David Bowie - Aladdin Sane

The follow-up to Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane was released in 1973, and although it is one of Bowie's lesser-known albums, its cover art features one of the most enduring images of Bowie; with an odd red mullet, and a made up flash of lightning on his brow. Aladdin Sane features some of Bowie's best rockers (as well as Stones impressions) in Watch That Man and The Jean Genie, as well as the experimental title track, the Queen-like vaudeville of Time, and the sweeping melancholy beauty of Lady Grinning Soul.

Track Listing:

  1. Watch That Man
  2. Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)
  3. Drive-In Saturday
  4. Panic In Detroit
  5. Cracked Actor
  6. Time
  7. The Prettiest Star
  8. Let's Spend The Night Together (Jagger/Richards)
  9. The Jean Genie
  10. Lady Grinning Soul
All selections written by David Bowie, unless otherwise noted.


Personnel:

Produced by David Bowie and Ken Scott.
Mixed by Ken Scott and Mick Ronson.
Engineered by Ken Scott and Mike Moran.
Arranged by David Bowie and Mick Ronson.


Aladdin Sane opens with the very Stonesy riff of Watch That Man; the whole song is 1969/1970 vintage Stones all over; with the horn section and female backing vocals it sounds just like Brown Sugar. It's been suggested that the song is about the Stones ("An old-fashioned band of married men"), and Jagger in particular, but I have a funny hunch Bowie might be singing about Neil Young - a character called Shakey is mentioned on several occasions in the song, and Bernard Shakey is one of Neil Young's favourite aliases. The title track starts somewhat abruptly next. It's got a vaguely unsettling, jazzy, minor melody, and an oddly random piano break in the middle; the whole thing sounds pretty eerie and strange to me. The dates in the title refer to the years World War One and World War Two started; the 197? is supposed to imply that World War Three would start during the 70's.

Track three is another cheesy 50s-americana Bowie tune - Drive-In Saturday. According to an article on superseventies.com (see bottom of w/u for the url):

"It is a fantasy in which the populace, after some terrible holocaust, has forgotten how to make love. To learn again they take courses at the local drive-in, where they view films in which 'like once before...people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored.'"
It's not obvious from the song, and I viewed the article with a little scepticism, but having read the lyrics, it makes perfect sense. Having said that, though, I personally don't much care for Drive-In Saturday as a song.

Next comes Panic In Detroit, a somewhat frantic rocker; it draws parallels between the revolutionary and the rock star, which make perfect sense when you think of the number of kids you see wandering around the place nowadays in Ché Guevara t-shirts. For Bowie completists, there is an out-take version of Panic In Detroit available on the special edition release of Heathen, his latest album. For the record, the alternate version is pants. Panic In Detroit is followed by Cracked Actor, a hard-rocking and quite explicit tune ("Suck, baby, suck/Give me your head") about a retired legend ("I've come on a few years/Since my Hollywood highs"), pissing away his declining years on whores and phonies.

The music shifts down a gear on Time, which sounds quite a lot like early Queen, before such a thing existed. It's kinda reminiscent of the songs of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, too; it's quite reflective and philosophical. The song seems to be loosely about actors waiting to come onstage..."Time - he's waiting in the wings"; and the song ends "We should be on by now...!". We're back to americana next, with The Prettiest Star, a fairly schmaltzy ballad, complete with "doo-wop" backing vocals and saxophone. It's a pretty enough little song, but there is a much better version on the Best of David Bowie: 1969-1974 compilation, that does away with the doo-wops and sax, and slows the song down a bit; as a result it sounds a heck of a lot more sincere, and all the better for it.

Track eight is Bowie's cover of the Stones' Let's Spend The Night Together; Bowie tries to claim it as a gay, or at least bi, anthem. It's arguable as to whether or not he succeeds, but his cover is quite breathless and frantic, which I think suits the song well. Next is the Jean Genie, one of Bowie's most enduring rockers. The lyrics are pretty much strung-out nonsense, or maybe there's a deeper meaning; but the pounding rhythm and squalling harmonica make this a treat of a song.

The finalé is Lady Grinning Soul, a fairly melancholy epic of a song. With a delicate string arrangement by Mick Ronson, and probably the best vocal on the album, Lady Grinning Soul seems to symbolise some kind of actors' goddess, continuing the theatrical theme running through most of the album. As a whole, the album is a thrilling reflection on stardom, whether as an actor, revolutionary or rockstar, and the attendant sex appeal afforded to celebrities. It's not Bowie's greatest work, but it certainly earns a place among his top five albums, in my opinion.

References:

  • http://www.superseventies.com/bowie2.html A pretty thorough, if somewhat fanciful, review of Aladdin Sane.
  • http://www.allmusic.com
  • The sleeve notes to the 1999 remastered release of Aladdin Sane.

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