The Prettiest Star: David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane at 50
A look back at the first LP the Duke made from the pinnacle of worldwide fame
The idea that the “title character” of Aladdin Sane was any more refined than Ziggy Stardust is a fantasy.
Aladdin Sane, such as he/she/they, was just Ziggy in another costume. No one really knows what that lightning bolt makeup means – although a rice cooker in photographer Brian Duffy’s studio supposedly inspired artist Pierre LaRoche’s concept. But that’s as much as was designed for the character. Being on top (and conceivably on drugs), and pretending to be Ziggy while doing it, was tiring Bowie out so much he announced his retirement at the end of 1973. (It didn’t take.) But the best-selling album that year in the U.K.? Aladdin Sane. Bowie had altered an entire country’s cultural landscape.
And while he’d liberated one nation from outdated concepts of masculinity, America still only knew of Bowie as a crazy rumor. He’d visited the U.S., and been transfixed by it each time. But all America still wanted to know of him in 1973 was “Space Oddity”, a song you could really only get away with in 1969. Americans, who liked their heroes more conventional, didn’t know what to make of Ziggy Stardust – but then, Bowie didn’t really either. Ziggy’s album had been vaguer and softer-hearted than its predecessor, Hunky Dory. But it didn’t really matter what he meant on these great, incoherent LPs – he was having wild fun, and he carried profound news without saying it outright.
Some Bowie songs have really good lyrics, and “Watch That Man” is not one of them. But coming on as it does with its bristling army of guitars, the song sweeps away any such concerns. There was controversy at the time that those guitars rendered his vocal inaudible. But that’s of no matter to the Rolling Stones, the band Bowie was drawing from the most at the time. He knew the New York Dolls, and like them, he was trying to update the Stones’ sound. Compelled as many boys were by A Clockwork Orange, he liked the trick of conveying “good times” laced with danger. For the most part, he chose to convey that danger via dystopian settings. But he’d also been experimenting with a technique borrowed from William S. Burroughs, in which he cut up lyrics line by line and randomly rearranged them – not a great way to say what you’re trying to say, but a solid evasion if you don’t know what that is.
“Watch That Man” is the sound of a superstar infused with total confidence – someone who’s finally worked out his image, and is now getting to make that next album, the one where he gets to luxuriate in that progress. Aladdin Sane is a little unfocused, and a little inconsistent, and that’s part of why it doesn’t show up on many best lists. But its flaws aside, the album’s mysterious title track sells the muddy concept as convincingly as it can, dissolving into that perfect piano solo two minutes in. That piano fractures up the song’s lounge-y setting, and sells Mike Garson as the album’s MVP, Mick Ronson notwithstanding. His solo draws from Rhapsody in Blue, “Tequila”, Cecil Taylor, and errant cats, and somehow sums up Bowie as singlehandedly as anyone could.
“Drive-in Saturday” and “Panic in Detroit” testify to how well Bowie can illustrate a scene without making explicit what’s going on. They’re not just another future song – they paint fun, cool, shadowy pictures with doses of American Graffiti, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and your pick of any French movie. The doo-wop and Bo Diddley modes draw on artists who were weird at the time, and while Bowie scrubs the styles clean of soul, he still finds something thrilling turning them into little apocalyptic films. Even the “Let’s Spend the Night Together” cover, which turns tenderness into camp, feels cyborgian.
I’ve always found “Time” the weak spot on the record, and it certainly has weak spots – the “time falls wanking to the floor” bit, the screams he sings like a self-parodic diva. But as the dreary chorus layers and builds, you’re reminded what a fetching melodist Bowie was, how these early ‘70s albums are often not just catchier but more traditionally beautiful than anything he attempted after. “Time” is said to be about the late drummer Billy Murcia, who died of an overdose before his group, the New York Dolls, failed to get famous.
Many songs on Aladdin Sane are “said to be about” someone (with the exception of the Stones cover) – good luck cracking “Lady Grinning Soul”. But “Jean Genie” confirmedly took off from Iggy Pop, one of three proto-punk heroes Bowie resurrected by producing albums for in 1972 and ‘73. It pulls off blues, something Bowie never sang effectively before, by once again stripping it of its organicity and amping up the metallic tension.
Such is the sound of Aladdin Sane – and it kicks ass, in a way very few Bowie albums do. Maybe it’s because of his new confidence that he could get away with anything (watch The 1980 Floor Show, where he tries). But since Elton John was still his biggest competitor at the time, Bowie was shrewd enough to know he had to filter his audacity through a palatable pop structure.
He’s deft and loose throughout the album in way that’s so satisfying – enticing, even, seeing as how he was the prettiest star. “Cracked Actor” is my favorite, a glass of acid in an aging film star’s face, one of the most menacing “good time”s he ever conjured up. It’s another great lyric, and the way he smack, baby, smacks those consonants stirs your spirit in a way Bowie’s best work is often too fey to achieve.
That’s why you put Aladdin Sane on – to hear the kind of David Bowie you want to turn all the way up in the car, while striking private poses. Not like those great ballads, but pure, brutal, visionary, grinning soul.
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