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Wednesday 13 December 2017

How Ziggy rocked and shocked

David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust (BBC4, Friday), Sex and the Sitcom (BBC2, Sat)When you think about it, there hasn't been all that many truly game-changing, era-defining rock records. Early Elvis Presley; The Beatles' Revolver; The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds; The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks.

But there's never been anything quite as unexpected, quite as out-of-the-leftfield-blue as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which gave the world both a brilliant rock album and David Bowie's most iconic and enduring alter ego.

Ziggy Stardust was an androgynous, humanoid alien with the "snow white tan", who comes among us to preach a message of hope, peace and love, but ends up being destroyed by his own popularity and excess.

It was a fate which almost befell Bowie himself during the blizzard of cocaine and paranoia that subsequently engulfed him.

I've owned Ziggy three times: on lovely, heavy vinyl (sold in college, shamefully, for survival money); on CD (lent to someone, never returned), and, since last week, on CD again, in the shape of this month's gleaming, 40th anniversary re-release. Unlike a lot of albums from 1972, it sounds as crisp and fresh as the day it was cut.

Bowie didn't take part, except in clips and disembodied interviews, in the superb documentary David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust. No surprise there; nobody has been better at protecting their own mystique. But Hamlet without the Thin White Duke was just fine, because there were plenty of other people on hand -- including Elton John, Holly Johnson, Marc Almond, an army of journalists, producers, photographers, publicists, most of the Spiders from Mars and the late, great guitarist Mick Ronson's widow, Suzi -- to testify what it was like when Ziggy/Bowie exploded into the consciousness. "I was endeavouring to teach him to astonish," said Bowie's old mime teacher, the flamboyant Lindsay Kemp, who also claimed the two men had a brief affair (which, for anyone who still gives a monkey's, blows the old "was he/wasn't he?" question open again).

And astonish Bowie did when he appeared, singing Starman, the first single from the album, on Top of the Pops, with his arm draped around Ronson at one point.

"It was like an art installation, it was like, 'Wow'," recalled Elton John, no stranger to flamboyance. "I'd never seen anything like it."

The world, of course, had already seen plenty of Bowie -- in a Marlene Dietrich pose on the cover of Hunky Dory, in a dress on its predecessor, The Man Who Sold the World, even warbling the children's novelty song The Laughing Gnome in 1969.

But all of these previous incarnations had essentially been rehearsals for what was to come. The real strength of producer/director James Hale's excellent film -- apart from the wealth of archive clips and the fabulous music, obviously -- was the way it forensically pieced together the former David Jones's 10-year search to find a formula and a persona that would rock as well as shock.

Mind you, it's sobering to think that, had that search taken a slightly different turn, Bowie could well have ended up as a light entertainer. One of his early heroes was Anthony Newley. If you don't know who he is, look him up on YouTube and shiver at what might have been.

While David Bowie was busy changing the face of rock 'n' roll, characters in sitcoms were busy obsessing over sex. Sex and the Sitcom was a leaden trudge through British TV comedy's dysfunctional relationship with "nookie", as they used to call it back in the 70s.

Characters were either desperately trying and failing to get laid (see On the Buses), trying to avoid getting laid (see George & Mildred), or substituting getting laid with innuendo (see everything with Frankie Howerd). A tedious hour was just about, er, relieved by some funny clips.



David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust 5/5 Sex and the Sitcom 2/5

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