David Bowie – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Aladdin Sane” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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David Bowie – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Aladdin Sane”

The Album First Came Out on April 20, 1973

Apr 20, 2023 By Austin Saalman
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Perhaps the strongest release of his iconic “glam rock” phase, which spanned from roughly 1971 to 1974, David Bowie’s sixth studio album Aladdin Sane serves as a divine culmination of his various creative aspirations. Described by Bowie at the time of its release as “Ziggy under the influence of America,” Aladdin Sane was heavily influenced by Bowie’s extensive U.S. tour in support of his monumental mainstream breakthrough The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, released the previous June. As the gender-bending Martian messiah Ziggy Stardust ultimately experienced his inevitable demise onstage before an adoring audience at the previous album’s conclusion, Aladdin Sane may be interpreted as something of an afterlife for Ziggy: a phantom continent to which he was whisked in death. In this phantasmagoric dreamscape, the late Starman—albeit under a new moniker—wanders the haunted streets of dystopian American metropolises, his heart aflame, bloodstream laced with any number of illicit substances, and mind fixated on the silhouetted premonitions of the Third World War, by which he finds himself surrounded. In any event, the album marks Bowie’s official Americanization, with many of its 10 tracks having been inspired by and written in specific locations across the United States. Despite its fundamentally American aesthetic, Aladdin Sane’s primary influence is quite obviously the Rolling Stones, who had reached the zenith of their own Americanization on the previous year’s Exile on Main St. In some respects, Aladdin Sane is most certainly Bowie’s official “Stones” record, though the grand chameleon, in all his warm impermanence, somehow feels more himself here than on his other “glam”-era releases.

As opposed to Ziggy, Aladdin Sane boasts a far glossier sound and more experimental style, thanks in large part to Bowie’s recruitment of pianist Mike Garson, who specializes in avant-garde jazz. Garson’s playing remains a distinguished fixture on Aladdin Sane and complements some of the album’s finest cuts. His experimental sensibilities are juxtaposed with glam rock pioneer and frequent Bowie collaborator Mick Ronson’s crunching guitar riffs, with each track teetering between artfully sleek refinement and confrontational hard rock defiance, a dynamic that helps elevate Aladdin Sane far above other glam efforts of the era. While perhaps not the anticipated follow-up to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane offers something more to the listener than mere rock and roll kicks and thrills, instead positioning itself as a sophisticated, relatively solid artistic effort by one of the popular culture’s fastest rising stars—a sensuous taste of the incontestable genius to follow.

An homage to the New York Dolls, whose concerts Bowie had twice attended while in America, the gritty opening track “Watch That Man” bears an uncanny resemblance to the heavier cuts on the Stones’ Exile on Main St. The track appears to describe bizarre goings-on at a debauched Dolls after party, which quickly devolves into a nightmarish hellscape for its paranoid narrator. The track’s rushed recording, production, and mixing have been subject to frequent controversy, with some criticizing its production value as “shoddy,” though others, including Aladdin Sane’s co-producer Ken Scott, have passionately defended it. Despite criticism, “Watch That Man” is a worthwhile opening cut, setting the mood for the journey to come. Garson shines on the subsequent “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?),” his now legendary avant-garde jazz piano solo improvised and recorded in a single take after Bowie had previously rejected his blues and Latin solos. The track itself sums up some of the anxieties experienced by Bowie in the early-’70s, its title referencing the madness to which he was gradually succumbing (“a lad insane”), as well as citing the beginning dates of World Wars I and II, with World War III’s respective date left ambiguous, but expected to occur at some point in that decade. One of Bowie’s great art-rock masterpieces, the dreamy, chrome-smooth “Aladdin Sane” saw the rocker willing to drastically advance his style, with the final product remaining one of the era’s most unique and captivating musical offerings.

