The man who changed the rock world

Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane 1973. Picture: Brian Duffy

Ziggy plays guitar...and the suit he played it in

Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour 1973. Design by Kansai Yamamoto. Picture: Masayoshi Sukita

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IT is a warm Saturday evening as I saunter into the Royal Festival Hall on July 8, 1972. I sit down in the third row a few feet from the stage – Gangway 2, Row C, Seat 4 (still got the ticket, price £1) - and suddenly feel a little conspicuous.

I am wearing my usual gear for an impoverished 18 year-old trainee journalist; tatty green velvet bomber jacket and frayed Levis with a Rolling Stones tongue sewn by my mum over a hole in the right knee. But I am inadvertently in the midst of London’s glitterati, surrounded by the seriously trendy in striking glad-rags and multi-coloured hair. You won’t believe this, but half the blokes here are wearing make-up.

Organised by Friends of the Earth in aid of its Save the Whale campaign, I am keen to see the maker of my favourite LP of recent months, Hunky Dory, and – for good measure - support beleaguered leviathans.

Billed as ‘David Bowie and Guests,’ it is a strange gig. First on is Junior Campbell, formerly of the hit group Marmalade. Then, of all things, Scottish folk rock group the JSD Band.

Between sets the arena is filled with haunting whale noises. Compere Kenny Everett introduces Bowie as “the next biggest thing to God.” Bowie has spiky red hair and is wearing a white, frillier version of the Clockwork Orange jumpsuit with matching boots.

He performs Life on Mars, Changes, Space Oddity but mostly songs from a new album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Have to get it soon.

Just a few days earlier Bowie was on Top of the Pops doing Starman and here he is performing it virtually within touching distance; he’s so close he could be in the kitchen.

I have a vivid memory of Bowie perched on a stool singing a mesmerising Jacques Brel song Amsterdam and of Mick Ronson playing a guitar solo amidst the most dramatic use of strobe lighting I have seen, before or since. For the encores David brings on a friend for three songs; a nervous looking cove whose face is plastered in white make-up; Lou something or other – looks a bit like Fanny Craddock.

One of the songs though, I’m Waiting for the Man is riveting. When sufficient funds arise I buy the parent LP, the Velvet Underground record with the Andy Warhol banana on the front. Stardom for Mr Reed, however, is still several months away.

Finally, London’s chic elite sheds its collective cool and storms the front of the stage. I am bang in there amongst ‘em. Six weeks later Bowie – or rather, Ziggy – has become a phenomenon. Tickets for the Rainbow Theatre show on August 20 have soared by 50 per cent to a heart-stopping £1.50….and that’s just the circle.

I make my way through a scrum of pouting Ziggy look-a-likes who are either squealing with excitement or tearfully pleading for tickets before finally peering down from the dizzy heights of Block D, A40. And there is Bowie/Ziggy in a daring red number flitting balletically around the stage with the Lindsay Kemp mime troupe. It’s rock’n’roll Jim, but not as we know it!

I’ve seen Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but never anything like this. Where will it all end?

Fleeting images from more than 40 years ago….they hit me like a snow storm as I wander through the V&A’s fascinating new exhibition, David Bowie Is.

With unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive, it is clear the V&A has created something unique. Has any rock star ever been afforded such treatment?

That’s the point though. Bowie isn’t just a rock star, as the exhibition is at pains to point out; one of its key purposes is to emphasise how he adventurously blurred the boundaries between rock, dance, fashion, literature, film, theatre and graphics, more so than any other artist.

We are taken through the early life and ambitions of Brixton born (1947) David Robert Jones as he chucks in a presumably promising career in advertising to focus on the performing arts.

Inspired by the far-reaching likes of Lonnie Donegan, Little Richard and Anthony Newley, he forms various bands – the King Bees, the Kon-rads – becoming a sax-playing singer who in 1965 adopts a snazzy new name courtesy of the guy from the Alamo who invented the Bowie Knife.

Snippets of diary entries, sketches, early 45s and publicity shots chart the development of the aspiring performer who ch-ch-changes his stage persona with amazing regularity, from guitar-strumming folkie to art-rocker, mime-artist to mod.

With its nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey he scores with what I remember thinking at the time sounds like a gimmicky one-off hit, Space Oddity. How wrong can you be!

The exhibition is keen highlight Bowie’s many influences outside of music – from Fritz Lang to George Orwell, JG Ballard to Andy Warhol. Some 60 stage costumes are also on display: how did he squeeze into them? Bowie the actor is well represented: especially impressive, I thought, is a snippet from his 1980 Broadway performance as Elephant Man. Bowie is all cheekbones but impressively conveys the pain and confusion of the unfortunate John Merrick.

Among some 300 exhibits is an archaic verging on stone-age synthesizer from his Berlin era of the late Seventies: probably his most musically fertile period.

Best though are the ceiling-to-floor screens showing non-stop footage of Bowie on-stage over the decades. You can sit there for ages, enjoying his many musical guises. It is the next best thing to being at a Bowie concert.

So here’s to Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke: Heroes, one and all.

l David Bowie Is, March 25-August 11, 2013: Tickets £14; V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL, Tel: 020-7942-2000; www.vam.ac.uk

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