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David Bowie’s Final Ziggy Stardust Concert: The Full Story
© The David Bowie Archive®
In Depth

David Bowie’s Final Ziggy Stardust Concert: The Full Story

Having become ‘completely bored’ with Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie performed his ‘last’ show to 5,000 shocked fans on 3 July 1973.


When David Bowie took to the stage of London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, few knew what he had planned that night – not the fans who’d queued for hours in their Pierrot costumes, dyed mullets and lightning-bolt make-up, waiting to be allowed into the venue; not the camera crew hired to film the gig for posterity; and not even his entire band, The Spiders From Mars, with whom he’d been touring his breakthrough album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, since February the previous year. But when Bowie, trying to catch his breath after performing the latest in almost 200 gigs in under 18 months, declared that it would be the final Ziggy Stardust concert, fans and band alike were stunned. Having skyrocketed to fame with his alien alter ego, Bowie had just announced his character’s retirement live on stage. For those who saw no separation between Bowie the man and Ziggy the persona, there was one urgent question: what would Bowie do now he’d killed off his most famous creation?

This is the story of David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust concert and what it meant for him. Expect loud music, obsessive fandom and a rock’n’roll suicide.

Listen to David Bowie’s final ever Ziggy Stardust concert here.

The backstory: “I was wasted and miserable”

Released a little over a year earlier, in the summer of 1972, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars launched Bowie into the stratosphere. Its follow-up album, Aladdin Sane, written while touring Ziggy Stardust through the US, sent him super nova: the music was more ambitious, the lyrics more enthralling, and yet Bowie’s commitment to the role of Ziggy had become all-consuming. Speaking to Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe in 1975, while recording his Station To Station album, he admitted, “I fell for Ziggy, too. It was quite easy to become obsessed night and day with the character… I got hopelessly lost in the fantasy.”

As the third leg of his UK Ziggy Stardust tour came to a close, planned European shows loomed, with a third US leg to follow. Potential live dates stretched into 1974, but Bowie couldn’t wait that long for it all to be over.

“I was now writing for a different kind of project and, exhausted and completely bored with the whole Ziggy concept, couldn’t keep my attention on the performance with much heart,” he wrote in the book Moonage Daydream, a collection of photographer Mick Rock’s images of the era. Not that fans noticed. Demand for Ziggy had become impossible to meet, even after Bowie began playing two shows a day when required.

“It was sold-out pandemonium and all the fans wanted a piece of Ziggy,” Mick Rock recalled. Speaking to Dig!, Spiders pianist Mike Garson adds that, not only did fans want a piece of Ziggy, many of them wanted to be Ziggy: “I remember looking to the audience and seeing so many faces with the David look,” he says. “It felt like Clonesville or something.”

Bowie, however, was done, his decision to “kill” Ziggy Stardust hastened when insatiable audiences began ripping seats from their fixings. “We got banned at a couple of places because of it,” Bowie later said. “I was wasted and miserable.”

The decision to retire Ziggy Stardust: “I wasn’t quite sure whether he meant he wasn’t going to perform live ever again”

Privately, Bowie had begun to confide in a few close associates about his plans for the future, and offered to help Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson launch a solo career without him. “I told him that I was close to wrapping the Ziggy thing up and he almost welcomed it as he was dead keen to have his own career as a solo artist,” Bowie later explained. “He asked me if I’d write a couple of songs for him, as writing wasn’t really his forte, to which of course I agreed. I would also do some back-up vocals as well.”

With the third UK leg of the Ziggy Stardust tour set to close with two nights at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, Bowie began to set the wheels in motion. Though unaware of just what he’d be filming, director DA Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop) had been commissioned to document Bowie’s final Ziggy concert, though a plane strike caused him to arrive in the UK with only enough time to see Bowie’s penultimate performance for reference. Meanwhile, Mick Rock was given a couple of days’ advance warning, enabling him to prepare to capture history in the making, even if he wasn’t entirely clear on Bowie’s intentions. “I wasn’t quite sure whether he meant he wasn’t going to perform live ever again,” Rock told Uncut magazine 30 years later, “or whether he just meant as that persona.”