Written on a nighttime train ride through the desert between Seattle and Phoenix in November 1972, the hypersexual, post-apocalyptic adolescent fantasia “Drive-In Saturday” revealed itself to a sleepless Bowie as he glimpsed through his window an eerie vision of moonlight reflected off the tops of “seventeen or eighteen enormous silver domes.” The elusive structures conjured within Bowie’s imagination visions of a post-nuclear wasteland in which radioactive fallout had warped the minds and sexual organs of its inhabitants. Among these post-apocalyptic ruins, Bowie’s radioactive American youths reclaim their sexuality by studying blue movies and popular culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Images of Mick Jagger, Twiggy, the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain, and a barrage of pornographic actors rekindle the desires and libidos of the track’s protagonists, as they “try to get it on like once before,” drifting through a seemingly endless “drive-in Saturday” of futuristic titillation and teenage resurrection. “Drive-In Saturday” is often named Aladdin Sane’s key track, Bowie’s irresistible synthesis of sleek glam rock and nostalgic doo-wop rendering it among the most innovative compositions of his “Ziggy” era, as well as one of his all-time greatest songs. Interestingly, the track was originally written for Mott the Hoople, as a follow-up to their 1972-released hit “All the Young Dudes”—another Bowie composition—but the group rejected it, inspiring a drug-addled Bowie to shave his eyebrows off in a fit of rage. In hindsight, however, Mott’s rejection has revealed itself as a blessing, as only Bowie could have successfully recorded the track, which remains a key testament to his early brilliance.

Inspired by recollections of the 1967 Detroit riots shared with Bowie by his collaborator and muse Iggy Pop, the bluesy rocker “Panic in Detroit” paints an apocalyptic portrait of American deindustrialization and its chaotic aftermath, as revolutionaries engage in urban warfare in the streets of the fallen midwestern metropolis. “He looked a lot like Che Guevara/ Drove a diesel van,” sings Bowie. “Kept his gun in quiet seclusion/Such a humble man.” The track’s opening lines allegedly concern activist and former MC5 manager John Sinclair, a co-founder of the Michigan-based anti-racist White Panther Party, placing the countercultural influencer at the center of Bowie’s manic fever dream of fame and politics. On the track, a starstruck Bowie describes the revolutionary as one might a rockstar or screen idol, perhaps in reference to his newfound international fame, insisting, “I asked for an autograph/ He wanted to stay home/ I wish someone would phone.” Bowie, perhaps better than any other rocker of his era, appreciated the intersection of entertainment and politics, and perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, allowed for the appeal to possess him, gradually transforming him into the notoriously fascistic lounge lizard known as the Thin White Duke, a controversial role he would play between 1975 and 1976. In contrast, stinging hard rocker “Cracked Actor” finds Bowie across the country in California, inhabiting the character of an aging film star, engulfed in a torrent of near-obsessive arousal and crippling addiction—a state soon to mirror Bowie’s own. Here, the singer declares, “I’m stiff on my legend, the films that I made/ Forget that I’m fifty ‘cause you just got paid,” his grotesque anthem of excess and dehumanization aptly embodying 1970s Hollywood and the indulgent rock and roll lifestyle in which Bowie and his cohorts were busy engaging. Aladdin Sane’s inimitable burlesque epic “Time”—appropriately composed in New Orleans—serves as its intoxicating centerpiece as Bowie—much as Pink Floyd did a month prior on their track of the same name—poignantly reflects upon the nature of age and mortality. “You - Are not a victim/ You - Just scream with boredom,” he insists before Mick Ronson delivers the eeriest guitar solo of his career. “You - Are not evicting time…” Like “Drive-In Saturday” and “Lady Grinning Soul,” “Time” represents Bowie’s great reach for higher artistic echelons—synthesizing his rich cinematic tendencies with the musical complexity that would mark his greater coming works—and remains a testament to Aladdin Sane’s utter brilliance.

