Monday, 28 May 2018

David Bowie - Aladdin Sane (1973)


Released on 13 April 1973

Recorded at Trident Studios, London

Running time 41:42

In the spring of 1973, David Bowie was the name on everyone's lips. As a teenager, I waited with bated breath for that warm early April day when I held his latest album in my hands, took it home and my friends and I sniggered at every schoolboy's favourite line from "Time". Heady days indeed."Aladdin Sane" was the album where the character of "Ziggy Stardust" supposedly "went to America" (by Bowie's own admittance) to make himself an even bigger star. Bowie was simultaneously attracted and appalled by America and this comes over in the songs. It is like being on a tour bus taking in sights, experiences, good and bad, along the way. New York, Detroit, Los Angeles...what you get from this transatlantic trip, most importantly, though, is ten wonderful tracks that sees Bowie at the height of his "glam rock" phase. To this day it is my favourite Bowie album.


1. Watch That Man

2. Aladdin Sane
3. Drive-In Saturday
4. Panic In Detroit
5. Cracked Actor
6. Time
7. The Prettiest Star
8. Let's Spend The Night Together
9. The Jean Genie
10. Lady Grinning Soul                                       

"Watch That Man". What a start to an album. Yes, Bowie's voice is way further down in the mix than it should have been (intentionally but erroneously so, in retrospect) but do not let detract from what is a barnstormer of a track, wth one of Mick Ronson's killer riffs taking centre stage. The following title track was one which was not so popular with us singles-honed teenagers at the time but in later years I have come to love it dearly, particularly that great bass and piano instrumental passage in the middle. Mike Garson was Bowie's new pianist and his creative stamp is all over this album.

"Drive In Saturday" was the album's big "new" single ("The Jean Genie" being released several months before the album) - full of doo-wop harmonies, parping sax and great hook lines it blew us all away. One of my own favourites is next, the Latin percussion-influenced "Panic In Detroit" with its "he looked a lot like Che Guevara" wonderful opening line. It is brimming with lyrical imagery. 

"Cracked Actor" continues the glam rock, riffy feel with its risque "suck baby suck" lyrics and then it gets even seedier with the monumental "Time". It features every schoolboy's favourite line, of course - "Time, she flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor.." and is packed full of melodramatic grandiosity. Garson's piano is simply supreme on this track. I always felt that "The Prettiest Star" is slightly incongruous on the album though, dating back to the late sixties, but given a 70s boost here. It still sounds out of place though. A lot of people don't seem to like Bowie's energetic cover of The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend The Night Together" but I have always loved it. It rocks. Big time. Just check out that madcap, frantic opening.

The album's hit single, "The Jean Genie", had crashed into our consciousness back in December 1972. I remember one evening at youth club and one of the other boys came running up to me, beside himself with excitement. "What do you think of David Bowie...?" he breathlessly enquired. I shrugged in the way thirteen year old boys do but still went out and bought the single the next day with my paper round money. 45p it cost. The boy who asked the question was Pete Trewavas, later to achieve fame as the bass player in Marillion.

The final track, "Lady Grinning Soul" is a rarely acknowledged Bowie masterpiece of torch song mystery. Simply beautiful. Bubbling over with smoky atmosphere. It is arguably the album's finest song, certainly its most beguiling. Just look at this verse, full of images. What was "Americard", by the way?

"...Cologne she'll wear
Silver and Americard
She'll drive a beetle car 
And beat you down at cool Canasta..."

Finally, there is the now iconic cover, described as the "Mona Lisa of album covers" by The Guardian's Mick McCann. That made up Ziggy face, complete with red and blue lightning flash against the pure white background. The semi-naked gatefold middle cover image. There have been all sorts of interpretations of its meaning, the lightning bolt representing a duality of mind and so on, later backed up by Bowie. Whatever, it has gone down in history as one of the most striking rock album covers. 

With regard to the various remasters - "Aladdin Sane" has always been a bit tinny and there is the perennial voice mixing problems - the 1990 EMI/RYKO is somewhat low-fi and muffled, in my opinion. The 1999 is good, but maybe a bit clear and loud for the tastes of some; the 30th anniversary rarity remaster is excellent as is the latest 2013 one, which is probably as good as it is going to get - a nice mix between the essential glam rock loudness and a bit of subtlety too. You can never lose that loudness on "Aladdin". To do so would be a crime. It should hurt your eardrums.

Anyone wanting to know what Bowie was all about in the mid 1970s - start here.

Art work by Brian Duffy.


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