The final Ziggy Stardust concert: “I had never seen an audience like that”

With the cameras rolling, both backstage and front of house, Bowie knew his final Ziggy Stardust concert had to be memorable. The Hammersmith Odeon’s house announcer, however, couldn’t have guessed how right he would be when he announced the start of the show: “Ladies and gentlemen, straight from his fantastically successful world tour, including the Unites States Of America. Japan. Now his home country. For the last time: David Bowie!”

As Mick Ronson hammered out the riff to Hang On To Yourself, Bowie leapt forward to the microphone, clinging on as The Spiders took the Ziggy Stardust cut at a rapid pace. But if Bowie was listening to the lyrics (“Well come on, come on/We’ve really got a good thing going”), he didn’t have time to process what they might, in hindsight, have meant to fans who were unwittingly witnessing Ziggy’s last stand. With the song barely over, in the first of many costume changes that evening, Bowie’s wide-legged metallic red, black and blue suit was ripped in half by stagehands, revealing one of his skimpy silver kimonos for Ziggy’s theme song.

Prowling the front of the stage in pale face, dark, ringed eyes and dark-red mullet, under low lighting Bowie appeared every bit the alien rock god he’d become, goading the audience into a frenzy as stage lights roamed like electric eyes, picking out the space-faces in the front rows. “I had never seen an audience like that,” Pennebaker would later say. “It’s almost as if the entire audience was made up of one gigantic group of backing singers.”

If Bowie was the space invader that night, Mick Ronson was his co-pilot, adding flair with one-handed solos and bringing songs in to land with a flick of the wrist and a thrust of his guitar. Introducing a new sense of theatrics to the rock concert in the early 70s, the Ziggy stage show would often see Bowie and Ronson circling each other mid-song, sometimes flirtatiously, sometimes aggressively, the guitarist even leaping on top of Bowie during Time as he unleashed metallic squalls of noise from his instrument.

For his part, Bowie brought all that he’d learned under mime artist Lindsey Kemp to the stage. A psych-tinged folk song when it was originally released on his self-titled second album, in Ziggy-era Bowie’s hands Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud was refashioned as a star-gazing set piece that built to the arrival of All The Young Dudes. Elsewhere in the set, the Man Who Sold The World’s opening song, The Width Of A Circle, became a 14-minute epic complete with costume changes, a staged fight between Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder, and a favoured mime act in which a “trapped” Bowie breaks through a wall and flies free in time for the song’s climax.

But nothing would be quite as dramatic as Bowie’s announcement before the final song of the night.

The announcement: “Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do”

After an encore in which Bowie paid tribute to some of his musical heroes, covering The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat and inviting Mick Ronson’s idol Jeff Beck onstage for a medley of The Jean Genie and The Beatles’ Love Me Do, plus a take on Chuck Berry’s Around And Around (long locked in the vaults, the first anyone would see of the Beck footage was in Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream documentary), Bowie, now in tight black trousers, a see-through netted top and open-toed platform-heeled sandals, hushed the audience for the announcement he’d been planning to make all night:

“Everybody, this has been one of the greatest tours of our life. We really – first, I’d like to thank the band. I’d like to thank our road crew. And I’d like to thank our lighting people. Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.”

With many members of his band as shocked as the audience, the closing Rock’n’Roll Suicide had never sounded so poignant. After being rescued from fans desperately trying to pull him off the stage, Bowie took three bows, blew a kiss and allowed himself a moment to survey the wreckage before leaving venue – taking Ziggy Stardust with him.

The aftermath: “What have I said? I don’t think I really meant that at all”

Indicating that Bowie was fast becoming one of the most influential musicians of all time, both The Beatles’ Ringo Starr and The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger attended the final ever Ziggy Stardust concert, and many more 60s icons were waiting to greet Bowie at the afterparty, which was held at the Hotel Café Royal, in Mayfair, and went on until 5am. But though the guest list included Paul and Linda McCartney, The Who’s Keith Moon, Lou Reed, Sonny Bono, Cat Stevens and Barbra Streisand, Bowie was too distracted by what he’d just done to take it all in. “I have absolutely no recollection of this party at all,” he would later say in response to seeing photos of the event. “Except that I do remember feeling incredibly relived that it was all over, the touring particularly.”

