50 years ago David Bowie and Roxy Music made history

Events that make history usually become clearer as the context develops. This is certainly true in music. While some of the movements are clearly earth-shattering right now — just to name a few, Beatlemania, punk, and the rise of Nirvana — it takes a while for their real impact to sink in. For example, it was easy to see that Nirvana would become the kind of rock band that defined a generation — but who could have predicted the revival of the band’s brooding album “Something In the Way” in 2022 thanks to the movie “The Batman.” ?

In the summer of 1972, these glamorous innovators set rock ‘n’ roll on a cosmic trajectory from which it is still in orbit.

Memorable days are also largely known afterwards. Take June 16, 1972, which is widely regarded as the release date of two of the most important albums of all time: Roxy Music’s self-titled debut and David Bowie’s “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Coincidence is mind-boggling — and, depending on your source, this date could very well be too good to be true — though it’s undisputed: In the summer of 1972, these glamor innovators put rock ‘n’ roll on a cosmic trajectory from which it is still in orbit.

Roxy Music had only been a band for a little over a year when they recorded their debut with Peter Sinfield, the lyricist and co-founder of King Crimson. “Re-Make/Re-Model” set the tone for both the album and Roxy Music’s career. The song opens with crowd noise that sounds like a hopping happy hour before Bryan Ferry’s jubilant piano announces musical revelry: Andy Mackay’s spinning tenor saxophone, Phil Manzanera’s searing electric guitar, Brian Eno’s synth scribbles. The song hints at missing out on their chance with a mysterious “she” who could be interpreted as a woman – but could also represent the way Roxy embraced the future: “Looking back, all I did was look away / Next time is the best time we everyone knows”

RELATED: It’s time for Roxy Music’s debonair art glamor to get its due

That doesn’t mean “Roxy Music” is reinventing the wheel musically; the band, on the other hand, took existing styles of music and filtered them through an experimental, fresh lens. That’s certainly in large part thanks to Eno, a synth-mad scientist who loved to process and manipulate familiar sounds and extract alien sounds from advanced synths. But other songs had clear antecedents: “If There Is Something” has a slightly twanging intro; “Would you believe?” both polish ’50s rock and find Ferry like his beloved Motown and soul idols; and Humphrey Bogart tribute “2 HB” gives a solemn glow to the zone-out psychedelic atmosphere.

Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay (seated) Brian Eno, Rik Kenton and Paul Thompson (seated) of Roxy Music posed for a group recording at the Royal College Of Art video studio in London on July 5, 1972 (Brian Cooke/Redferns/Getty Images)

[Roxy Music] took existing music styles and filtered them through an experimental, fresh lens.

Also lyrically Ferry explores a timeless figure of speech – love – although his recordings gave a more complex take on pursuit and attraction. “Ladytron” features a seedy man who loves (and leaves) a woman, while other songs come together to paint a picture of a hopeless romantic who is in pain with regret and longs for better relationship days, although that’s not always achievable. But buoyed by the knowledge that fairytale endings don’t exist, the characters on “Roxy Music” exude a more vulnerable kind of masculinity: “But even angels there make the same mistakes in love/In love, in love.”

Want a daily summary of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

If “Roxy Music” felt like a beginning, “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” was meant to be an ending. Understandably, it was actually Bowie’s fifth LP, and he had gone through all of his folk, psych-rock, and proto-glamor motifs before landing on his Ziggy character. As with ‘Roxy Music’, there were some obvious nods to the past (bluesy rock ‘n’ roll, Beatles-esque ‘It Ain’t Easy’, solemn soft rock), although these influences felt more modern. Bowie and his band have cannibalized themselves — in hindsight, it feels like a natural sonic progression from 1971’s “Aladdin Sane” — and recent trends, like the proto-punk of the Stooges, for inspiration. Mick Ronson’s rousing electric guitar, introspective piano and string arrangements have a clarity of execution and intent matched by the swinging rhythm section of bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey.

