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Ziggy and Bowie: Brisbane plays tribute

BY Mia Armitage / Queensland University of Technology | 31-Oct-2016
Within an hour of hearing Bowie had died, director James Lees knew the show had to be about more than just Ziggy. By early January, the first show of the February season of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had sold out. A second show for later that same night had barely any tickets left. A third show was due to be announced when news came of Bowie’s death: 10th January, 2016. “It’s such a thrill, as a creative person, to have a thing like this happen. I mean, I wish it didn’t happen but, creatively, it’s one of those things you wish for…" said keyboardist Parmis Rose. Meanwhile, director Lees Lees decided to donate ten per cent of the show’s proceeds to cancer research because, “let’s be frank, [David Bowie’s death] has boosted our ticket sales”.
Within an hour of hearing Bowie had died, director James Lees knew the show had to be about more than just Ziggy.

By early January, the first show of the February season of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had sold out. A second show for later that same night had barely any tickets left. A third show was due to be announced when news came of Bowie’s death: 10th January, 2016.

That night, Lees decided to donate ten per cent of the show’s proceeds to cancer research because, “let’s be frank, [David Bowie’s death] has boosted our ticket sales”.

The Brisbane musicians playing in the show met three days later.

“It was really daunting, actually. Everyone was really nervous about it”, said Lees on a rare rainy day in Brisbane mid-January.

“The context has changed so much”.

“We got through that first rehearsal and everyone felt really buoyant”.

“Creatively, it’s one of those things you wish for” *

During rehearsal for the show, keyboardist Parmis Rose described what it was like to work on a tribute for an artist who had died during the project.

“It’s such a thrill, as a creative person, to have a thing like this happen. I mean, I wish it didn’t happen but, creatively, it’s one of those things you wish for…" she said. Lees elaborated: “it’s not just about celebrating Ziggy [anymore] it’s about honouring David Bowie as well… it’s not like we have any choice with that”.

* Funeral March *

Out the back of a tiny West End café, halfway during Lees’ interview, sounds of a piano struck up inside.

“Now that he’s gone we are grieving and mourning him even though we don’t know him,” said Lees.

“What we’re actually grieving and mourning is his ability to let us know ourselves.

“As soon as we started rehearsing again this week”, Lees said, at which point the café pianist started playing Chopin’s Funeral March, “instantly every note, every word is all suddenly connected... to all these other things... so it’s become a very emotional show and it’s going to be very emotional for the audience too.

“Everywhere you look in this project the stakes have been raised.

“There is only, as far as I know, one other Bowie show in the world in our position and it’s at Carnegie Hall in bloody New York… their show was organised months ago, like ours.

“I read the statements that the director had made about the show and that the venue had made about the show and it was exactly what we were saying…. it’s totally different now.”

Possibilities of the show (initially only billed for one night) going on tour interstate were being “explored”.

* Ziggy: “like a little movie, really” *

In 2006, Time counted the 1972 recording of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 100 “greatest and most influential musical compilations since 1954”.

Lees, who described himself as “intimately familiar” with all 25 of Bowie’s albums, said he considered staging 1971’s Hunky Dory but Ziggy jumped out at him because of its theatricality.

“That album defines a moment and a time and that character”, he said.

“That character” is the famous Ziggy Stardust, an alien rock star-come-god who came to Earth for its five-year apocalypse and who, by all accounts, put on one hell of a show.

Lees barely took a breath during his explanation of David Bowie’s definitive glam rock opus:

“It was so strong, so out there... I mean if you were a teenager or a young person in the early seventies you just didn’t miss it, you couldn’t have missed it because it was so outlandish but backing this up were these amazing songs that you listen to thirty or forty years later and the phenomenon of Ziggy and the shock of it all, it’s not there anymore, it’s just songs there now and you listen to those songs and what you have is a monumentally beautiful album with every single song advancing the story, pushing the momentum until the big release at the end”.

He paused before adding “it’s like a little movie, really”.

David Bowie was still alive when Lees first decided to stage The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at The Zoo in 2003 as part of Brisbane’s Pride Festival.

* How do you stage Ziggy? *

Lees described the show as “heavily curated and strongly directed by me”, which included handpicking musicians and assigning songs to vocalists, after much “agonising”.

