Book: Sounds Northern
Chapter: 5. The Contrasting Soundscapes of Hull and London in David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
In this chapter I apply the concept of the urban soundscape developed by
Thompson and by Long and Collins in an analysis of the impact musicians from Hull had on the evolution of David Bowie’s seminal 1972 work The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
I argue that the performance of Ziggy Stardust, both on record and on stage, is doubly coded in relation to place and space. The 'concept' of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as a musical, a fictional story with songs performed on stage, and an accompanying album of recorded songs, initially appears to be heavily associated with London: Bowie is from London, he sings in an affected cockney accent in this work, and the cover of the LP is set in a Soho street. The format of the concept – which the writer described as theatre, rather than a rock and roll show – is derived from Bowie’s experience growing up in London in the 1950s and 1960s, a time of great change in the entertainment world, and in society and culture, in England. England’s cultural revolution of 1956 to 1969 largely occurred in London, the industries that benefitted from it commercially were based there, and Bowie immersed himself in the vibrant London arts, music and fashion scene and absorbed its influences and its soundscape. Auslander suggests that Bowie critiques the 1960s counter-culture with Ziggy Stardust, the stage presentation demonstrating discontinuity with the ideological tradition in rock of ‘associating commitment and personal expression with authenticity’. With the work, Bowie challenges the ‘us and them’ mentality of the counter-culture as the protagonist avoided the consistent countercultural persona demanded by the culture of psychedelic rock. As Long and Collins note, sound is ‘to be accounted for not only as a matter of what we hear’, but also ‘as those practices that produce, use and make sense of it’ and I suggest that Bowie’s creation of Ziggy Stardust is partly dependent on his interaction with, what I term the ‘elaborated soundscape’ of London.
However I argue that the Ziggy Stardust performance, and its continuing significance, rests on the authenticity of the supporting musicians in the project. Bowie had been playing music with members of a rock band from Hull named The Rats for nearly two years before the Ziggy Stardust project. Hull is a port town in north east England and the musicians were subject to different influences, and a different soundscape, to those Bowie experienced. I argue that The Rats gave Bowie an authentic, urban rock sound, symbolic of the provincial adoption of the rock / rhythm and blues format, one deriving from the Hull soundscape. This was an environment distanced from the London hegemony and shaped by its secondary status whereby local musicians are influenced by the purchase of product (records and live performance) which are supplied from the primary source: the London entertainments industry. Thus two soundscapes are juxtaposed in the dressy Ziggy Stardust concept: cultured, elaborated, primary London and the more primitive, secondary Hull. The transgressive rise of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars is conceptually supported by the notion that this authentic band of provincial musicians from Hull are doing just that: rising to stardom under the leadership of the cultured Bowie. Thus, in the double-coding of the project: on one hand it was a contrived, cosmetic, hyperbolic spectacle with pretensions to being high art; on the other, the band’s rock sound was gritty and authentic. It consequently mirrored the fashion for a return to simplicity in pop / rock music, but also, in its conceptuality, transcended rock’s ideology of authenticity and autobiographical representation and exposed the fabrication inherent in the genre’s processes of delivery, engagement and performance.