Well this is something I’ve been thinking just maybe could have been avoided. It of course could not, look you see. What, precisely? In this attempt to do a post on a random David Bowie album each month it is necessary for me, look you see, to do a 70s record.
On the one side I don’t particularly care if people do not like what they read here. I mean, obviously it’s nice when people find it interesting, funny or entertaining in some way, but I can’t make anyone like it. If they don’t, well, they should have stopped and gone on to read something else. The other side of this is when something happens like you try to write about a 1970s David Bowie album. Beyond so very much already being written about them all (except, weirdly, Lodger) already, the exalted position they were held in prior to January 2016 has gotten all very much exalted. One feels almost compelled to write in the same kind of uber-wank way journalists did when The Next Day came out, for doing anything but celebrating their genius and greatness is likely to see calls for you to be arrested.
Let me be brave, then, and try this. And why not go in close to the deep end with a listen and a look at the Bowie record with arguably the most iconic cover, Aladdin Sane from 1973. A significant year, I am led to believe.
Some quick facts about it? Surely. Recording took place from late 72 to early 73, with sessions “happening” around an ever expanding tour of America and other locations with the growing success of Ziggy Stardust. Depending on what records you count, this was Bowie’s 5th or 6th studio album and the first to come out – despite an earlier number one single – with David as a confirmed, bona fide pop star. As a result, it sold by the absolute shed load. This last bit basically vindicated the decision to in some ways “rush” to get this album recorded and released as soon as was possible to both gain momentum and stockpile coins of money whilst the going was good.
It’s an album that has grown in stature over the years. Which is to say that it wasn’t particularly well received at the time, looking at some reviews. Further, Bowie himself seemed not to bothered about it at the time, as we shall see as we go with some quotes attributed to him, taken from the 30th anniversary edition of the album..
Speaking of quotes, here’s Martin Amis on the subject of David Bowie in 1973 –
“Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently they symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants – particularly cocaine, very much an elitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising – self-parodied narcissim, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as nihilist would, of course, be absurd….[Bowie] is unlikely to last long as a cult.”.
Attribution is important, kids – the above quote was taken from the book Scorn, a collection of quotes compiled by Matthew Parris, published by Profile Books Ltd, ISBN 9781781257296.
Getting to the quote, it’s easy in retrospect to, well, pour scorn on it, and laugh at how hopelessly wrong Martin Amis got that. In context, though, in 1973 this was accurate. After styling himself mostly as a Dylanesque folk artist of ambivalent sexuality – bar a dabble with quasi-Led Zeppelin sounds on The Man Who Sold The World – he hit pay dirt with Ziggy Stardust. To follow that up with Aladdin Sane – ostensibly and at surface value another character created and another glam rock sounding record – was neither innovative nor likely to lead to a sustained career.
The above isn’t so much me saying that as it is reading what Bowie himself said of the Aladdin Sane album. Here, as promised above, are some quotes from the man himself on the record.
"I knew I didn't have much more to say about rock n roll. I mean Ziggy really said as much as I meant to say all along.".
"It was almost like a treading-water album, but funnily enough, in retrospect, for mem it's the more successful album, because it's more informed about rock n roll than Ziggy was.".
So, Bowie himself was somewhat dismissive of the record, the critics were hardly rushing to praise it at the time and, as I will get to, the initial re-releases of the album suggested that no one was all that fond of it at all. And yet the fans revere it. Just how does the record hold up, 44 years later (blimey) Let’s do a track by track thing.
Watch That Man – A bit of a throwaway, effortless bit of glam that’s more glam rock than it is pop. The opening sounds of the song remain great, and make sure that the record has your attention. In truth, it’s a song that sounds like it was more fun to play than it was to listen – it feels really, really long and drawn out.
Bowie’s vocal being mixed down is somewhat distracting, but it is not like the higher prominence given to his voice on live recordings makes it any better.
Aladdin Sane (1913 – 1938 – 197?) – Inspired by reading Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, the title track (yes, a play on words, “a lad insane”) is a bit of a stab at a ‘pop opera’ thing. It’s a whimsical look at how, in the first two years of the title, societies simply didn’t contemplate or consider the very real catastrophes the world would be plunged in to, and with the final suggested year indicating that maybe we were on the verge of it yet again.
Whether deliberate or accidental, it at times sounds like Bowie is struggling to conceal a giggle as he sings – in particular the line “Paris, or maybe Hell”. As with Watch That Man, the music seems to take preference over the vocal, in particular Mike Garson’s celebrated piano.
Drive-In Saturday – Not content with suggesting society on the brink of collapse with the song before, Bowie leaps into the future. This song is a vision of a post apocalyptic world where society is in ruins. People barely know how to communicate any more, and have to rely on “video films” to learn how to love, and indeed make love. All this to a very doo wop / she bop early 50s prototype rock sound.
Mott The Hoople famously (or if you like infamously) rejected this song when offered it by Bowie, despite the huge hit they scored with All The Young Dudes which he gifted them. Most happy day that they did. This song is one of Bowie’s finest ever vocal performances, showing off his incredible range and distinct sound.
Panic In Detroit – One of my all time favourite David Bowie songs of all time. One of the last times Mick Ronson played guitar on a Bowie record (if not the last), and what an epic job he does. His guitar drives a brooding, brilliant piece of music that seemingly fuses the rhythm of Motown with the sensibilities of British rock.
Again, Bowie’s vocal range gets a really good work out. Lyrically this is genius, telling a story that you are better off listening to rather than reading my description. Brilliant, just brilliant.
