Trixie Friganza, actor and suffragette
Bowie's “Suffragette City” first appeared on the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
. The album is largely a concept album based on the life of the fictitious rock star and Bowie's alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. “Suffragette City” was recorded towards the end of the Ziggy Stardust sessions and ended up replacing the homo-erotic “Velvet Goldmine” on the album. “Suffragette City” was released as the B-side to hit single “Starman.” Although the album was mastered to include a lead-in from “Ziggy Stardust,” Bowie never played the two songs this way in concert. Considering the content of the rest of the album, “Suffragette City” seems out of place, with lyrics that some have even termed meaningless.
The suffrage movement in the US began in the late 19th Century. It was only in 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote nationwide. However, in California, women had won the right to vote in 1911. Thanks to the efforts of Californian suffragists, the bill giving women the right to vote won approval in state legislature as early as 1893, but was vetoed by the governor as unconstitutional. Not giving up that easily, the suffragists continued their struggle. In 1911, only two counties stood in the way of women having the right to vote: Alameda and San Francisco. But, thanks to the smaller towns and valley communities, the vote ended in favour of the suffragists almost a decade before any other state passed the amendment.
Today San Francisco is still considered one of the most progressive cities in the States, especially when it comes to gay rights. The Bay Area has a higher number of same-sex households compared with any other metropolitan area, with LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) individuals making up over 15% of the population. Perhaps this acceptance of LGBT individuals was more important to gender bending David Bowie than the women's right to vote. In 1971, more than 2,000 gay men had been arrested in San Francisco. Harvey Milk – the first openly gay person to be elected to public office – moved from New York to San Francisco amidst the mass exodus from less accepting areas to the Castro District in Eureka Valley in 1972. Milk used his position in public office to pass a gay rights ordinance for the city before his assassination in 1978. Despite the tragic loss of a man considered the most important LGBT political figure in the history of US politics, the city remained true to Milk's vision as a haven for those ostracized from their home communities due to sexual orientation.
Oakland Bay Bridge
“Suffragette City,” originally offered to Mott the Hoople, uses a piano riff inspired by Little Richard, an ARP synthesizer for the expansive saxophone sound, and references the cult classic novel A Clockwork Orange
by including the term “droogie” used in the book to mean friend
. Bowie also including the lyric “Wham Bam, thank you Ma'am,” borrowing this catchy phrase from Charles Mingus' 1961 album Oh Yeah
. Some think “Henry” in the song refers to Henry Miller, the controversial writer and painter, and that the lyrics should read, “Oh don't lean on me man, cause you can't afford the chicken
,” as “chicken” was a slang term referring to a gay man. However, the official lyrics read “...you can't afford the ticket
“Suffragette City” became one of Bowie's most notorious live concert pieces. Never one to shy away from controversy, Bowie caused quite a stir on stage in 1972. At the end of “Suffragette City,” Bowie positioned himself in front of his guitarist to play the instrument with his mouth. This simulated fellatio, which was still illegal across most of the US at the time. Of course, Bowie insisted photographs of his “sex act” be published immediately and reserved an entire spread in the British magazine Melody Maker
for that purpose.
The song was re-issued as a single in 1976 to promote the compilation Changesonebowie
, but the single failed to chart. Despite this seeming failure, “Suffragette City” has since been covered by numerous bands including Boy George, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Duran Duran, Turbonegro, and even Wakefield, as included on the soundtrack for the Olsen twins film New York Minute
While Bowie has certainly made rock & roll history and deserves his title as one of the greatest rock stars of the 20th Century, “Suffragette City” probably isn't the song he'll be remembered for.
~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include
Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and
The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.
Suffragette City Songfacts
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