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Aladdin Sane (2003)
'It was almost like a treading-water album, but funnily enough, in retrospect, for me, it's the more successful album, because it's more informed about rock'n'roll than Ziggy was.' - David Bowie on Aladdin Sane, 1993.
'He's the most provocative figure in modern music He recedes from your grasp, even as he reveals himself. Now you see him, now you don't. Roll up, roll up, I give you the new Wizard of Rock!' - Mick Rock on David Bowie, 1973.
It's a measure of Bowie's peculiar talent that sometimes even those records which on the surface may appear to have mere B-movie quality ultimately become bona fide blockbusters. With little of the pre-planning that had made Ziggy Stardust such a triumph, its follow-up, Aladdin Sane, arguably packs a mightier punch. It's a record that defines the high-glam period of the spring and summer of 1973, a period that indisputably belonged to David Bowie.
By the day of its release, 13 April 1973, Aladdin Sane had already chalked up advance sales of 100,000, making it the fastest-selling British pop album since the heyday of the Beatles. It became Bowie's first UK Number 1, a position held for five weeks. The album contained two Top 3 singles in 'The Jean Genie' and 'Drive-In Saturday', and was also the first Bowie album to reach the US Top 20. Indeed, Aladdin Sane heralded a period of chart dominance for Bowie. During the summer of 1973, Bowie had five albums in the UK Charts at the same time for a total of 19 weeks.
Much of the album had been written when Bowie and the Spiders were bringing their brand of peculiarly English rock theatre to the American public the previous autumn. Talking to the Melody Maker a month after it's release, Bowie said: 'Aladdin Sane was written quickly, and really without much thought as to what it was about.' 'I think Aladdin was more in the area of "Ziggy Goes To America"', Bowie later told broadcaster and writer Paul Gambaccini in 1993.
'I kind of knew that I had said all that I could say about Ziggy, and what I'd end up doing would be "Ziggy Part 2". I thought, well, you know, I'm very tempted to go further with this Ziggy thing only because it's so popular, but actually it's not really what I want to do as an interim measure I did this 'Ziggy Goes To America"'.
Bowie's American experience was simultaneously thrilling and destabilising. Audiences at the time liked their theatricality with ample doses of kitsch, as witnessed by the success at the time of Alice Cooper, and the slightly later triumph of Kiss. But they appeared ambushed by the more dangerous level at which Bowie operated. Although, compared with the later Diamond Dogs tour, there was comparatively little elaborate staging, the sight of a male lead guitarist being mock-fellated by a male singer in make-up was never going to be easy to swallow. For every sold-out show in Cleveland, every ecstatic reception in New York and Philadelphia, there would be a disaster somewhere else. In St Louis, for example, just 180 tickets were sold out of a possible 11,000. More fool them.
For the twenty-five-year-old Bowie, the impact of the tour was profound. On the one hand, the whole trip hotwired his muse.
'I think for any Englishman that goes to America for the first time they probably write some of their best stuff. I don't know how much of a culture shock it is now But I think for us back then, going to America was it. It used to blow us away. It was our language, but it was this other world, and for me, of course, wanting this other world, I just fell into it completely. Here was this alternative world that I'd been talking about, and it had all the violence, and all the strangeness and bizarreness, and it was really happening. It was real life and it wasn't just in my songs. Suddenly my songs didn't seem so out of place. All the situations that we were going through were duly noted down and all the remarks I had heard, real Americanisms that caught my ear. Just the look of certain places like Detroit really caught my imagination because it was such a rough city and it almost looked like the kind of place that I was writing about. I thought, "Christ, these places really exists and people live in them!" I thought, I wonder if Kubrick has seen this town? It makes his kind of world in Clockwork Orange look kind of pansy!'
