A Transformation in Rock and Roll

By Alexandra Fileccia

“Moonage Daydream,” the third track on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), tells the story of an alien-messiah who shows potential in saving the human race, or so the theories say. All of the songs on Ziggy contribute to the overall concept of the album: Alien life forms serve as the only hope for Earth and the human race to survive.

At the end of the Space Race in 1971, David Bowie gave alien birth to the song “Moonage Daydream.” With its far-out lyrics and space-like production techniques, Bowie takes his listeners to another planet, which fits the generation of spacy coke freaks through the 70s, like Bowie himself. Bowie transcended the precedents of rock and roll with his glam rock appearance and obsession with space exploration. In a way, Bowie who started as an outsider to the genre, created a musical niche where he could finally belong.

Enter Bowie’s alter ego: Ziggy Stardust, the album’s main character. As a human in contact with aliens, Ziggy seems the most likely to save to world—a sort of angel on Earth. Throughout the album he transforms into a rock star. This Ziggy persona gave a new face to rock and roll. It challenged the way white artists played black music, and in a way, made rock and roll sound even more foreign—from another world. “Moonage Daydream” shamelessly and consciously exists as white music; he doesn’t even try to sound black, as Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones famously did.

As Bowie’s early alter ego (he later plays the role of Aladdin Sane among others), Ziggy Stardust fuses “the sci-fi futurism of writers like William Burroughs and JG Ballard with a hard-rock sound and a transsexual campery borrowed from Lou Reed,” says Sean O’Hagan in his Guardian review of the book Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie playing the role of the album’s character created a new way to experience and think about rock and roll. He did not have his own style (previous and future albums sound totally different, some even play with different genres); in fact, putting on a show and acting as his made-up character became his style. “And that self-conscious sense of theater is part of the reason why Ziggy Stardust sounds so foreign,” says Stephen Thomas Erlewine in his review of the album on allmusic.com. Bowie laces his lyrics with vocal theatrics in the style of Ziggy Stardust.

The opening lyrics strike right at the beginning of “Moonage Daydream” after a few powerful guitar strums and drum hits. Bowie confidently declares, “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you.” On the word “you” he trails off with an exaggerated vibrato, which simulates a falling feel. “I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you.” Under this line, an acoustic guitar holds rhythm while the bass grooves along. The combination of acoustic and electric guitar in this song, in addition to Bowie eclectic voice, creates a modernized folkie feel. However, the way he shouts the next lyric and the bizarre image it creates, “Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird/And I’m busting up my brains for the words,” stays true to Bowie’s over-the-top stage persona, completely opposite of the folkie aesthetic.

A piano enters with the chorus, “Keep your ‘lectric eye on me, babe/Put your ray gun to my head/Press your space face close to mine, love.” All through the chorus, a low, haunting “oooh” croons in the background. As Bowie preaches the last line of the chorus, “Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah!” the drums bop around from left to right in a drum fill.

Bowie wails out the second verse, “Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me/The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be,” and elongates the word “love” into two syllables so it sounds like “lov-va.” He continues, “Make me baby, make me know you really care/Make me jump into the air.” He pulls out the word “care” as he did before with “love” so it sounds like “cah-hare.” By playing with the length of words and accentuating certain syllables, Bowie creates his individual cry singing style.

After another chorus, a short, horizontal brass solo forms only to be followed by two more choruses. In both of these choruses, Bowie plays with the length of words. He puts the lyrics to a slightly different melody. And in the last chorus before a longer solo starts, Bowie changes the pitches of the line, “Put your ray gun to my head.” In this part, “head” goes higher in the octave rather than lower like in previous chorus. The background string instruments swell in utter chaos. This chorus also uses a much more noticeable echo effect on the vocals. The echoes, more delayed now, give the song a more extra-terrestrial feel—kind of like a transmission to another planet.

At three minutes, 13 seconds in the song, a guitar solo creeps in as Bowie shouts, “Freak out, far out, in out.” In this vocal fill, the “Ts” echo at the end of every “out,” simulating a stutter familiar to his cocaine-fueled music. Cocaine, Bowie’s drug of choice, became a staple in the music industry during the 1970s. The stimulant affected his vocal range, but never hindered his creativity or ability to create music, wrote The Quietus, a British news outlet, in an article about Peter Doggett’s book The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s. “So open was his drug use that the normally bland British pop newspaper Record Mirror felt safe in 1975 to describe Bowie as ‘old vacuum-cleaner nose,’” (Quietus).

Originally, Arnold Corns, a band comprised of David Bowie and Freddie Buretti as vocalists, Mick Ronson and Mark Carr Pritchard on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, and Mick Woodmansey on drums, released this single in 1971 with “Hang Onto Yourself” as a B-side. The band, whose name originates from the Pink Floyd song “Arnold Laynes,” didn’t go very far since Buretti, a fashion designer who inspired Bowie, never really participated in the band and eventually became a phantom front man. Bowie re-worked the song for Ziggy Stardust with his backup band The Spiders from Mars to the version we now know as “Moonage Daydream.” Some lyrics made it to the 1972 version; most of the chorus and second verse. But, “Keep your mouth shut but listen to the world inside/Keep your head on but open up your eyes real wide/Keep the change strong, let the things you torn aside/You messing any road to high/Take it out, take it out,” didn’t keep a place in the song.

“Moonage Daydream” stands as the first upbeat song on the album preceding “Five Years” and “Soul Love,” and it rocks harder. The guitars build up heavier and thicker, sort of a preparation for “Starman” the next track on the album. In the world of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie offers his audience an escape to another world—another universe. With his theatrical performances and alter-ego concept, he capitalized on a generation of lost souls obsessed with a new frontier.

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