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Review of the Aladdin Sane album

by Tim Jurgens - Creem (August 1973)

Aladdin Sane

On "Drive In Saturday", a song from the new David Bowie album, a space-age couple flirt and "try and get it on like once before/When people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored." Elsewhere there is an actual Rolling Stone's song, "Lets Spend The Night Together", camped up for all its offensive worth.   The final spoken finale plea, included just in case you're still listening goes: "They said our love was no fun...". This is the cut you'll love to hate cause this is the performance Bowie'll never live down.  So warped a perspective does it present, one's tempted to say this entire album would better have been left below ground, and David Bowie with it.  Not only has the "next Dylan?" overstepped his mark, miscalculated his audience, and revealed himself to be only another nut in the big fruitcake - he has blasphemed The Rolling Stones, for which there is no excuse.

Like it or not, one doody this smelly does not necessarily stink up a whole album and Aladdin Sane is okay in spite of some other mistakes which indicate Bowie has become a knowing victim of his own hype.  The Tides of Lust world of Aladdin Sane is an uneasy truce between the past, present and future.   Homo superior has evolved from awesome speculation to drugstore reality.   Peopled by a cast of cartoon characters - Aladdin, Buddy, Reverend Alabaster, legendary Lorraine, Jung the foreman and his Astronette mate, The Prettiest Star - the songs make reference in cinematic images to an America where the oceans have dried up, the people's sense of the past is conveyed through video, and Detroit has been swiftly depopulated by war in The Street.  Sex/romance in its major and minor variations (queer, straight, bio, ono, Orphean, fascist, anarchist, inanimate...) is the primary sign of recognition and the big-chief motif of the record.  At a spooky party described in "Watch That Man," the Lou Reed type you gotta look out for "talks like a jerk/But he could eat you with a fork and spoon." On the other coast, an aging movie queen tells it like it is: "Smack baby, smack is all that you feel." And there's the Jean Genie who lives on his back and loves chimney stacks.

Another 23-inch set-up you can stand to talk about more than you can stand to hear, Bowie's appeal is intellectual (unless you go in for smooth-skinned fellas with no eyebrows - the bushier the better I say) and a lyric sheet or headphones are recommended for proper appreciation of his astute albums (of which this is not one).  He continues to write often inspired, fascinating lines, but his music is hit and miss.   What with "Width of a Circle," "Changes" and "Five Years", "Watch that Man" is the one thing you wouldn't expect this LP's opener to be: a predicable Main Street, readymade.  "Aladdin Sane" features one of Bowie's better, more hummable melodies (there aren't many) but gets leftfielded midway through when an avant-gardy exposition takes its pretty time, "Drive in Saturday" suffers from the way Bowie pronounces one word - Buddy - like Alice Cooper, and then is subsequently rescued, irony of ironies, by an Van Morrison scat rave-up.  "Time" is conversely irritating in its mockery, not of some other star, but David himself; it's the kind of Brelesque burlesque cabaret twirl that might come off better live than it does here.  I'd just as soon not find out.   "The Prettiest Star" is yet another la-may booger - a 1970 ode to my alterego - with a stunning guitar intro by Ronson.

These disappointing cuts on Aladdin Sane suffer from self-indulgence and self-abuse which in turn seem to have been spurned on by Bowie's own self-imposed isolation, both real (business, media) and imagined (psychic) which in turn has given him a lot of artistic mileage.  So what? There's some good stuff too.  "Panic in Detroit" and "Cracked Actor" show that Bowie can take it as deep as any 16-year old pube, with plenty o'pizzazz left over for the adults to work out on.  The former song concerns itself with the temporary relationship of Bowie/Aladdin and a gun totin, truck-driving revolutionary ("He looked a lot like Che Guevara").   That opening clincher is introduced by a low-end bomp line from Ronson which is quickly vamped up by "Gimme Shelter" rhythm and chorus.  Chugga chugga!   There is fighting in the streets and the police are on the loose.  Bowie goes to school one day to find his teacher "crouching in his overalls," somehow scores a trillion dollars, and returns home to find that his cutie has shot himself, leaving Bowie the gun and a suicide note instead of the autograph he'd requested.   It's fairly obvious, subtly put together, and quite mesmerizing.   "Cracked Actor" would be great to hear on the AM simply because you never will.  Mick Ronson skawks out a massive dizbuster of a riff over Trevor Bolder's gracefully lumbering bass and some quick drumming from Woody Woodmansey while Bowie relates the bitching of an S & M inclined daddy and his Sunset & Vine trick.

This may not look like a man with problems, but...

Photo: Bob Gruen

If you turn Aladdin Sane over you'll find a couple more goodies, which rescue Side Two from the disaster of "Time", "The Prettiest Star" and "Together".  "Jean Genie" may've been insinuating itself for a while now: it came out as a single (in slightly different form) last year.  Poor little Greenie is the athlete of the future, a splendidly repulsive being reminiscent of a Samuel R Declaney creation who "says he's a beautician and sells you nutrition."   Too long and consciously monotonous, a catchy little number nevertheless.

"Lady Grinning Soul" shows just how far afield Bowie can go and still bring off his brand of sweet-lips.  Similar to "Rock n Roll Suicide" in its concluding affirmation of life, love and the pursuit of happiness, "Lady" salutes the momentary joys of a good fuck who'll "beat you down at cool canasta" and then drive away in her Volkswagen to cruise for fresh converts.  Bowie soars through the vocal in oddly convincing manner - affected, effeminate, and mawkish.   He's only the only guy with the nerve-plus-chops to pull it off.

Undeniably, David Bowie has got real problems. A very inconsistent live performer who is much too dependant on his charm to ever really step out with the authority R & R needs to render sophisticated lyrics convincingly, he would better serve his own interests by sticking to the studio where he could concentrate more on the musical end of things, and hopefully continue his fine production work (Iggy Pop, Mott the Hoople).  Rumour has it that Bowie and The Spiders are breaking up to go their separate ways in the fall after one more tour.  Good.  May Mick Ronson prevail.  

Aladdin Sane is a complete letdown after the brilliance of Ziggy and more especially Hunky Dory.  As a one-time short-term fan, I have the distinctly unpleasant feeling that Bowie is indeed guilty of the many charges his fag-baiting slanderers have leveled against him.  He is hollow - but it has been his forte in the past to describe that vacancy with some degree of insight and lots of lyrical imagination.  This album sacrifices insight for its descriptive purposes while various musical booboos call Bowie's self-seriousness blatantly into question.  The Art don't rise above it's Implication.  A strong breeze could whisk Sane away at the shortest notice.

---This page last modified: 24 Dec 2018---

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