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Rock’n’Roll Suicide: Behind The David Bowie Song That Foretold Ziggy’s Doom
Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Rock’n’Roll Suicide: Behind The David Bowie Song That Foretold Ziggy’s Doom

Closing the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album, the song Rock’n’Roll Suicide was arguably David Bowie’s first theatrical masterstroke.

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The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is often considered to be a concept album, but as David Bowie was working on it, across the end of 1971 and early 1972, he seemed to be going for feel rather than cohesive narrative. Certainly, songs such as Ziggy Stardust and Starman introduced the characters that would populate – and, ultimately, come to engulf – Bowie over the coming 18 months, while Five Years, the album’s opening track, acted as brink-of-the-apocalypse scene-setter. But there was nothing so structured as a plot to hold it all together. However, when Bowie recorded the song Rock’n’Roll Suicide, he found the perfect emotional and thematic curtain-closer for his breakthrough album.

Here’s the story behind Rock’n’Roll Suicide, and how David Bowie created the dramatic full stop to The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

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The recording: “He actually went all out on that track”

Bowie had already assembled a working version of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars in December 1971. Released as a Record Store Day exclusive in 2024, under the title Waiting In The Sky, it contained covers (Round And Round, Chuck Berry; Amsterdam, Jacques Brel) and a pair of originals (a re-recording of the 1971 A-side, Holy Holy; the newly penned Velvet Goldmine) that Bowie would ultimately drop in order to make way for a collection of fresh recordings. Seeking the right single to introduce the project to what he hoped would be his biggest audience yet, he went back into London’s Trident Studios on 4 February 1972, cutting three tracks in a single day: Starman, Suffragette City and Rock’n’Roll Suicide.

The first two songs would be paired for single release in April, with Starman subsequently launching Bowie into overnight fame after an Earth-shaking Top Of The Pops appearance brought him into to unsuspecting households that summer. After such an opening act, Rock’n’Roll Suicide was the obvious finale: deftly arranged, passionately sung, it had all the grandeur of a show tune; all the precision-tooled impact of an anthem that would soon have Bowie’s growing legion fans clambering over each other to comply with his closing cries: “Gimme your hands!”

Increasingly confident with his musical shape-shifting, Bowie sought to bring two ostensibly incompatible styles together in Rock’n’Roll Suicide. Its opening verses – building from solo acoustic strum and vocals to a full-band arrangement replete with horns and strings – carried intimations of a 50s rock’n’roll groove underneath the glittery flecks of 70s glam nostalgia. When, a little past the midway point, the orchestra punches through, following a promise that each and every one of Bowie’s fans would hear as being made directly to them – “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone” – the song shifts into an entirely different register, guitarist Mick Ronson’s string arrangement accompanying Bowie’s emotive vocals all the way through to the final widescreen flourish. “He actually went all out on that track,” Ziggy Stardust co-producer Ken Scott would later reflect of Ronson’s charts, written for a seven-piece brass section comprising of trumpets, trombones, and tenor and baritone saxophones.

To complement Ronson’s work and ensure the song ended with the truly dramatic denouement it demanded, Bowie recorded his vocals in two different ways, with Scott editing the takes together for maximum impact. “We needed two distinct vocal sounds for this song, very up close and controlled and then David blasting,” the producer explained in an essay accompanying the Bowie box set Five Years (1969-1973). “We set the level for David to sing quietly and really close to the mic, then recorded the first take of the first three verses and stopped. David stepped back a little, I got a new level setting, we recorded until the song’s end and that’s the performance you hear.”

Speaking to Performing Songwriter almost three decades later, Bowie revealed that he’d always intended for Rock’n’Roll Suicide to take the shape of “a 50s rock-flavoured thing with an Edith Piaf nuance on it”. “There was a sense of French chanson in there,” he added. “It wasn’t obviously a 50s pastiche, even though it had that rhythm that said total 50s. But it actually ends up as being a French chanson… Nobody was doing that, at least not in the same way.”

The lyrics: “Rock’n’Roll Suicide was the declaration of the end of the effect of being young”

Lyrically, Rock’n’Roll Suicide owed a direct debt to Jacques Brel, whose songs Bowie had become enamoured with. Talking Vanity Fair through his all-time favourite albums in 2003, Bowie selected the cast recording of Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, a 1968 stage show based on the Belgian singer’s music, as one of his entries. As well as featuring the songs Amsterdam – as once considered for inclusion on Ziggy Stardust – and My Death – often played solo by Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour – the album featured a recording of Jef, whose opening line Mort Shuman had translated into the lyric Bowie folded in to Rock’n’Roll Suicide with such heart-stopping flair: “No, love, you’re not alone”.