Cracked Actor – In which David Bowie gets down and dirty with a hard rock edge, doing so in a way that he perhaps would not do again until Heaven’s In Here with Tin Machine. A fast, hard hitting, grinding gruelling travel into the debauched world of the excesses of sex and drugs fame brings one.
It’s as heavy metal as it is foot stomping glam rock, and it’s glorious.
Time – Wow. The theatrics and drama attempted on Aladdin Sane (1913 – 1938 – 197?) returns, only this time absolutely bang on the money. A beautiful, poetical lament of longing and loss. It is widely known that Bowie started off, artistically, as an actor prior to becoming a singer. This is where he brings drama and music together perfectly.
Another reason for this one being a big favourite is that one of the more controversial lines from the song was quoted by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in, I think, series one of A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, during the headmaster / poetry competition sketch.
The Prettiest Star – Hinting at the fast, or if you like slap-dash way this record came together, this is a re-recording of a 1970 single. Mick Ronson does the guitar on the album version, whereas a certain Marc Bolan can be heard playing it on the original.
Legend holds that David wrote this as part of his smooth seduction moves on one Angela Barnett, who would later become known as Angie Bowie. It’s that link which is probably why it seldom got played live, and never at all after the end of the 70s. Still, a wonderful, lovely glam pop single. Don’t worry so much about who it was for or what the intention was, just enjoy it.
Let’s Spend The Night Together – Including one cover version on an album was pretty much standard for Bowie. This one stands out somewhat as it’s a cover of a rather well known song.
Does it work? Yes and no. I mean, I love the Stones, I love the original. This is mostly the same song, just different. It’s transformed from a straight solid rock song into a futuristic, prototype synthpop sound, with Bowie electing to add some new lyrics too. If you accept that there’s little point in doing a cover version just for it to sound identical to the original, then it can be said that this brings a new, non-disgracing dimension to a well loved song.
The Jean Genie – The big, big, hit off the album, and arguably if not unavoidably the most enduring song to come from the Aladdin Sane record. I think this is the only single from the album which consistently featured on tours and greatest hits / best of packages.
Much like Panic In Detroit, thing song merges a Motown influence picked up whilst touring the States with the staunch, solid sound of British rock at its best. It is highly likely you have heard this song, so there’s not much point in saying much more. Yes, true, Jim Kerr did say that Simple Minds took their name off of the lyrics.
Lady Grinning Soul – The final track, seemingly one which The Jean Genie segues into. When playing the album I often forget this is a song on its own. A ballad to finish off the record with, and one which many have interpreted as being “hello, this is David Bowie. I’ve just done a song that sounds a bit James Bond-ish, how about you let me do a song for a James Bond film please.”. An interpretation not harmed by Bowie’s high profile attendance of the premiere of Live And Let Die later on in 1973.
Was Bowie ever invited to do a Bond song? Not as far as I know. He famously turned down the role of baddie in A View To A Kill, but I do not remember musings that he was in line to do the song. I think it's only recently they have invited people; in days gone by you had to audition and, well, yeah, sure you could have asked David Bowie to audition for something, but no.
My abiding thoughts on the song are – to use the term correctly for a change – that it foreshadowed the style he would use on other, rare forays into the world of the ballad. Mostly this feels like a dry run for the cover of Wild Is The Wind that would feature on the Station To Station album.
Phew. Looking back at what I have just written (but not to edit it, I don’t do that), it seems that the record has a little of an iffy start then goes on to deliver some of the finest songs Bowie created. Yes, this is positively absolutely an essential David Bowie album to at least listen to, and perhaps own.
And owning the record became an interesting thing. The sense that no one in particular cared for the album prevailed across the releases. The 1990 Ryko CD contained no extra tracks. This was unusual, as all other reissues did and there was a stack of material which could have been included – All The Young Dudes, the Love Aladdin Vein and Zion demos, etc. Further, the edition did not even bother to list the full name for the song Aladdin Sane, dropping the years from the title. Eventually a 30th Anniversary Edition came along, featuring a whole extra disc (of less than 30 mins that could have gone on 1 CD with the album) with 10 tracks on. David’s originally and previously unreleased All The Young Dudes was included, but other than that it was just some single edits and some live tracks, three of which had already been released on the original version of the Sound&Vision box set.
Once, every now and then, Noel Gallagher used to say things which were interesting and insightful. One such instance was when he said that the first Oasis album, Definitely Maybe, was about wanting to be a big rock back, and that the second, Morning Glory, was the sound of a big rock band. This happens to be spot on for looking at the movement from The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars to Aladdin Sane. As per the quotes from Bowie in the 30th Anniversary Edition, he might well have said “all that he wanted to” about rock on the Ziggy record, but Aladdin Sane is him saying it as an actual big rock star. As with the Oasis scenario, both records are brilliant. Unlike Oasis, Bowie continued to go on delivering greatness.
Aladdin Sane would be the last time for a decade that Bowie made an overtly pop sounding and appealing record in a way calculated to capitalise financially on his talents. Whilst obviously wanting and hoping everything done would be embraced, this would be that for giving the audience what they wanted rather than what he wanted to do until Let’s Dance in 1983. This isn’t meant to be dismissive, for great songs live on, irrespective of their intention leaning more towards commercial or artistic.
Should for some reason you not own Aladdin Sane, or have read this without ever hearing it, then the unequivocal sign off here is yes, absolutely, you really should be considering going off from here to obtain it. Preferably a physical copy, as some things were just never meant to be streamed. Own it, hold it and fall in love with it.
Which Bowie album next? That’s one from the 90s, 80s and now 70s covered. Not at all sure I am ready to do one of the two 10s yet, or look at the 60s. Perhaps a 00s one, then, we will see. Or I will, but I hope you come back and have a look too.
be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!