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Aladdin Sane: Ziggy From Rags To Riches

by Emilio Pacheco (13 November 1998)

Aladdin Sane was my first Bowie album, but I won’t analyze it from my original perspective. When I first heard it I was a 13-year old fascinated by the glitter scene, especially Alice Cooper. I had been seeing pictures of David Bowie in the Brazilian magazine Pop for most of 1973, so I was quite curious to hear what kind of music could come from this guy who looked like an alien superhero. As fate would have it, Pin-Ups hadn’t yet been released in Brazil, so when I asked for “David Bowie’s latest album” as a birthday present, Aladdin Sane it was. And that was the birth of a Bowie fan.

In a way, Aladdin Sane suffered from the “follow-up” syndrome in that it may be as good as its predecessor, or even better, but was usually underrated because fans and critics were still in awe of his previous albums when it was released (Ask Pink Floyd fans how long it took them to admit that they actually liked Wish You Were Here better than Dark Side of The Moon!). Aladdin Sane is a unique item in David’s discography, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the prior success of Ziggy. When David entered the studio once again, he was a struggling musician no more: he was a Star. And as such, he was entitled to an impressive roster of additional musicians. Apart from The Spiders From Mars - Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass and Woody Woodmansey on drums - the liner notes list no fewer than three back-up singers - Geoffrey McCormack, Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin - , a sax player - Ken Fordham - and an extremely talented piano player called Mike Garson. In fact, Bowie had used a “real” pianist before: Rick Wakeman had played on most of Hunky Dory and the results were awesome. So why not try it again? Mike Garson nearly stole the show, but more about that later.

Before I go into the tracks I would like to make it clear that I rank Aladdin Sane as high as Ziggy Stardust. These are my two favorite Bowie albums, but there are times when I’m tempted to hold a flag for Aladdin and say it is the better of the two. Aladdin Sane is a deluxe version of Ziggy: polished, but not clean - the rough edges are still there, but only in the right places. Powerful, but not overblown. From the lavishly designed cover to the meticulously crafted arrangements, Aladdin Sane is probably the most sophisticated piece of hard rock of the seventies. And when is producer Ken Scott going to get the recognition he deserves?

The album opens with “Watch That Man.” The fact that David’s voice seems to be slightly buried in the mix could be accounted as a mistake on the producer’s part, but it is more likely the first sign of David’s strongest influence on the record: The Rolling Stones. Indeed, this song owes a great debt to “Brown Sugar”, and Bowie would draw from the same source again later in his career for another album opener, though with a totally different approach: on Low‘s “Speed of Life.” “Watch That Man” has Mick Ronson playing his guitar in a fuzzy tone, while Mike Garson’s keyboards help with the rhythm. The backup singers also make a grand debut.

Next comes the title track - a masterpiece! But it owes as much to Mike Garson as it does to David, if not more. Garson’s piano playing creates a dreamy, flamboyant atmosphere that turns this song into a classic. It is curious to compare this recording with the live arrangement that was played in some shows on the 1973 tour (consumer warning: I’m talking bootlegs here). Some audience tapes reveal a more guitar-oriented approach, which turns what was recorded as a gentle song into a heavy rocker - not dissimilar to Eric Clapton’s (actually J.J. Cale’s, though I’ve never heard the original) “Cocaine”, which was recorded later. This was probably what David had in mind when he wrote the song: a mid-paced rocker like the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” In the hands of Mike Garson, it took a 180 turn towards softness and sophistication.

Another track that benefited a lot from the album’s stylish production was “Drive In Saturday.” It may have started life as just another acoustic song in waltz time, like “Rock and Roll Suicide.” But it blossomed into a full-blown, majestic ballad. The backing vocals are used to great advantage here, and a few synthesizer sound crop up here and there as the icing on the cake. All in all, a winner.

“Panic in Detroit” is a curious counterpoint between a rich, African-sounding beat and some dazzling rhythm guitar. Again, the backing vocalists provide a fitting complement. But the best is yet to come: “Cracked Actor” closes side one in much the same way as it started, with Mick Ronson’s fuzzy guitar dominating a straight hard rock number. This time it is a faster and shorter song that would have made a dynamite single! Too bad it didn’t...

“Time” is an interesting ballad whose arrangement, strangely enough, doesn’t match those of the other tracks on the album. The playing is faultless, with Mike Garson again doing a good job, but the backing vocals are rather sparse. When David sings the “la la la” part of the song, his voice sounds naked. A fuller vocal arrangement would have been welcome here. No wonder the 1987 version from the Glass Spider Tour was unanimously praised by the fans: the song was given a more conventional treatment then, which better realized its potentials.

One wonders why David decided to rerecord “The Prettiest Star”, the love song he wrote for Angie which had originally been put out as a single in 1970. Actually, very few people knew about the original version when this album was released. The single version was a sweeter and more noticeably heartfelt rendition (featuring Marc Bolan on guitar). The remake is slightly faster and sounds rather mechanical compared to the previous version. It is still a worthy track, though.

The Rolling Stones influence is officially acknowledged by a cover version of “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” David and the band sound like they are having a lot of fun with this fast-paced rendition full of synthesizer and guitar effects. It was released as a single in some countries.

The next song was the album’s first single, and also the only track for which a video was shot. But was it really the best one? Actually, “The Jean Genie” is built over a monotonous guitar riff, a marching beat and a repetitive chorus. Not that bad - after so many radio plays it certainly grows on you.

The album’s last song is a romantic ode to Claudia Linnear, who also inspired - here we go again! - the Rolling Stone’s “Brown Sugar.” “Lady Grinning Soul” is again a showcase for Mike Garson, who is responsible for the extravagant piano intro. But Mick Ronson is also given a chance to shine: he plays a beautiful acoustic guitar solo. This time the backing vocalists don’t intrude, and rightly so - the instrumental tapestry is woven tightly enough.

One curious aspect about the songs from Aladdin Sane is that from 1974 on, they never sounded the same again in live performances. One just has to listen to “David Live” to wonder what problem David was having with this album at that time. Great tunes like “Watch That Man,” “Cracked Actor,” “Aladdin Sane” and even “The Jean Genie” are disfigured to the point of satire. David also sang “Time,” “Panic in Detroit” and “Drive-in Saturday” in the 1974 tour, all equally deformed. Even songs that went on to become concert favorites, like the aforementioned “The Jean Genie,” “Cracked Actor” and “Panic in Detroit,” would not evoke memories of the original album they came from. It is as if they turned into independent entities, totally detached from their origins. Maybe that only goes to confirm that the impeccable production of Aladdin Sane is nearly impossible to reproduce live.

Say what you will - no other Bowie album has reached Aladdin’s refinement level. What makes it unique is the very fact that Bowie was given the Standard Superstar Treatment by the record company. He did quite well, but probably decided that he would rather do it “his way” from then on. So he came up with some fine classics, each tailored to his respective fixations of the time. But Aladdin Sane still stands up after all these years. It was the only album in which David played the part of the Regular Superstar. It remains the quintessential Rock and Roll Star album. It certainly was the perfect record for a Brazilian kid just turned 13 to find the idol of his teens. Or his life.

Emilio Pacheco -

---This page last modified: 13 Dec 2018---

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