Tiggerlion on Aladdin Sane by David Bowie
On the 13th of April 1973, Ziggy Stardust, battered and bruised in the middle of a long tour, morphed into Aladdin Sane.
Watch That Man isn’t a portent of doom like Five Years. It’s a kind of hell in the present, a typical rock & roll party. Earth may no longer be dying but the drugs are bad, the tables are scattered with cocaine and champagne bottles, the men are creepy, a reverend is dancing on his knees, reminiscent of the cop kneeling to kiss the feet of a priest, and the music is so loud it’s difficult to hear any conversation. Mick Ronson’s guitars assail the ears from both sides, Woody Woodmansey’s drums clatter noisily and the new Spider, Mike Garson, on piano, is constantly trying to get a word in. The mix is dark and murky because everyone is smoking and the light bulbs are dim. At least the girls are beautiful. Linda Lewis and Juanita ‘Honey’ Franklin sound so fabulous they must be wearing short skirts and thigh length boots, still fashionable in 1973. It’s a strain to make out Bowie’s vocal because, for once, he isn’t the centre of attention. Someone else is working the room better than he is. David Bowie is out-postured and ends up running into the street in a state of panic. The planet suddenly seemed smaller, more self-absorbed.
Aladdin Sane, the album, presents a corruption of Ziggy Stardust, one damaged, distorted and deranged by real life experiences. The fey, bisexual, vulnerable megastar beefed up, becoming more robust but still willing to experiment. Most Glam Rock acts started out as Rock and added some Glam, apart from Marc Bolan and David Bowie who both went in the other direction. Aladdin Sane is the point when Ziggy’s undoubted glamour became more Rock. Whereas The Rise And Fall has an over-arching consistency of time and place, these ten songs are individual, separate pieces that create their own microcosm populated by different types of strange creatures with their own narratives and back stories, full of wry observations and witty comments, obsessed with tiny details. On the record label, each of them is given a place name signifying where it was written. However, they hang together as a whole providing glimpses of a hungover, debauched, hedonistic world where the normal rules no longer apply, glimpses mainly snatched from the windows of a tour bus as it made its way round America, a long way from home.
The real despair lies in track two. Mike Garson’s audition lasted just eight seconds and the title track demonstrates why. Inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Bowie wrote the song on the R.H.M.S. Ellinis in the middle of the Atlantic. It was one of the first he recorded with Garson. It’s an epitaph for a lost generation in a future nuclear holocaust. The tune, a slight based on On Broadway, is merely a platform for Garson’s forty-five bar piano solo. It’s dramatic, imposing, dissonant. Beginning in chaos, it becomes wistful and romantic, then aggressive and churning until it melds with Bowie’s own saxophones and returns to Earth by surrendering and joining in with Trevor Bolder’s relentless bassline. His stunning playing adds another dimension to The Spiders, allowing Bowie to indulge his true love, theatre, on the adolescent angst of Time (New Orleans) and the seductive Bond Theme-styled Lady Grinning Soul (London). When Garson was absent, Mick Ronson took the opportunity to crank up the filth in his dirty riffs: Cracked Actor (Los Angeles) is grotesque rather than Glam, Panic In Detroit (Detroit) and Jean Genie (Detroit and New York) riotous and raw variations on Bo Diddley. The contrast lives up to the split personality at the heart of the album.
If Ziggy was fashioned on Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix, Aladdin is Mick Jagger cross-dressing as Marlene Dietrich backed by The Stooges. Watch That Man’s muddy mix is culled from Exile On Main Street, Jagger is name-checked on Drive-In Saturday and the subject of Lady Grinning Soul is reputedly the same as Brown Sugar, Claudia Lennear. Cracked Actor’s lewd double entendres, louche guitar and coarse harmonica could have been written for Goats Head Soup. Ronson and Garson trade insults on the revved up cover of Let’s Spend The Night Together, a knee-trembler in a back alley rather than a callow invitation to an entire night of frolics, with Bowie having one eye on his next conquest. This is true of the album as a whole. There are some glimmers of the past but Aladdin Sane looks to the future beyond Ziggy, beyond The Spiders, beyond Mars. Herein lies the DNA for the Rock & Roll of Pin Ups, the dystopia of Hunger City, the faded Hollywood glamour of David Live, the sweet Soul of Young Americans, and and the beginnings of an American adventure.