The thematic arc of “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” that of a flamboyant rock star navigating the minefields of fame and their own wicked behavior, explored a darker side of romance: a fling with intoxicating self-sabotage. and the lure of the spotlight. Bowie inhabited this persona with his whole self, using his malleable vocal approach to convey an array of emotions: the ferocious melodramatic vocalist of “Ziggy Stardust”, demure crooner of “Starman”, stinging rock god of “Suffragette City” and the desperate, longing idol in the midst of freefall in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”

The thematic arc of “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”… explored a dark side of romance: a potluck with intoxicating self-sabotage and the seduction of the limelight.

In the UK, “Roxy Music” peaked at number 10 on the charts. “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” meanwhile, also performed well, crashing the UK charts at number 15 for the period June 25 – July 1, the highest-hit debut of that week, eventually reaching No. 5.

Both bands also had high-profile Top of the Pops performances that summer, with Bowie’s July performance of “Starman,” followed by Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” in August. Of course, these performances showed that not only the music, but also their appearance made these acts such a sensation. Ferry’s Elvis-from-Mars look was almost understated compared to the rest of the band’s glittering and shiny outfits. Bowie’s colorful looks and renegade approach — including his physical fame with Mick Ronson on TOTP — rocked masculinity in a different way than Roxy Music. As Ziggy, he was playful and conspiratorial, reserved and confident. His androgynous look showed people possibilities and options – that 1, and there were many ways to be a rock star and a human being in the world.

As with many bands from England, the reception in America was different. Roxy Music’s debut album failed to reach the US charts in 1972; to date, it still hasn’t graced the major Billboard album chart. (It did reach number 19 on the Vinyl Albums chart in 2020.) Support for the band came from more adventurous outlets, such as Cleveland radio station WMMS, who saw how Roxy fit into the rest of the forward-looking musical pantheon. Subsequent Roxy Music albums would at least hit the charts, though the band’s reputation certainly still has room to grow in America.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of MarsGuitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, David Bowie and drummer Mick Woodmansey of “Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” pose for a portrait in November 1972 in London, England. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

As with many bands from England, the reception in America was different… It’s clear that Ziggy’s myth-making had been going on as early as 1972.

David Bowie is a different story. “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” meanwhile debuted at No. 196 on the Billboard album charts for the week of June 17, 1972, after bubbling below the main chart at number 207 the week before. (These chart placements likely negate claims of a mid-June release date in the US, though the official Bowie site found correspondence with record labels to pin a UK release on June 16.) It eventually peaked at number 21 — though that high water sign occurred in the weeks following Bowie’s death in 2016.

However, it is clear that Ziggy’s myth-making was already underway in 1972. In a review of “Starman” on June 3, Cash Box praised the track, writing that it “quite literally proves that the best rock is out of this world, but is rather ‘hazy cosmic jive’. Would ‘Changes’ in its star orbit to surpass the apex and establish a new superstar in our galaxy.” Record World also gushed about the single, which was backed by “Suffragette City”: “Another two-sided space quirk from the first great British superstar of the 1970s; a delightful teenage tune backed by risque rocker. Forget it, Bowie’s got it.”

The June 10, 1972 issue of Billboard also featured a glowing review of the “Ziggy Stardust” LP: “Nineteen and Seventy-Two may well down as the year Davy Bowie put the glitz and glamor back in rock. He’s almost [an, sic] indestructibly sensitive lyricist in popdom. He was already an avant-garde superstar and this album will make him accessible to the masses for home consumption.” That mainstream saturation hadn’t quite happened, at least not yet — but Ziggy’s (and by extension Bowie’s) reputation was already beginning to crystallize.

But today, both albums still resonate in modern music. That’s partly because so many British punk and post-punk artists inspired by Bowie and Roxy are still active – just to name a few, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, Soft Cell’s Marc Almond and Toyah. However, these LPs showed that you can build on musical blueprints and come up with a whole new approach; “Ziggy Stardust” proved that concept albums could work if the songwriting is strong enough. And both showed that being fiercely original pays off in the end — once the rest of the world catches up with your greatness and creativity.

More stories to read:

Leave a Comment