“That grey space in the middle is what the twenty-first century is going to be about,” said David Bowie to Jeremy Paxman in a 1999 Newsnight interview discussing the birth of the internet. This veracious take has gone down as classic Bowie, showing his other-worldly wisdom. The almost messianic truth carried in this line can be beheld all around us today. One only has to note the content of Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation, or the zeitgeist of ‘alternative facts’ to heed the gravity of Bowie’s assertion.
However, the quote is also fitting as it sums up almost all of Bowie’s remarkable career, particularly 1973’s classic record Aladdin Sane. Although he is not with us anymore, Bowie is known for his chameleonic approach to on-stage personas and musical compositions. Whilst this trend was started with his breakthrough 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars it was on its follow up that Bowie really started to dissect fame, politics and mental health in a way that had never been done before.
Encapsulated by the iconic cover artwork and photograph, this album would define Bowie in more implicit ways than its predecessor — operating in the said grey area. The album marked beginnings and endings, a juncture from which the legendary David Bowie would emerge.
Retrospectively, the album becomes only more impressive. The title is a pun on ‘A Lad Insane’— a line synonymous with Bowie’s mental state at the time, and also relating to his half brother Terry, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, an illness that ran in the family. This pervasive theme of schizophrenia, backed up by the dynamic title track, would embody the biggest challenge of Bowie’s career up until this point.
The album would go on to be Bowie’s most commercially successful record at the time. Noting the myriad of factors influencing the LP adds to the listening experience. The record embodies a metamorphosis — the end of Ziggy Stardust and the dawn of something else, a “formless mutant” that would shock and inspire many.
Aladdin Sane was the first album that Bowie had written from a position of stardom and, in tandem, the majority of the tracks were written on the road, most of which came during the US leg of ‘The Ziggy Stardust Tour’ in late ’72. This transitional theme is reflected in how each song is ascribed a place name on the album label, indicating where they were written: New York – ‘Watch That Man’, ‘The Jean Genie’, Seattle–Phoenix – ‘Drive-In Saturday’, Detroit, ‘Panic in Detroit’, Los Angeles – ‘Cracked Actor’ and New Orleans – ‘Time’. The writing was not only confined within the United States border though, the title track was written mid-Atlantic aboard the RHMS Ellinis, as Bowie sailed home in December ’72. And ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ and ‘The Prettiest Star’ were both written once the increasingly jaded Bowie had returned to London.
Furthermore, the album contains many nods to The Rolling Stones. Track eight is a typically lopsided cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ — garishly changing the original lyric from “my tongue’s getting tied” to “my tongue’s getting tired”. The Stones also influenced the album’s edgier sound, and their influence is most noticeable on ‘Watch That Man’. Its guitar style is very similar to that of Exile on Main Street, and was highly influential in itself with guitarist Mick Ronson’s tone sounding almost proto-grunge.
‘Drive-In-Saturday’ is perhaps the most typical song of Aladdin Sane, exploring juxtaposed themes. Musically, it has a ’50s doo-wop feel but is set in a post-apocalyptic 21st century. In a fashion indicative of the ’70s, the lyrics imagine how the earth’s inhabitants have forgotten how to make love, needing to watch old porn films to remember how it was done. The song’s narrative is often regarded as an example of Bowie’s “futuristic nostalgia”, told from the perspective of a future inhabitant of the earth, looking back in time. Not only does this invoke the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas or Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man — it is scarily accurate given Bowie’s comments on the essence of the new millennium.
The song is also a who’s who of the era, namechecking model Twiggy, referencing Marc Bolan, and explicitly naming Mick Jagger “when people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored”. Showing the pseudo-psychoanalytical posture of the album, Bowie even mentions Carl Jung: “Jung the foreman prayed at work”.
To add some extra weight to some of the album’s other songs, there also exists considerable evidence that ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ was about soul singer Claudia Lennear, who Bowie had a dalliance with during that time. She was supposedly the subject of The Stones classic ‘Brown Sugar’ too. Moreover, the songs were more intrinsically influenced by Bowie’s perception of America, as he was both enthralled and appalled by the country. It was such a momentous time in US history, reeling in the wake of The Watergate Scandal and struggling with widespread socio-economic issues, that it demanded the attention of artists everywhere.
