David Bowie took a little time to get into the swing of being a successful rockstar. After numerous attempts at making a name for himself throughout the mid-to-late-1960s, he felt somewhat rejected. Much like an alien fallen to earth from Mars, Bowie needed time to fall into the groove of popular music. He needed to adapt his individual style into something accessible for the rock ‘n’ roll zeitgeist of the time.
Early on, he was limited by the nature of his material which seemed somewhat detached from the normal boundaries of rock and roll with its tongue in cheek sound that often seemed to belong in some bizarre nursery rhyme stage production. Following the disappointment of his eponymous debut album, Bowie remained relatively quiet on the music front for a couple of years. When he returned in 1969 with Space Oddity, he still hadn’t quite hit the mark with the album as a whole, but he had his first glimmer of success with the eponymous single.
Moving into the 1970s, Bowie moved from strength to strength and released his first extensively impressive album in 1971’s Hunky Dory. Bowie was no time waster; when Hunky Dory hit the shelves, he was already working on his first career-defining album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which introduced his first on-stage persona. The release of the album in 1972 launched Bowie to worldwide recognition, and he became a big hit in the USA.
After breaking into the consciousness of the USA mainstream, Bowie became increasingly influenced by the States in return. The now-famous rockstar had toured America extensively with The Spiders from Mars, and he had begun to see all of the beauties and societal pitfalls the country had to offer.
When looking to record his sixth studio album in late 1972-73, Bowie wrote mostly from fresh experiences in his newfound lifestyle as a star. What resulted was Aladdin Sane, an album that brings together the blues-rock style of The Rolling Stones with the contemporary glam-rock style. The themes depicted often run against the energy of the music, depicting a bleak image of modern American life.
Aladdin Sane was released on this day (April 13th) in 1973. In celebration of its birthday, we have ranked all of the tracks on the album in order of greatness.
Ranking the songs of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane:
10. ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’
While there’s nothing wrong with Bowie’s cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, there’s nothing particularly intriguing about it either. It is a heartwarming nod to Bowie’s friends from whom he learned so much. It is the only cover on the album and seems to humbly admit the Stones’ huge influence on the music found throughout the rest of the album, especially on the more energetic rock hits.
Bowie’s take on the Stones’ classic is a little faster than the original and carries an updated glam vibrancy with it. At the time of the album’s release, critics saw the song as a camp take on what was originally a heterosexual song, tying in with Bowie’s bisexual status at the time.
9. ‘The Prettiest Star’
‘The Prettiest Star’ was originally recorded in 1970 as the follow-up to Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough single, ‘Space Oddity’. The lyrics were written for his first wife, Angela Barnett, whom he married shortly after the release of the original. The original was one of Bowie’s earliest collaborations with producer Tony Visconti, and it featured T. Rex’s Marc Bolan on guitar.
The version recorded for Aladdin Sane was updated with a heavier glam feel to it as Ronson recaptures Bolan’s original skeletal guitar solo. While the re-recorded effort comes with a vibrancy that improved it somewhat, the song still comes as one of the weaker tracks on the album.
8. ‘Cracked Actor’
Bowie wrote ‘Cracked Actor’ following a stay on Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Boulevard. As with much of the album, the track paints a bleak image of western culture as Bowie tells the story of an ageing film star who is falling into a spiral of illicit drug abuse and salacious activity with prostitutes.
The song appears to paint a more realistic picture of the America Bowie saw upon his arrival in the early 1970s. The picture was something quite different from what has long been depicted in Hollywood films. While Bowie was in LA, this reality hit him and had a profound impact on the creative direction of Aladdin Sane.
7. ‘Watch That Man’
The album opens with the energetic rock out, ‘Watch That Man’. Bowie was inspired to write this song after seeing the New York Dolls perform live. New York Dolls had been an important group in the US in the early 1970s as a response to the emerging glam-rock movement in the UK championed by groups like Slade, T. Rex and Roxy Music.