“In the original show it was just Ziggy with a short encore”. This year’s set-list would include almost double the eleven songs recorded on the original album.

In 2004, when Lees directed the Ziggy show for a second time at Brisbane’s art deco Tivoli theatre, as part of a cabaret festival, he “had a smaller band”. More brass would be featured in the 2016 show at the Powerhouse.

“We have one of the best lighting designers in Brisbane [Andrew Meadows] working on the show”.

“No one can be Bowie, no matter how much spandex”

“There’s not going to be any gigantic orange mullet wigs or crazy disc foreheads… there may be a Clockwork Orange reference…” Lees said.

Stanley Kubrik’s futuristic films from the seventies, A Clockwork Orange and 2001: Space Odyssy, were well-known influences on David Bowie’s music and imagery, including costumes.

Last year, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne presented a comprehensive collection of memorabilia from Bowie’s extensive artistic career. The exhibition was rich, colourful and loud. Costumes were a major – literally, massive and mounted – feature.

Bowie is, in part, famous for his costumes.

Ziggy Stardust is, even more than Bowie, famous for his costumes. Video clips, live footage and stills show him stalking the stage and seducing his audiences in bold colours, exaggerated shoulders, androgynous hair and makeup and barely any pants. Is Lees going to downplay Ziggy’s flamboyant style?

“I wanted it to be primarily about the music”, Lees said of his version of Ziggy.

“I wanted the singers to be heightened versions of themselves, representing themselves and their love and their honour of David Bowie’s work and that extends to their costuming.

"Everyone is creating their own costumes for it in the theme… definitely bringing in those wider influences that are part of the wider Ziggy universe which is pulling on things like A Clockwork Orange, 2001, that Japanese aesthetic and all that kinda stuff”.

Singer Brett Harris probably best explained the show's understated approach to Ziggy's costumes when he said, a week later, “no one can be Bowie, no matter how much spandex we put on”.

* No rap on the music *

“Certainly all the Ziggy Stardust album songs are note for note faithful. We are not doing a rap version of anything”, said Lees.

“The songs are going to be played in the original order” he said, and will be “totally faithful versions. I want the audience to feel satisfied”.

“Vocally”, however, the songs will be “very much [reflective of] that particular singer who’s singing that song”.

During rehearsal for the show a week later, drummer Chris Dixon said the diversity in Lees' chosen vocalists (there were eight) was reflective of Bowie's ever-changing alter-egos. Brisbane singer and songwriter Alison St Ledger starred in Lee’s first production of Ziggy.

“She’s one of my key collaborators. I think of her and Lucinda [Shaw, lead vocalist in Silver Circus]… as… my kind of Bowie siblings… they’re my confidants for the show”, said Lees.

Newcomer to the show Brett Harris said “James has chosen the singers based on who he thinks suits the song".

“Sahara [Beck, newcomer] he’s chosen because she has a very unique sound that’s very soulful".

When asked to comment on the songs Lees chose for him to sing, Harris said “it was a pleasant surprise… I wouldn’t have picked them as being my vocal strong points but there’s a sound that he’s trying to get and also a performance style".

* No Ziggy-related B-sides *

“I could have focused on the songs that were meant to be on the album but weren’t… I prefer to take a broader view for two reasons", said Lees.

“I would like the other songs in the show to be songs that more people are familiar with – so all Bowie songs – and songs that I think are from a four-to-five year period around Ziggy.

“A really big reference for this is the Ziggy Stardust live album which was recorded at the final Ziggy show in 1973… here’s what Bowie was playing at the time… songs like Space Oddity, Life on Mars, The Man Who Sold the World”.

* The musicians *

Lees' Facebook page for his Ziggy show said it would boast "an up to 12-piece Brisvegas supergroup featuring members of Silver Sircus, guitarists Kevin Haigh and Jeff Lovejoy, drummer Christopher Dixon, Jimi Beavis on the blues harp and saxophinist Andrew Saragossi".

Singer Brett Harris said “we always talk about Ziggy Stardust but he’s with the Spiders from Mars… you can’t just have Ziggy Stardust and the Backing Band”.

