It’s a funny follow-up from a hit album, this: stylistically all over the place, but with enough of what people liked about Ziggy that they stayed with it. Bowie wasn’t kidding around when he killed off Ziggy: there’s no overriding concept, no clear “character” (though there is plenty of the drug-and-sex excess of the end-times-rock-star to be found, so it comes off as more of a sort-of continuation of Ziggy; Adam Ant would borrow this look and expand on it a mere seven years later), and while the haircut remains the same, the song does not (quite). Speaking of the haircut, it’s moving steadily into “mullet” territory, though amazingly Bowie just about manages to carry that off.
Bowie’s skill at aping others also rears its head again: having done credible pastiches of Lou Reed and Marc Bolan (among others) on the last album, Aladdin Sane kicks off with an “homage” to the Rolling Stones, “Watch That Man.” It’s a straight-up rave-up designed rather cynically to catch the ear of both radios station programmers (back when humans did that job) as well as fans who climbed on board with Ziggy — not to mention a great way to start off the album.
There are echoes back to “Suffragette City,” and another pointer towards his future backup-singer-heavy “white soul” period. It’s no accident that Bowie is (and this happened only rarely) buried in the mix on this song compared to Ronson’s guitars, Bolder’s bass, Woodmansey’s drums, Bowie’s own sax, and even the backup singers on occasion — reflecting perfectly the style of the Stones at this point in their career. It’s a great little rocker, and good enough that it would have been in “The Rocky Horror Show” if there were any justice in this fallen world. Certainly at least a Tim Curry cover version during Curry’s brief recording career would have been a fine idea.
This is followed by a straight-up psychic anticipation of future Steely Dan in the form of the title track, “Aladdin Sane.” It’s no accident that pop music raconteur Joe Jackson routinely covers both Steely Dan and Bowie on the road: perhaps Bowie had heard Becker and Fagan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill — and drew some ideas from the more piano-dominant songs (as did Elton John, no doubt). Where this song really shines, though, is new pianist Mike Garson’s utterly insane solo; surely one of the most anarchic and brilliant ever committed to vinyl, the highlights of his incredibly witty playing throughout the album. The wisdom of this curveball immediately following “Watch That Man” is questionable, but even early Bowie fans must have known that his forte was his unpredictability as much as his fluid sexuality.
I can’t claim to know what Bowie’s actual lyric calls for on the line, but I’ve always believed it was “Paris or maybe Hull,” since that’s funnier than the (probably correct and more widely posted) “Paris or maybe Hell,” as clearly heard in the video above. The song is very interesting, because really it’s quite a bit different than anything Bowie has committed to vinyl up to this point, and as mentioned I think Fagan and Becker were influenced by it in their own development, as it is brilliant jazz-theatre-rock (probably in that order). It’s remarkable to think that this could easily have been (only modestly) re-arranged and fit on Blackstar, 43 years after the fact.
The third track is often hailed as Aladdin Sane’s highlight — and indeed it was one of Bowie’s biggest hits in the UK, rising to #3; it remained unissued as a single in the US, however (RCA oddly choosing “Time” instead), and as a result did not appear on any of Bowie’s greatest-hits compilations until the 1990s. Although this reviewer prefers “Cracked Actor” as his own favourite track, that song’s explicit balls-out lyric made it unsuitable for commercial release. Thus, it was Bowie’s pastiche/update to the 1950s songs of his youth, “Drive-In Saturday” — which still celebrates sex, but far more subtly through the device of a SF narrative where people have forgotten how to have it — made for a more suitable choice.
The song itself — a fusion of 50s and Sci-Fi featuring some bloopy synth cameos that might remind some people more than a little of the then-new Roxy Music — kicks off a series of songs in which Bowie reverts back to his old habit of writing about half to two-thirds of the normally-required lyrics, and just letting the band and various filler yips and exclamations do the rest of the work. Still, it is more than sufficient to fire the imagination, particularly with this incredible band and Ken Scott’s earnest production work. It can be argued that between artists such as Bowie, Roxy, Elton John, Alice Cooper, and others at the time, rock music — as it’s own form, more distinct from either its blues roots or its progressive/quasi-classical indulgences — never had a better innings than it did in the early 70s.
