Recording of September 2022: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Bowie: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Parlophone DBZS50 (LP). 2020/1972. David Bowie and Ken Scott, prods.; Ken Scott, John Webber, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was one of the first albums I ever purchased. A week before, an uncle had given me his old red Dansette record player; I used collected pocket money to christen it. After just one play, the 10-year-old me was blown away. But it wasn't just elementary school kids who loved this album, causing it to break into the top 30 US and UK album charts. This was the album that launched Bowie to superstardom.

Glam had been throwing color into gray 1970s Britain, but Bowie, with influences as diverse as the Velvet Underground and A Clockwork Orange, took it further than the Sweets and Slades. His lyrics and his interviews were not aimed at a safe audience; songs about alienation and his announcements of bisexuality were not the usual stuff of the pop world of the time. Bowie was pop and rock, accessible and edgy. His arm around Mick Ronson on the BBC's music flagship, Top of the Pops, might seem tame now, but in 1972, British living rooms shook when it came on the screen. Now that moment is hailed as important in UK LGBT+ cultural history.

Fifty years later, there is much hullabaloo about the album's anniversary, which (among much else) shows that Ziggy's place in rock history is secure (if anyone had any doubts). One piece of the half-century celebration is this new pressing, issued by Parlophone, cut by John Webber "on a fully customised late Neumann VMS80 lathe with fully recapped electronics from 192kHz restored masters of the original Trident Studios master tapes, with no additional processing on transfer," according to the press release. (A picture disc is also available.) So that's the tech stuff; the main question is, does it sound better? Is it a plus for the music or a marketing ploy? I've bought a few half-speed masters from other bands and not heard a great deal of difference.

The run-in to "Five Years" is completely silent; there's not even an h of a hiss, then, to quote a song later on the album, wham bam thank you ma'am! The epic "Five Years" sounds even more epic. The echoing cry-in and dying away of Bowie's vocal seem to reach farther back behind the speakers. There's more power and more depth. From that point on, the sound quality never lets up. The only pops you hear on the record are the songs; the only background noise is the noise I make in appreciation.

Compared to the 2020 remaster (Parlophone DB69734), Bowie's voice sounds stronger and more soulful, especially in quieter moments, including on the title track or on "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." But when he is rocking, it really does rock: "Suffragette City" and "Moonage Daydream" are just brilliant. The extra oomph given Mick Ronson shows once again that he is one of rock's most underrated guitarists (and, it has to be said, pianists). Purer sound also allows Mick Woodmansey (drums) and Trevor Bolder (bass) to be heard more clearly, showing that they weren't in the band only for the sideburns and flared trousers.

It may sound contradictory, but there's a sense that individual elements are being given more space, yet at the same time, they're more blended. The instruments are more to the fore in the music, surrounding the voice as opposed to backing it.

This goes as far as the backing vocals, such as on "It Ain't Easy," where they positively explode out of the speakers. If nothing else, perhaps this release will help rehabilitate the most under-rated of the Ziggy songs. Never mind the facile "should it have been included?" debates, just listen to Dana Gillespie in those vocals, to Bowie's own performance, and to Ronson's stunning slide guitar. The depth tilts this Ziggy slightly away from the Marc Bolan influence and toward the Iggy Pop, which, as many have discussed, was a major reference point for this creation.

This more-3D Ziggy lets me hear things I previously hadn't. It all seems more real, more substantial, more authentic. But: Bowie was never interested in authenticity. He reveled in artificiality. Ziggy was a plastic pop star. In a 1973 interview, Bowie likened himself to a copying machine. Does more depth and substance mean a step away from the "real" Bowie sound?

Bowie may have not been interested in authenticity, but he was interested in truth. Bowie (and therefore Ziggy) sounds less fragile here. And for me, at his best, Bowie's music is about fragility. Lessen that, and maybe you lessen Bowie's truth. (Then again, as I wrote before, while the masters were restored, there was no additional processing on the transfer.)

Does Ziggy have the same effect on me that it did all those years ago? Put it this way: Guess what my cat is named?

