(Note: Virgin recently released a special "30th Anniversary Edition" of this essential album. What follows is a review not of the repackaging, which, while well done, is of dubious value, but of the meat: the original recording that impacted rock in a way few other records have.)
In 1972, rock and roll was not even twenty years old, but it already had a past, a theology, and a reflexive sort of history that only the giant walking egos known as musicians could create. "Rock and Roll is Here to Stay" said Danny and the Juniors upon its birth in 1955, in a boastful fit of self-fulfilling prophesy that would not be out of place in modern hip-hop. Rock and roll began its life as just such a pose, a pure fabrication, a dilution of blues music served up like hot, thin soup to hungry kids, but that didn't stop any of them from believing in its nutritious value.
Because in another way, the archetypal rock sentiment, that it is "Here to Stay," that it is the greatest thing in the world, that it can save your mortal soul, is neither boastful nor fabricated. Something intangible had happened between rock and roll's status as subculture and its leap to full-blown culture, and that something wasn’t just Elvis. Musicians near and far had heard The Word, and The Word was Rock. It was a sound that people wanted, it tapped into something very deep, made kids scream, and was, in a way, inevitable, like a dictate from on high. Rock and roll was from its inception a religion. To hear it was to already believe.
The central contradiction of rock has always been that it's both real and phony, both infallible and fallible, the way Jesus is both God and man. Every rock fan knows this somewhere deep down (U2 fans must get a headache contemplating how manifestly this rule applies to their pet band), and every rock musician must play both parts. In the creation of Ziggy Stardust, and the album Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie found a way to take it to both extremes, to intellectualize the music while playing it, to be good at it and mean it from the bottom of his heart - and not really mean it. It's one of the most comprehensive albums ever made, a slant-rhymed history of rock and roll itself, even when it's being stubborn and maddening and incomprehensible.
Bowie was still largely an outsider to rock and roll at the time he made The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. He started his career way back in the sixties as a folkie, and only moved to full-blown rock with Space Oddity (1969), a forward step into psychedelia that yielded a classic title track, but failed in almost every other way. From there he made The Man Who Sold the World (1970), an album that mixed a frankly odd sense of poetry with the heavy blues sounds that were prevalent in bands like Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac at the time. It's a great listen, but perhaps only because its juxtaposition of deep strangeness and heavy blues is so alarming to hear, or perhaps it's because collaborator Mick Ronson gave the album an urgency that Bowie could never have pulled off without him. With Hunky Dory (1972), he came closer to perfecting the rock form from a songwriting perspective, but with Ronson shoved aside to make way for fey cabaret numbers, it's wildly uneven.