On the other hand, the fan adulation, the grind of touring, and the selling of Bowie as a superstar, was difficult to cope with. Although a peacock on stage, Bowie was, in reality, rather quiet and intense, as enthused by art, film and literature as he was by rock'n'roll and the smell of greasepaint. Bowie's manager at the time, Tony Defries, hit upon the idea of selling him to the American public as if he were already a massive star. The touring entourage drank only the best champagne in the best hotels. Bowie was somewhat ambivalent about the oversell: 'I never believed a hype could be made of an artist before the artist had got anywhere. That's what happened you see. I didn't like it.' Bowie's dissatisfaction, and his confusion at having broken through in Europe in 1972 as a bona fide pop star, yet as a rather phoney one in America, could well have been one of the motors behind the more troubled scenarios of the Aladdin Sane period.
'The Jean Genie' was the first new track to be recorded. Recorded on 6 October 1972 at RCA in New York, it was played live the next night at a gig in Chicago, released as a single at the end of November, and in the UK Top 20 by Christmas. The pace of events is astonishing by today's standards of six-month promotional lead-ins and three-year gaps between records, but this was how the industry worked back then: popular songs were immediate events. It's one of Bowie's favourites. In 2000, he told Radio 2:
'"The Jean Genie" was an ode to Iggy, I guess, or the 'Iggy-type' person - white trash, trailer-park kid thing - the closet intellectual who wouldn't want the world to know that he reads. I think it's a really good song and I actually enjoy playing it and singing it. It's one of the few that I can keep going back to. I guess it's because it is essentially rooted in straight old-fashioned blues. I mean, it's basically Muddy Waters' "I'm A Man", isn't it?'
A song with an almost identical riff, 'Blockbuster', from fellow label-mates The Sweet, kept Bowie off the top spot. '"The Jean Genie" was done to be a big hit', says Ken Scott today. 'Yeah, it's cute, but it's not one of my favourites.'
For the single release, Bowie called upon young photographer Mick Rock to work on a promotional film. Rock had already worked on footage for an as yet unreleased promo for 'Moonage Daydream', and also on the film for Bowie's autumn hit, 'John, I'm Only Dancing', which was subsequently banned by British television. Rock was well in with Mainman, Bowie's management company, and had earned the title of 'official photographer to David Bowie', chiefly because he was both very good, and very cheap. In fact, he came very cheap indeed. Rock remembers the 'living theatre' of the times:
'The whole game was theatre. It was, like, David going to America with three bodyguards. When he got to America, yes, there was interest in certain areas, but if you went to the Midwest, you couldn't drag people off the streets to see him. It was part of the theatre to treat him like a star. And there I was; I came very cheap - in fact, I came for nothing! Defries could then start talking about David having "an exclusive photographer". People were saying, "David Bowie's got an exclusive photographer. Who the fuck is David Bowie?" The people reasoned: "If he's got an exclusive photographer and bodyguards, there must be something going on." That was a piece of living theatre, if you like, part of the whole thing that Tony and David cooked up between them.'
The promo for 'The Jean Genie' was shot over two days in San Francisco, with a minimum of sophistication but a maximum of commitment. Jerry Slick, Grace Slick's first husband, was the cameraman for the shots of Bowie and the Spiders in the studio, and glamorous blonde Cyrinda Foxe, some say the addresses of the song, was added to provide, as Rock says, 'some local colour':
'We shot Bowie and Cyrinda on the streets outside the Mars Hotel fairly early in the day. He played the Winterland that night - I remember Sylvester and his band were one of the support acts. I viewed the footage we had the next morning, and thought we didn't have enough stuff, but, of course, there was no more budget. Somehow I got some more dollars off Defries to rent an Arriflex camera, a silent one, and I went and shot all the live stuff myself the next night, because David did two nights at the Winterland. So, I filmed him singing "The Jean Genie" that night, processed overnight and, because there was no time, edited in one ten-hour rush. If you look at it now, there are no effects whatsoever - they're all cuts. But lots of the cuts were a matter of necessity because I had to chop it up a lot to keep everything in synch with his live performance, which was fairly close to the recorded version, as he'd only just recorded it. Necessity, as ever, is often the mother of interesting art, and it certainly was in this case.
Bowie's next move was to lay down tracks for the new album at the RCA Studios in New York. Ken Scott, who had been flown in as producer, recalls one particular incident when the whole session was almost cancelled. At the time, the studios in New York were heavily unionised. Scott, for example, was not permitted to take on any of the duties of the in-house studio engineer, Mike Moran.
