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Old Music Tuesday: Ziggy Stardust Turns 40

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider's From Mars album art.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spider's From Mars album art.

When Ziggy Stardust landed in America in 1972, almost no one cared. I remember working at Waxie Maxies, a record store in Rockville, Maryland, where we got a whopping total of 3 copies for our store, meaning that our store basically didn't think it would sell. And frankly for good reason. None of David Bowie's four previous albums sold. "Space Oddity" — the "ground control to Major Tom" song — was a hit in England in 1969, but few knew it here. Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold The World,his second album for Mercury Records, could be found in the cut-out or overstock bins for $1.99 or less by 1972 (that's how I got mine).

David Bowie may not have been famous in the States but I was a fan. I discovered Bowie the year before with Hunky Dory, his first album for RCA, and when The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars came out, I was psyched. We had this trick in record stores and now after a lifetime of secrecy, I'll reveal it. In a mom and pop record store like ours, you couldn't just pop open any record you wanted to hear. Once a record was opened no one would want to buy it. But understand, no record store geek wanting to hear a new album would let it sit in a bin unopened. So here's our dirty little secret: We'd carefully slit the edge of the shrink wrap with a razor blade, take out the album and listen to it for a few days. Then after we were done, we'd clean the record, put it back in the album cover and then slip the shrink wrap carefully off the cover and put it back on in reverse, so the open end of the shrink wrap now faced the spine of the record and the other end made the album look sealed. So for a few days, we were able to crank David Bowie'sThe Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Marspretty damn loud in that Rockville record store. And that moment, hearing that album, so fabulously recorded, with such brilliant playing, filled with songs like very little else in the world back then, it was simply one of those jaw dropping moments when you know you've found new music for life.

Some of it what made Ziggy so fascinating and fun to play while hanging out with friends was trying to decode the record. Was Bowie Ziggy? What was the story here? Who played that wicked electric guitar? (It was Mick Ronson.) There was brilliant orchestration. I mean, who's written a song as good as "Rock and Roll Suicide" recently? And the imagery on the cover, and the gender-bending that was new to most of us. Glam rock had its start with T-Rex, but honestly unless you read Melody Maker or some of the other British music tabloids, the U.S. was mostly a world of Neil Young, Neil Young clones (the band America) and "American Pie."

For its 40th anniversary, Ziggy has been remastered and sounds fabulous. Sure, there are a few weak moments on the album. The cover song, "It Ain't Easy," still feels out of place. But frankly, that side one-ender is forgotten by the time we get to side two and from there it's one masterpiece after another. The climax is the line "Ziggy plays guitar" at the end of "Ziggy Stardust" and that opening chord to "Suffragette City." It's still a high to hear that and I still reach for the volume knob to crank it just a bit more.

Just at the point Ziggy was really catching fire, just a year after release a a few tours in, Bowie stunned everyone when he announce he would break up the band just a year after release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. It had just made its mark on music (though it still didn't reach higher than number 73 on the U.S. Billboard charts). It's easy to hear the influences all these years later, in the songs and theatricality of Of Montreal and Sufjan Stevens. Even the notion of taking on a persona, the way countless of rockers do today, is owed in large part to Bowie and Ziggy in particular. Pick up the 40th anniversary edition of the record, even if you've never heard it. And even if you have an old copy, the newly remastered version is really worth hearing.

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In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.

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