Some albums' history are easy to trace clearly, allowing historians to identify major landmarks and specific influences along the way. People have tried that with David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but they rarely have much luck. Bowie’s path to the biggest success of his career at the time essentially started when he began his music career as a child, meaning that the album was far more than just a moment’s inspiration or an idea from a single coherent theme. Of course, it doesn’t help that Bowie’s own motivations and plans for the album changed over time or that (as producer Ken Scott said) he had a habit of telling different stories to different people depending on what he wanted them to think at the time. Underneath all of the other motivations, Bowie obviously had personal reasons for embarking on the Ziggy Stardust journey.
Bowie, then known as David Jones, first started in music as a saxophone player, learning the skill at Bromley Technical High School when he was 13 and eventually moving on to play in mod bands like the King Bees and the Manish Boys after he graduated. In 1966, Bowie signed his own record deal with Pye Records and released three of his own mod singles, which music biographer Stephen Erlewine says went the same way as his previous work — mostly ignored despite showing some potential. Still, Bowie was exposing himself to a number of styles and (as he later said in an interview with CBC Radio) trying to figure out what direction he wanted to move in.
Sometime during the mid-60s, Bowie came across Vince Taylor, a former rock star wannabe turned drug addict and religious zealot. Taylor spent his time claiming he was both a messiah from space and that aliens would be landing in spots he marked on a map of the U.K. Though Bowie biographers never completely agreed on whether or not Taylor was actually the inspiration behind Ziggy Stardust, Bowie indicated in a 1996 interview with The Independent that Taylor (complete with his UFO obsession) was where Ziggy Stardust originated.
“He was out of his gourd," Bowie said of Taylor. "Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all. He used to carry maps of Europe around with him, and I remember him opening a map outside Charing Cross tube station, putting it on the pavement and kneeling down with a magnifying glass. He pointed out all the sites where UFOs were going to land.”
Whether it sparked Bowie’s fascination with sci-fi or not, Rolling Stone says it fit with the fledgling rocker’s interests in the bizarre and outrageous, but it was still just one part of Ziggy. By this time, Bowie had already met and worked with future glam rock star Marc Bolan on collaborations that influenced Bowie’s ideas of what rock could be beyond the confines of popular perception. At the time, those partnerships hadn’t yet extended to full album recordings or tours.
Bowie’s first full album, 1967’s David Bowie, received decent reviews, but sold horribly according to Rolling Stone. The same article says Bowie tried to forget the album even existed — which might explain why Bowie spent the next several weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Scotland after he finished recording it. Shortly after, he met up with legendary mime, dancer, and artist Lindsay Kemp.
Although Bowie did later try miming, to say he only learned that art form from Kemp would be underselling the significance of their time together. Kemp was known for his elaborate theatrics and performance technique, plus his willingness to shock audiences with controversial performances and roles — all of which played a part in what Bowie wanted from Ziggy Stardust. Or as Kemp’s obituary put it, he taught the rocker “how to move.”
Bowie then moved on to form his own art group in 1969 (called the Beckenham Arts Lab) where he combined street and folk music — two other important aspects of Ziggy Stardust — with performance art. Despite releasing his first major hit that summer with “Space Oddity,” Bowie realized he needed help funding his larger project. He found that help thanks to partnering with Bolan and attempting to serve as Bolan’s opening mime act until they realized that was an absolutely horrible idea.
Bowie transitioned back into rock again by performing with Bolan’s own legendary group, T. Rex — which also connected Bowie with future Ziggy Stardust guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Woody Woodmansey.
By 1971, T.Rex had dissolved and Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold the World, was yet another commercial disappointment. But Bowie started making good on his claims that rock needed revitalizing with his next project, Hunky Dory — although as he later recognized during his interview with CBC Radio, these were hardly new claims. Aside from Bolan’s own efforts to shake up traditional rock music, other acts like Alice Cooper were putting their own spin on new brands of the genre. But Bowie didn’t mind comparisons to Alice Cooper and others, telling CBC it provided an opportunity to forge his own identity as something more unique.
Woodmansey recalls a number of Bowie’s more interesting motivations for Hunky Dory in his autobiography Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie. From critiquing Bob Dylan for exposing a number of societal ills without proposing any real solution to “The Bewlay Brothers” in which Woodmansey says Bowie wrote with the intention of becoming a “rock messiah” in America and having American audiences read “so much into it about what I am.” The drummer also mentions an important barrier the group ran into while recording Hunky Dory, which was that most of the tracks couldn’t be performed live without losing some of the magic from the recording studio.
