The Reverend Alabaster danced on his knees....
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
7. The Prettiest Star
8. Let's Spend The Night Together
9. The Jean Genie
10. Lady Grinning Soul
What a start to an album Watch That Man gave us . 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, with one of Mick Ronson's killer riffs taking centre stage. The guitar is truly magnificent on this, one of Bowie's glammiest cuts, and lyrically is is full to the brim with wonderful images, like "the Reverend Alabaster dancing on his knees..." and "there was an old-fashioned band of married men looking up to me for encouragement...". This was definitely a continuation of the messianic worship of the "Ziggy" character. Ziggy had come to the USA and people loved him at their druggy parties, that is how I interpreted it as a young teenager back in 1973.
The song was also recorded by Bowie, Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Aynsley Dunbar and Mike Garson with Lulu on vocals (see review of Pin Ups).
Aladdin Sane was one which was initially not so popular with us singles and glam-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. He really makes this superbly evocative track that deals with the themes of insanity that were always close to Bowie in the early seventies due to his experiences with his half-brother, Terry.
The track has a loose, almost jazzy feel to it that points towards Bowie's musical diversification. He had not previously done anything like this. The song had a parenthesis sub-title (1913-1938-197...) that Bowie explained as being the dates of the years before the last two wars, and an unknown forthcoming one, which the often doom-prophesying Bowie was predicting. The song depicts the carefree decadence before the cataclysm.
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. As with so many of the Bowie compositions on the album, the imagery is positively overflowing as contemporary culture and icons are mixed with nostalgic themes - "people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored", "she'd sigh like Twig the wonderkid..." were definite references and then there was "Jung the foreman...". Who was he? Jung the philosopher? The "foreman", though, what was that about? What was "crashing out with Sylvian"? Bowie explained that song was set in a post-apocalyptic world where people had to learn how to make love again by using books. All very futuristic and strange.
Whatever the meanings, it is a uplifting, almost anthemic sax-driven pastiche. It was originally offered to Mott The Hoople as a follow-up to the Bowie-penned All The Young Dudes but they turned it down, now confident enough to choose their own Honaloochie Boogie, which charted for them.
Panic In Detroit is one of my own favourites, this Latin percussion-influenced number with its "he looked a lot like Che Guevara" wonderful opening line. Once more, it is brimming with lyrical imagery. It has an intoxicating conga-driven rhythm, some bluesy Mick Ronson guitar and great backing vocals from Linda Lewis and Juanita "Honey" Franklin. It gives off a lot of the same ambience as Watch That Man in its sound, although it is less glammy and the setting is decidedly more urban and decaying, as opposed to that of fashionable NewYork parties.
Cracked Actor - that party decadence returns, however, with the riffy, glammy, slightly Stonesy rock of this upbeat number. Sexual references are to the fore, especially with the risqué "suck baby suck" lyric. "I'm stiff on my legend..." sings Bowie, almost as Ziggy personified. Has the character become the man? Actually, Bowie is definitely singing in character as he says "forget that I'm fifty 'cause you just got paid...", but there is still that feeling that the Ziggy myth was becoming self-perpetuating. This was one of Bowie's most seedy songs to date.
Time - talking of seedy, now we get one of the album's high points featuring 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. There are classical music influences all around the track, apparently. It is one of Bowie's most adventurous compositions thus far, again providing a sign as to his future directions in its smoky late night feel at times.
It also references Billy Murcia of The New York Dolls - "demanding Billy Dolls...", who had died only a few days before this song was written in late 1972.
I always felt that The Prettiest Star, that dated from 1970 is slightly incongruous on the album but it is given a 70s boost here. It still sounds out of place though. It is far too light and breezy to fit in with with the rest of the material. Bowie and the cultural zeitgeist had moved on from this sort of sub-hippy, folky stuff. It is redeemed. however, by Mick Ronson's very 1973 guitar solo and some lively fifties doo-wop backing vocals.
Let's Spend The Night Together - a lot of people don't seem to like Bowie's energetic cover of this mid-sixties The Rolling Stones' song but I have always loved it. It rocks. Big time. Just check out that madcap, frantic piano opening. Bowie and the band really rip it and the pace doesn't up for a second. The guitar "thrusts" after the "let's make love" vocal bit was pretty daring for the time - Bowie had been quite pushing of the boundaries through this album, you have to say, with Time and Cracked Actor as well, plus the eroticism of Lady Grinning Soul.
The album's first big hit single, The Jean Genie had crashed into our consciousness back in December 1972 before the album was released. 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 song contains absolutely killer bits of Ronson/Bowie guitar/harmonica interplay throughout and is one of Bowie's bluesiest piece of rock thus far in his career. The riff was approximated by The Sweet for their number one single Blockbuster in January 1973. It was, according to both parties, a complete coincidence and also, The Yardbirds had used it in the sixties in their live covers of I'm A Man. Another coincidence, stated Bowie, was the whole "Jean Genet" thing that supposed that the song's title was something to do with the French author.
The song and the accompanying Top Of The Pops appearance (see the great live clip) subsequently cemented Bowie's position in popular culture, even more than Starman did. By late 1972, many people were talking about David Bowie. The Ziggy Stardust audience had ballooned, hugely. He was a superstar now.
The final track, Lady Grinning Soul, is a rarely acknowledged Bowie masterpiece of piano and strings torch song mystery. Simply beautiful and bubbling over with smoky atmosphere. It is arguably the album's finest song, certainly its most beguiling. It was also quite erotic in its "touch the fullness of her breast, feel the love of her caress..." line.
It was a unique song, quite unlike anything he had done before. Only Time and Aladdin Sane come close to its adventurousness. Surprisingly, though, even Bowie seemed to forget about it, as he never played it live.
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..."
John I'm Only Dancing - I loved this single back in 1972 when it came out. I was far too young at thirteen to pick up on the homosexual references, as most were. It passed the BBC censorship (but not in the USA). It became a top twenty hit here. It is a nice mix of a catchy acoustic intro/ongoing riff and some vibrant Spiders rock. I remember being blown away by how great the sound was when my father allowed me to play the single on his stereo. I still love hearing it today.
The original single mix dates from July 1972 and is the best one. A subsequent one was re-recorded in January 1973 using saxophone in place of the acoustic guitar riff. It is ok, but not as good as the original, neither is the 1979 remix which seems to tone down the sharpness of the acoustic guitar. For me, the original single version will always be the best - that crystal clear strummed acoustic intro and then the consecutive drumbeats leading into Bowie telling us that "Annie's pretty neat, she always eats her meat...". Hmm.
All The Young Dudes was the legendary anthemic song that Bowie gave to ailing mates Mott The Hoople in the summer of 1972 (they were originally offered Suffragette City) and they took right up the charts, making the song their own. Bowie's version was recorded in December 1972 and suffers in comparison to the Mott classic. The saxophone dominates this version (the Mott one was driven by acoustic and electric guitars) and, dare I say it, Ian Hunter's vocal is the definitive one.
A most interesting rarity is the version of that has Mott's original instrumental backing but Bowie's vocal that he recorded as a guide for Hunter to follow. I must say it has a certain appeal. It includes Hunter's spoken "outro" but Bowie sings the verses. It has a certain nostalgic fragility about it, especially in Bowie's ever so slightly tentative vocal.
By the way, I'm sure the "boogaloo dudes" line was inspired by Bowie's mate Marc Bolan.
Oh man, I need TV....
Oh brother you guessed....I'm a dude, man.
*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.