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Aladdin Sane: How Bowie Killed Ziggy Stardust For His Follow-Up Album
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Aladdin Sane: How Bowie Killed Ziggy Stardust For His Follow-Up Album

An urgent and compelling take on ‘rock’n’roll America’, David Bowie’s sixth album, ‘Aladdin Sane’, pointed to life post-‘Ziggy Stardust’.

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Released on the back of his commercial breakthrough, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, David Bowie’s sixth album, Aladdin Sane, rewarded him with his first UK No.1, introduced him to the US Top 20 and ensured his star remained very much in the ascendant.

Listen to Aladdin Sane here.

“Aladdin Sane was my idea of rock’n’roll America”

Initially viewed as an inferior follow-up to the stellar Ziggy Stardust, but now regarded as a landmark release, this adventurous April 1973 opus found Bowie adopting another new persona. Though broadly an extension of the messianic Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane (a pun on the term “a lad insane”) was notably more dystopian in his outlook. According to Bowie biographer David Buckley, Aladdin Sane was a “schizoid amalgamation” – as reflected in Brian Duffy’s iconic album cover photo – one of the best David Bowie album covers of all time – in which a vivid red-and-blue lightning streak splits Bowie’s face in two, mirroring both his new persona and his contradictory feelings about his newly-acquired stardom in the US.

Aladdin Sane was my idea of rock’n’roll America,” Bowie later reflected. “Here I was on this great tour circuit, not enjoying it very much. So inevitably my writing reflected that – this kind of schizophrenia that I was going through. Wanting to be up on stage performing my songs, but on the other hand not really wanting to be on those buses with all those strange people. Being basically a quiet person, it was hard to come to terms. So Aladdin Sane was split down the middle.”

“It’s a more successful album than Ziggy”

The US – in all its decadent, neon-lit glory – was writ large upon the album. Indeed, the panoramic scenery Bowie absorbed on the long Greyhound bus rides between shows on the Ziggy Stardust tour provoked him to write several of Aladdin Sane’s key tracks. The otherworldly desert landscapes of Arizona inspired the evocative, doo-wop ballad Drive-In-Saturday, while the album’s strutting lead single, The Jean Genie, first materialised during a journey from Cleveland, Ohio, to Memphis, Tennessee. During this lengthy drive, lead guitarist Mick Ronson hit upon a riff inspired by The Yardbirds’ take on Bo Diddley’s I’m A Man, and Bowie neatly married it to a lyric reputedly inspired by actress and Andy Warhol acolyte Cyrinda Fox (“Talking ’bout Monroe and walkin’ on snow white/New York’s a go-go and everything tastes right”), giving the song a chorus acquired through an imaginative marriage of Jean Genet’s name and Eddie Cochran’s 1958 single Jeanie Jeanie Jeanie.

Such was the frantic pace of Bowie and The Spiders From Mars’ Ziggy Stardust tour during the autumn of 1972 that both songs were recorded in New York during hard-won downtime. The Jean Genie was promoted with a striking, Mick Rock-directed film clip shot in San Francisco and featuring Cyrinda Fox, and it shot to No. 2 in the UK chart early in 1973 – just as Bowie and The Spiders hooked up with Ziggy Stardust producer Ken Scott to record the bulk of Aladdin Sane before returning to the US for further dates that February.

“Bowie is the best producer I ever worked with”

Though undeniably great, Aladdin Sane’s music was every bit as schizophrenic as Bowie’s new character. The Jean Genie and a manic cover of The Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend The Night Together were already established live favourites, while the equally raunchy glam-rock offerings Watch That Man and Cracked Actor, along with the Bo Diddley-esque hoodoo of Panic In Detroit, afforded lead guitarist Mick Ronson ample opportunity to shine.

Elsewhere, Aladdin Sane allowed Bowie to significantly expand his sonic palette, with saxophones, percussion and backing vocals adding additional textures, and his newly-recruited pianist, Mike Garson, playing a key role in bringing several tracks to fruition.

A New Yorker whose unique style was born from studying with jazz heavyweights such as Bill Evans and blind bebop legend Lennie Tristano, Garson would eventually become Bowie’s longest-serving band member. Their association began when Bowie recruited him for the US Ziggy Stardust dates on the strength of his work on Annette Peacock’s avant-jazz opus I’m The One, and Garson soon made his presence felt on Aladdin Sane.

The versatile pianist made telling contributions to the James Bond-esque ballad Lady Grinning Soul and the Brecht-Weill burlesque of Time, but he truly excelled himself on Aladdin Sane’s evocative title track. A highly original amalgam of Weimar-era swagger and Cecil Taylor-esque free jazz, Garson’s otherworldly piano solo on Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) remains a thing of wonder, but its creator was awed by how Bowie stealthily coaxed such a stellar performance from him.

“I’d tried playing a blues solo and then a little Latin solo, but David said, ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for,’” Garson told Starman author Paul Trynka. “Then he said to me, ‘Well, you told me about playing on the avant-garde scene in New York – why don’t you try something like that?’ That whole solo was one take. Boom. That was it. But it came because he got it out of me. I tell people Bowie is the best producer I ever worked with, because he let me do my thing.”

Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg later suggested that Garson’s contributions to Aladdin Sane created “a vigorous hybrid between the Stones and Kurt Weill”, while the album’s more experimental leanings revealed that Bowie was keen to broaden his horizons beyond the guitar-driven anthems that had turned him into rock’s hottest property while fronting The Spiders From Mars.

“I didn’t want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life”

Released on 19 April 1973, Aladdin Sane debuted at No.1 on the UK chart and made it to No.17 in the US, while Bowie went on to whip The Spiders’ UK audiences into a frenzy one last time during their UK tour of May and June. Then, on the tour’s final night, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, on 3 July, he famously made good on the lyrics to the song Ziggy Stardust, breaking up the band in public at the very height of his first flush of fame.

Inevitably, fans (and some members of his band) were stunned, but there was no time for sentiment. Bowie had already embarked on the remarkable creative trajectory that would soon lead to further classic albums such as Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Station To Station. Indeed, it was only decades later, when Bowie finally took stock, that he realised how urgent, compelling and downright essential an album Aladdin Sane really was.

“There was a point in ’73 when I knew I didn’t want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life and there were other things I needed to do,” he later recalled. “So, Aladdin Sane was almost like a treading water album, but funnily enough, in retrospect, for me it’s a more successful album than Ziggy was.”

‘Aladdin Sane’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Watch That Man

Picking up where Ziggy Stardust’s Suffragette City left off, Watch That Man turbo-charges the Mk I Spiders From Mars’ sound, not only with the addition of pianist Mike Garson (a textural presence on this song, he soon emerges as the avant-garde foil to The Spiders’ electrifying rock’n’roll), but also with Bowie’s wild-eyed embrace of the rock-god persona. The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones are touchpoints, as are New York Dolls, the proto-punks whose frontman, David Johansen, has been pegged as an inspiration for Aladdin Sane’s opening cut. But the urban unease is pure Bowie: “The girl on the phone wouldn’t leave me alone/A throwback from someone’s LP” could almost be a riposte to anyone attempting to pin him down as his Ziggy persona morphs into the altogether more cold-hearted Aladdin Sane, Bowie surveying his old albums as if they were the work of an entirely different person.

Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)

Mick Garson’s stately piano is the first indication that Aladdin Sane will feature next-level work from The Spiders, while Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’s opening lines offer perhaps a final glimpse of the frantic subject of Watch That Man: “Watching him dash away/Swinging an old bouquet”. Where’s he going? To his likely destruction. The dates in the song’s subtitle reference the years before the World Wars broke out, the apocalyptically-minded Bowie placing a question mark in “197?”, certain that World War Three wasn’t a case of “if”, but “when?” Inspired both by Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel, Vile Bodies, in which a young generation clings to hedonism in the face of impending war, and by his experiences touring the Ziggy Stardust album across North America (“People were frivolous, decadent and silly. And suddenly they were plunged into this horrendous holocaust,” Bowie said of the book. “They were totally out of place, still thinking about champagne and parties and dressing up. Somehow it seemed to me that they were like people today”), the song captures the feeling of a world going off the rails, thanks in no small part to Garson’s perfectly unhinged piano solo – the first time Bowie’s love of free jazz had been fully explored on record. Bowie’s brief lyrical lift from the 60s standard On Broadway reframes the bright-lights optimism of the original song’s point view of to a comment on Western culture going down the drain.

Drive-In Saturday

The dystopian visions continue, as an insomniac Bowie watches the desert speed past the window of his overnight train. “If you don’t go to sleep when you are supposed to, you suddenly see the moon shining on 17 or 18 enormous silver domes,” he told Circus magazine of a patch of land somewhere between Seattle and Phoenix. “They gave me a vision of America, Britain and China after a nuclear catastrophe. The radiation has affected people’s minds and reproductive organs, and they don’t have a sex life.” 50s doo-wop vocals and sci-fi sound effects (Bowie had discovered the ARP synthesiser years before recording the Low album) create a kind of no-time for these survivors, who are forced to turn to old films and books in order to recover the lost art of love-making. If the silver-screen dreams of Life On Mars? have here become despairingly instructional, there’s nostalgia in the way Bowie’s lyrics flash upon pop-culture titans such as Mick Jagger and Swinging 60s supermodel Twiggy – the latter of whom would soon partner with Bowie on the cover of the Pin Ups album. The saxophone comes courtesy of Bowie himself, devolving from plaintive motif to the wheezing sound of an R&B band on the fritz, soundtracking the decline of civilisation as Bowie knows it.

Panic In Detroit

Inspired by the Detroit riots of July 1967 and the revolutionary stances of Michigan proto-punks The Stooges and MC5, Panic In Detroit snakes along on a Bo Diddley beat and air-puncturing congas, with backing vocals from Linda Lewis and Juanita Franklin, who seem to be limbering up for a fight with Merry Clayton, of the Stones’ Gimme Shelter fame. Behind Bowie’s quick-fire imagery – a Che Guevara lookalike, “accidental sirens”, cars asleep at traffic lights – The Spiders deliver a muscular turn, guitarist Mick Ronson unleashing a cascade of notes towards the end, as if firing distress signals into the night.

