David Bowie’s sixth studio album, released in 1973, was the follow up to 1972’s ground-breaking ‘The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’; an album remembered for its musical brilliance as well as its snappy title. For Aladdin Sane he chose a more pun based title, playing on the phrase ‘a lad insane’, a reference to his half brother’s recent schizophrenia diagnosis.
Famed as much for its album artwork (photographed by Brian Duffy) as it is for its sound, I think Aladdin Sane is best viewed as the cousin of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ as it carries on the story of the character Bowie invented only a few months before.
The album was released with Bowie already a star, he’d found fame the previous year and by the close of 1972 he had 4 albums in the UK charts; fans across the nation were eagerly awaiting a new addition to his discography. During what was his first American tour that’s exactly what he began work on. Bowie and his Spiders didn’t take the US by storm by any description and often performed to half full stadiums; middle America failed to understand just what he was all about. The tour did, however, shape the ambitions of Bowie and gave him inspiration for what he wanted to do next…enter Aladdin Sane.
So inspired was Bowie’s new character by his American tour that Bowie would later say the album was ‘Ziggy goes to America.’ Co-produced by Ken Scott, and mostly recorded at Trident Studios in London, the album became the first of 11 UK chart topping records that Bowie would release. The album also finally appealed en masse to American audiences and got to number 17 in the billboard charts. Aladdin Sane became the first step Bowie took to being the legend he is today.
Like many of its predecessors, the album features a solid rock foundation, led by guitars and pianos throughout. The record features several guest musicians, providing sonic diversity in all four corners of the record. Although diverse, the album is a rock and roll thriller right from track one. The distorted sounds from guitarist Mick Ronson sound almost grungy at times and drive the album from start to finish, giving the album a much heavier and dirtier sound than its predecessor. The album establishes Ronson as a gifted musician in his own right, his work on ‘Jean Genie’ is a highlight, with its pure rock and roll riff biting you in the ears as you listen. The song became Bowie’s biggest hit to date when it peaked at number two in the UK charts.
The album also draws on the piano for a number of the tracks. Pianist Mike Garson was a welcome addition to the group and provided an avant garde complexity to the sound. (Piano on ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was played by Ronson) Garson’s talent is best displayed in his solo on the title track but is consistently great throughout this album. As well as adding to the experimental feeling on the record, Garson also adds to the rock and roll feel with bluesy rhythms and leads throughout. Although Bowie played many genres in many different ways throughout his career, this record shows him to be every bit a rock star.
Its rock and roll DNA is never more apparent, however, than in the Rolling Stones cover ‘Let’s spend the night together’; a song so rock and roll that Ed Sullivan demanded the words be changed for the Stones’ appearance on his show. Bowie goes a step even further, and changes the lyrics from the original’s ‘My tongues getting tied’ to the much more suggestive ‘My tongues getting tired.’ The song oozes innuendo and, although Ronson is no Kieth Richards, he still thrashes this track out as if he was. When this is coupled with Bowie’s excitable singing, as if he were a giddy teenager in his bedroom, the sound created is one of pure, energy-infused rock. Although a cover, the track slots into the record like a well worn shoe and the album is undoubtedly better off for it.
The record is lyrically strong too, proving to the audience that Bowie belongs amongst the great songwriters in history. He touches on themes addressed in his previous work; the concept of time, for example, had been previously personified on ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’ but where time in this record is a friend to the listener, time on Aladdin Sane is less your friend, more someone waiting to screw you over. The transition in attitude from time is indicative of the change from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane, a change brought about by America and what he found there.
Bowie demonstrates his talent for story telling on the record too. His ability to create worlds and characters within his work cannot be overshadowed; he tells stories of post-apocalyptic civilisations, and imagines what it would be like if humans had to learn about sex from porn films. His stories are as compelling as they are imaginative and ensure that his name is mentioned in any conversation about the great story tellers in music.
Bowie is up there with the likes of Lennon, Jagger and Wilson in terms of his song writing ability; a true master of his craft able to convey a multitude of concepts and ideas. This album is the one that solidifies his legacy. Since its release in the early seventies the world has been under no illusions of Bowie’s genius.