Raiding Brel’s Le Vieux (Old Folks) for further burdens to saddle his Ziggy character with (“You live so far away when you’ve lived too long” became “You walk past the café, but you don’t eat when you’ve lived too long”), Bowie also took Rock’n’Roll Suicide’s arresting opening line, “Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth”, from a poem whose sentiment he recalled as “something to the effect of life is a cigarette, smoke it in a hurry or savour it”. Baudelaire was given as a source, but Bowie scholars have since identified a closer match in Manual Machado’s Chants Andalous, which translates as “Life is a cigarette/Cinder, ash and fire/Some smoke it in a hurry/Others savour it”. As filtered by Bowie, the lyrics set the perfect mood for his observation of a lonely figure scurrying into the shadows, “too old to lose it, too young to choose it”.

All this musing on isolation and mortality closed Ziggy Stardust on a note that would leave listeners considering their own existence. “Rock’n’Roll Suicide was the declaration of the end of the effect of being young,” Bowie would later allow, citing The Who’s My Generation, featuring Pete Townshend’s immortal line “I hope I die before I get old”, as an antecedent to his own exploration of “the idea of a rock star as meteor” – otherworldly; burning brightly but destined for an early end.

In time, and while considering adapting The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars into a stage musical, Bowie would see in Rock’n’Roll Suicide ideas that could be fleshed out into a narrative that had only been alluded to on the album. Adding beings known as Infinites to his cast of characters (“They really are a black hole,” he would tell Beat Generation novelist William S Burroughs, “but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage”), and having Ziggy believe himself “a prophet of the future Starman”, Bowie positioned Rock’n’Roll Suicide as the song that Ziggy Stardust performs when, as he further explained to Burroughs, in a conversation published in NME on 28 February 1974, the Infinites “tear him to pieces on stage”.

For Bowie, who had hung up his Ziggy Stardust persona less than a year earlier, that end had begun to feel all too real a possibility.

The legacy: “It’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you”

After bringing The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars to a close, there was only ever going to be one position the song could take in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour setlists. Ending almost every concert of the era, the song provided catharsis for both Bowie and the increasingly frenzied audiences who seemed mere moments away from subjecting Bowie to Ziggy’s fate, as Bowie teased them with one final chance to make contact – “You’re wonderful!” – while remaining frustratingly out of reach – “Gimme your hands!”

Not that this was an accident. Bowie later told Vanity Fair that two songs from James Brown’s bar-raising 1963 concert album, Live At The Apollo – Try Me and Lost Someone – had been “loose inspirations” for Rock’n’Roll Suicide, and it was on stage that this unlikely influence became apparent. A master showman who knew exactly how to manipulate an audience, Brown developed a closing set-piece that would see him, exhausted and seemingly beyond the point of delivering any more, draped in a cape and huddled off stage, only to return, defiant, to continue to live up to his nickname of “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business”.

For Bowie, there would be no return after Rock’n’Roll Suicide, but the song would provide its own dramatic climax at the end of an ambitious stage show that blurred the lines between theatre and rock concert. Staged fainting sometimes followed a performance of Rock’n’Roll Suicide, while, on at least one occasion, Bowie truly did pass out after singing the song. “After the song ended, he fell on the floor,” Mike Garson recalled of the 14 February 1973 show that Bowie played at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, during which Salvador Dalí and Bette Midler were in the audience. “He definitely went unconscious for a while and then the doctors, nurses came in and he was fine but… it was scary.”

The biggest shock was, however, reserved for 3 July 1973, when Bowie prefaced Rock’n’Roll Suicide with a short and simple speech that immediately took on lasting significance for Bowie, his band and his fans alike.

“Everybody, this has been one of the greatest tours of our life,” he said, moments before playing the final song of what fans were about to learn would be the last ever Ziggy Stardust concert. “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.”

And with that, Rock’n’Roll Suicide fulfilled what had always seemed to be its destiny. Bowie may not have been torn limb from limb at the end of that night’s performance, but the Ziggy Stardust character he had created, and whose fate Rock’n’Roll Suicide had foretold, would be dead and buried by the morning.

Rock’n’Roll Suicide itself would receive occasional resurrection, first in a surprise single release, on 11 April 1974, backed with the Hunky Dory song Quicksand. Bowie’s previous single, the brand-new song Rebel Rebel, was less than two months old at that point, but for those who’d missed the message in his strutting kiss-off to all things glam-rock, the Ziggy Stardust closer truly drew a line under the era, just weeks ahead of the release of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album.

The song would reappear in an altogether different guise later that year, Bowie giving it a soulful makeover on the Diamond Dogs Tour, before working up a brooding arrangement for the Isolar II shows of his “Heroes” era. After bringing it into commission one final time, as part of the retrospective Sound+Vision shows of 1990, Bowie retired Rock’n’Roll Suicide for good.

“At that youthful age you cannot believe that you’ll lose the ability to be this enthusiastic and all-knowing about the world, life and experience,” Bowie once said, looking back at the young man who had written Rock’n’Roll Suicide. “You think you’ve probably discovered all the secrets to life.” For an ever-questing artist, however, there was always more to discover. On the brink of his most experimental decade since the 70s, rock’n’roll – and Rock’n’Roll Suicide – had, for the moment at least, done all it could for him. It had been wonderful. Give him a hand.

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