“Drive In Saturday” is followed with a return to the sort of rock the Ziggy fans were probably looking for, “Panic in Detroit.” This would not have been out of place on The Man Who Sold the World, and this is unsurprising given that it was originally written during the Spiders’ first tour of America, where Bowie saw with his own eyes some of the decadent dystopian vistas he’d been writing about fictionally for years. It’s difficult to understate the impact Bowie’s first run through Nixonland (and it’s yawning chasms between urban and sub-urban lifestyles and incomes) had been on the young artist: the fascination he had for this dichotomy never faded, and so sustained his songwriting that he was still writing about it towards the end of his life, having become a permanent resident of the US and specifically living in the former epicenter of America’s inequalities, New York City. Ironically, over the past few years, Detroit itself has come to portray that role. The song was also said to have been influenced by Bowie’s discovery that a former classmate from Bromley had become a South American drug dealer. Danger and glamour — two things America and Bowie in particular seem to never get enough of.
“Cracked Actor,” starts off for all the world like a Ziggy song (and is considerably better that some of the substituted songs on that album), and continues the theme of decadence and degradation, ostensibly about a faded film star now reduced to hiring young prostitutes of various sexes for a high based off his former fame. Bowie saw a lot of this in LA, and the song is unusually explicit in being about that particular town. As O’Leary notes, this is yet another half-finished song in Bowie’s repertoire, relying on instrumental vamping and chorus repetition to stretch it out to about double the length of the lyric. It’s is interesting in its use of hard, short, words in its chorus (notably “suck,” but also “crack” and “smack”), and probably one of the most debauched of his official singles. Ironically, the title was later used for a documentary about how LA later corroded Bowie himself just a couple of years later; illustrating the lesson that if you get too close to the flame, you get burned.
The album then lurches all the way back to early Bowie cabaret style for the opener of Side Two and the intro to “Time,” though the lyrics quickly return to the sexual obsessions and the band eventually comes in to steer the song away from self-parody and back into the tributary of anthemic rock ballad. The lyric is, frankly, dumb and messy (albeit strong on visual imagery), and the “chorus,” such as it is, is quite unconventional in structure. Despite this, it is quite catchy — perhaps due to the singalong nature of the repeated verses, augmented by some powerful trading-off between Ronson’s guitar runs and Garson’s variety of piano tricks and counterpoints. Despite being something of a mess, it is at least a *hot* mess. One could easily see Queen covering this (and quite possibly doing a better job, though they would have had nobody who could match Garson’s contribution).
The really brilliant bit is Bowie’s sudden and somewhat seductive heavy breathing during an unexpected break in the second verse; this and some of the hidden connections in the lyrics, along with the anthemic chorus of “We should be on by now,” lift what would have been a pretentious tone-poem into a rock-n-roll-star triumph, nonwithstanding the limp and mullet-besotten “1980 Floor Show” version, which must be seen to be believed. So here, have a look:
Thus, we arrive at the misplaced-but-finally-appearing-on-an-album “The Prettiest Star,” done in a distinctly corrupted 50s arrangement that works better than the original single (but lacks Marc Bolan on electric lead guitar, as the earlier version has). The first release of the song, from early 1970, flopped as a follow-up to “Space Oddity” quite spectacularly — it sold fewer than 800 copies (originally backed with “Conversation Piece,” a Space Oddity holdover). Possibly Bowie thought the remade version would get a second shot at single status, or perhaps (as some believe) it was another attempt to reconcile with the song’s true subject, Bolan himself.
Whether Bowie really wrote the song about Angela or Marc, there was clearly something more than just the whitewashing excuse of “creative rivals” going on there — “Lady Stardust” was originally titled “Song for Marc,” and Bolan was known for having a larger-than-life ego/diva complex which Bowie, for all his excesses and periodic cold calculations, lacked. There was certainly a fascination with Bolan, at the very least, on David’s part, and I can’t help but think there was a bit more to it with these two than has ever really been let on — though exactly what that entails is, even to my mind, ill-defined.
At the start of this review, I mentioned how much “Watch That Man” was made in the mold of The Rolling Stones of the day, and as if to prove the point that he can do the Stones better than the Stones can, the next track — “Let’s Spend the Night Together” — is a straight-up (or gay-up, if you believe some interpreters) version of Keith Richard’s suggestive single. Bowie’s take, which is faster and delivered more confidently than Jagger’s original and more hopeful version, was considered so well-done that the Stones themselves took to performing it in the Bowie style on future tours. On Aladdin Sane, it comes off more as a (well-chosen) filler track, following a remake of “Prettiest Star,” as though Bowie had run out of material (when in fact he hadn’t — as with Ziggy, Bowie discarded some original pieces he felt didn’t fit and replaced them with these fill-ins).
