Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I can’t remember who said, “if you want to know about the 60s, listen to the Beatles.” These quotes always sound better at first than they really are after you take some time to unpack them, but I suppose you could equally say, 'if you want to know about the 70s, listen to Daivd Bowie...'
Hunky Dory is very much a programmatic album in that it represents the watershed moment in Bowie's career when he realized that creative innovation could and should be an end in itself. There were already hints of Glam on Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World, but Hunky Dory is Bowie's first sustained attempt to carve out a vision that heralds the end of the 60s and anticipates a new spirit of exploration. While “Andy Warhol” and “Song for Bob Dylan” pay tribute to those iconic figures of the past, they're performed with the retrospective pathos of a man bidding farewell to a fallen age. But it still isn’t altogether clear what the future will bring ('is there life on mars?'), and tracks like “Quicksand” and “Bewlay Brothers” derive their mysterious power precisely from the way they embrace the ambiguity of a transitional moment in history. This ambiguity, of course, extends into the sphere of sex, and tracks like “Changes”, “Queen Bitch” and “Oh, You Pretty Things” point to sexuality as the next great frontier of experimentation.
The first thing I notice about Ziggy Stardust when I play it (and I still do so quite often) is just how great the record sounds. The album rings from the speakers in sonic waves of celebratory ecstasy. Bowie's singing is utterly impassioned as he completely unleashes the fullness of his expressive range. Ronno's guitar snorts and snarls with balls out distortion, and yet the riffs are addictively tuneful and catchy at the same time... I can't imagine what life would be like without Ziggy Stardust... 'Wham bam thank you, ma'am!'
Ziggy Stardust's narrative arc, loosely chronicling the rise and fall of a rock star from outer space, is much less compelling to me than what the album says about life in the aftermath
of the Great Collapse. So much (though not all) of the 60s countercultural impulse was premised on fostering a freedom of expression that would allow people to be who they really are. But once this became distorted and went down in flames, notions of authentic living and a brighter future seemed naive. Maybe this is what Bowie means on Hunky Dory when he says that 'homo sapiens have outgrown their use' and complains that he 'can't take his eyes off the great salvation of bullshit faith.' With Ziggy Stardust, the 'bullshit faith' that leads us to live for tomorrow is fully jettisoned ('five years, that's all we've got'), and the kids are told to freak out in a moonage daydream of drugs and infinitely twisted sexuality. In this new world, where all meaning is ephemeral and nihilism is fused with the pleasure principle to create a new religion, the crash and burn of rock 'n roll suicide is an inevitable rite of passage.