We’ve previously brought you the origin story of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie’s first and most flamboyant rock & roll character, as well as his later recollections of those times in a 1977 interview on Canadian television. Above, see the documentary that marked the end of that pivotal era, D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a concert film of Bowie’s last show as the glam rock kabuki space alien. Bowie had grown tired of the character, feeling forced by his manager Tony DeFries to put on bigger, more elaborate stage shows (though there is speculation that record company RCA refused to finance planned US and Canadian stadium shows). In a later recollection, Bowie stated he was ready to move on:
I wanted the whole MainMan thing away from me. It was circusy. I was never much of an entourage person – I hated all of that. It’s a relief for all these years … not have a constant stream of people following me around to the point where, when I sat down, fifteen other people sat down. It was unbearable. I think Tony [DeFries] saw himself as a Svengali type, but I think I would have done okay anyway. Now, I look back on it with amusement more than anything else.
Along with brothers Albert and David Maysles, who made Gimme Shelter, Pennebaker had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at exactly the right time in music history. His Dont Look Back defined Bob Dylan for a generation and launched the much-imitated proto-music video with cue cards for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The eponymous Monterey Pop documented the explosive 1967 festival that “crystallize[d] the energy of a counterculture that by then seemed both blessedly inevitable and dangerously embattled,” according to Robert Christgau. In 1973, Pennebaker found himself again positioned perfectly to document a pivotal moment—the end of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in what became known as “The Retirement Gig.”
Pennebaker, who’d only just signed on during the final London leg of the tour to make a full-length film and who knew little of Bowie’s music, was as surprised as anyone when Bowie announced Ziggy’s retirement by saying “this show will stay the longest in our memories, not just because it is the end of the tour but because it is the last show we’ll ever do.” No one knew at the time that Bowie would return, transformed into Aladdin Sane in an album of the same name that year (with the same band—watch them do a version of Lou Reed’s “White Light/White Heat” above at 1:18:10, a track recorded for, but cut from, 1973 covers album Pin Ups). The farewell concert opened with a medley of Bowie songs on solo piano performed by Mike Garson, who called the show “phenomenal” (hear Garson’s medley above, beginning at 2:30, after the introduction).
The retirement gig was the 60th of 40 tour dates on the third Ziggy UK tour and was, in fact, a replacement for a cancelled gig at Earl’s Court. Find a full list of the set here. Bowie and the Spiders were joined onstage by Jeff Beck for two songs before Bowie’s farewell speech, but Beck later had himself cut from Pennebaker’s film, unhappy with his solos, and perhaps his wardrobe. Though Beck was Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson’s hero, Ronson remembers being too distracted to be overwhelmed: “I was too busy looking at his flares. Even by our standards, those trousers were excessive!” See grainy bootleg footage from the show of Beck and his trousers in “Jean Genie,” and a snippet of “Love Me Do” (above), and Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” (below).