In 1972, a 25-year-old David Bowie announced his intention to rewrite the rock ‘n’ roll rulebook.
“Myself and my mates and I guess a certain contingent of the musicians in London at the beginning of the ‘70s were fed up with denim and the hippies. And I think we kind of wanted to go somewhere else,” he later explained. “And some of us... kind of got the idea that we were entering to this kind of post-culture age and that we’d better do something postmodernist — quickly, before somebody else did.”
The result was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars—a dazzling, dramatic, decadent and deeply sexy 38 minutes and 29 seconds that Bowie described as “about what rock music was and could become.”
If Ziggy Stardust is now lauded as a landmark moment for music, an apotheosis of its creator’s genius as a songwriter, performer and conceptual artist, it also — perhaps even more extraordinarily — represents just a small part of the story of the year of its release.
Ziggy Stardust landed on June 16, 1972—almost exactly the midpoint of the year. It came at a significant moment in the history of rock, midway between 1967’s Summer of Love and 1977’s so-called “Summer of Hate,” when punk would not only once again rewrite the rulebook, but rip it up, set fire to it, and spit on the ashes. And David Bowie was not the only musician eager to “go somewhere else” just then—a whole range of artists released albums that year that would redefine what popular music could be... and that would set in place a process of evolution and innovation that continues to resonate today.
By the time Ziggy Stardust was released, the year had already seen a bumper haul of landmark albums — and across a wide range of genres. As early as February, Neil Young had unveiled what for many remains his defining masterpiece — and officially the biggest-selling LP of the year — Harvest, and through the spring, the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach, Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and Young’s former bandmate Stephen Stills’ Manassas had reinforced Young’s idea that the blues-influenced country rock of the late ‘60s could blossom into a more sophisticated genre in its own right. Meanwhile, Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything? had attracted huge acclaim for its polished take on commercial pop, and at the other end of the scale, Deep Purple’s Machine Head and Alice Cooper’s School’s Out were rocking harder and nastier than ever before.
But just one month before Ziggy Stardust, there came two other albums that were to set a new standard — not only for the artists who created them, but for what an LP could mean in its own right. Elton John’s Honky Chateau, released on May 19, made a megastar of the pianist as the first of a run of six LPs to reach Number 1 in the US Billboard Charts. It is also notable for only containing one major hit, the (admittedly world-conquering) “Rocket Man.” Suddenly, the idea of an album being little more than a collection of singles plus a few filler tracks no longer applied.
This idea was taken to even greater heights by the Rolling Stones, who released Exile on Main St. on May 12. Despite clocking in at a lengthy 67 minutes, the double-album contained only one radio-friendly single, “Tumbling Dice”... and yet topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and remains for many the quintessential Stones record.
Keith Richards later summed up the idea of an album being allowed to exist as a commercial and critical entity on its own merits. “We didn't start off intending to make a double album; we just went down to the south of France to make an album and by the time we'd finished we said, ‘We want to put it all out,’” he explained. “The point is that the Stones had reached a point where we no longer had to do what we were told to do... we'd done our time, things were changing and I was no longer interested in hitting Number One in the charts every time. What I want to do is good s**t—if it's good they'll get it some time down the road."
If the 1960s were about the thrill of the seven-inch single, the simple perfection of a three-minute pop song, then by 1972 the long-player had become king, as musicians sought to stretch their artistic wings into creating something more sophisticated.
Albums by Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep and Yes released in 1972 all heralded the rise of prog rock as a genre that could appeal to musical sophisticates and record-buying teenagers alike (in Pink Floyd’s case to unprecedented heights with the release of Dark Side of the Moon the following year), while further releases by artists as diverse as Steely Dan (Can’t Buy a Thrill), Rod Stewart (beginning his transition from scruffy Faces rocker to million-selling megastar with Never a Dull Moment) and Stevie Wonder’s sublime Talking Book only served to highlight the range and ambition of the album charts through the year.
But if 1972 could credibly stand as the year the LP came of age, its lasting legacy remains with the creator of Ziggy Stardust.
In November, former Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed released Transformer, his second solo album, after his self-titled debut (released at the beginning of the year) had failed to make any impact. It came at a difficult time for Reed—although the Velvet Underground had been lauded in industry circles, they had never enjoyed commercial success. Amongst his fans, however, were David Bowie and Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, who acted as producers for Transformer.
The result? Not only one of the greatest albums of 1972, or of the 1970s, but arguably, of all time. With Bowie pulling the strings in the studio, Transformer’s sleazy, romantic, dangerous, beautiful vision became a huge hit—and lead single “Walk on the Wild Side” transformed Reed almost overnight from cult artist to international superstar.
The legacy of 1972 as a landmark year for the LP does not only stand with the quality of the albums released that year. Listening to Harvest, or Honky Chateau, or Exile on Main St., or Talking Book, remain sublime experiences... but the real significance in what happened 50 years ago lies with two releases especially. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in June, and Transformer five months later, not only rewrote the rock ‘n’ roll rulebook—they set the template for every band who has attempted the same since.