Dixon had provided the beats for the show since its inception. “Back in 2004… it was kind of a bombastic rock band… we’ve kind of decided to pull it back a bit to get a bit more light and shade happening… a bit more attention to detail. It hasn’t lost the intensity but it’s not an onslaught", he said while some of the other band members practiced in a studio beneath guitarist Jeff Lovejoy's home.

Keyboardist Parmis Rose, who described herself as "a real jazz nerd", said “a lot of us from different musical backgrounds have joined.

“To all jam together is really creatively fulfilling.

"I never was really that into David Bowie, it’s all very new… and these guys [Lees and the show's original musicians] are like veterans, they know it back to front… it’s one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever done.

“[Bowie] uses a lot of jazz chords. The way he writes is so accessible to the public yet it’s so complicated when you analyse it… It’s difficult to memorise and it’s difficult to play convincingly because it’s just so beautifully absurd and unique.

“I’m so glad to have discovered him. I don’t think you realise how good he is until you sit down and actually study it and try to play it".

Dixon spoke of his challenges as drummer for the band: “a lot of rhythms play against the melodies… I’m self-taught, so I can’t read music… I have to really listen to what [the drums] are doing and quite often it’s the opposite of what you expect to be happening.

“It’s really challenging… to work against your instinct".

Singer Brett Harris described some of what he'd learned in rehearsals so far: "those melodies that I used to think were simple and beautiful are made so much more complex by the chord progressions that he’ll run under them or the base that will run behind it.

"[Luckily], our rhythm section is genetic". Terry Dixon, Chris Dixon's brother, was playing bass in the show.

Singer Sahara Beck was the youngest member of the group. "I’ve only been listening to Bowie in the last couple of years", she said.

“I’ve made, like, this gypsy jazz cover of Oh! You Pretty Things [from Bowie's Hunky Dory album] but other than that…

“For me the challenge has been moving like him… when he performed he would do… really slow, dramatic, movements… but he never held back and I’m very good at holding back… I’ve been trying to practise how to dance".

The four musicians interviewed agreed that there had been creative disagreements but Dixon said “none of it comes from ego, it all comes from passion”.

Lees summed up the rehearsal process: “the last two rehearsals we had, the rest of the band was applauding each other, it’s almost like a gig. I’ve never had rehearsals like that”.

* Ziggy themes: still relevant? *

Space; alter-egos; gender fluidity; the apocalypse; and 'sex, drugs and rock'n'roll' are just some of the themes in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

This year, Lees’ s Ziggy show was to be presented at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of a “queer arts and cultural” festival called MELT.

“David Bowie was totally a pioneer for the gay and lesbian community world wide in the early seventies," said Lees. "He made extraordinary statements in the music press at the time".

“I think those conversations are as relevant as ever. Talking openly about gender fluidity, sexual fluidity… I mean, you see these conversations raging every day on social media.

“When he’s singing about space I think that he’s making two major metaphorical connections. He’s singing about space and he’s meaning our internal world… but he’s also singing about otherness.

“So when he’s singing about being an alien, which Ziggy is, Ziggy’s not really an alien. He’s singing about being different.”

Artist as alter-ego

Chris Dixon, Harris and Rose shared their experiences of the artist as alter-ego.

“My whole life, up until a few years ago, was a complete persona that came from the person that I could pretend to be on stage," said Dixon, who played with Brisbane band, Charles Foster Kane.

Rose said she felt differently: “I’m the opposite on stage to who I am in real life".

Harris said "I didn’t try to hide behind a persona until I had to step out from behind a guitar".

When Rose described her keyboard as a protective "shell" on stage, Dixon disagreed: “I feel constrained by [my drum kit] now".

Lees said “everyone in this show’s a nanna” but acknowledged that the musicians all had experience in 'sex, drugs and rock'n'roll'. "Absolutely and why not?" he laughed. "It’s loud, it’s escapist… it’s always going to be there".

Must be listened to at maximum volume

The end of the world was defined from the very beginning of the show in the song Five Years, said Lees and served to create a heightened sense of urgency throughout.

Harris closed the conversation: “Bowie said himself, [The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars] must be listened to at maximum volume. You can’t do that in your living room".