'The engineer and the second had gone out to dinner, and hadn't come back yet, and we were all in the studio, ready to go to record the next song. So, I just hit one switch on the board so that they could hear themselves in the headphones, and we started working on the next song. Meanwhile, the engineer came back, and he just lost it! He shouted, "You're not allowed to do that! We could call a strike and close the whole place down. You're not in the union!" We managed to calm him down and continue, though, for a while I thought we were going to have a complete strike on our hands!'
The tracks cut in New York included Bowie's own version of Mott The Hoople's 'All The Young Dudes', plus the song which would become a Number 3 hit single the following spring, 'Drive-In Saturday'. The latter had been written on a long train journey from Seattle to Phoenix, and was inspired in part by some futuristic domes lit by moonlight Bowie saw on the way, hence the couplet 'Perhaps the strange ones in the dome/Can lend us a book we can read up alone.' In this song, Bowie describes the curious scenario of a future, post-nuclear holocaust age in which sex has to be re-learnt through watching old films.
It was clear to Ken Scott that the new album was something of a radical break from what had gone before.
'All our ears and minds had changed, and we were looking for different things. The drum sound was much, more live than it had been before. With David's arrangements - he threw a lot more in than he did in Ziggy. And then there was the addition of Mike Garson. There had been acoustic piano before which Ronno or Bowie had done, but they're not the greatest keyboard players in the world, and Mike made a big difference. On Ziggy it was all very sparse - there had been two bits of synth - that was it. Now on Aladdin Sane there were a lot more keyboards, mellotrons, a Moog synthesiser, as well as acoustic piano.'
Mike Garson's contribution, particularly his now legendary solo on the title track, but also his stunning piano-playing throughout the entire record, is one of the album's most distinctive features. Bowie had the songs, all of them winners, but he was also very good at delegating, at letting the people in the studio contribute their maximum potential. He had, and still has, a real genius for getting the exceptional out of those around him. It is a rare gift, and part of what makes him such a commanding figure. Mike Garson remembers:
'I remember coming to the recording session, and hearing this tune. Mick Ronson sketched out a chord chart very briefly so that I had a road map so I wouldn't get lost, but the whole solo was improvised in one take over the top. When it came to the solo, David said, 'Here are these two chords, there's just an "A" chord and a "G" chord. I'd like you to improvise on top of it.' Well, the first solo I played was a blues solo and David said 'no'. So I played something else, a Latin solo, and he said, 'it's really interesting, but, it's not quite right.' So that was two down in 10 minutes! Then he said, 'Mike, you told me when we were driving around in the limo on tour that you were on the avant-garde scene as well as the normal scene. Play something like that way.'
I went off and played this crazy solo, and I could feel the energy in the room. The rest is history. Do you realise that there hasn't been a week in thirty years that someone hasn't asked about that solo? Some indefinable magic occurred.
The astonishing title track is the key to the album. From its full title - 'Aladdin Sane, 1913-1938 -?' it would appear that Bowie is referring to World War Three. In the 70s, frightening people about the oncoming apocalypse was a favourite pastime of filmmakers, dramatists and authors. Here Bowie gets his take on the confusion in early. He would later tease that the song was about 'young people, just before the two wars, wanting to go and screw girls and kill foreigners'. Later he would go so far as to say that the entire album was:
' based pretty fundamentally on the Vile Bodies novel of Evelyn Waugh. 'I thought it was terribly effective about the air of ridiculousness just before the War. So mine was a follow-on. He covered that war, and I invented a war and did my bright young things before that war. So, it was kind of quasi-literary.'
For many people, however, the standout track is the opener to the old vinyl Side 2, 'Time'. It's still a breathtaking track, with a beautiful melody, a melodramatic vocal performance, and a wonderfully realised closing section. Ken Scott:
'It's my favourite because everything works - it all fits together perfectly. There's nothing there that you would like to change. The way the Beethoven interpolation works with the vocals that come in immediately after it is brilliant. I always found it fascinating that in America they would beep out the word 'quaaludes', but they allowed 'falls wanking to the floor'. They didn't know what wanking was, so they allowed that.'
