Album: Never Let Me Down
Following the title track's John Lennon styling, Never Let Me Down concludes its superior first side with another nod to The Beatles, this time setting a George Harrison-style sitar over a backing borrowed in part from their 1964 classic "Eight Days A Week" ("the chord changes at the end are real derivative," said David at the time, "I wanted to get as close as I dare but not make it overly silly"). Bowie is often at his best when his roots are showing, and "Zeroes" is one of the better tracks on this album largely by virtue of its being a blatant concoction of undisguised sources. "I remember enjoying "Zeroes"," guitarist Carlos Alomar said many years later, "as it was intentionally meant to reproduce those good old Beatle days."
Traffic's 1967 hit "Paper Sun" is another obvious point of reference, as is Prince's 1983 single "Little Red Corvette", openly referred to in the lyric. At the Glass Spider tour's London press launch, Bowie responded to a leading question by agreeing that Prince was "sort of the eighties version" of himself, "in terms of the more exhibitionist forms of theatricality and musicianship." He hastily went on to insist that "I've moved on to a different area now, and I don't think anybody else could handle the job better." It's both touching and a little tragic to hear Bowie admitting in "Zeroes" that "my little red Corvette has driven by" - thankfully he would later conquer such defeatism and resume his place in the experimental vanguard.
"Zeroes" bares the nerve-ends of various stages in Bowie's career. The title inevitably recalls "Heroes", while the faked-up live audience at the intro harks back to "Diamond Dogs". As in "Ashes To Ashes" Bowie is in career-retrospective mood, noting glumly that "a toothless past is asking you how it feels" and hinting at every artist's feelings on unveiling a new work: "Don't you know we're back on trial again today?" There's even an elegant witticism against himself in the line "Something good is happening, I don't know what it is", a paraphrase of Bob Dylan's 1965 track "Ballad Of A Thin Man", whose refrain goes: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?"
The song eventually erupts into an affirmation of love via a lightweight metaphysical pun ("You are my moon, you are my sun, heaven knows what you are") and the closing mantra of "Doesn't matter what you try to do / Doesn't matter who we really are" sounds enticingly like Bowie thumbing his nose at whatever critical reaction awaits him. Examine the album credits and you'll see that among the backing vocalists on "Zeroes" are "Coco" and "Joe". There's a case for reading "Zeroes" as a self-help exercise, a fortress of positivity and a defence against critical intrusion. "I think it had to do with the realisation that all the things that are supposed to come from superstardom let you down, and the real thing you've got to live with is yourself," said David in 1987. "That's why the 'little red Corvette' is driven by, all really naive...Also I wanted to put in every sixties cliché I could think of! 'Stopping and preaching and letting love in', all those things. I hope there's a humorous undertone to it. But the subtext is definitely that the trappings of rock are not what they're made out to be."
"Zeroes" was performed on the European leg of the Glass Spider tour.
Album: Ziggy Stardust
B-Side: November 1972
Live: Stage/Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture/Santa Monica '72/BBC Sessions 1969-1972 (Sampler)/Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)/A Reality Tour
B-Side: November 1978
Bonus: Ziggy Stardust/Ziggy Stardust (2002)
US A-Side: April 1994
Live Video: Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars/Best Of Bowie/A Reality Tour
The title track of the Ziggy Stardust album is also its central piece of narrative, Bowie's richly allusive lyric riding over one of his finest guitar-rock melodies as he charts the rise and fall of the sci-fi superstar himself. A series of 1971 jottings from David's notebook displayed at the V&A's David Bowie is maps out the plot, and spookily foreshadows Bowie's own trajectory as Ziggy made him a star: "How he was a bum and the boys with him and knowing he was against the system...How he shined and the adulation and money and respect came...How he knew he had to out-hip those queens and get into the role oh so well...How his attitude to Joe Public changes and how fucked-up he comes on to the audience...The New Sensation comes."
Throughout the song, other tantalising clues to Ziggy's identity blur the Marc Bolan resonances conjured up earlier on the album: there are obvious suggestions of Jimi Hendrix in the guitar hero who "played it left hand" while "jiving us that we were voodoo" and was "killed" by "the kids", but the cryptic observation that "he was the Nazz" suggests a host of other possibilities. "The Nazz" was American comedian Lord Buckley's nickname for Christ (as in "Nazarene"), and subsequently became the name of erstwhile backing bands for both Todd Rundgren and Alice Cooper (who had also fronted a group called The Spiders in the 1960s). There might also be a suggestion of "Nazi", dovetailing nicely with the album's totalitarian undertones and Bowie's later evaluation of Hitler as "one of the first rock stars".
The "leper messiah" might refer to the stage delusions of Vince Taylor or Peter Green, while "well-hung and snow-white tan" suggests the coked-up sexuality of Iggy Pop's stage persona. There are hints of Lou Reed: "came on so loaded man" reminds us of The Velvet Underground's latest album, while "Ziggy sucked up into his mind" reprises the "Queen Bitch" line "your laughter is sucked in their brains". As for "making love with his ego", the list of applicants is still growing, although Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger seem the most likely of the original candidates. But all the potential references - and there are plenty of others - defer to the nebulous character of Ziggy himself: the point is not who he is, but the fact that he is a construct of rock's archetypes.