Writing in music weekly Sounds, rock critic Martin Hayman would call Bowie’s final Ziggy show “one of the best concerts I have ever seen”. But it was NME that got the real scoop. Having written of the rise of “Bowiemania or Ziggymania or a combination of the two” just six months earlier, in his report on Bowie’s 1972 Christmas Eve concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre, the magazine’s Charles Shaar Murray was the only outsider let in on Bowie’s secret.

“When Bowie retired Ziggy at Hammersmith Odeon in the summer of ’73, I was the one who got the tip-off,” Murray revealed 20 years later, “thereby enabling NME to have its ‘Bowie: That’s It, I Quit’ cover story rolling off the presses before Bowie had made the onstage announcement.”

There was no going back, even if Bowie felt some trepidation over what lay ahead. “About 48 hours later, I’m sitting there thinking, What have I said? I don’t think I really meant that at all. I’m feeling better already,” he admitted in 1993. “But too late.”

Bowie’s next moves: “He had made the shift. I think he felt freer”

Ziggy would have an encore of sorts, with Bowie sporting the character’s burnt-red mullet on the front of his Pin Ups covers album and wearing Ziggy-inspired costumes for The 1980 Floor Show, a TV special filmed across three days in October and broadcast in the US a month later. But though he hadn’t immediately ditched the Ziggy regalia – his most famous character’s haunted visage stared out from the front sleeve of 1974’s Diamond Dogs album, as rendered in an iconic Guy Peellaert illustration that remains one of the best David Bowie album covers of all time – Bowie committed to the next in a series of reinventions which would take place with increasing speed.

Less than a year after retiring Ziggy Stardust, he was back on the road with the Diamond Dogs Tour and an even larger-scale stage show which would soon morph into The Soul Tour, paving the way for his “plastic soul” album, 1975’s Young Americans. But only pianist Mike Garson remained from the Ziggy band. “I know I really pissed off Woody [Woodmansey, drummer] and Trevor,” Bowie acknowledged. “They were so angry, I think, because I hadn’t really told them that I was splitting the band up. But that’s what Ziggy did, so I had to do it, too.”

“Things like that happen in all bands,” Garson tells Dig! today. “I really think his creative energy and his Renaissance-man abilities to just change – the real chameleon that he was – he didn’t want to milk it for another 18 months, which we easily could have done. He was somewhere else in his head, and he didn’t want to get stuck in that space… When we did the Diamond Dogs Tour, he had made the shift. I think he felt freer.”

The release: “People would come out cross-eyed”

Bowie may have left Ziggy Stardust behind, but fans continue to want more. After ten years, several edits and a handful of small screenings, DA Pennebaker’s footage of the 3 July 1973 concert was finally given a worldwide cinema release as Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars – but it didn’t tell the whole story. Allegedly concerned that his flares made him seem out of place alongside Bowie’s space-age Spiders that night, Jeff Beck refused to clear his performance footage for use. And though a 2003 DVD reissue – with expanded soundtrack album – featured remastered visuals and a new sound mix from Bowie’s long-term producer, Tony Visconti, it has taken a full 50 years for the complete version of Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust concert to see the light of day.

Trailered by a one-night-only global cinema screening on 3 July 2023, the Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture (50th Anniversary Edition) 2CD and Blu-ray and limited-edition gold double vinyl reissues feature the entire Hammersmith Odeon show, with Jeff Beck’s appearances finally reinstated.

Over decades of screenings, private and public, Pennebaker came to understand that he’d captured a landmark David Bowie performance. “People would come out cross-eyed,” the director recalled while rewatching the footage 30 years later. “It has a profound sexual effect on people – any kind of person. Man, woman, dogs. They come away as if they had gone through some amazing sexual experience… It’s strange but – it’s partly the music and partly just the way he keeps the whole thing in the air. He never lets it fall.”

Buy the 50th-anniversary ‘Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture’ reissues here.

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