'"Time" caught the quirky part of me', is how Garson remembers it:
'I played some elements of old 20s and 30s jazz piano which we call stride piano, but I did it a little left field, with an angle, so I made it contemporary'.
'Panic In Detroit' unarguably has the best riff on the album, and was reportedly written after a night on the town with Iggy Pop. Actually, the character who 'looked a lot like Che Guevara' is actually based on a real-life person. Although coy about the details, Bowie revealed:
'I know why I associated with that character. It was somebody who I used to go to school with who ended up as a very big drugs dealer down in South America and who flew in to see one of the shows and reintroduced himself. And I said, "I don't believe it. Is that what you are now?!"'
'Cracked Actor', perhaps his most decadent moment ever, was written after Bowie had toured Hollywood Boulevard, becoming, as ever, his environment, translating the bricolage of ideas, inspirations and sensations, and presenting us with a snapshot of his times. Ken Scott remembers that this track provided the opportunity to go for a nastier, dirtier sound:
'We tried a regular harmonica, which would have been like going back to a 60's blue thing, and it just didn't feel right. So I suggested trying it through an amp. So we cranked the amp up, and, suddenly, that was it, it worked. It needed to be nasty like that.'
The only area of mild dispute came with the mix of the storming opening rocker, the much-underrated 'Watch That Man'. Ken Scott again:
'When I came to mix it, I felt it was more powerful with the voice mixed way back, the way the Stones did so much. A short time later, after I'd handed everything over, I had a complaint. This was the only time I'd had a complaint. It came initially from Gem, and then Mainman: would I mind trying another mix with the vocal louder? So, fine, I did another mix with the vocal louder, and got it off to them, and I hear back, "No, the original idea worked better." Then a couple of weeks later I got a request from RCA: "Can you do another mix with the voice louder?" And I did it, and they obviously thought the original mix worked better as well, because that's what's on the album.'
A single version of 'The Prettiest Star' had been recorded much earlier with a certain Marc Bolan on guitar, and was now re-recorded for the album. Bowie also added a cover version, a crazy take on the Stones' 'Let's Spend The Night Together'. This glammed-up number, with Garson's crash-bang wallop piano, new spoken section and cool synths, was a live favourite on the 1973 tour. Along with 'My Death' and the much later 'Nite Flights', it's one of Bowie's finest ever cover versions.
The album ends with the ballad, 'Lady Grinning Soul', allegedly written for Claudia Lennear, an American soul singer who had worked with Ike and Tina Turner and Leon Russell, and who was the subject matter of the Stones' 'Brown Sugar'. The gorgeous melody, flamenco guitar solo from Ronno, and sublime keyboard runs make this a vastly-under-appreciated (not to mention never-performed) classic. The song must have meant a lot to Bowie at the time, as it was the only time (with the exception of the track 'Dodo') that Ken Scott remembers Bowie taking an active role at the mixing stage. Mike Garson:
'"Lady Grinning Soul" brought out the romantic playing in me that comes from composers like Franz Liszt and Chopin. I mixed this with elements of Liberace and Rodger Williams, which were styles of music that were always put down because they were so mainstream. I played in a very undissonant way here, where "Aladdin Sane" is about as dissonant as you can get. Actually, "The Motel" on Outside is my twenty-five-years-later version of "Lady Grinning Soul"!'
Aladdin Sane taken as a whole, saw Bowie developing quickly. While Ziggy Stardust was a collection of songs concerning fame and its devastating powers written by a would-be pop star not yet quite experiencing the lifestyle, Aladdin Sane is the product of a successful songwriter living the culture, rather than aspiring to it. Jagger and Twiggy pop up in 'Drive In Saturday', Benny Goodman is referenced in 'Watch That Man', Iggy hinted at in 'The Jean Genie', and the recently deceased Billy Murcia of the New York Dolls can be found in 'Time'. 'Cracked Actor', a sordid tale of a washed-up film star, ruminations on celebrity, and the distorting prism of Hollywood sycophancy, shows Bowie trapped within the world he seeks to describe. This song in particular became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy as, two years later, Bowie would reach his own version of 'Hollywood Hell' in his Thin White Duke period of emotional desolation.
