Velvet Goldmine

This summer sees the 40th anniversary of the release of one of rock music’s most iconic albums. The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars was David Bowie‘s fifth studio album and it made it into record shops in June, 1972. It’s basically a concept album that draws upon science fiction and rock mythology to tell the story of a musician named Ziggy Stardust and his band, The Spiders From Mars. The concept is a loose one as not all the songs on the album relate to the overall concept and one of them (It Ain’t Easy) is a cover of a song by a guy called Ron Davies. Nevertheless, the album’s packaging, marketing, sequencing and overall sound certainly made it seem like all the songs were connected and it also helped that Bowie and the band adopted the fictional band’s persona in concert and television appearances. Of course, the decision to wear the group’s “futuristic” costumes during this period was a big factor in maintaining the illusion. The album contains some of Bowie’s best songs (Starman and Ziggy Stardust) but, like all great records, its strength lies in the consistency of the work and that it can be enjoyed from beginning to end

As you can see from the image above, the album was chosen by the Royal Mail as one of ten classic British LPs that were issued as postage stamps in 2010. This month, the album will be the subject of an art exhibition in Limerick city entitled The Spiders From Mars. It’s a group exhibition that will take place at a couple of venues in the city and will also include the screening of two films featuring Bowie, Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell to Earth. It is being curated by Michele Horrigan and the five artists involved in the group are Andrew Dodds, Jeronimo Hagerman, Louise Manifold, Mark McGreevy and Oswaldo Ruiz. This is what they have to say about the exhibition:

The theme of environment is always a current and important one for contemporary artists. This exhibition contemplates environment from a series of positions taken from David Bowie’s 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. Ziggy is the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence. This leads to a whole philosophy in itself on environmental studies and thus incorporates the many angles and ideologies of the artists showing work. A title such as “Spiders from Mars” will naturally lead the viewer to envision strange alien galaxies and landscapes from far away. However, what’s been shown to us in this exhibition is the potential for eeriness in our own familiar environments. That, by simply unveiling what is already there, these artists are in fact showing us the numerous possibilities for otherworldy encounters in a more everyday experience.

If that has you intrigued and you happen to find yourself in Ireland over the next month, why not pay a visit to Limerick to check it out? It opens at The Belltable Theatre and Occupy Space tomorrow, April 5th, and runs until May 11th at The Belltable (Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm) and April 28th at Occupy Space (Wednesday to Saturday, 1pm to 5pm). Tomorrow’s opening receptions will take place from 6.00 to 7.30pm at The Belltable and between 7.30 to 9.00pm at Occupy Space. The next day, three of the artists (Dodds, Manifold & McGreevy) will give a talk at Occupy Space from 1.00pm. The following day will see the film screenings at The Belltable. First up is Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) at 3.30pm and this is followed at 5.30pm by Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). I’m not sure what Labyrinth has to do with the theme of the exhibition, but Roeg’s film ties in nicely with the whole concept

Over the years, many musicians have also paid tribute to Bowie’s music on record, but the songs from Ziggy Stardust have been covered more than most. The album’s sparse opening track was given a bigger sound by The Polyphonic Spree from Dallas on a version given away on their website in 2004. From Cardiff, former Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews included her take on Soul Love on her 2006 Open Road EP. Moonage Daydream is the first track on the album to rock out and that’s exactly what the San Francisco-based Zen Guerrilla do on their Trance States in Tongues album from 1999. Though a late inclusion on the album, Starman was its biggest hit and I’ve decided to go for Dar Williams‘ 1998 interpretation. The song that closed side one of the Ziggy Stardust album was also the first one put down on tape by Bowie and the band. It had been written and released in 1970 by an American musician named Ron Davies. Michigan soul singer Bettye Lavette also recorded the track in 1972 and it’s available on her Souvenirs album

Said to be about Marc Bolan, Lady Stardust opens side two of the record and is performed below by Excursiones Polares from Buenos Aires. In 2009, a guy called Techno Cowboy recorded all the songs on the album and called it The Ziggy Stardust Omnichord Album. An omnichord is sort of a cross between a keyboard and a guitar and you can check it out on his version of Star below. Some of the riffs on this album were an influence on punk rock and a group of Belfast punks called Victim included Hang On to Yourself on their 1980 EP, The Teen Age. The album’s defining (and essentially) title track, Ziggy Stardust, is also a great rock song. However, I’ve decided to go for a country version by The Gourds from Austin, taken from their 1998 collection, Gogitchyershinebox. The Get Up Kids from Kansas City hold nothing back on Suffragette City from 2001’s Eudora album. Finally, the album’s powerful closing track is given a suitably sombre treatment by Jenny Lewis and her California-based group, Rilo Kiley, in a live performance in New York from 2004. And that just leaves me with this quote from Suffragette City: “Wham bam! Thank you, ma’am!”

Five Years (David Bowie cover) – The Polyphonic Spree

Soul Love (David Bowie cover) – Cerys Matthews

Moonage Daydream (David Bowie cover) – Zen Guerrilla

Starman (David Bowie cover) – Dar Williams

It Ain’t Easy (Ron Davies cover) – Bettye Lavette

Lady Stardust (David Bowie cover) – Excursiones Polares

Star (David Bowie cover) – Techno Cowboy

Hang On To Yourself (David Bowie cover) – Victim

Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover) – The Gourds

Suffragette City (David Bowie cover) – The Get Up Kids

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (David Bowie cover) – Rilo Kiley

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