Friday, December 11, 2020


I posted about three of my favorite AM9s. The idea behind AM, or Absolute Magnitude, was to find a way to approximate the intrinsic importance of an LP – to make a rubric that emphasized the objective rather than the subjective. That’s impossible, of course. Many would make AC/DC’s Back in Black a 10, but not me, simply because my biased brain doesn't care for it – I end up bending my own rules. But that kind of conversation (even when it's with myself) is just what I try to inspire in my rock history. I listed three AM9s that others might view as 10s or 6s for that matter, but they are truly breaking the rules. Today I offer an example of an AM10 simply to walk through the rubric – David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

All right, let me get this straight, Ziggy Stardust is the story of the human manifestation of an alien being attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence, but who unfortunately becomes enamored with sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and the rabid fans who idolize him. He inevitably burns out and destroys himself. Forget Dune, or even Foundation – this is the perfect dystopian science fiction concept. And because Bowie was so outlandishly alien in his appearance and proclivities, a suspension of disbelief was not required to imagine him in the role. (He was later cast as the believably melancholy alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth.)

But aside from stretching the limits of science-fiction to Rocky Horrific proportions, from the first tentative chords of "Five Years" to the violin and cello outro of "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," this album packs a galactic wallop. Let's go to the rubric.

Songwriting/Lyrics (2 Points). Not a song here that isn't hummable and the lyrics fit the concept like it was written by Heinlein; Bowie capturing the spirit of the 70s and the sci-fi vibe perfectly. Each of the tracks works as poetry, but it's the opener, "Five Years," and the finale, "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" that truly shine. It should be noted that Bowie did not write "It Ain't Easy," that was Ray Davies of the Kinks, but even that fits perfectly into the alien rock star persona.

Musicality (2 Points). As a rock 'n' roll LP (not Beatle-esque vaudeville or symphonic prog), critics generally overlook the gutsy band that was the Spiders. Of special note is the rasping, razor-sharp guitar licks of Mick Ronson. There's a healthy dose of acoustic mixed with trademarked glammy blues riffs. Trevor Boulder is no Chris Squire but knew his place in the band and the subtle bass is exactly what it should be. Mick Woodmansey is a drummer’s drummer for the same reason. Add on Rick Wakeman's piano (he had just recently joined Yes) and Bowie’s one-man band, sax included in a time when that was so un-rock, and you easily achieve the 2 points offered under Musicality.

Production (2 Points). Bowie arranged all of the music and co-produced with Ken Scott. While the name is obscure to many, when you hear the grocery list of his productions and LPs on which he was engineer, Scott is quickly elevated to the pantheon of greats: Madman Across the Water, Sgt. Pepper, Beck-Ola, Transformer, while working with Pink Floyd, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Billy Cobham, The Tubes, you get it. Is it as lush as the production of, as an example, In the Court of the Crimson King? Of course not, but wouldn't the LP lose something if it were? Like a great drummer or bassist, the vanguard of the artform is knowing when to take something off.

I’m not even going to go into the two final categories, Impact and Longevity. Those are obviously givens, and so, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is an AM10. This one is pretty inarguable: Not a bad song on the album.; all but one track written by Bowie; unparalleled musicianship and production; and an LP as impactful today as 50 years ago. Add on extras not covered by the rubric (album cover, iconic photo, the back-cover command: TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME, and the incredible concept) and Ziggy approaches an 11,k which, of course, doesn't exist.

Ziggy is head and solders above any of Bowie's previous work, and with a tracklisting which reads like a "greatest hits" collection, this is quite rightfully considered one of the best rock albums of all time.  In terms of sound and production, Ziggy is light years ahead of Hunky Dory, itself darn near perfect.

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