The tour also marked the start of his long and well-documented cocaine addiction which would influence his next alter ego, The Thin White Duke. It is claimed that this is what informed his ‘flubbed’ flirtations with the far-right, ill-timed and crass amongst Britain’s own turmoil of the 1970s. This cracked out sentiment seems to have been en vogue at the time. Yes, we’re looking at you, Eric Clapton.
Adding to the mental stress of the American tour, and his newfound cocaine addiction, 1972 also saw Bowie co-produce Lou Reed’s Transformer, and mix The Stooges’ Raw Power — two pioneering albums in their own right. However, this only added more exhaustion, and the desire to retire the Ziggy Stardust persona only increased. Bowie knew he’d end up doing a ‘Ziggy Part 2’ but not in the way fans expected: “There was a point in ’73 where I knew it was all over. I didn’t want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life. And I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, I was trying to move into the next area – but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy as a secondary device. In my mind, it was Ziggy goes to Washington: Ziggy under the influence of America.”
Bowie also added experimental pianist Mike Garson to his band, and it was his addition to the ensemble that really marked Aladdin Sane out as Bowie’s first flirtation with the avant-garde. This relationship would go on to be pioneering and a distillation of the Starman, something that culminated in his final album, 2016’s Blackstar. For the ’73 album, Garson’s technical prowess also helped to augment the Americana and futurism inherent to the record with ‘Time’ being a great example of this.
These concepts, with the overarching theme of a schizophrenic in transit, culminate in the definitive character assassination of the naive Ziggy Stardust, at the hands of the alluring Lady America and henchman, Stardom. Nevertheless, in the innocent Stardust’s blood existed the compounds of the “ephemeral” Aladdin Sane, and just like the mythical Dionysus was borne from Zeus’s thigh; this darker, more cerebral self-reflection began to propagate. On Aladdin Sane’s constitution, Bowie maintained: “Aladdin Sane was my idea of rock and roll America. Here I was on this great tour circuit, not enjoying it very much. So inevitably my writing reflected that; this kind of schizophrenia that I was going through. Wanting to be up on stage performing my songs, but on the other hand not really wanting to be on those buses with all those strange people. Being basically a quiet person, it was hard to come to terms with. So Aladdin Sane was split down the middle.”
Expanding, Bowie maintained that Aladdin Sane encompassed “situations as well as just being as personality”, showing the difference between his prior, relative innocence and newfound experience had on the writing process. This less defined character freed Bowie of Ziggy Stardust’s trappings, lending itself perfectly to the experimentation on the album, and vice versa.
Reflecting upon the pioneering nature of the album, and its legacy, David Buckley said that on release Aladdin Sane was “the clearest indicator of how Bowie was trying to free himself from the confines on rock” — a sentiment that was expanded on throughout his career by conflating music, image and personas. Buckley compressed it fittingly as a “schizoid amalgamation”. In this amalgamation, the aspect of social critique was largely influenced by Evelyn Waugh’s book Vile Bodies, wherein Bowie saw “frivolous, decadent and silly” behaviour predicating societal destruction, and took it to reflect the America he was travelling through. Additionally, the book was made into a 2003 film, directed by Stephen Fry and entitled Bright Young Things, a phrase from the title track.
The lead single ‘The Jean Genie’ reached number two on the UK singles chart but was kept off the top spot by Little Jimmy Osmond’s horrific ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’. Whilst ‘The Jean Genie’ is undoubtedly a product of its time — glam to the bone and inspired by The Yardbirds’ version of the Muddy Waters track ‘I’m a Man’ — its classic status remains intact. Showing its immediate impact on the contemporary world, the riff was closely imitated by glam rockers Sweet on 1973’s ‘Blockbuster!’. Bowie described it as “a smorgasbord of imagined Americana”, referencing neon lights and Marilyn Monroe, reflecting the sponge-like nature of the new persona.
