Classic Music Review: Aladdin Sane by David Bowie

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Aladdin Sane has languished near the bottom of my Bowie to-do list for some time. Rarely one to follow a linear path, I’d actually decided to skip several post-Ziggy albums and immerse myself in the Berlin Trilogy this year. I’d already begun preliminary research and exploration into Low, Heroes and Lodger when something terrible happened.

Donald Fucking Trump.

My longstanding tradition at the start of every year is a sacred ritual of personal cleansing: my blues jag. I usually listen to nothing but blues in January of each year to help me reconnect with what’s real. The blues is the art form of naked feeling, unspoken taboos and facing one’s demons. Listening to Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King and others remind me of what’s essential.

With an incompetent, raving maniac assuming responsibility for the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, I found I had no appetite for self-reflection and was not in the right frame of mind to drown myself in the blues. Up until 2016, I had no interest in politics and had never voted before. The U. S. campaign and election turned me into a news and history junkie, screwing up my body clock and threatening the three priorities that had made my life a very happy one: sex, music and baseball. Donald Trump represents a clear and present danger to my translation of life, liberty and happiness.

Okay, the sex part was never in any real danger. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that dickless jerk interfere with my need to fuck long, hard and often.

But Trump’s election roughly coincided with the Cubs winning the Series, leaving me to face the already too-long off-season without action on the diamond. And as for music, all my carefully laid plans for the year went up in orange smoke as I shifted my focus to reviewing albums concerned with looming dystopia (OK Computer), political protest (Rehearsals for Retirement) and an affirmation of the threatened concept of world citizenship (Streetcore).

Fortunately, Streetcore put me back in touch with the form of music conceived in the blessed spirit of defiance: rock ‘n’ roll. Joe Strummer’s fabulous rock songs on Streetcore triggered an insatiable desire for a serious rock ‘n’ roll fix. I frantically scanned my music library for albums with great rock songs, tore up the old plan and came up with The Altrockchick Trump Survival Plan: rock the fuck out! I’ll probably be on a rock jag for a while, and you’ll know I’ve returned to relative sanity and security when you see a blues review. When you see a jazz review, you’ll know I’m at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy and all is well in the sex, music and baseball departments.

Back to Aladdin Sane. Though I don’t consider it his best work from an artistic perspective, it’s one of his better rock albums, featuring no less than three songs that make frequent appearances on my fuck playlists. Bowie was never a rocker in the purist sense of the word; he played in many genres, imbuing those genres with his own unique perspectives and sense of style. But whenever he found himself in a rocking mood, that man could kick some serious ass!

The album was put together in between Ziggy Stardust U. S. tour dates, motivated by the desperate need for a quick follow-up to capitalize on the listening public’s sudden craving for more tunes from the budding rock ‘n’ roll superstar. Given the circumstances, it’s probably more accurate to view Aladdin Sane as a theatrical work—the soundtrack of Bowie’s U. S. touring experience rather than a carefully-shaped musical opus. Bowie referred to the album as “Ziggy Goes to America,” and Aladdin Sane is a crucial part of Bowie’s adopt-a-persona period which ran from Ziggy Stardust all the way through Station to Station and The Thin White Duke. During this period, Bowie placed equal emphasis on music, style and stagecraft, and Aladdin Sane, with a setlist ranging from glam to doo-wop to cabaret, captures the essence of this phase in Bowie’s career.

The album kicks off in unbelievably frustrating fashion with the horrid recording of “Watch That Man.” A little bit of research will tell you that there was a big hoo-hah between the producer and the record company over two versions of the mix: the one you hear on the album and another where you can actually hear David Bowie singing. The record company didn’t like the first, called for the second, decided they liked the first better and let producer Ken Scott take the heat from all those fans screaming, “We can’t hear David!” The truth is the problem with the mix goes far beyond David Bowie’s virtual disappearance: the track completely lacks any sense of dynamics. After a very brief guitar and bass intro, the rest of the song is just one layer piled on top of another as if Ken Scott was actually trying to make the soufflé collapse. Further research indicated that Bowie and Scott might have overdosed on that extraordinarily overrated but extremely popular party album Exile on Main St, and divined that throwing everything into the mix was the new black. Compare “Watch That Man” to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” (next review on the list!) and you will clearly understand the difference between “sloppy mess” and “the power of discipline and restraint.”

I will now suppress an overwhelming urge to lecture my readers on the power of discipline and restraint in a sexual context.

The title track is . . . well, as a song, it’s pretty bloody awful for the most part. The melody qualifies as “extremely labored,” a pattern of notes and rhythms that simply refuse to flow. Inspired by his reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Bowie’s lyrics reflect the oh-so-romantic lost generation period between the world wars when decadence was celebrated in cafés in Paris and Berlin while the world headed for another global calamity. The title, a pun on “A lad insane,” is likely a reference to his schizophrenic half-brother, but the connection between his brother and the “lost years” of the 1920’s and 30’s is never clearly established. What makes the track worthwhile is the combination of Mike Garson’s frenetic piano and David Sanborn’s tenor sax work. Garson’s 90-second solo is a riveting experience as he slips in and out of the base rhythm with a series of amazing runs and abrupt chording, showing us a universe of musical possibility within a frightfully simply A-G chord pattern. Although I’m a pianist of no repute at all, I do know a great pianist when I hear one, and Mike Garson is the bee’s knees (check out his album Jazz Hat for additional confirmation).

