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Review of the Aladdin Sane album (1973) (1/2)

by Ben Gerson - Rolling Stone (19 July 1973)

A lightning bolt streaks across David's face; on the inside cover the lad is air-brushed into androgyny, a no less imposing figure for it. Though he has been anointed to go out among us and spread the word, we find stuffed into the sleeve, like dirty underwear, a form requesting our name, address, 'favourite film and TV stars', etc., plus $3.50 for membership of the David Fan Club (materials by return mail unspecified).

The original LP release included a David Bowie Fan Club membership form as above.

Such discrepancies have made David Bowie the most recently controversial of all significant pop artists - all of it owing to the confusion of levels on which he operates. His flamboyant drive for pop star status has stamped him in many people's eyes a naked opportunist and poseur. But once it is recognised that stardom represents a metaphysical quest for Bowie, one has to grant at least that the question of self-inflation is in his case unconventional.

The twin impulses are to be a star (i.e. Jagger) and to be a star (i.e. Betelgeuse). The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars depicted an impending doomsday, an extraterrestrial visitation and its consequences for rock and society. Although never so billed, Ziggy was a rock opera, with plot, characters, and musical and dramatic momentum. Aladdin Sane, in far less systematic fashion, works over the same themes - issuance's from the Bowie schema which dates back to The Man Who Sold The World. Bowie is cognisant that religion's geography - the heavens - has been usurped, either by science or by actual beings.

If by conventional lights Bowie is a lad insane, then as an Aladdin, a conjurer of supernatural forces, he is quite sane. The titles may change from album to album - from the superman, the Homo superior, Ziggy, to Aladdin - but the vision, and Bowie's rightful place in it, remain constant. The pun of the title, alternately vaunted an dismissive, plays on his own sense of discrepancy. Which way you read it depends upon whether you are viewing the present from the eyes of the past or the future.

Bowie's programme is not complete, but it involves the elimination of gender differences, the inevitability of Armageddon, and the conquering of death and time as we know them. Stardom is the means towards attaining a vantage point from which to foresee, and an elevation from which to lead. The awesome powers and transformations civilisation associates with heaven and hell will be unleashed on earth.

LP gatefold foldout

The title song is this album's "Five Years". Ominously, within parentheses after the title, are the dates '1913-1938-197?'. The first two are the years before the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars, respectively, and we have no reason to think that 197? represents anything but a year prior to the date of the third. The music is hothouse orientalism, jagged, dissonant and daring, yet also wistful and backward-looking. Phrases like 'battle cries and champagne' evoke images of earlier, more romantic wars. The impatient chug of the machine (the electric guitar) gently clashes with the wilder, more extreme flailings of a dying culture (the piano). We have been deposited in the realm of Ives and Stravinsky.

Mike Garson's long piano solo is fabulously imaginative and suggestive, incorporating snatches of Rhapsody In Blue and 'Tequila'. The reference to sake, the Japanese drink, in the first verse, and the last verse's 'Millions weep a fountain/Just in case of sunrise' suggest the land of the rising sun as a potentially significant future locale. While writing this album, Bowie decided to tour Japan (where he has recently been performing), and Ziggy was described on the last album as 'like some cat from Japan'. The relationship of Aladdin's visitations to the outbreak of war is not clear. Is it his appearance, or our failure to embrace him, which plunges us into strife?

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---This page last modified: 12 Dec 2018---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)