In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM reviews in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like in our inaugural take on Dave Marsh’s 1972 review of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. A lot has changed in 50 years. Lap it up!
To say that David Bowie is one of the biggest and most impactful artists in the world is to say that water is wet. It’s a fact of life, like gravity or “Harry Styles has nice hair.” Bowie’s decades-long career of cultural fluidity, gender rebellion, and weird, wonderful songwriting will continue to provoke and inspire people far beyond our lifetimes—a legacy that was solidified by his fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. The bizarro rock opera saw the artist emerge from a period of reexamination as a “bold, knowing, charismatic creature neither male nor female,” in the words of critic and noted Bowie stan Camille Paglia. Loaded with symbolism and featuring a look that landed somewhere between one of William S. Burroughs’ nightmares and those of an especially glamorous nan, it would become Bowie’s breakthrough album and the third-best-selling record of 1972, behind Harvest by Neil Young and Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits.
This is all obvious—now. At the time, though, Bowie was still proving himself like any other bloke in spandex whose career could go to shit on a dime. And there were a lot of people who didn’t get the fuss around this person who looked like Lou Reed dragged backwards through a fancy dress shop, singing about the apocalypse and some people called “Weird” and “Gilly.” So when a then-22-year-old Dave Marsh—cofounder of CREEM and inventor of the term “punk rock,” among many other respectable achievements—was tasked with reviewing The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, he was unconvinced. “David Bowie may become a star this year, or he may not,” Marsh wrote. “This may or may not make a difference in your life. But, for all the people who are assured it will, take it easy: it’s unlikely.”
This is all obvious—now. At the time, though, Bowie was still proving himself like any other bloke in spandex whose career could go to shit on a dime.
Hard to imagine a bigger L than predicting middling success for David-actual-Bowie, but on the face of it I can see why someone might be perplexed when confronted with him circa 1972. This was a highly glam album dropped at the tail end of the peace-and-love era, an almost alienatingly dense project revolving around a bisexual rock star singing about spiders and outer space like Charlie Kelly after a long afternoon huffing spray paint. Another seven years would pass before Prince’s eponymous breakthrough album, for which he appeared on the cover topless and with a gorgeous blow-dry and spent 40 minutes singing about cum in falsetto. Androgyny wasn’t yet prevalent in the mainstream, and—beyond Andy Warhol’s factory and the coterie of artists around it—neither was singing about cultural decay, paranoia, and drug abuse. At least not in such a strange, fantastical manner. That seems to be Marsh’s biggest gripe.
Marsh found Bowie—along with T. Rex’s Marc Bolan—lacking in the “innocence” that makes a good rock star. Rock stars, he writes, should be “potent and strong” but also “uniquely naive.” Examples of this include: noted “misogynist” (the review’s words, not mine!) Rod Stewart, legendary drummer Ringo Starr (whom he refers to here as the “least objectionable” Beatle before implying that their most admirable song is “Rocky Racoon”), and Van Morrison (presented without comment). Presumably what he means here is he likes his rockers to be sexually nonthreatening, which is a peculiar stance to take at a time when the biggest band in the world was Led Zeppelin, but best of luck to him over the following decades of hard rock and hair metal. It seems this man was sadly doomed to be tormented by an endless parade of English dongs.
In fairness to Marsh, he does spend a brief paragraph complimenting the band, whose music he says is “interesting” and “well-made,” as well as Bowie’s “strong” vocals—but is lost again by the lyrics “freak out” and “blow your mind.” He also accuses Bowie of “hetero-sexism,” though it’s unclear what that’s in reference to given the album is mostly a meditation on the egoism of the rock ’n’ roll star who gets off, above all else, on himself. “I don’t know whether Bowie is still gay or not,” he muses randomly. “I wonder if it matters.”
In closing, Marsh summarizes that Bowie is a “large talent and in some ways a brave one,” but one who won’t be “stopping here for long”—a line that uncannily resembles an exchange from Bowie’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. “I really like you, mister. What do you do? For a living, I mean.” Mary-Lou asks Thomas, an alien played by Bowie. He replies: “Oh, I’m just visiting.” That line has been reframed in the aftermath of Bowie’s death, neatly memorializing an artist whose presence on this world was comparatively short-lived but whose work was so transformative it’s now a part of the matter that makes up everything. Unfortunately, it also makes his early detractors look like dumbasses.
Marsh wasn’t wrong across the board, though. He did say this of Bowie’s music, which, beyond all the references and theatrics, is the only thing that matters anyway: “It rocks.”