David's Bromley Tech schoolmate George Underwood later intimated that the character of "Gilly", mentioned in the song's opening lines, was likely to have been inspired by a mutual acquaintance who attended nearby Bromley Grammar School in the early 1960s. The original Gilly was a teenage biker who, as Underwood later told Kevin Cann, "became a bit of a local hero when he told the headmaster where to go when he tried to force him to shave his sideburns. I was really impressed with Gilly, thought he was great."
Like many of the songs on its parent album, "Ziggy Stardust" was written well in advance of the recording sessions: it was registered with Bowie's publisher Chrysalis as early as April 1st 1971, long before even Hunky Dory had entered the studio. David's early acoustic demo, understood to have been cut at Radio Luxembourg's studios around February 1971, was included on both the 1990 and 2002 Ziggy Stardust reissues. The definitive album version was completed at Trident on November 11th 1971. The following year three further performances were recorded for BBC radio sessions, on January 11th and 18th and May 16th. The latter two both appear on Bowie At The Beeb, while the third is also on the BBC Sessions 1969-1972 sampler. Despite its key position in Bowie's career and its ubiquitous appearance on singles compilations, "Ziggy Stardust" has never actually been a hit: the only time it's ever been an A-side was as a live version released in America and France to promote Santa Monica '72 in 1994. This version was accompanied by a video compiled from live footage shot at Dunstable Civic Hall on June 21st 1972, offering fascinating glimpses of an early Ziggy show in action. Another live version, this time from 1978, appeared on Stage and the accompanying "Breaking Glass" single. For such a pivotal number "Ziggy Stardust" appeared in surprisingly few of Bowie's live sets: aside from the Ziggy Stardust and Stage tours, its only revivals were 1990's Sound + Vision outing, the summer 2000 dates and the Heathen and A Reality tours - although David did occasionally add the line "Ziggy played guitar!" to the end of "Star" on the Serious Moonlight tour.
"Ziggy Stardust" has, however, been a hit single in a cover version: Bauhaus had their biggest success with a rendition recorded at a BBC radio session which reached number 15 in October 1982. This recording later appeared on Bauhaus's 1989 release Swing The Heartache: The BBC Sessions and on David Bowie Songbook. A further studio take by Bauhaus, incorporating elements of "Cracked Actor", appears on the 2009 reissue of their 1981 album Mask. Bauhaus continued to perform "Ziggy Stardust" live, and among the host of other artists who have done so are Jessica Lee Morgan, Hootie And The Blowfish, Nina Hagen, White Buffalo, Guns N'Roses, AFI, Katie Melua and Def Leppard, whose singer Joe Elliott also fronted the live Spiders From Mars rendition which appears on the 1997 album of The Mick Ronson Memorial Concert. In 2003 David Baddiel and Frank Skinner "sang" a version on ITV's Baddiel And Skinner Unplanned. Seu Jorge recorded a Portuguese cover version for the soundtrack of the 2004 film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and Bowie's original can be heard in the 2007 comedy The Heartbreak Kid. Touring with The Indigo Girls in 1998, Bowie's bassist Gail Ann Dorsey performed "Ziggy Stardust" every night, and even Madonna has been known to perform the number at concert soundchecks. In 1999 and 2002 respectively, the actors Ralph Fiennes and Timothy Spall included the song among their choices on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.
Some sources report that a provisional running order drawn up for Aladdin Sane in early 1973 lists "Zion" as the album's final track, but there is some doubt regarding the authenticity of this title. It is not registered with any of Bowie's music publishers, and the recording itself, if it exists, has proved elusive. Given that the January 1973 re-recording of "John, I'm Only Dancing" is also known to have been pencilled in as a possible closing track for the same album, it's more than a little plausible that the title "ZION" might be nothing more than a Chinese whisper based on a long-forgotten misreading of the hand-scrawled initials "JIOD", standing for "John, I'm Only Dancing".
Whatever the case, the title "Zion" has since been attributed to a rambling six-minute demo from 1973 which has also appeared on bootlegs under the various titles "Aladdin Vein", "Love Aladdin Vein" and "A Lad In Vein". All of these titles are dubious, as the recording almost certainly postdates the Aladdin Sane sessions, but since we don't have an official name for the track, "Zion" will do as well as any. Whatever its proper title - if it ever had one - it captures a fascinating moment of transition in Bowie's 1973 sound. Adaptations of the central piano phrase and guitar workout would later appear on Diamond Dogs as the bridging passage between "Sweet Thing (Reprise)" and "Rebel Rebel". Mick Ronson's instantly identifiable swathes of guitar are topped by Mike Garson's piano and a prominent flute line, while Bowie "la las" his way through a vaguely Eastern melody, evidently bereft of lyrics at the time of recording.
The common assumption that the track was recorded at Trident during the Aladdin Sane sessions has never been authenticated, and one piece of evidence strongly suggests a later date. Martin Hayman, who interviewed Bowie at the Chateau d'Hérouville towards the end of the Pin Ups sessions in the summer of 1973, was played a sneak preview of a new demo for David's next album by the eager singer himself. Explaining that "There are no vocals on it yet, just my la-la-la-ing. It's going to be a musical in one act called Tragic Moments, probably running straight through two sides." David played back what Hayman described as "perhaps seven minutes of...highly arranged, subtly shifting music with just a touch of vaudeville: Mike Garson's piano flashes through like quicksilver. Perhaps the closest approximation to what has gone before would be the title track of Aladdin Sane." This sounds exactly like the track we now know as "Zion", which perhaps ought to be regarded more as a Diamond Dogs demo than an Aladdin Sane out-take.