Spiders From Mars

In 1997, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor discovered what have come to be referred to as “spiders” on the surface of Mars. Several years later, a team of scientists was able to determine the cause of these spider-like formations on the surface of Mars. I can’t say I fully understand the explanation, but it’s clear enough that arachnids are not crawling around on the surface of Mars.

The image of spiders from Mars is most closely associated with David Bowie, of course. The Spiders from Mars were his backing band in the early 1970s: Mick Ronson played guitar, Trevor Bolder, who died recently, was on bass, and Mick Woodmansey played the drums. They had been known as The Hype, though with Tony Visconti on bass, but were renamed more or less by default because of the title of David Bowie’s classic 1972 LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. They were with Bowie for another year or so, but then Bowie announced on the final show of the tour that the group would be disbanding. This show was captured in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture. Pennebaker’s approach worked well with Bowie’s visual style, giving the concert an other-worldly feel. I have a memory of seeing this broadcast long ago on ABC, and I set my tape recorder next to the TV to record the audio (it was a less technologically advanced time). The strangest thing I remember about that ABC broadcast is that they bleeped out the word “suicide” from the song “Rock & Roll Suicide.” Apparently, however, the word “suicide” is commonly censored on MTV, at least according to the NY Daily News, who quoted a spokeswoman for MTV as saying, ” ‘Because we know [suicide] is an issue that so many members of our audience struggle with, we do not take any references to suicide lightly’ ”

Bowie performed “Rock & Roll Suicide” right after shocking the audience with what sounded like him announcing his retirement. He didn’t retire, of course, but he and The Spiders from Mars did go their separate ways after that tour. According to Mick Woodmansey, the split came about after the band members got into an argument with David Bowie and manager Tony Defries about their pay. Mike Garson, who was the new keyboardist for the band, asked Woodmansey if he was going to buy the Lamborghini he was eying in a magazine. Woodmansey told Garson how little he was actually making and was shocked to find out that Garson was already making three times that amount, which led to the confrontation. The Spiders were able to renegotiate their pay but the fight permanently damaged relations between the Spiders, Bowie and Defries.

The Spiders From Mars went on to record without Bowie, releasing Spiders From Mars in 1976. Needless to say, this LP did not have the same impact as Ziggy Stardust, nor did Mick Ronson’s solo albums. Still, Mick Ronson exercised a strong influence over subsequent generations of guitarists. According to Steve Taylor,

Ronson was responsible for a large part of the arranging that went into the early Bowie albums, and for the influence of these albums on musicians to come. The singer may addressed themes of destruction, apocalypse and nihilism in his lyrics and performance, which provided a new angle for rock writing, especially on an album like Diamond Dogs which was based on George Orwell’s 1984, but it was Ronson’s guitar style that inspired the next generation of bands. Virtually every punk guitarist, from Johnny Thunders to Steve Jones and Mick Jones, owes something to Ronson. Bowie used Ronson’s departure as a starting point for his own music experimentation.” (A to X of Alternative Music, p. 45)

After parting with the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie discarded the Ziggy Stardust character and entered a long period of influential musical experimentation.

The image of spiders from Mars has popped up in a variety of places. Not surprisingly, this image was used in science fiction of the 1950s. The spider in Earth vs. The Spider may have been from Mars, but the spider’s origins were never explained in the movie—in fact, this movie left a lot unexplained. Teenagers find a gigantic spider, and then an exterminator uses a ridiculous amount of DDT to kill it. For whatever reason, they then dump the spider’s body in the high school gym where a local rock and roll combo is playing. While the kids are all digging the music, the crazy sounds rouse the spider from the dead.  Of course this movie got the MST3K treatment.

 

In The Angry Red Planet, four astronauts travel to Mars and do battle with a large spider-like monster. In his encyclopedic reference book of 1950s sci-fi films, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren describes this creature as a “graceful/awkward, almost surrealistic bat-rat-spider martian monster.” The strange visual effects in this movie were the result of “Cinemagic,” which never caught on, apparently.

 

The image of spiders from Mars was also used to great effect in a couple of radio science fiction shows from the 1950s. In “A Veteran Comes Home,” an episode of the radio science fiction series 2000 Plus, a soldier returns from a war on Mars and is unable to communicate the horrors of war to his young son. This show, which first aired on July 5, 1950, is clearly a reference to World War II and the difficulties faced by returning GIs. In a flashback we get a sense of the traumatizing effects of his wartime experience. The returning soldier remembers, among other things, fearsome Martian spiders that brought a painful death.

“A Veteran Comes Home” (2000 Plus, originally broadcast July 5, 1950)

A different perspective is given in “The Martian Death March”, which was first aired on January 14, 1951, as an episode of Dimension X, and later remade as an episode of X Minus One on September 8, 1955. The death march referenced in the title is not the infamous Bataan Death March from World War II, but rather the Trail of Tears, where Native Americans were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in the 1830s. That is, human colonizers on Mars force beleaguered martian spiders to relocate. One man comes to their defense and is regarded as crazy by the rest of the humans on Mars. His message is that all living creatures are our brothers, even something as alien as spiders from Mars.

“The Martian Death March” (Dimension X, originally broadcast January 14, 1951)

More recent references to spiders from Mars have come in video games, as a couple of online video games used this image in different ways. In Spiders of Mars, the spiders are the antagonists. You have to defend Stonehenge from invading “Zombie-Martian-Spider-Robots.” In my hapless attempts to play this game, the spiders from Mars overran Stonehenge (which somehow renders Earth defenseless) within a matter of seconds each time. A better (and more provocatively named) game is the Adult Swim online game Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars. “The name came first,” explains creator Anna Anthropy, and she explains that it took her some time and effort to come up with a game worthy of the name. In this game you are the spider queen and you have to subdue your foes with your web. If you don’t have the patience to play this game all the way out, and don’t mind watching others play video games, a YouTube video shows a complete play of the game in all its 8-bit glory.

The phrase “Spiders from Mars” has an entry in the Urban Dictionary and in recent years the phrase “X and the Spiders from Mars” has itself become a trope. This phrase is employed for a variety of purposes, but usually to convey a feeling of not belonging or of being alienated. The image of spiders from Mars has been used in a variety of ways, from photo exhibits to plays to comic books. Though David Bowie has long since left this persona behind, he continues to be identified with it. An endangered species of spider was named after David Bowie in an effort to raise awareness about endangered species.

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