When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes that Shook the World
Preface, 214pp, £20
If the 1950s were characterised by what Norman Mailer once called “a collective failure of nerve”, the early 1970s were in many respects its unwelcome reprise. The summer of love was over and the winter of discontent was fast approaching. Paul McCartney had swapped the daring of songs such as “Helter Skelter” for whimsical lyrics about sheep (“Ram On”). In “God”, a piano ballad barely exceeding four minutes, John Lennon had disavowed magic, the I Ching, the Bible, the tarot, Jesus, JFK, Buddha, mantras, Gita, yoga, kings, Elvis and even the Beatles. Bob Dylan, whom Lennon had also renounced (“I don’t believe in Zimmerman . . .”), was wearing a white suit and crooning “Blue Moon”.
The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, were putting the finishing touches to their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, but after a decade on the airwaves and ten UK albums, they no longer had the ability truly to shock their audience. (“There is a sadness about the Stones now, because they amount to such an enormous ‘So what?’” wrote the critic Lester Bangs in 1973.) Not yet 30, Mick Jagger was already an elder statesman of rock.
Mailer’s 1950s were energised by the “white negro”, a “new breed of . . . urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts”. The archetype was embodied most potently by Elvis, the King of Rock’n’Roll, who, the legend goes, freed the Caucasian body by singing “black” – that is, liberally appropriating the styles, swagger and even sexual charge of African American artists from Arthur Crudup to Junior Parker. As ever in rock, the magpie was prime mover: at a press conference in 1965, Allen Ginsberg would teasingly ask Dylan, “Do you think there will ever be a time when you’ll be hung as a thief?”
The 1970s needed a new kind of redeemer and a new kind of thief. For Dylan Jones, this came in the form of a flame-haired, 25-year-old Brixton boy called David Robert Jones, who had refashioned himself as “the ultimate hyper-real star” from outer space: Ziggy Stardust. Or was that David Bowie? Where Elvis blurred racial boundaries and Dylan those between high art and popular culture, Bowie/Stardust was promiscuous in his transgressions. He was a self-proclaimed “plastic rock star”, the man who wasn’t there, a two-dimensional jigsaw that invited interpretation without offering any fixed meaning. He was a Cockney, an aristocrat, gay, straight, male, female – he was Judith Butler’s “gender trouble” personified.
This ambiguity was exhilarating to Jones, who, aged 12, was living in the coastal town of Deal in Kent. It was a “claustrophobic” town on “the edge of nowhere”. “Ziggy Stardust’s testimony wasn’t especially revealing,” he writes, “yet its artifice was completely compelling.” Britain at the time was “a country full of sullen, disgruntled people who by rights shouldn’t have taken too kindly to a pop singer dressed up as a gay alien in a quilted jumpsuit”, yet to Jones’s (and I suspect Bowie’s band mates’) surprise, take to it it did. After a decade of disappointing sales and minor acclaim, Bowie’s performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops on 6 July 1972 made him an icon.
The broadcast was transformative not only for the singer but the millions of teenagers who saw it. Though subtitled “David Bowie and the Four Minutes that Shook the World”, Jones’s book is as much the story of the four minutes that shook his world. His blow-by-blow account of the performance is breathless in its fan-boy enthusiasm and much of the rest of When Ziggy Played Guitar is rooted in personal impressions. “The by-product of Ziggy’s success was the validation of identity, our identity,” Jones writes, and it’s hard not to be moved by his hero worship.