The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars had ensconced itself in the album chart for the long term, peaking at number five in the UK, but its related singles fared less well. Starman just skimmed the top ten. John, I’m Only Dancing managed number twelve. Aladdin Sane’s singles were big hits, putting Bowie in the top three, a position he enjoyed regularly for years to come. The Jean Genie is almost a homage to Iggy. It’s as reverent an act of hero worship as Queen Bitch on Hunky Dory is to The Velvet Underground. Of course there are some feints and curve balls in the lyrics but Bowie had spent a day mixing Raw Power just before starting on Aladdin Sane, so his ears were ringing. The Stooges’ eccentric brutality seeps in mostly via Mick Ronson’s lurid guitar but there is also the nastiness in the inexpert harmonica and the snake-shimmer maracas. Panic In Detroit was written after conversations with Iggy about the riots in his past. The imagery almost directly quotes Iggy and again, alongside Aynsley Dunbar’s funky percussion, the aggression in the guitar gives it its hallmark sound. Both songs remained regulars in Bowie’s live set lists throughout his career.
The second single was issued just one week before the album, well after The Jean Genie’s meteoritic trip through the charts, one thwarted from the top spot by Little Jimmy Osmond. Drive-In Saturday is an oasis of cool in the midst of the mayhem of Aladdin Sane. Inspired by a night train journey through the bleak, surreal landscape between Seattle and Phoenix, it has a languid, hallucinatory aura, slurring a doo-woop structure with complex chords punctuated by David Sanborn’s saxophone exclamations. It imagines a future when young people have to relearn how to make love by watching old porn movies. It is strange and other-worldly, Bowie’s alien persona observing mankind’s peculiar behaviour in a calm, detached manner. Its sophistication contrasts with the rough-edged B side, a version of Chuck Berry’s Round And Round recorded early in the Ziggy sessions, illustrating just how far Bowie had come in just one year. Simon Pegg describes Drive-In Saturday as a great ‘lost’ Bowie single because it wasn’t released in America and it was twenty years before inclusion on a greatest hits. Mott The Hoople could never have done it justice.
As with Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and the subsequent Diamond Dogs, Low and “Heroes”, the difference between the two sides of vinyl is marked. How much you like side two depends on what you make of the Garson showcases that bookend it. Time is an exercise in melodrama, from its preposterous lyric, gleeful vocal and show-tune piano to Ronson’s painful, screeching guitar. ‘Wanking’ distressed mothers of teenagers all over the UK but in the USA, the record executives had no idea what the word meant and felt Time was more radio-friendly than Drive-In Saturday, putting it out as a single. They did sensor ‘quaaludes and red wine’, though. Lady Grinning Soul is a lush, unashamedly romantic ballad delivered in best bib and tucker that only the later Wild Is The Wind can match. Garson’s sweeping piano lines are almost Parisian in style, while Ronson’s acoustic guitar brings the passion of Spain. Add to that lyrics touching on a Uruguyan card game and an American credit card and we are led to believe the lady likes to travel. Somehow, despite losing her clothes, she maintains a discrete mystery and disappears before Ronson brings the curtain down with some sublime vibrato. She is the living end.
The Prettiest Star (Gloucester Road) is easily overlooked, slipped in quietly between the flamboyant Time and the disinhibited Let’s Spend The Night Together, it barely breaks into a sweat. It’s a lovely melody, carried by the guitar, originally performed by Marc Bolan on a 1970 single, a disappointing flop after Space Oddity. Ronson restrains himself and stays faithful to Bolan but he does tidy up the arrangement. Sanborn’s tenor sax, the drunken doo-wop backing vocals and a solid kick drum add some much-needed muscle. It’s said to have been composed to persuade Angie to accept a proposal of marriage. If so, Bowie’s peculiar, fawning vocal is understandable but the use of the past tense and wistful nostalgia in the lyric is rather odd. However, if you are prepared to pay The Prettiest Star close attention, you’ll find an engaging simplicity and the most beautiful guitar solo in the whole of Glam Rock. It’s the sound of a rough-arsed northerner, after a few jars, getting emotional over his friend falling in love. It could be the aftermath of Watch That Man (New York).
