Ziggy Stardust Turns 50: Celebrate David Bowie’s Signature Character with a Newly Released Version of “Starman”

David Bowie’s fans have now been enjoy­ing the char­ac­ter of Zig­gy Star­dust for a full five decades. That’s hard­ly a bad run, giv­en that the open­ing track of The Rise and Fall of Zig­gy Star­dust and the Spi­ders from Mars announces that the end of the world will come in just five years. Released on June 16th, 1972, that album gave the pub­lic its intro­duc­tion to the title char­ac­ter, an androg­y­nous rock star from a dis­tant star who one day arrives, mes­si­ah-like, on the dying Earth. But as the musi­cal sto­ry goes, the result­ing fame proves too much for him: the hap­less Zig­gy ends up in sham­bles, vic­tim­ized by Earth­ly desires in all their man­i­fes­ta­tions.

One could read into all this cer­tain aspi­ra­tions and fears on the part of Zig­gy Star­dust’s cre­ator-per­former, the young David Bowie. Broad crit­i­cal con­sen­sus holds that it was on the pre­vi­ous year’s Hunky Dory that Bowie first showed his true artis­tic poten­tial.

Though that album, his fourth, boast­ed sig­na­ture-songs-to-be like “Changes” and “Life on Mars?”, Bowie declared (no doubt to the label’s frus­tra­tion) that he would­n’t both­er pro­mot­ing it, since he was just about to change his image. This turned out to be a shrewd move, since his sub­se­quent trans­for­ma­tion into Zig­gy Star­dust launched him out of the realm of the respect­ed niche singer-song­writer and into the stratos­phere of the bona fide rock star.

Why did Zig­gy Star­dust dri­ve so many lis­ten­ers to near-mani­ac appre­ci­a­tion half a cen­tu­ry ago? In Bowie’s native Eng­land, many cite his July 1972 per­for­mance of “Star­man” the BBC’s Top of the Pops as the turn­ing point. Though only mild­ly psy­che­del­ic, the seg­ment cel­e­brat­ed the col­or­ful­ly askew glam­our of Bowie-as-Zig­gy and his band the Spi­ders from Mars just when it was des­per­ate­ly need­ed. As music crit­ic Simon Reynolds writes, “It is hard to recon­struct the drab­ness, the visu­al deple­tion of Britain in 1972, which fil­tered into the music papers to form the grey and grub­by back­drop to Bowie’s phys­i­cal and sar­to­r­i­al splen­dor.” Today you can hear a new­ly released 2022 mix of “Star­man” con­struct­ed from the tracks record­ed for Top of the Pops those 50 years ago.

Imag­ine the impact on a young Eng­lish pop-music fan in 1972 who hap­pened to be watch­ing on col­or (or rather, colour) tele­vi­sion, itself intro­duced only a few years ear­li­er. Though Bowie may have cho­sen just the right his­tor­i­cal moment to debut the first of his musi­cal per­son­ae, he did­n’t cre­ate Zig­gy Star­dust ex nihi­lo. Ele­ments of the char­ac­ter have clear prece­dents ear­li­er in Bowie’s career, not least in the pro­mo­tion­al film for 1968’s “Space Odd­i­ty,” the 2001-inspired sin­gle that first asso­ci­at­ed him with the realms beyond our plan­et. But Zig­gy was Bowie’s first gen­uine alter ego, a char­ac­ter per­fect­ly suit­ed to the era of “glam rock” who could con­ve­nient­ly be retired when that era passed. Glam rock may be long gone, but Zig­gy Star­dust still looks and sounds as if he’d only just land­ed on Earth.

Relat­ed con­tent:

David Bowie Recalls the Strange Expe­ri­ence of Invent­ing the Char­ac­ter Zig­gy Star­dust (1977)

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: How David Bowie Cre­at­ed the Char­ac­ter that Made Him Famous

David Bowie Became Zig­gy Star­dust 48 Years Ago This Week: Watch Orig­i­nal Footage

Hear Demo Record­ings of David Bowie’s “Zig­gy Star­dust,” “Space Odd­i­ty” & “Changes”

David Bowie Remem­bers His Zig­gy Star­dust Days in Ani­mat­ed Video

How David Bowie Deliv­ered His Two Most Famous Farewells: As Zig­gy Star­dust in 1973, and at the End of His Life in 2016

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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