Cracked Actor

The debauched revelries of life on the road meet the excesses of a past-it Hollywood icon, as Cracked Actor lunges forward on Mick Ronson’s crunching guitars – the audio approximation of a star-making system that chews up innocent hopefuls with little remorse. In rock’s lineage of anti-love songs, this one comes from a particularly cynical place, Bowie seeing through the fame machine even as he crash-lands right into its jaws. After the #MeToo allegations exposed a litany of abuses in the entertainment industry, the line “You’ve made a bad connection ’cause I just want your sex” took on an even more chilling resonance.

Time

Bowie’s pre-war paranoia gets its finest flourish on Time, whose cabaret stomp conjures Weimar-era Germany while Bowie channels the dispassionate taunting of Cabaret’s Emcee (“You are not a victim/You… just scream with boredom”). As with the temporal conflations of Drive-In Saturday, Time exists somewhere on its own continuum, thanks to Mike Garson’s stride piano, his rolling notes answered by the alarming squall of Mick Ronson’s guitar. Fame, decay and the tarnishing of dreams, it’s all here – futility and inevitability wrapped up in one simple lyric: “Time falls wanking to the floor”.

The Prettiest Star

An earlier recorded version of The Prettiest Star, featuring Marc Bolan on guitar, was issued as a standalone single in 1970, as the follow-up to Space Oddity. Revisiting the song during the Aladdin Sane sessions, Bowie reskinned it as one of his most glittery glam confections, drenching the tune in doo-wop harmonies and letting Mick Ronson fly with a soaring guitar solo that helps what’s arguably the album’s one moment of hope remain afloat amid the less forgiving songs that surround it.

Let’s Spend The Night Together

They’d threatened this many times (Watch That Man, Panic In Detroit, Cracked Actor), and here it finally is. Out-Stonesing the Stones on a cover of their 1967 single Let’s Spend The Night Together, The Spiders batter the song in an amphetamine-fuelled frenzy, throwing everything they have at it, including space-age sound effects and rollicking Mike Garson piano. The breakdown around the two-and-a-half-minute mark comes as a welcome respite, only for Bowie to throw in a lascivious “Do it”, followed by a “Hoo!” released with such abandon the group can’t help but launch back in for a final few bars.

The Jean Genie

The first song recorded for Aladdin Sane, The Jean Genie was issued as a single in late November 1972, an excited Bowie getting his latest new music out there a full five months ahead of its parent album. Hitting No.1 in the UK, Bowie’s self-described “smorgasbord of imagined Americana” hitches almost stream-of-consciousness lyrics to a Bo Diddley-style guitar riff, making coded nods to underground icons such as The Stooges’ Iggy Pop and Warhol actress Cyrinda Foxe (that’s her loving the camera – or is it the other way around? – alongside Bowie in the promo video) while also framing his Ziggy character as “a kind of Hollywood street rat”. Sexual innuendo (“lives on his back”) and a pun on the name of French writer Jean Genet keep the lyrical guessing games going, the Genie paving the way for Bowie’s Aladdin with minimal fuss. “It can’t get any simpler than this,” Aladdin Sane producer Ken Scott asserted in the booklet to the Five Years (1969-1973) box set. “Just let the guys go!”

Lady Grinning Soul

Closing an album on which emotion largely gives way to observation of a world hurtling towards ruin, Lady Grinning Soul may not offer much in the way of succour, but it finds Bowie allowing himself a moment of heartfelt vulnerability in a way he arguably wouldn’t do again until Young Americans (Win) or even Station To Station (Wild Is The Wind), edging as he does so towards the expansive voice he would come to use on his most widescreen ballads. Mike Garson’s virtuoso piano steals the show, with Mick Ronson’s Spanish guitar solo coming in a close second, as Bowie lingers on a romance that cannot hold: “And when the clothes are strewn/Don’t be afraid of the room/… She will be your living end.” An otherworldly end to Aladdin Sane’s doomy escapades, Lady Grinning Soul deserves more recognition among the best David Bowie songs – something its creator knew from the off. “For whatever reason, it must’ve really meant something special to David because it was the first time he ever came in for a mix and had a very strong feeling about how he wanted it,” Ken Scott wrote in his memoir, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust: Off The Record With The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More, adding, “I have no idea who he wrote it for, but it was obviously very important to him.”

Thirty-five years on from Aladdin Sane’s release, Bowie offered a little glimpse at the inspiration for Lady Grinning Soul. Reflecting on some of his own personal highlights for Mail Online, he wrote, “This was written for a wonderful young girl whom I’ve not seen for more than 30 years. When I hear this song she’s still in her 20s, of course.” Acknowledging the haunting impression the song leaves, he added, “A song will put you tantalisingly close to the past, so close that you can almost reach out and touch it. The sound of ghosts again.”

Buy David Bowie vinyl box sets and more, at the Dig! store.

Original article: 13 April 2021

Updated: 19 April 2023. Extra words: Jason Draper

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