In 1973, Aladdin Sane was only available on vinyl and as such the packaging was as important as the contents. The cover is striking and iconic. Defries commissioned the well-known photographer, Brian Duffy, at great expense to demonstrate to the record company that his charge was worthy of investment. It paid dividends. The large, bold red lightening strike across the ethereally white face and mystical teardrop on the left clavicle is Brian Duffy’s and David Bowie’s most famous image. Pierre Laroche applied the makeup. Bowie’s hair at the time was a red feather cut. On the front, his famously uneven eyes are closed denying us the window to his fractured soul. Inside the gatefold, a skeletal, androgynous, seemingingly naked Bowie is looking over his right shoulder. The lyrics, apart from the Jagger/Richards composition, are printed on the inner sleeve and back in 1973, a card inviting application to the fan club was also included. The Aladdin Sane cover is Bowie’s most enduring image and has been described as the Mona Lisa of Rock, adorning walls in many a household even today.
The end of The Spiders was inevitable shortly after “You’re hired”. Tony Defries, Bowie’s manager, asked Garson how much he would like to be paid and he pitched low. He assumed the successful Spiders were on £1500 a week, so he asked for £500. It turned out they were still on just fifty quid and they were angry when it slipped out in conversation. Consulting a lawyer confirmed they would be in breach of contract if they did not complete the tour and the album. Garson, himself, as a person and a musician, fit in nicely. Woody was receptive to his Scientology, Ronson enjoyed the musical challenge and Bowie was inspired. After Ziggy ‘retired’, Garson remained with The Spiders, helped Ronson with his solo LP and managed to continue playing with Bowie as well. In fact, he became Bowie’s longest serving musical accomplice, continuing off and on right through to The Next Day and the final Reality Tour.
Written on the road, a schizophrenic collection of outstanding songs performed with swagger by a battle-hardened band, Aladdin Sane did more than consolidate the achievements of Ziggy Stardust. It gave Bowie a stronger foothold in America and, therefore, the world. It established him as a real Rock Star with an iconic image and charismatic stage presence to match. He had never successfully followed up a success before, the remake of The Prettiest Star a reminder of the last time he made an attempt. Entering the charts at number one, keeping The Beatles blue and red albums at bay, must have given him enormous satisfaction and boosted his self-belief even further, enabling him to kill off Ziggy just three months later. At last, after many years of shape shifting, trying anything to become famous, an apprenticeship that would serve him well for the rest of his career, Bowie was right at the top of the tree.
In 1973, the UK had just joined the European Economic Community, IRA bombs exploded in London, the Lofthouse Colliery Disaster claimed the lives of seven men, VAT came into being, the Austin Allegra rolled off Leyland production lines, women were admitted to the London Stock Exchange for the first time and the Cod Wars with Iceland slumbered on. Lord knows the youth needed something exciting to believe in.
As an introspective fourteen year old, I bought Aladdin Sane on the day it was released. In the documentary, Cracked Actor, there is a clip of the queue outside the Liverpool Empire on 10th June. They are largely smartly dressed youngsters, some with ties and wearing cardigans as though they’d just come home from school. I was inside, dressed much the same, watching the matinee show, while my mother and her sister were at the ABC Cinema across the road. Truth is the point of Art not perfection. Aladdin Sane was to me the diary of a Rock Star describing exotic worlds I’d never experience: America, an alien future, city riots, the boudoir of a beautiful woman. It spoke truth to me like no other album and has stayed with me my whole life. It’s easily the album I’ve listened to the most. Aladdin Sane may not be everyone’s favourite Bowie album but it’s mine.