Remember When: David Bowie Debuted His Alter Ego Ziggy Stardust

David Bowie began his career as Davie Jones when he released a single in 1964 with the King Bees. He went on to release a record under the name Davy Jones before changing it due to the emergence of The Monkees and its singer of the same name. He reinvented himself as David Bowie and continued to release songs with little success.

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It wasn’t until 1969 that “Space Oddity” broke through and put Bowie on the map. He would go on to reinvent himself continuously through the years. In 1972, he created an alien rockstar character who would go on to challenge his own sanity. This is the story of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Ziggy played guitar
Jamming good with Weird and Gilly
And the Spiders from Mars
He played it left hand
But made it too far
Became the special man
Then we were Ziggy’s band

The Name

Ziggy Stardust was the character Bowie created of an alien who fell to earth. He took the name Ziggy from a tailor’s shop he saw while riding a train. Bowie felt it was a bit of an inside joke as clothing would be at the center of the whole concept. He also liked that it sounded similar to the first name of Stooges frontman Iggy Pop. He arrived at the surname after listening to Mercury Records label mate Norman Carl Odam, who went by the stage name of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Now Ziggy really sang
Screwed-up eyes and screwed down hairdo
Like some cat from Japan
He could lick ’em by smiling
He could leave ’em to hang
They came on so loaded, man
Well-hung and snow-white tan

“He Was Out of His Gourd”

Brian Holden was a British singer who took on the name Vince Taylor and recorded “Brand New Cadillac.” He found success in France but failed to find fame in the rest of the world. Drug abuse and a nervous breakdown led to Taylor’s erratic behavior. In 1996, Bowie said, “I met him a few times in the mid-’60s, and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd, 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.”

So where were the Spiders
While the fly tried to break our bones
With just the beer light to guide us
So we bitched about his fans
And should we crush his sweet hands? (Oh)

The Black Leather Rebel

Gene Vincent was another inspiration. The rockabilly singer who toured England with Eddie Cochran inspired a wave of British rockers. He was in the car accident in 1960 that claimed Cochran’s life. Bowie saw Vincent perform in his leg brace, and it made an enduring impression, “He had to shove his injured leg out be­hind him to, what I thought, great theat­rical effect,” Bowie said. “This rock stance became position No. 1 for the embryonic Ziggy.”

Ziggy played for time
Jiving us that we were voodoo
The kids were just crass
He was the nazz
With God-given ass
He took it all too far
But, boy, could he play guitar

A Clockwork Orange

Lou Reed and Iggy Pop were also musical inspirations, while the clothing, hair, and makeup were from Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and the book Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs. In 1976, Bowie told Rolling Stone magazine, “I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star—much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody’s.”

Making love with his ego
Ziggy sucked up into his mind, ah
Like a leper messiah
When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band

“Something Must Be Done!”

Bowie began to get wrapped up in his own creation. He couldn’t tell if he was controlling the character or if the character was controlling him. The lines began to blur. “I fell for Ziggy, too,” Bowie recalled. “It was quite easy to become obsessed night and day with the character. I became Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie went totally out the window. Everybody was convincing me that I was a messiah, especially on that first American tour. I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy. I could have been Hitler in England. Wouldn’t have been hard. Concerts alone got so enormously frightening that even the papers were saying, ‘This ain’t rock music. This is bloody Hitler! Something must be done!’ And they were right.”

In 1993, Bowie said, “One puts oneself through such psy­chological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. You start to approach the very thing you’re scared of. .… There were too many suicides [in my family] for my liking. .… As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.”

Bowie toured as Ziggy for 18 months. The persona began to affect his own personality and threatened his sanity. RCA Records refused to back another tour of America after Bowie’s management spent more than $300,000 on the 1972 and 1973 tours. Ziggy Stardust performed his final concert on July 3, 1973, at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Guitarist Jeff Beck joined the group for a medley of “The Jean Genie” and “Love Me Do” by The Beatles. Before the final song, Bowie announced, “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest because not only is it the last show of the tour, but this is the last show that we’ll ever do.”

People mistook the announcement to mean he was retiring completely, but he was actually only referring to the Ziggy Stardust character and the Spiders from Mars band.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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