A love song to Bowie’s then-wife Angela, which he performed for her while proposing on New Year’s Eve 1969, “The Prettiest Star” serves as the album’s sole reprieve from the dystopian bleakness and frenzied apocalypticism that underscores its majority, adding a peculiar soulfulness to an otherwise numb narrative of modern excess and decay. Originally recorded and released as a single in 1970, “The Prettiest Star” is reimagined on Aladdin Sane, its new form far superior to the original’s, remaining an exemplary glam rock gem. Bowie’s fellow glam icon and “friendly” rival Marc Bolan contributed his guitar skills to the original “Prettiest Star,” and Mick Ronson successfully emulates them on the Aladdin Sane version. Subsequently, Bowie offers a “Ziggified” cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1967-released single “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” presumably as an adoring tribute to the band whose inarguable influence remains at Aladdin Sane’s core, though it is the album’s weakest inclusion. Elsewhere, “The Jean Genie,” a longtime fan favorite, offers a “smorgasbord of imagined Americana” concerning an “Iggy-type character,” according to Bowie. Indeed, the track’s R&B-inflected stomp and sleazy lyrical depictions such as, “He says he’s a beautician and sells you nutrition/ And keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear” are likely to have thrilled Iggy Pop upon listening.

This is followed by the pristine “Lady Grinning Soul”—arguably Bowie’s greatest artistic achievement up to that point. Awash in Mike Garson’s sparkling piano work and allegedly inspired by soul singer Claudia Lennear—incidentally also the inspiration behind the Stones’ controversial 1971-released hit “Brown Sugar”—the track has been described as a “lost” James Bond theme, its refined, jazz-infused sway advancing it far beyond Bowie’s previous output. Though cloaked in Aladdin Sane’s signature air of cool removal, this grand conclusion to a lyrical narrative high on rockstar debauchery, Jungian symbolism, and Nixonian paranoia both teases the listener with some semblance of intimate vulnerability—“And when the clothes are strewn/ Don’t be afraid of the room/ Touch the fullness of her breast/ Feel the love of her caress”—and hints at prospective faith—“She’ll come, she’ll go/ She’ll lay belief on you.” Therein lies the brilliance of “Lady Grinning Soul”: It is here that we are provided a panoramic view of Ziggy’s afterworld—a lusty realm of embroidered denim, plumes of cigarette smoke, and makeup-infused sweat, where mounds of white cocaine are piled plentifully and the scent of Silver and Americard lingers in the air. A place of loneliness and disassociation, but also rebirth and inspiration. “Lady Grinning Soul” successfully encapsulates and concludes the massive vision of Aladdin Sane, capturing David Bowie at a pivotal moment in his illustrious, decades-spanning career.

Upon its release, Aladdin Sane topped the U.K. Albums chart and peaked at #17 in the U.S., outperforming Ziggy in both countries. Its now-iconic album cover—among the greatest of all time—was named the most expensive ever produced up to that point. Though greeted warmly by critics, some claimed that Aladdin Sane bore too great a similarity to Ziggy. However, though the album is indeed a sequel, it advances its sound far beyond the boundaries of its predecessor, with Bowie’s decisions to pursue a smoother production value and encourage Mike Garson’s avant-garde explorations on the record distinguishing Aladdin Sane as Bowie’s most mature “glam” effort. Of course, there is plenty present for those partial to Ziggy, especially in Mick Ronson’s phenomenal guitar work. Aladdin Sane serves as a bridge to Bowie’s ultimate masterpieces, with the lessons learned on this record employed to perfection on 1976’s Station to Station and 1977’s Low. Serving as the final leg of Ziggy Stardust’s cosmic journey into oblivion, Aladdin Sane depicts the great leper messiah in his final form before disintegrating into “Halloween Jack” and descending into the kitschy Orwellian underworld of the following year’s subpar Diamond Dogs. In all his sound and vision, Bowie has managed to remain a relevant object of fascination, his boundary-crossing prophecies of love, lust, and madness in the modern age, at last, fulfilling themselves entirely. Even now, Aladdin Sane’s unrepentant decadence, chilly futurism, and apocalyptic sentiments seem to reflect the world as few rock albums have. In this sense, 50 years on, it feels like an ideal album for the era.


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