It’s 08:45. I’m dripping wet, just out the shower, drying off by Whitey (our trusty old iMac) with Twitter open. I notice a tweet flow by: ‘Ziggy Stardust plaque being unveiled at 9:45 just off Regent St, if you’re in West End come by’. I’d heard about the plaque earlier in the week from Des Shaw at Ten Alps, the TV indie set up by Bob Geldof. He’s making a radio programme about Bowie and we’re working together on a couple of multiplatform developments – one to do with music, the other about waste – so we’d been chatting on the phone a few days before about Bowie and he mentioned the impending event. 60 minutes – just doable if I didn’t mind venturing forth a bit moist. I took off, kept up a decent pace, the Northern Line behaved and I walked into Heddon Street, powered by Ziggy on the iPhone, with a minute to spare. I positioned myself behind a TV crew and texted Des to check he was there. The ceremonies were opened bang on time by a fella from the Crown Estate who gave us a brief history of this backwater behind Regent Street, personalised by his own memories of the record. He handed over to Gary Kemp, formerly of Spandau Ballet, who was the prime mover behind the project, much inspired in his music career by the album. He spoke with great enthusiasm about the record and tipped the hat to the two Spiders from Mars who were among the small but perfectly formed crowd, bass player Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey. Then the little curtain was drawn back to reveal the elegant black plaque – one of only two in London to a fictional person (the other being Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street). It reads: Ziggy Stardust 1972 This marks the location of the cover photograph for the iconic David Bowie album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’.
40 years before, outside the office of Bowie’s management which was located for a while at that time on Heddon Street W1, Brian Ward took the iconic photo of the newly created Ziggy character outside the warehouse-looking entrance of K. West. It was a black and white shot subsequently hand coloured by Terry Pastor, who switched on the light and pulled out that resonant name. So Brian Ward’s original photograph was black and white, one of twelve 10 x 8s submitted to Bowie’s artist pal, George Underwood. George passed the one selected for the front cover to his colleague Terry Pastor. It was Terry who airbrushed the cover – he decided on the colouring of Ziggy’s hair, his costume, the lights and so on – very much a joint effort taking it to icon status. Des Shaw has a print of one of the other original 10x8s [above] which gives a good insight into the shoot and what the street looked like back then. Des brought me in to the special reception area where a six foot square print of the cover hung [below]. At 12″ x 12″ its magic and mystery are even more powerful through concentration.
The doorway in question has changed over the years and the whole street is far more salubrious and tamed through pedestrianisation. Less clean cut and tamed than when I first saw him perform To Cut A Long Story Short on telly when I was still immersed in punk and new wave was Gary Kemp who Des introduced me to – he was all a-flutter with the event and went off after a few moments to do another radio interview.
I think the original record was recorded at Trident Studios across Regent Street in Soho (certainly some of Bowie’s 70s classics were recorded there) – I recorded a voice-over a few years ago at Trident and was suitably impressed with the trophy album covers on their wall. Des told me a really interesting story he’d uncovered in the making of his radio programme: at one point around this time Bowie was rehearsing in an innocuous basement in Greenwich with his Spiders from Mars and was joined by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The basement studio space was called Underhill and was chosen because it was within walking distance of Haddon Hall where Bowie was living in Bromley, his old manor. After Bowie met Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in the States he invited them to England where he then produced Iggy’s Raw Power album (after he’d produced Lou’s Transformer). So at one point in the tiny basement rehearsal space there were David Bowie and The Spiders from Mars, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and Lou Reed and his post-Velvets band, three of the most influential groups of the early 70s – all playing in a tiny subterranean space under what is now a pharmacist on the corner of Lewisham Road and Blackheath Road. This city, beneath the surface, behind out back, has a music goldmine rich like no other.
Ziggy Stardust impressed me when I first heard it but was never an absolute favourite. Although I remember Starman in the pop background as a little kid – and V2 Schneider (B-side of Heroes) entered my life briefly on board the SS Uganda on an educational cruise to the Baltic sharing a dorm with a bunch of skinheads from Romford – Stage was the first Bowie album that crossed my path in full consciousness.
Probably the three most significant Bowie records for me were:
* Aladdin Sane – I got totally bored by the monotony of school in the 6th Form and retired to a room at my dad’s house for a few months with Aladdin Sane and a pile of Jane Austens – it just chimed in perfectly with that most fucked up of teenage times
* Lodger – Bowie did a radio programme/interview about it during which he mentioned the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who I’d never heard of and who was much less well known at that time – within a couple of years I found myself in Neulengbach on the outskirts of Vienna on the trail of Schiele (thanks to the Morrison Travel Scholarship from Girton College, fair play to them, it was one of the things at university I probably learnt most from)
* Let’s Dance – the soundtrack for my year living in France, culminating in seeing a very smooth Mediterranean Bowie (he’d been at the Cannes Film Festival that year with Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence – the tanned, light suits, dyed blonde floppy English hair era) at Grenoble, from the front of the auditorium with all the energy of a young man who had just cut the umbilical chord from home.
The other records over the years have pretty much all come to win their places in my heart and life, and one of the key endearing aspects of them is that resolute voicing of the Anthony Newley style London accent. You can take the boy out of London but you can’t take London out of the boy, however much you swing him.