Decadence and decay, always on the top of Bowie's checklist of glam-era themes, also make an astonishingly powerful impact on 'Time'. Shortly after the recoding of the album, Bowie told Mick Rock:
'I should like to replace all parts of my body with plastic equivalents. Then I couldn't grow old. I could just sit inside and watch it all function perfectly.'
Indeed, there's something both sinisterly ageless and sublimely asexual about the Aladdin Sane artwork, perhaps the best in a long line of outstanding sleeve designs. Shot by Brian Duffy, the seven-colour process used for the design was so innovatory that it had to be completed in Switzerland because the technology didn't exist in the UK. Although the thunderbolt painted on Bowie's face is one of his most recognisable (and most copied) looks, he never actually wore it on stage. On Aladdin Sane, it was intended to be a stark visual signifier of the character's schizoid mind. However, the origin of the idea was far more prosaic. In the book, Moonage Daydream, Bowie wrote:
'The flash on the original Ziggy set was taken from the "High Voltage" sign that was stuck on any box containing dangerous amounts of electricity. I was not a little peeved when Kiss purloined it. Purloining, after all, was my job.'
Various titles for the album were considered including 'A Lad Insane', 'Love Aladdin Vein' and, rather more bluntly, 'Vein', the latter presumably dropped because of the too obvious drug reference. In the end, the nicely punning 'Aladdin Sane', kept the mood pantomime-mystical and complicatedly psychotic. This mood would accurately reflect the next stage of Bowie's career in 1973: the promotional tour.
After touring the UK and Japan to ecstatic receptions, Bowie returned for a major spring/summer UK tour. 1973 was the year that a new word entered the English language - 'Bowiemania'. For the whole of that year and the first half of 1974, Bowie was undisputedly the biggest rock star in the UK. Wild scenes greeted him as he played a string of sell-out concerts to promote the Aladdin Sane album. Bowie and the Spiders would look out into the first three rows of the audience to find Ziggy clones staring back at them. Mick Rock recalls the rapid ascent of Bowie's star:
'It started in that summer of '72. I have footage of fans talking about Bowie at the Rainbow. Then it builds and builds, and you can see that audiences are enthusiastic, but not the way it got in '73. Once he got back from the States, then it was authentic "Bowiemania". They were quite small venues he was playing, remember, and he encouraged the communication. There are lots of pictures of the audience reaching out and touching him, and running onto the stage. By that summer it was pandemonium.
The look, the persona of Ziggy, had taken over, and David was in some sort of psychic confusion. Because everyone was in love with Ziggy Stardust it was hard for him to find out who he was. Plus, I think the misbehaviour level was mounting although the overwhelming thing I remember was the work ethic. He worked bloody hard, David did. He was unbelievably focused for that entire period.'
However, tour saxophonist, Ken Fordham recalls a relatively unpressured time:
'I think the general public probably had a false impression. It wasn't as insane as it was made out to be. It was all the best hotels - even when we did London we stayed at the Dorchester Hotel. It was socially quite pleasant and sort of carefree. There was no pressure or anything. I remember once David said, "How are you finding it?" and I said, "Ah yeah, it's great isn't it - piece of cake." After that he always used to call me "Mr Kipling"!'
Bowie himself tends to make a distinction between the two, but in the minds of the fans, and those who worked with him, the Ziggy and Aladdin eras blurred into one. Although he ostensibly had the same haircut, the real difference visually in late 1972 and early 1973 was the costuming, as Mick Rock reports:
'Clearly Ziggy Stardust was the animal that was running amok. Aladdin Sane had the same hairdo; David just souped up the clothes. The late Pierre La Roche, or "Pierre Le Puff" as he was affectionately known, began doing the make-up, and that stepped up David's appreciation for a more elaborate look. Pierre was a brilliant make-up artist. David learnt a lot because he mostly still did his own make-up at the time as there wasn't that much money around. The trip to Japan in early 1973 was also a crucial factor.'
