie And The Banshees): Bowie was the catalyst who’d brought a lot of us – the so-called Bromley Contingent – together. And out of that really small group of people, a lot happened.

Ian Astbury (The Cult): He served as one of the most formative teachers in my life.

Robert Smith: I look back at some the things we’ve done and I can see echoes of some of Bowie’s stuff in it. I got my dream come true when he invited me to sing with him at his birthday in New York.

David Bowie: I’m very happy with Ziggy. He was a very successful character and I think that I played him well. 

Additional Sources: Starman – David Bowie: The Definitive Biography by Paul Trynka; David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones, Melody Maker, Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed by Paul Trynka; Raw Power: An interview with Iggy Pop, Trey Zenker, Tidal; Mojo; Melody Maker. 

Julian Marszalek

Julian Marszalek is the former Reviews Editor of The Blues Magazine. He has written about music for Music365, Yahoo! Music, The Quietus, The Guardian, NME and Shindig! among many others. As the Deputy Online News Editor at Xfm he revealed exclusively that Nick Cave’s second novel was on the way. During his two-decade career, he’s interviewed the likes of Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, and has been ranted at by John Lydon. He’s also in the select group of music journalists to have actually got on with Lou Reed. Marszalek taught music journalism at Middlesex University and co-ran the genre-fluid Stow Festival in Walthamstow for six years.