❉ An appreciation of David Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’, which recently marked its 45 year milestone.
“Many bands have conceived and realised albums during the mad rush of a non-stop tour, and Bowie himself would modestly concede that he didn’t feel able to write ‘on the road’, but Aladdin Sane is a suitably kaleidoscopic snapshot of what a budding rock star encounters when he gets what he asked for.”
As high concept goes, ‘Ziggy goes to America’ is effectively the way Aladdin Sane was pitched by Bowie to his audience on its keenly awaited release in spring 1973. In stark contrast with the Ziggy album, conceived and realised in the studio with no road-testing, and entirely composed on acoustic guitar and piano, Aladdin Sane was written and recorded on the road (the vividly bright tangerine RCA centre label dutifully informs the listener where each song was composed), and introduced a more fully-blooded Spiders, emboldened by the raw power of the band following their energetic proto-punk performances touring the UK and US (captured on the Santa Monica ’72 official bootleg).
Here, the driving force is a bullishly confident Mick Ronson taking centre-stage with some of the most visceral guitar work of his career, not to mention being a notably more active presence, credited with arrangement and mixing duties in the tradition of Transformer, and there’s a more full-bodied sound including indomitable session singers The Thunder Thighs, Ken Fordham on bux-saxophones and flutes, and former Annette Peacock sideman Mike Garson’s saddening glissandos. It remains to many the ultimate ‘glam slam’ of 1973.
It’s far from a sequel, in much the way that Ziggy was far from a concept album. As a story of a rock star’s rise and fall, Ziggy was an exercise in wish-fulfilment from the perspective of a frustrated cult artist desperate to taste fame. In contrast, Aladdin Sane, Bowie’s first album recorded and released from a position of power, was a field report of his findings, having become “rock’s swishiest outrage” in the UK and having made his first stab at taking on the States.
Mapped out over this more involved sonic territory, are Bowie’s dispatches of a culture as alien as Mars – the fragments of America he glimpsed on his Greyhound bus tour (faithfully journalled in the David Bowie/Mick Rock coffee-table book Moonage Daydream). As he told Alan Yentob’s crew in the acclaimed documentary Cracked Actor, America was “a kind of myth-land for me” – and it did not disappoint, from the Hollywood hot-gossip that informed Cracked Actor, to the backstage encounter with a fellow Bromley Tech alumnus turned gunrunner which inspired Panic In Detroit, and Bowie’s own prolific embracing of cocaine and groupiedom.
Many bands have conceived and realised albums during the mad rush of a non-stop tour, and Bowie himself would modestly concede that he didn’t feel able to write ‘on the road’, but Aladdin Sane is a suitably kaleidoscopic snapshot of what a budding rock star encounters when he gets what he asked for. Bowie was no longer the jealous voyeur-stroke-dreamer of his Deram vignettes.
He also found himself able to go head to head with the major figures of the era. Having already vampirically imbibed the lean, mean efficiency of Mott The Hoople (whose All The Way From Memphis is a picaresque document of their time on the road with Ziggy and MainMan), he next sought to challenge The Rolling Stones, whose Sticky Fingers and Exile From Main Street proved they still had some fight in them, despite being nominally sixties relics, whilst Roxy Music’s recent innovations also haunt the album in places.
This “Stones agenda” first becomes apparent on Watch That Man, while also being a sequel of sorts to Suffragette City in terms of addressing the distractions of rising fame and management pressures (“Oh, Henry, get off the phone” becomes “The girl on the phone will not leave me alone” but the pressure is the same, whether business or pleasure), faithfully duplicates the busy, raucous sound of Exile On Main Street,. The lyrics are pure Bowie, though – it’s unlikely that Jagger and Richards would invoke Benny Goodman and jazz standard Tiger Rag whilst also offering an account of a crucifixion at a party (future echoes of Joe The Lion!), but it’s equally likely to read ‘the man’, the rival, as Jagger, the man whom Bowie sought to depose as his rival, now Marc Bolan’s star was in a declining trajectory. Elsewhere, Bowie makes his mission statement more direct with his full-on assault of Let’s Spend The Night Together. Originally an R&B flavoured paean to making out, Bowie embellishes it with dive-bombing VCS3 synth, splinters of piano and Ronno’s dirty guitar, transforming it from a mogadon-paced frug into an acid-tinged pansexual orgy, complete with Ronno dry-humping his guitar to Bowie’s “Let’s make LOVE… DO IT!”
But it’s not Bowie’s emulation of the Stones that makes Aladdin Sane memorable. It is worth noting that in the period between the release of Ziggy and Aladdin, Roxy Music had arrived in spectacular fashion. If Bowie and Bolan had established something approaching a glam rock template, Roxy proved themselves on Bowie’s wavelength, by injecting a postmodern art sensibility to the affair – what could be called ‘retro-futurism’. The group’s fashions, a combination of Hollywood, Teddy Boy and science fiction kitsch, effectively translated into their music, with Ferry’s smoky ballads and urgent rockers filtered through a sound that was equal parts space-age, lounge music and rockabilly.