Still, almost as though asking for direct comparison, Bowie runs back to his faux-VU style to top his Stones cover with one of his own, and one of the best blues-rockers he ever did, “Jean Genie.” The whole band really comes together on this one, with bassist Bolder acknowledging the song’s origins as a Bo Diddley riff (from “I’m a Man”) by simply playing the original’s bass line. Ronson and Woodmansley keep close to the riff, allowing Bowie’s Reed-esque rhyming rap free range (and an interesting use of emphasis, with Bowie tending to lean on the penultimate syllable in each line rather than the last one).
The song was, ironically, one of the first to be written for the album, and was acknowledged by Bowie to be about a lightly-factionalized version of Iggy Pop. Cyrinda Foxe, a sometime-girlfriend of Bowie’s he apparently saw a lot of on the *Ziggy* 1972– 73 US tour, can be seen as the dancer in Mick Rock’s promo film for the song, and Bowie is said to have written the lyrics in that style largely to entertain her as he was building up the song from the Diddley riff, inspired by a jam session with his band that happened on the bus heading to yet another city in the vast expanse of America.
The album concludes with “Lady Grinning Soul,” another change-up that switches into ballad mode. Garson’s piano brilliance returns with a vengeance, and Bowie’s vocal and the arrangement strongly suggest a movie’s closing title, or even a James Bond theme (as O’Leary correctly notes). The subject of the song is said to be the same subject as that of the Stones’s “Brown Sugar” — singer Claudia Lennear — who must have been an extraordinary woman indeed to foster such great songs about her. O’Leary also notes that this song was the last written and recorded for the album, and replaced another number about a woman not Bowie’s wife, “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Given that Bowie was fooling around with Cyrinda Foxe — and apparently others — on his American tour, if this album has a theme, it would be adultery and Stones homage, sprinkled with Glam and Americana in liberal doses.
Thanks to Ronson and Garson, along with the clever use of harmonica and the wholesale homages to both the Stones and the source of many of their own songs (Bo Diddley), the whole thing works very well. Many have seen Aladdin Sane as a lesser album than the (very slightly) more unified work of Ziggy, by in fact it is also a terrific and versatile rock record, varying up the glam-rock tempos while including enough lyrical sex-imagery and salacious riffage to keep the hard-rockers satisfied. Although “Aladdin” could (and was) seen as a different character to Ziggy, Bowie himself saw it more a development of the “postmodern rock star” Ziggy was designed to be. He once referred to the album simply as “Ziggy in America.”
It might be fair to say that it is Bowie’s most superficial record (during this period of his career, at least) — concerned as it almost exclusively is with sex — but it includes some of his best songs from this period as well, and is at least as essential as Ziggy in our view. The album art, featuring Bowie’s most iconic portrait (particularly since his death) was described by Mick Rock as “The Mona Lisa of album covers,” and frankly the shoe fits. The lightning-bolt makeup has inspired countless others, even reaching all the way into the (much smaller) version seen on Harry Potter’s forehead (oh yes Ms. Rowling, we see you back there). Although seen in the UK music press as somewhat weaker and shallower than Ziggy, Aladdin nevertheless went to the top of the charts in the UK, and reached number 17 in the US — Bowie’s best outing to date — and eventually sold some 4.6 million copies, making it one of his best sellers ever.
For this review, we used the 1999 EMI/Virgin version of the album, remastered by Peter Mew but keeping close to Ken Scott’s original production (just updated for modern systems more than anything else). If you’re into contemporaneous bonus tracks, the 2003 EMI/Virgin “30th Anniversary” release is the one you want, as it has the 1999 version but also includes an entire second disc of single versions (including the non-LP “John,” and a mono mix of “All the Young Dudes”), along with four live tracks from Boston Music Hall and one track from the Santa Monica gig later that same month, as well as one previously-unreleased live track from a Cleveland show that happened a month later. There is also a 40th anniversary release of the album proper (no bonus tracks), featuring a new remaster from AIR studios, but we’ve not had a chance to compare it to our 1999 version.