In 1971, one of the most influential artists in French rock history came to London to record an album that would define his long career. A year later, also in London, the founder of glam rock produced what is possibly his most famous album in an equally illustrious career. Now, decades later, the two albums have stood the test of time and are remembered as some of the best of the 1970s.
All in all, David Bowie and Serge Gainsbourg have a lot in common. Both men were European artists who had enormously prolific and lengthy careers. The two were most active and at their bests in the 1970s and 80s. Both were hugely influential on the future of glam rock and post-punk. I’m almost positive Bowie was listening Gainsbourg’s 1971 masterpiece, Histoire de Melody Nelson, when he made his 1972 classic, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I just wonder how much, if at all, the two stellar contemporaries affected each other.
The two albums themselves have a lot of similarities. For both albums, a heavy load of music is contained in a short time. One could listen to both albums in just over an hour: Ziggy Stardust clocks in under forty minutes while Melody Nelson does not even break thirty. That said, the music fits incredibly well into the short play-time. They are very much intended to be listened to in one sitting. Both are known as concept albums, however ridiculous their stories become. In fact, the albums inspired short films based on their concepts. Furthermore, the lead characters in the two albums’ stories are loosely based on the singers themselves. If you have not heard either of these albums, or it’s just been a while, I suggest listening to them in conjunction, one after the other. They are both incredible.
Conceptually, the albums are a bit absurd. In Melody Nelson, after (literally) running into a young American woman with his Rolls Royce, the narrator seduces her, and the two fall in love. Their romance, while meaningful, is largely physical in nature. The man falls for her white pants and red hair, and the relationship culminates with a night in a hotel. Then, in a disastrous turn of events, Melody dies in an airplane crash on her return to America, the ultimate end of their tragic relationship.
Ziggy Stardust is equally implausible, but for different reasons. The story focuses on a sexually ambiguous rock star using the approaching end of the world as a way to highlight current problems. This social commentary turns the character into a sort of a messiah figure. The sense of finality comes with the death of Ziggy as the world continues to rush toward its impending doom.
Stories aside, it is the musical influence of the two albums that continue their relevance today. With Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg paints the images with his soothing voice, always spoken-word, over an ecstatic blend of instruments. The album is bookended with two 7-minute epics that detail the entire extent of the relationship. At times, the music sounds full and surrounding, guitar that could be found in the best rock albums; other times, the bass and light percussion creates a minimalist tone. It is no surprise that the album inspired a wide range of artists in the future. Bowie displays the precursor of metal with a blend of psychedelic on Ziggy Stardust. Like Gainsbourg, the blend of explosive hard rock and light orchestral background is evident here as well. Bowie’s voice, sharper and harsher than Gainsbourg’s, creates the title character as he yells Ziggy’s idealist points of view.
Perhaps the biggest similarity between the two albums was their effects on the artists. For two songwriters who were already relatively well established in the music industry, these productions altered their careers. Histoire de Melody Nelson changed Serge Gainsbourg from a jazz and pop musician to a rock star. Unfortunately Gainsbourg could never truly recapture the spirit of this album and did not make another great rock album. He made several albums, including forays into other genres, but none were as recognized as this one.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars catapulted David Bowie after a successful run of several previous albums. It was a musical departure from his previous works and a leap into new styles. His second release on a new, major label, Ziggy Stardust brought his earlier albums out of obscurity. Unlike Gainsbourg, Bowie continued a successful career, making even better albums as he went along. Low might not have even been possible without Ziggy Stardust. And I’d like to think that Ziggy Stardust owes a bit to Melody Nelson.
If nothing else, the two albums share a clear sense of an unexpected rise and eventual fall. In an ideal universe, the deceased fictional characters, Ziggy and Melody, are together forever, holding hands in the afterlife.