Fully entitled ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’, the title track is haunting and gaudy in its composition. Bowie’s vocals are trademark, and the music acts as a stark result of his relationship with the avant-garde, being sinister yet playful. It is also striking as the dates coincide with the years preceding both world wars and hint at the start of a third. The track acts as a thematic precursor to ‘Drive-In-Saturday’, the following song on the record with the underlying paranoia of both tracks epitomising Aladdin Sane.
To perfectly sum up the position of ‘Aladdin Sane’ in Bowie’s timeline, would be to place it at the exact point where ‘Bowie: the icon’ formed in its chrysalis.
Garson’s breathtaking two minute solo on the title track is a standout moment on the album. It sounds as a Terry Gilliam film looks. He reflected on it in 1999, “I don’t think there’s been a week in those 26 years that have gone by without someone, somewhere, asking me about it!” He also talks about the solo’s birth: “Bowie said: ‘play a solo on this.’ I had just met him, so I played a blues solo, but then he said: ‘No, that’s not what I want.’ And then I played a Latin solo. Again, Bowie said: ‘No, no, that’s not what I want.’ He then continued: ‘You told me you play that avant-garde music. Play that stuff!’ And I said: ‘Are you sure? ‘Cause you might not be working anymore!’. So I did the solo that everybody knows today, in one take. I always tell people that Bowie is the best producer I ever met, because he let me do my thing.” This statement also shows that Bowie’s risk paid off. His attempt to utilise the avant-garde, at the time, may have well been a product of him being ‘A Lad Insane’, but it worked, truly starting his mythical trajectory.
The album cover is perhaps more legendary than the music itself. It has been called ‘The Mona Lisa of album covers’, and rightly so — at the time, it was the most expensive album cover ever made. The crimson and blue lighting bolt splitting his face in two perfectly captured Bowie’s internal schism.
Shot by celebrated photographer Brian Duffy, the conceptual duality is embodied in the image. Many shots were taken using Bowie’s side profile, attempting to accentuate the lightning bolt. However, Duffy chose the final image to be the only one where Bowie was looking down. This portrayed him in a contemplative manner, contrasting with the stark lightning bolt bisecting his face. To add to this, cover artist Philip Castle airbrushed the teardrop into the pool of Bowie’s clavicle and added a silvery effect to Bowie’s already pale white skin. Augmented by his lack of eyebrows, this solemnly personified the futurism of Aladdin Sane.
Castle had also worked on the iconic artwork for Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. Showing his already established penchant for conveying the dystopian paranoia that was ubiquitous in the ’70s. Ironically, the inspiration for the lightning bolt came from two very disparate sources. A ring Elvis Presley wore inscribed with ‘T.C.B.’ (Taking Care of Business), and the logo of a National Panasonic rice cooker that Duffy had in his studio — both of which depicted lightning strikes.
Unsurprisingly, the artwork was met with polarising opinion. Some appreciated its daring nature, and others hated it for its depiction of Bowie’s body. The risk taken in the artwork can again be attributed to him being ‘A Lad Insane’, as for an artist with newfound fame, it could quite easily have been the death of David Bowie as a musician altogether, not just his current form. Again, the risk paid off and the image is now more synonymous with David Bowie than any other.
Whilst, there is so much more to say about Aladdin Sane, one thing cannot be said enough; it undoubtedly marked the beginnings of ‘David Bowie: the icon’. It is all-encompassing, just as its titular character was. The myriad of contrasting, and often sinister elements, coupled with its edgier, avant-garde musicianship, add to its definitive position in David Bowie’s genealogy.
It may indeed prove Bowie to have been ‘A Lad Insane‘, but its “schizoid” makeup fits as perfectly into the current global narrative as it did then. Although Bowie the human is no longer with us, leaving the earthly realm in the final form of Lazarus, he did leave behind Aladdin Sane.
We should be thankful as we need him, in all his crazed yet prophetic glory. The musical Diogenes the Cynic. Successor to Ziggy Stardust, borne of life’s grey areas. This pale, dichotomous mutant is brimming with insights that humanity could do with hearing once again.
The headline from 1973’s album-reveal article has never been as fitting: “Goodbye Ziggy and a big hello to Aladdin Sane”. A big hello indeed.