(Credit: RCA)

The Cover Uncovered: David Bowie's iconic lightning moment in 'Aladdin Sane'

You can tell that David Bowie had a knack for music as much as he had a flair for the dramatics. To Bowie, who also tried his hand as a mime artist and as an actor throughout his career, it was all about incorporating optical paraphernalia to go with his music and putting that creation out to the public as a whole, distinctive and singular piece. What immediately comes to mind is his character as Cloud in the mime act Threepenny Pierrot, his other widely known persona of Ziggy Stardust, and of course, Aladdin Sane. The aesthetics of these characters did not only draw from the kind of music he produced, but his appearance affected the music too. Ziggy Stardust, for example, was the iconic alter ego that crash-landed with the advent of glam rock.

Probably one of Bowie’s better-known on-stage personalities, the fantastical figure of Ziggy gained him mainstream popular acclaim, proving he didn’t need to compromise to make sales. An extension of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona was the seminal figure of Aladdin Sane, which was, essentially, what Bowie described as “Ziggy Stardust goes to America”.

Aladdin Sane was the sixth studio album by Bowie and directly followed his previous hit, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The decorative front cover of the album was, of course, the iconic photo of a shirtless Bowie with the colourful flash-like scar painted on his face, (what looks like) a teardrop loosely positioned on his clavicle, his eyes closed and mouth slightly agape. The photograph was symbolic in many ways.

For starters, it represented Bowie at a time when he was struggling to come to terms with his rising stardom and felt himself “crack” under the building pressures of a life of fame. It was a time when he wanted 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.” As an explanation, he said, “So Aladdin Sane was split down the middle.”

The cover art, photographed by Brian Duffy, successfully conveyed this split brilliantly as the sharp, distinctive painted scar contrasted the soft, vulnerable tear, with Bowie’s eyes shut, apparently unwilling to face the reality of the polarities he found himself trapped in. Duffy, who would also go on to work with Bowie for his later albums like Lodger and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), was quite certain on how he wanted the final photograph to look like, taking much of the inspiration from Bowie’s articulation of feeling like a “cracked actor”.

Adding to that, Bowie’s production team was hell-bent on splurging as much money and effort on this album as needed to increase its visibility and ensure that RCA, the record label with whom Bowie was signed, promoted the album extensively. It got to the point where Aladdin Sane became the costliest album cover of that period – a risky step for an artist who had just found his place within the mainstream of popular culture.

To make matters even more precarious, it would probably be safe to say that the preparations made for the shoot and the editing work that took place afterwards, were just as elaborate as the interpretations that surrounded the photo. Everyone, including Bowie, Duffy and both their entourages, gathered at Duffy’s studio at Primrose Hill, London, on a Saturday in January 1973 for the shoot. The first couple of hours were spent brainstorming, juggling ideas until they finally settled on one, the results of which would be visible on the album cover.

For a photo that looked rather other-worldly, it was quite strange that the shoot was done in an enclosed space as a studio. This probably shows just how powerful the concept of the idea was. Bowie’s make-up constituted a red and blue lightning bolt drawn asymmetrically on his face, his hair dyed red and skin painted down with a “deathly purple wash”. The teardrop was a part of Duffy’s own creative imagination, while the silvery hue on Bowie’s body was airbrushed on the sleeve by Philip Castle. It culminated in translating Bowie so effectively because it allowed the mysteries of the artist to take centre stage with a noted flambouyance and charming intrigue.

The cover picture for David Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane goes down in history as one of Bowie’s most celebrated images, positing him not just as a musician, but as an artist, a performer and most importantly, a storyteller.

It became one of those print-able images, finding its place on t-shirts and book covers, in posters and stickers, as a remarkable representation of one of the classic portraits of David Bowie. If there was one image to define a man whose life can be seen in defining images, then this has to be up there.