Glam Rock’s rise saw a lot of bands jump on the glitter-festooned bandwagon, with outfits that were basically 1950s revivalists or failed bubblegum pop acts, such as Mud, The Sweet, Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust, recasting themselves as glam with judicious use of descending minor chords, T. Rex-esque easily repeatable choruses and phased football stadium drum stomps. Bowie was rightly dismissive of these end-of-pier acts: “I mean, in my feather boas and dresses, I certainly didn’t wanna be associated with the likes of Gary Glitter who was obviously a charlatan…”, Bowie told Brett Anderson in 1993. “We were very miffed that people who had obviously never seen Metropolis and had never heard of Christopher Isherwood were actually becoming glam rockers.” But Roxy were one to watch, as were the New York Dolls across the Atlantic.
So, is it any wonder, that as well as Mike Garson’s piano – concertina-ing the years between the Weimar Republic and the Be Bop era – Bowie also threw into the mix for his new album, a doo-wop groove jutxaposed for your pleasure with bursts of synthesiser explosions and strident horns, as on Drive-In Saturday and The Prettiest Star, in the fashion of Roxy’s retro-futuristic sound?
What always grabbed me, from day one, with Aladdin Sane was the combination of the Spiders’ rock sound and Bowie’s literate, sensual lyrics, with a side order of the more organic additional instrumentation and the electrifying Roxyesque sci-fi leisuretech trappings of Drive-In Saturday, where doo-wop horns battle with Moog squalls, just as ‘future legend’ nostalgic references to Twiggy and Jagger sit inside a post-apocalyptic scenario where survivors of a nuclear-style devastation have forgotten how to make love, and need to watch old porn films to see how it’s done.
First off, the title track. Rock music never did this before. How ballsy to sell a hit album to pop kids, those youthful acolytes, and hit them squarely with a title song that’s not only an askew homage to Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, and then slam them with a deranged, lengthy piano solo incorporating fragmented shards of everything from Tequila to Rhapsody In Blue and would probably be many of those kids’ (self included) first introduction to Jazz… or just as likely, a cry from their parents of “What the fuck is this racket? It sounds like a cat walking over a piano!”
After the balls to the wall, rockunroll debauchery of Watch That Man, it’s a hell of a paradigm shift.
Jump forward to another key track, Panic In Detroit. Praise be for Ken Scott’s production and Mick Ronson’s arrangements, with Ronno’s amazing guitars, Trevor Bolder’s Bo Diddley bass, and Woody Woodmansey’s tumbling and ricocheting percussion, neatly accompanied by a gorgeous samba via old schoolfriend Geoff McCormack’s congas, and the powerful interjections of the Thunder Thighs, with Scott creating a ricocheting wall of sound with effective use of phasing and extreme stereo seperation that’s a mainstay of the album’s distinctive sound – Bowie close-miked and Ronno’s visceral guitar panned hard left.
Lyrically, the song picks up where the Width Of A Circle left off, with the narrator of that older song skipping school to seek his own form of education, this time in the white heat of an urban riot, and his adventures across town recalling the Spring-heeled Jack antics of the protagonist of It Ain’t Easy. The real star here is the sonics, the way Woody’s phased percussion and Bolder’s walking bass combines with the shrieks and wails of Ronno’s guitar and Linda Lewis wailing her heart out like a car siren to aurally recreate a brilliantly funky sound collage of inner city mayhem. Interestingly, Bowie would revisit this track’s manic shuffle for The Heart’s Filthy Lesson over twenty years later.
Cracked Actor is a snarling beast, with Bowie adding some sleazy harmonica to complement Ronno’s grinding, tarty double tracked guitar, making this vignette of a faded Hollywood star – Monty Clift or Rock Hudson? – pimping himself out to rent boys by far one of Bowie’s sluttiest songs, pure filth, powered by hot Hollywood Babylon gossip. “Suck, baby, suck!”
Side two’s tentpole track is arguably The Jean Genie, here in a sturdier form than the maraca-heavy rough mix that graced the Number 2 hit single pipped to the top spot in January 1973’s by The Sweet’s Blockbuster, which infamously mined the same Muddy Waters via Yardbirds blues riff. Although its title is a pun on underground gay icon Jean Genet (Our Lady Of The Flowers), it’s a homage in all but name to the artist formerly known as James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, the ultimate personification of everything about American culture that fascinated and enthralled Bowie: A vagabond and an intellectual (“He’s outrageous, screams and he bawls”).