‘Watch That Man’ seems like a direct marriage between the sounds of The Rolling Stones and New York Dolls with its rhythm and blues roots and its piano drive. The song isn’t a terrible idea, but the finished product seemed a little rushed with poor production quality.
6. ‘Panic In Detroit’
‘Panic In Detroit’ was inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the Detroit riots in 1967 and the rise of the anti-racist White Panther Party, focusing on their leader John Sinclair. In the lyrics, Bowie likens Sinclair’s ideals to those of communist martyr Che Guevara.
The song is a bleak image of America’s urban decadence and issues with increased gun-related violence, drug abuse and suicide. The pace and intrigue of the track are carried by Mick Ronson’s simple blues-inspired three-chord progression.
‘Time’ began life as a 1971 demo entitled ‘We Should Be On By Now’ recorded during the sessions for Hunky Dory. The lyrics were adapted for the Aladdin Sane sessions after Bowie was inspired by the death of the New York Dolls drummer Billy Murcia who had died while on tour in England in 1972. Murcia was invited to a party where he lost consciousness following an accidental overdose. In an attempt at revival, he was put in a bathtub and force-fed coffee, which resulted in death by asphyxiation.
The bouncing theatrical verses bring a unique and quintessentially Bowie sound to the song, which morphs into the more classically glam sounding chorus that includes the original refrain of ‘We Should Be On By Now’.
4. ‘The Jean Genie’
Of the four singles on Aladdin Sane, the lead single ‘Jean Genie’ has stood the test of time as a staple of greatest hits compilations. The bouncy hit was what Bowie described as “a smorgasbord of imagined Americana”. Bowie also revealed that the lyrics were an ode of sorts to his friend from The Stooges, Iggy Pop. The song’s character is a “white-trash, kind of trailer-park kid thing – the closet intellectual who wouldn’t want the world to know that he reads”.
‘The Jean Genie’ is one of Bowie’s greatest danceable glam hits that has its fun without detaching from dignity. The song garners most of its appeal from the stomping guitar riff which is a glam infused blues lick inspired by Bo Diddley.
3. ‘Drive-In Saturday’
Following ‘Aladdin Sane’ is the third track on the album, ‘Drive-In Saturday’. This is one of the songs on the album that truly presents the American influence on Bowie’s creative process while writing the material. The song continues the ’50s doo-wop inspired glam that launched Bowie to global stardom on his previous album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
Bowie wrote the lyrics following an overnight train journey between Seattle and Phoenix in early November 1972. He saw a scattering of silver domes in the distance and assumed they were secret government facilities to be used in the event of nuclear fallout. In the track, the radiation has affected people’s minds and bodies to the point that they need to watch films in order to learn to have sex again.
2. ‘Aladdin Sane (1913–1938–197?)’
The title track comes as the second on the album and brandishes most of its brilliance from Mike Garson’s stunning piano performance. The name of the song is a play on words meaning “a lad insane”. The song was inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies, which Bowie had read during his trip back to the UK aboard the RHMS Ellinis.
The concept has also been linked to Bowie’s interest in psychological disorders. Bowie’s older half-brother Terry Burns was diagnosed with schizophrenia which had a deep impact on Bowie as a creative. Burns’ condition has been cited as the inspiration behind the persona of Ziggy Stardust and the shifting egos thereafter.
1. ‘Lady Grinning Soul’
The final track on the album comes as a solemn and theatrical goodbye. The ballad is one of Bowie’s true unsung gems. The tumbling keys and classical acoustic guitar sections flow like a gentle stream as Bowie gives a blinding vocal display that hears him reach his highest vocal note across any of his studio albums.
The song is allegedly an account of Bowie’s first meeting with the American soul singer Claudia Lennear in 1972. After Bowie’s death in January 2016, Lennear revealed that the late Starman had called her in 2014 and told her that it had been written about her. The pianist appearing on the track, Mike Garson, described his performance as “about as romantic as it gets … French with a little Franz Liszt thrown in there”.