Dave Amitri on Aladdin Sane
As I reach the 4th month of 12 Bowie albums in 12 months I find myself at “Aladdin Sane”. Another character change, some very striking iconic make up and another collection of eclectic styles and sounds for a first time listener to discover. I’ll not deny that scanning the track listing and just recognising “The Jean Genie” I felt my first pang of Bowie fatigue and to be honest the first listen left me a little nonplussed. However what I have discovered with Bowie is that there is always something in one of these albums. A hook, a sound, a hint of recognition or even an annoyance that gives me the impetus to continue. After a couple more listens I came up with the phrase “It’s a bit David Quoie” I’m not sure it’s unique but I’m claiming it for the number of 3 chord boogie tunes that litter the album. Then there’s the piano, lots of piano, more on that later. Finally it’s a very, very 70’s album. “Of course it is Dave” I hear you cry. In fact it’s so specifically 70’s that in order to try something different to shake things up a bit I’ve turned the whole review into a reimagination of an early 70’s episode of Top of the Pops, with some artistic licence to keep the pedants pedanting. Please indulge me here as I settle down with my family one Thursday evening in 1973. Mum knitting and dad looking over the top of his paper. Older sisters hoping for a performance from David Essex. Me and my brother hoping that Pans People don’t embarrass us all either with what they’re not wearing or their painfully literal interpretation of the songs. The show begins..
DLT is presenting and as is the way of these things the first song is an upbeat foot stomper. “Watch That Man” to me is every inch a Rod Stewart and The Faces tune. A bluesy rock an roll number that is a great start to the show. In my head I can picture Rod and Ron Wood, heads together over a single mike miming the “Watch That Man” lyric as Rod spins away to muck about at the back of the stage. A strong start. Dad didn’t lift his head above the paper but Mum sneaked a cheeky peak at Rod’s bum..
Back to DLT now who puts a serious face on and declares “now for something very special…” of course it’s “Aladdin Sane” and I nearly went with Steely Dan for this, there’s little hints towards it being a Dan tune. On reflection though you can’t have a Bowie album reimagined without having one Bowie performance. So here we are. This is such a Bowie song and in my imaginary TOTP this would be the performance of the night. Confusing my Dad and sending him to the kitchen for a cup of tea. My sisters giggling at the bulges in the skin tight trousers and me and my brother not quite understanding what was going on but knowing we’d be talking about it in the playground tomorrow. It’s a brilliant song. The play on the phrase “a lad insane”, so creative, inventive, druggy and dreamy. Right up my alley. Yet in the spirit of honesty it’s slightly ruined for me by Mike Garson’s freeform jazz piano that sounds like a set of off key church bells. I think I’d prefer a radio edit but that’s my problem. I realise it is hugely important to Bowie heads so I won’t mention Les Dawson here as that would be disrespectful. This is the David Bowie I was hoping to find. It’s rarer though than the fandom would have me believe.
It’s all too much for DLT as he mock fans his hirsute face while the kids jockey for position. His enthusiasm wanes as he realises its TOTP stalwarts Mud next. Again. Doing “Drive In Saturday”. Dressed in their teddy boy gear they phone in a performance of the fourth single from their album knowing no one except my Dad is listening and cursing the producers for putting them on after Bowie. Yet as we know this is a Bowie song in reality and we’re all wondering what it’s doing here and how you go from “Aladdin Sane” to this half arsed ode to 50’s life.
DLT is clearly back on his game as he readies himself for his next link. Introducing “Panic In Detroit” by informing us that Deep Purple can’t be in the studio tonight but Pans People are here. Their performance consists of walking then running around a cardboard city, wearing very little and panicking, looking shocked with hands waving above their heads. You get the picture. Dad’s put his paper down and mums angry clicking nearly drowns out the TV. I love the song actually. Raucous, with a driving beat and a great vocal. A heavy metal tune with a splash of Bowie drama. Superb…
At this point in 1973 DLT would have uttered “Phwoar” and mopped his brow or something equally inappropriate and gone on to announce “Cracked Actor” which for my imaginary TOTP is performed by T Rex. It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far as it’s a meat and two veg glam rock anthem. Bolan or Bowie it passes us all by. Dad’s snoring now and a fight has broken out between me and my brother over the last orange Matchmaker.
DLT is now standing alone as the mood in the studio drops. “And now time for something a little bit different. From the new Andrew Lloyd Weber musical “Time” it’s “Time” performed by David Essex.” My sisters move to the edge of the sofa, mum puts her knitting down “he’s got lovely eyes” and me, my brother and my Dad start talking football.. At least that’s my take on perhaps the most theatrical of all the Bowie songs I’ve heard so far. It’s a straight up musical theatre tune from the delivery, to the almost spoken part, the musicality. Like something from Evita or Chess. Did he write a musical? Maybe he should have, it’s clear the will for dramatic musical theatre was there but does it belong here?
Next up crashing into the charts is those other bunch of fake teddy boys straight from the fancy dress cupboard with “The Prettiest Star”. It’s Showaddywaddy. Doowapping, finger clicking and synchronised stepping along to a slowed down rock n roll rhythm from times past. My sisters are planning to recreate the moves with their mates in the playground tomorrow. Dad becomes animated and joins in the finger clicking. “Aha, a proper tune” he announces. Back in the real world how this song aligns itself with the image Bowie was projecting at the time is beyond me. I’m clearly missing something here…
DLT back announces it as a “future number one” and introduces “Let’s Spend The Night Together” informing us it’s a cover of The Rolling Stones classic ( thank god he’s here..). Who have I selected in my imaginary Thursday night pop fest for this? Of course it’s Status Quo. Legs apart, head to foot in denim, nodding along to an all too familiar song with absolutely nothing added. It’s s great fun, we get up and head bang along it annoys mum and dad but this from the great innovator? Baffling again.
Coming towards the end of the show now and DLT announces a new number one. “The Jean Genie” by Sweet. Now this is the most obvious of my imaginary musings. The song is so similar to “Blockbuster” that we must assume one copied the other but apparently not. Both recorded on the same label, at approximately the same time, using the same riff and from what I can discover it was pure coincidence missed by the A & R man. Ironically “Blockbuster” got to number one and “The Jean Genie” didn’t. “The Jean Genie” remains one of Bowies most commercial tunes and one I really like. It’s everything a glam rock song should be. Driving, rocking, over the top and best played loud. This is Bowie to me. Me and my brother want to buy it from Woolies at the weekend.
Back in the day Top of the Pops would play out with a song over the credits. This week it’s “Lady Grinning Soul” which DLT informs us is from the latest Bond film. I’m stretching my time lines here at making it Shirley Bassey because it deserves a proper singer. Bowie does a great job of it and its easily my favourite song on the album. It’s a beautiful, swoon of a song. Delicious and light with a hint of drama. A lovely, lovely end…
So what does my light hearted bit of nonsense mean? It means “Aladdin Sane” is an album of incredible highs and some inexplicable song choices. Bowie was a master at dressing up something familiar in some fancy clothes and make up and selling it as the future. The bands I referenced all had great commercial success yet were hardly at the cutting edge of popular music. There’s a pattern forming for me, when he’s great he’s everything I expected and more but to justify his exalted place in the history of popular music are there just far too many “shrug” songs you can just take or leave? The four albums I’ve covered so far were released in a 2 year period, April 71 to April 73. Did that effect the quality control? I maintain he could have made two mind blowing albums in the same period but Bowie heads will tell me he made four and not to be such a dick. “Aladdin Sane” is an enjoyable listen but overall the Bowie legend remains an unsolved mystery to me.