After a fashion, Iggy would cease to be a figure of hero worship for the boy from Bromley, and become a collaborator/pet project and best friend, but the one constant in his lifelong association with Bowie would be that Pop represented something that Bowie could only emulate, but never embody – something raw, intuitive and animalistic – and to the end, both men envied in the other the qualities they did not possess.
The penultimate song I want to look at is Time. One of his all time greats in my book, a theatrical number that always worked well live, advancing the existential concerns of Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide, introducing the word “wanking” to rock (when I was a young, innocent Bowiephile I had the foolishness to ask my very stoic and sensible dad, after hearing this song during a long car journey, “Dad, what does wanking mean?” to which he sagely responded, “I’ll tell you when we get out of Kidderminster.”) and Bowie at his most melodramatic and queer, making – as Charles Shaar Murray punningly quipped, “a clean Brecht of things”.
We, and the album, leave with Lady Grinning Soul. There’s no doubt that it is a sexy song, but what’s troubling is it’s from the perspective of a man intimidated by the ‘otherness’ of woman. Which is probably why as a naive, inexperienced, incipient queer, it felt strangely exotic. But, it does have one of the most gloriously florid and grand endings of any Bowie album ever, as Garson brings the album to its melodramatic conclusion with a flourish.
At one point, the Spiders’ own recording of All The Young Dudes, such a big hit for Mott The Hoople, was slated for inclusion on Aladdin Sane. It was a rousing call to arms for Ziggy’s children, to whom the Beatles and Stones were yesterday’s news, and were waiting for a new figurehead to fill the leadership void. It’s amazing that, in 1972, Bowie was in a position where he could give away such a stone-cold classic to another band, and Mott’s version remains definitive, as his own take on the song – recorded for, but omitted from, Aladdin Sane – chugs along at a sluggish, funereal pace in comparison, as you can hear from its inclusion on latter-day compilations such as RarestOneBowie and The Very Best of 1969-1974.
Similarly, a harder rocking revibe of John I’m Only Dancing was also a contender. This was his first single released from a position of celebrity – having already had two milestone shows in the form of the Save The Whale concert (where Lou Reed joined Bowie for the encores) and the Ziggy Stardust Show at the Rainbow Theatre, with choreography by Lindsay Kemp, young guns Roxy Music as support act and Elton John in attendance – and so seems designed to be provocative, consolidating Bowie’s image in the press as a “magnificent outrage”. It’s a devastatingly effective glam pop record on various levels. In terms of pop single simplicity, it clocks in at two minutes and forty-odd seconds and consist of two verses and a repeated chorus; an efficiency that is rare in the Bowie canon and anticipates the short, sharp shocks of punk and new wave singles by The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks, as does the delayed feedback ending, which is uncannily like that of Anarchy In The UK three years later – as light-fingered guitar hero Steve Jones could testify, the bitter comes out better from a stolen guitar.
Lyrically, it really ups the ante in terms of being sexually forward, presenting a bisexual scenario at a disco – presumably inspired by Bowie and Angie’s forays to the Sombrero Club. The song is a postcard-slight vignette in which the male protagonist finds his attentions torn between his boyfriend (“comes on strong, bet your life he’s putting it on”) and the sexually voracious Annie (“always eats the meat”); the singer protests “she turns me on, but I’m only dancing”, but in the second verse, he’s caught having a quickie with the girl (“Shadow love was quick and clean”) by his boyfriend, related with the guilty “I saw you watching from the stairs, you’re everyone that ever cared”.
In retrospect it all sounds pretty slutty, not exactly doing much to counter the deathless stereotype of bisexual men being unfaithful and promiscuous, but at the same time, John, I’m Only Dancing is remarkable in that it described a non-monosocial situation AT ALL. Interestingly, the song never received a US release until the original single mix appeared on Changesonebowie in 1976, although allegedly it sold well on import in the Deep South…
Aladdin Sane kicks off with an ugly, distorted, blare of guitar and Bowie mimicking Jagger and Iggy, low down in the mix, and closes with a decadent trill of Romantic piano trills and Dame David shreaking theatrically “She will be your living end!”, with one eye to the European histrionics that will soon provide his future direction.
In the intervening 42 minutes, the leper messiah has taken the listener through a journey of vicarious thrills that remains the most bracing living document of the rise of ascendancy from cult artist to pop figurehead committed to tape. “Uh, huh-huh, huh-huh, you’ll make it” – and he did. Never again would the sound of a young man discovering all the pain and pleasure of a whiplash-quick ascendancy to fame, fortune and all the decadence it promised be so electrifying and intoxicating. It still holds up as a powerful album, and that’s thanks to not only Bowie but also the stellar constellation of talents in his orbit.
❉ Originally released by RCA Victor in April 1973, ‘Aladdin Sane’ has been reissued numerous times and 2013 remaster of the album was included in the 2015 box set ‘Five Years 1969–1973’ and re-released separately, in 2015–2016, in CD, vinyl and digital formats