Melt Festival 2016: When Ziggy Played Guitar
David Bowie’s 1972 concept album about the rise and fall of cosmic pop star Ziggy Stardust comes alive at Melt 2016.
At 7.25pm on Thursday, July 6, 1972, the BBC transmitted a mimed performance of a song called ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops. Taped the previous day, the video featured an all-male group in platform boots, stretch lamé and long, dyed hair – one with a grey beard twisted into twin tassels. They smirked and grinned through the performance as if they didn’t care who was watching. At one stage, the effeminate-looking singer put his arm around the guitarist, as if... well...
David Bowie and his band the Spiders from Mars were too much for many British viewers. “My old man turned off the TV and my mum was silent with sheer embarrassment,” a middle-aged guy commented on a YouTube clip of the program. He’d been one of thousands of kids who saw a shiny vision of the future right there on his TV in 1972. According to writer Dylan Jones, who based an entire book around that four-minute broadcast, pop music changed overnight and the British public was introduced to Bowie’s new album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars, TOTP 1972.
It’s a concept album, but without the 15-minute orchestral ‘movements’ indulgently recorded by other bands of the time in the genre. Bowie was about fun – fun and entertainment and dressing up how you liked in a monochromatic world of denim. According to future pop star Marc Almond, the verdict in the schoolyard the morning after Top of the Pops was that Bowie was a faggot, a queer, and “if you liked him you must be queer too”. The Cure’s Robert Smith remembers: “I saw David Bowie on Top of the Pops and immediately put on some of my older sister’s make-up.” The Smith’s Morrissey says he used to watch Bowie interviews to find out about new music, new books, new ideas. Bitten by the glam bug, Morrissey founded the UK fan club for drag-loving rockers The New York Dolls.
In 1972, with Bowie, T. Rex, Lou Reed, The Sweet and Gary Glitter on your record player, being androgynous, bi or gay was no longer something to feel so bad about: Bowie was a role model for a new kind of teenager. He was different, and he didn’t care.
The longevity and appeal of the Ziggy album wins it a place in the Melt festival of queer arts and culture for 2016. James Lees, musician and director of the inaugural Melt in 2015, is bringing the album to life with a cast of performers including Alison St Ledger, Sandro Colarelli, Brett Harris, Sahara Beck, Emma Dean, Tim Steward, Daniel Hack and Lucinda Shaw. Lees produced a similar show based on Lou Reed’s Transformer for the 2015 Queensland Cabaret Festival.
According to Lees, Bowie is an important queer artist and deserving of a place at Melt. “Some people look at David Bowie and go, He’s not a queer artist! And I say, isn’t he? What’s the definition of a queer artist? I don’t think a queer artist is someone who gets up and says: ‘I am a queer artist and I wish to be branded as such’. I don’t think people like that really exist; it’s not a particularly smart thing to do either.”
On the album’s ten tracks Bowie becomes Ziggy Stardust, the tragic, bright-shining pop star who has ‘five years’ to make it big. In this character, we see him going down on guitarist Mick Ronson’s guitar in a famous live performance photo by Mick Rock. “Did you get it?” Bowie asked Rock as he came off stage.
“These things happened around the same time and it was incredibly powerful,” says Lees. “I think anyone who was a teenager back then, when you ask who were the queer or gay and lesbian gatekeepers in your life, they’ll pick Bowie.”
As Ziggy, Bowie is trying on a new identity, one that played as much havoc with the press as the Sex Pistols would five years later, but with gender and sexuality, rather than filth and fury, as the point of provocation. “There are several very gender queer songs on Ziggy,” Lees says. “There’s ‘Lady Stardust’, ‘Moonage Daydream’ and a single from the same period, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ – the queerest of them all, really. Bowie’s art was doing something good art or writing does: it doesn’t tell you how to respond or what to think, it gives you a whole new language to think with. I think Bowie did that musically, but I think he did it socially and politically as well.”
After curating the inaugural Melt in 2015, Lees says he wanted to continue his support heading into the second festival. “It was important to me, personally, to bring a big show to Melt that represents me as a musician and a producer, which are my key things. It feels really positive, and it’s a way for me to support an event that I think has a huge amount of potential.”
Lees says he chose the singers to perform Ziggy on their terms, not in imitation of the album. “My brief to the singers is clear: we are not doing a David Bowie tribute show. We aren’t wearing Ziggy costumes and aping Bowie’s vocals. The band versions of the songs are faithful to the originals, but the singers are directed to sing in their own voices. So when I invite Sahara Back or Emma Dean or Lucinda Shaw, I’m wanting to hear them sing in their own voices. Doing their own vocal thing against a faithful musical backing gives us a nice hybrid version. It makes it easier if they’re Bowie fanatics, too.”
There are two acts to the show, without interval. Act 1 is the entire album in order, Act 2 a further seven or eight Bowie songs from the 1969 - 73 period; e.g. ‘Life On Mars?’, ‘Space Oddity’. An important reference for Lees is Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1973) which records Bowie’s final performance as Ziggy. He was moving on; although his next album featured a Ziggy-type character called Aladdin Sane, pun intended.
In 1972 Bowie gave an interview to Melody Maker saying, “I'm gay and always have been.” A few weeks later he was laughingly denying it, but making a more interesting statement as did so. He told a journalist:
“I get floored when people ask if I’m straight or gay or whatever. I don’t want to recognise those categories. I refuse to. I will not be tied down by those kinds of things. I am drawn to those people with whom I have a sexual empathy even though I still do not think that everybody has to go out and say who exactly they're laying and why they're laying them if they did lay them and why they didn't enjoy it if they didn’t.”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Melt festival, Brisbane Powerhouse, 119 Lamington St, New Farm, Saturday, February 6, 2016. Bookings: (07) 3358 8600 / brisbanepowerhouse.org
Top image: Sam Scoufos of Compadre Picture Co