I wish I could say I’d been inspired to watch this again with happy reason, but unfortunately, as I write this it’s the evening of Monday 11th January 2016 – the day the death of David Bowie was broken to the world and a day that has seen a huge outpouring about quite how important his work has been over the last six decades.
For me Bowie was an ever-present name, already legendary by the time I was discovering music, but it was his original performance of Starman from early 70s Top Of The Pops or Old Grey Whistle Test that has always stuck with me and inspired me to explore further (and I still have more to explore).
So, as a way to try to celebrate his work I thought I’d go back to that era and revisit the D.A. Pennebaker directed concert film capturing the last hurrah of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, live from the Hammersmith Odeon (now Apollo) from July 1973.
The film starts with dated but somewhat fitting titles that suit the notion of the conceptual performance to come, while still looking very early-1970s. This is followed by shots of the audience, with costumes, make up and hair done in emulation of their hero, and backing up the oft-suggested idea that Bowie allowed people to come out (pun intended) of their shells more than they had before.
All of this, along with some great little backstage shots of Bowie becoming Ziggy, are set to Wendy Carlos’ twisted, early synth, version of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy from A Clockwork Orange, that sets the tone of the concept and the performance brilliantly.
Once we cut to the auditorium and the band launch into Hang Onto Yourself the sense of them being a gang is surprisingly strong, considering the over-riding power of the frontman. Throughout the set Bowie and guitarist Mick Ronson play off each excellently, at times flirty at others as if on the edge of a fight while at others clearly having a huge amount of fun. Behind them the other two full-time Spiders Trevor Boulder and Woody Woodmansey complete a band that genuinely look like a garage band from outer space.
It being the early 70s the equipment is fairly basic but with the costumes, staging and sound they are creating there is a brilliant juxtaposition that just sets the whole show off before you even get to the music.
Pennebaker’s shooting of the film is extraordinary. On first viewing I thought it basic and at times hard to watch, however, seeing it again it comes into focus, painting Ziggy/Bowie as, at times, a kind of silent movie star, at others a reptilian alien and the rest of the time a straight up rock ‘n’ roll band leader – all of course in a range of spectacular costumes – the kimono in particular will stick in the memory!
The manner of the filming, as well, really makes the grain of the film stock clear and left me really wishing I could see this projected on a big screen from real film with the new Tony Visconti produced remastered soundtrack blasting from the speakers.
The set list spans Bowie’s career to date (at the time) so alongside the glam stompers, highlighted by a storming Moonage Daydream that descends into excellent guitar feedback from Ronson, we get earlier material with a strong psychedelic folk flavour that to me highlighted how much more varied this was than any modern pop star playing to a predominantly teenage audience would be.
Along with all of that there are Bowie’s proto-prog moments coming through with Cracked Actor, Time and The Width of a Circle creating an epic mid-set triptych that again do something entirely different to the other songs, once again with Bowie and Ronson’s interplay and Ronson’s non-virtuoso but astonishing guitar work standing up to Bowie’s frontman performance.
The whole film culminates in the announcement that this is the band’s final gig and there is an audible sense of shock from the previously near Beatlemania-like audience before the band go into Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. This could leave things on a somber note but, through the band’s energy and power and Bowie’s performance, the crowd soon gets going again.
As Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance blasts out the PA and the credits begin to roll, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars captures arguably the most commercially successful period of Bowie’s career in an amazing way that entirely fits with the conceptual nature of the show.
On top of this it doesn’t have the artificiality of many more modern concert films as I got the impression the cameras were there capturing what would have happened anyway, rather than recording a show designed to be filmed, and all showing how Bowie as a performer, musician and songwriter, even less than 10 years into his extraordinarily long career, was something rare and special.