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40 Years Ago: David Bowie Makes His Last Appearance As Ziggy Stardust

David Bowie
Express, Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Ziggy played guitar for the final time 40 years ago today. On July 3, 1973, David Bowie retired his most famous — and career-defining — alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, after a triumphant sold-out concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon Theatre.

It had been a whirlwind year and a half for Bowie, who released his fifth album, ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,’ more than a year before. The tour in support of the record actually began in February 1972, two months after the release of his breakthrough album, ‘Hunky Dory.’ By the time it wrapped up with a pair of sold-out shows in London 17 months later, Bowie’s next album, ‘Aladdin Sane,’ had been released.

Bowie played around with image before. On his debut album, he was essentially a folksinger stuck between vintage Music Hall and paisley-toned flower-power. But in Ziggy Stardust he created a persona that not only served as the main character of his best album, but also summed up his place in rock history. Ziggy was positively flashy, probably gay and literally out of this world.

So when he and his band — which included Mick Ronson on guitar — took Ziggy Stardust on the road, with Bowie dressed as the character, they transformed concert halls into center-stage platforms that absorbed and fed on Ziggy’s massive ego. It was showmanship at its grandest and one of rock’s most ambitious tours, which played the U.K., North America and Japan for a total of 60 concerts.

The tour zigzagged across the globe before settling back into England in May 1973. By the time it reached London at the beginning of July, Bowie had had enough. During the band’s set on July 3, he told the audience, “Of all the shows on the tour this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, it’s the last show we’ll ever do.”

While some fans took Bowie’s purposely vague statement to mean he would never play live again, he was simply hanging up Ziggy’s jumpsuit. The final concert is now known as the Retirement Gig. At least he went out in style, performing an 18-song set heavy on ‘Hunky Dory,’ ‘Aladdin Sane’ and, of course, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ material. Jeff Beck even joined the band onstage for a medley of ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Love Me Do.’

The concert was filmed for a concert documentary, which omits some portions of the show (including the Beck songs and parts of Bowie’s farewell speech). Portions of it showed up on a live album too.

The myths and legends surrounding the final show immediately hit. One persistent rumor is that audience members, so upset by the news of Bowie’s retirement, sated themselves by having a mass orgy in the seats. But like so much else in Bowie’s world over the years, it’s never been confirmed. But if any rock ‘n’ roll star could bring an entire audience to its knees (or backs), it’s the well-hung starman with a snow-white tan.

Next: Top 10 '70s David Bowie Tracks

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