About this reissue, compared to my early pressing, I'm reminded of a discussion I once had with Art Dudley, the much-loved and much-missed deputy editor of Stereophile, about the Beatles' early songs. Art appreciated the new Beatles remasters but thought those early mono versions were hard to beat. After all, that was how he'd first heard the songs.

This record sounds superb, but will anything ever again compare to hearing Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars on my second-hand red Dansette—Phil Brett

surfinguitar's picture

I enjoyed your article, I was eighteen when this first came out, not quite into the glam rock scene but I eventually bought the album because of some of the radio play interested me. Because of your article I just listened to it today, it's been a very long time since I played it and it's still good.
Happy trails.....

Trevor_Bartram's picture

My recollection is: RCA UK 70s vinyl was pretty phenomenal. It would have been instructive to compare this reissue with a first press?

rickmcinnis's picture

The comment about Bowie, closet heterosexual, putting his arm around Ronson (confirmed heterosexual) as some kind of glorious signal of gay solidarity is as absurd as when it was taken by the bath house folk here as something similar when Ray Davies sang about liking his fags the best. "Misunderstanding all you see" as Lennon put it.

If one had watched any English football of the era one would have seen this same gesture numerous times. I suspect it remains the case to this day. Those were the glory days when one could show affection for someone without it being steeped in suspicions or some kind of political protocol.

Sometimes the desire to prove one's contemporaneous virtues overwhelms the intelligence of the writer.

It is getting tiresome here.

There are numerous references to sexual ambiguity on the record. That was part of the fun. But is was and is a galaxy away from overt garbage like Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Bowie knew how to promote himself. I think he always put the music first. If he had to give them flamboyance to get them to listen to the music he did it.

As he became more respected, understood and appreciated he put this away. It was no longer needed.

It is one of my favorite records. I will never forget hearing MOONAGE DAYDREAM played on WREK (Georgia Tech radio) and having to save my lunch money for a week or so to get the record. It is one of those soundtracks to our lives kind of records. One of those few from high school that has never gone stale.

What followed was not so good until the Berlin trilogy and then another period of recordings to fulfil contracts.

The last one is good, though I think much hot air has been blown about it. If Bowie was in better health it would have been a much better record and not the cut and paste pastiche it is. I like Bowie records that give the feeling of a band. Bowie's bands were well rehearsed composed of first tier musicians. No better example than Ziggy Stardust era. There was not the time for that for the last one and that is another aspect to the tragedy of his too early demise.

Jim Austin's picture

You wrote:

Sometimes the desire to prove one's contemporaneous virtues overwhelms the intelligence of the writer.

What a strange, unsupported comment. I suppose you're objecting to this, from Phil:

His arm around Mick Ronson on the BBC's music flagship, Top of the Pops, might seem tame now, but in 1972, British living rooms shook when it came on the screen. Now that moment is hailed as important in UK LGBT+ cultural history.

As indeed it is. Bowie's importance to gay and trans folks is amply documented, indeed unmissable. Steve Silberman, who wrote "NeuroTribes," about autism and neurodiversity, wrote, on Bowie's death, that he "probably saved the lives of millions of gay/trans/odd/'extraterrestrial' kids. RIP."

Phil wrote nothing that isn't demonstrably true, and I see nothing later in your comment to suggest that you even disagree with it.So, I'm mystified. Perhaps you're arguing that Bowie's intentionally ambiguous sexuality was a completely cynical way of selling albums and concert tickets--that deep down he was a heterosexual he-man? That he actually cared nothing about such people? No doubt you know that in a 1972 interview, he said, "I'm gay. Always have been," although he later expressed regret over that pronouncement, and he married women twice.

Unsubstantiated attacks on my writers is not something I take lightly. Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding. I'll commend you at least for (apparently) signing your real name.

Jim Austin, Editor

Anton's picture

Bowie was so cool that, in 1972, he anticipated K West 32 years before the release of 'The College Dropout.'

ok's picture