According to Woodmansey's book, Hunky Dory was finished well ahead of its December 1971 release date, so Bowie, his then-wife Angela, and the rest of the band traveled to Cyprus for a break. There, Woodmansey says Bowie started writing what would end up being both the album Ziggy Stardust and the Rise and Fall of the Spiders from Mars and the story around alien rock messiah Ziggy Stardust himself. Bowie reportedly did this entirely in private, and even when he'd speak with the rest of the band, Woodmansey says his thoughts were as inscrutable as ever.
Of course, that means it’s impossible to know for sure what Bowie was actually thinking when he developed Ziggy Stardust’s backstory. Though there are a number of factors that could have been involved (and probably were) as part of what Bowie told producer Ken Scott was his usual method: “tak[ing] bits and pieces from all over the place, put them in a melting pot and they’d come out being him.”
The most obvious one of those "pieces" is Vince Taylor and his unique worldview. Bowie described the omnisexual rock god to Rolling Stone as an alien on a mission to spread hope and love in a dying world, which is (almost) exactly how Taylor viewed himself.
Not everyone in the band shared that vision of the music as a message, though, with Trevor Bolder saying it all just sounded like songs to him without a specific story or purpose. Regardless of the band members’ views, it would seem that Bowie certainly spent a great deal of time meticulously crafting Ziggy’s image and how their performances would unfold with every band member involved.
For Ziggy himself, Bowie worked closely with Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto, who found Bowie’s gender-norm-shattering ideals “shockingly beautiful.” Yamamoto also introduced Bowie to kabuki theater — more specifically how performers would build rapid costume changes into the show. Woodmansey says Bowie took the band to art galleries, ballets, and other exhibitions, instructing them to note every aspect of the performance aside from the performers themselves, with a particular focus on lighting.
Then there was what Ziggy’s purpose was supposed to be, which is decidedly less straightforward. Bowie provided multiple accounts of what he wanted from the alien messiah, ranging from a change in how people understood rock stars or a vehicle to introduce extravagant performance to rock to a thought experiment or just a way to make his own striking entry into glam rock.
The final reason is partly why Michael Watts believed that Bowie went to Melody Maker before The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars released and came out as gay. Some said it was a calculated move meant to attract interest in this shocking new creature and set the stage for something completely new and different. What it ended up doing (according to Billboard) was paving the way for a new kind of stardom as the empathetic rock star, which Bowie may or may not have intended considering the content of songs like "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." Ziggy became someone who understood people and said that everyone was welcome — or that’s at least how he was perceived.
Whether it was this sense of inclusion, the incredible blending of performance styles, or Bowie’s own songwriting, Ziggy Stardust was a massive hit — although not at first. The album itself performed relatively well in the U.K., but it wasn’t until the first live performance of “Starman” that Ziggy Stardust and David Bowie became a cultural phenomenon.
But despite Bowie drawing on all of his experiences and ambitions for the project while creating an elaborate story and unique personality, Ziggy’s success was never actually meant to happen.
Producer Ken Scott said the band expected the album to have maybe a six-month lifespan in keeping with Bowie’s previous efforts. He said they recorded it in the usual (for Bowie) way of rapid recording sessions during October 1971, with Bowie rarely authorizing more than one or two takes for each track. Apparently everything was even finished before Hunky Dory released at the end of that year.
Bowie himself remarked that he said all there was to say about Ziggy when he first introduced the character, yet fans swarmed performances and created extensive stories about Ziggy Stardust, reading into him much more than Bowie ever intended.
Worse still (in Bowie's eyes) is that audiences missed the entire point of the project because they started treating him like Ziggy. The two were identical for fans, he told the CBC, and that was a problem for more than just ideological reasons.
Bowie’s relationship with Ziggy was a somewhat complicated one, and you could argue the venture was actually an exercise in self-fulfilled prophecy. The scenario Bowie outlined for Ziggy — particularly the fascination with Vince Taylor’s bizarre fall from sanity — grew out of Bowie’s fear for his own mental health, he told Rolling Stone. According to the same interview, Bowie’s mother and brother suffered from schizophrenia and severe depression, and his method of handling these fears was experiencing it so he could know for sure it wouldn’t damage him — a habit his first wife corroborated in her memoir, Backstage Passes.
But the singer almost went too far. In two remarkably similar accounts (one from Ultimate Classic Rock and one from Rolling Stone) Bowie said he became too attached to Ziggy Stardust’s fame and his fans’ devotion. He even started thinking of himself as a rock god — or a messenger sent to change the world — and unlike when he predicted his fame in America to Woodmansey, it frightened him.
That's why when Bowie finished his first round of performances as Ziggy Stardust in 1973, he stepped forward and said that was it. The Ziggy project was finished and the rest of the band was essentially fired on the spot. After a number of other issues, Bowie decided to quit the rockstar lifestyle entirely, drastically reduce his entourage so he could learn to be human again, and moved with his son Duncan to Berlin so he could reflect for a while — and completely re-invent David Bowie once more.