Indeed, in early 1973, in a stunning visual re-invention, Bowie was performing in authentic Kabuki garb, designed by Kansai Yamamoto.
But on July 3, 1973, at the Hammersmith Odeon, with Aladdin Sane still high in the British charts, and the single 'Life On Mars?' about to enter the Top 3, Bowie famously 'retired'. Just eighteen months on from the Melody Maker front cover that unleashed Ziggy, it was all over. True, the mullet survived the next two album projects, and the nucleus of the Spiders, minus Woody, would endure a while longer, but for Ziggy the character, and UK performance, that was it. David Bowie later said:
'I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into, because I knew it was the end of the Spiders. I knew that I had done really as much as I could within the context of that band. And I was so weary of touring that I actually did wonder whether I really wanted to tour again. I wasn't experienced enough at that time to know that, at the end of a tour, you always feel like you will never tour again, and you always say to yourself, I will never go through this ever again for all the money in the world. And you always do. But I didn't know that. And that was the first time that I had got to a point of absolute fatigue, to the point where I could hardly lift my head up, I was so tired. And the hotels and the driving and all that. So I just said, "we will never tour again", and I really meant it. And about 48 hours later, I'm sitting there thinking, "What have I said?!" I don't really think I meant that, because I'm feeling better already, but it was too late. I really pissed off Woody and Trevor because they were so angry, I think because I hadn't really told them that I was splitting the band up. But that's what Ziggy did, so I had to do it too. It was almost as if I was following a pattern of what I had written, because I was in that frame of mind that this had to be done. Ziggy broke up the band, so I had to do it too. So, here we go, tonight's the night!
Ken Fordham recalls the sombre mood backstage:
'We all thought we were going back to America for another tour. It was a bummer because there was going to be a three-month tour in the autumn. The mood was quiet. We were all shocked - more so the Spiders, as they thought they had an ongoing career.'
It now seems that a number of people did know about Bowie's plans to retire, including Mick Ronson and Mick Rock:
'I remember David saying the night before, "This is it, it's over - no more live shows." I thought he meant it, and, in a sense, he did. But, of course, what transpired was that he was retiring Ziggy. I remember saying to him, "Shit, really? That's fuckin' amazing!" It was an abrupt stop to what, for me, had been quite a ride for 16 months.'
It might seem astonishing to us now, but at the time, those around Bowie had no idea that they were making rock history. Ken Fordham, for example admits to being 'blasť about the whole thing' and 'vaguely remembers' the Hammersmith Odeon experience.' Ken Scott: 'Back then we were only interested in a six-month life, because the next album would be out in six months. No one considered that we'd be looking at it again 30 years on!' * * * But history was indeed being made. Listening to this remarkable album now, it is impossible not to feel the sense of danger and magnetism of Bowie's presence. It is also an album of stunning melodies, a consistently excellent record that thrills to this day. Haunted by the ghost of Ronno, the spectre of Bowie's charismatic singing, the romantic piano runs of Mike Garson, and the punky power of the Spiders, it's a piece laden with all the myth and iconic status that makes for a rock classic.
Thirty years on, and the schizoid Aladdin Sane has rather fittingly split itself in two to include an extra disc of outtakes, live tracks and rarities. Amongst the highlights on CD 2 is the excellent live acoustic version of 'Drive-In Saturday' recorded at the Public Hall, Cleveland in November 1972, the superior sax version of the classic 'John, I'm Only Dancing', and Bowie's own version of 'All The Young Dudes'. The main album has also been lovingly re-mastered by the craftsmen at EMI. It's a two-CD set simply packed full of classic pop. Not bad for a 'treading-water album' then
Munich, February 2003
David Buckley is the author of two books on David Bowie, and the official biography of the Stranglers. His most recent book, a biography of R.E.M., was published in 2002. He is currently working on a history of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music.
Thanks to: Ros Edwards, Ken Fordham, Mike Garson, Mike Harvey and his Ziggy Stardust Companion web site, Ann Henrickson, Nigel Reeve, Mick Rock and Ken Scott.
---This page last modified: 10 Dec 2018---