“Drive-In Saturday,” one of the singles from the album, was of two astonishingly gracious gifts that Bowie offered to Mott the Hoople (“Suffragette City” was the first). Apparently Ian Hunter had a problem with the complexity of the chord pattern and turned it down. I’m assuming he wasn’t referring to the “Angel Baby” chord pattern of the verses, but the three-step key change in the chorus that does lead to a more varied chord pattern. Fuck, man, that’s the best part of the song! If it weren’t for the key change and new chord structure, “Drive-In Saturday” would be as limp as “Crocodile Rock.” What the fuck’s the matter with you, anyway?

Stunningly, Bowie took the news of Mott’s rejection way too hard and shaved off his eyebrows. I . . . I . . . don’t know how to deal with that bit of gossip.

Although the doo-wop modeling feels a bit trite, David Bowie’s vocal on this song is one of his best, full of energy and playfulness, particularly on the chorus. The lyrics to “Drive-In Saturday,” filled with references to Mick Jagger (sexy), Twiggy (sexless) and Jung (not as hung up as Freud), are post-apocalyptic in the vein of Side One of Ziggy Stardust, describing a world where people have to watch old porn flicks because they’ve forgotten how to fuck.

I DO NOT WANT TO LIVE IN THAT WORLD.

Alladin Sane is one of those albums that get better the further you go, and it doesn’t get much better than “Panic in Detroit.” The song works on so many levels that the best phrase I can come up with to describe it is “a masterpiece of contradiction and cohesion.” The lyrics and Bowie’s anxiety-ridden vocal capture the manic anxiety of existence amidst the chaos of riot-torn Detroit in the mid-60’s, where both property and the fundamentals of social order went up in frustration-fueled flames:

He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive
Panic in Detroit, I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home, I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher
crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights

This is a very impressive expressionistic rendering of the Detroit riots, made all the more impressive by the fact that Bowie wasn’t within a thousand miles of Detroit during the explosive years from 1966 to 1968. Iggy Pop told Bowie about the riots and the 60’s revolutionaries inhabiting the milieu, and through the magic of artistic alchemy, David Bowie made the scene come alive.

The story told in word and voice gains exponential power from the supporting music. The rhythm, combining Latin and R&B influences and propelled forward by congas and Trevor Bolder’s accelerating bass runs, amplify the sense of urgency; Linda Lewis’ orgasmic cries intensify the sense of panic; and Mick Ronson’s amazing guitar somehow manages to communicate a sense of structure (though the repeated riffs) and a structure coming apart at the seams (through the clipped distortion and the occasional guitar scream). “Panic in Detroit” is a song that sounds like it’s coming together and falling part at the same time, giving the listener an incredibly thrilling experience.

I should have said, “thrilling in every sense of the word,” for despite the depiction of violent upheaval, “Panic in Detroit” is one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever heard. I always place it after the one-hour mark in my fuck playlists, when the foreplay is long over and all parties involved have succumbed to call of the wild. At that point, the section of the brain concerned with language has been anesthetized by estrogen and/or testosterone, rendering lyrics irrelevant and making groove paramount . . . and the layered groove of “Panic in Detroit,” is intensely erotic.

“Cracked Actor” is another track that frequents my fuck playlists, with its thick guitar, slamming drums and cry to “suck, baby, suck.” This is a very flexible track suitable for both the erotic trance and the warmup period, particularly if the heat is generated through a supple whip or stiff riding crop. The Hollywood loser who serves as the main character is one of those obnoxious pricks who fucks mindlessly and heartlessly, needing plenty of drugs to keep his little skippy hard. I tune the loser out and surrender myself to the lure of Ronson’s kick-ass guitar and Woody Woodmansey’s drums.

Bowie then transforms the mood with “Time,” an ingenious mix of Berlin cabaret, electrified Jacques Brel and Hunky Dory pop. My mother was absolutely thrilled when David did Jacques Brel in a brief acoustic interlude during the Ziggy Stardust concert at Winterland, and his admiration for Brel reflects both his intensity and sense of drama in song. “Time” is the most theatrical piece on the album, opening with Mike Garson’s melodramatic stride piano and punctuated with dramatic pauses that demonstrate the power of silence in the auditory arts. I think critics who pooh-poohed the song for its incoherent lyrics made the mistake of listening for poetry when they should have followed the dramatic peaks and valleys. For me, “Time” demonstrates Bowie’s superior acting skills in comparison to other rock and pop singers of the time (try to imagine Paul McCartney covering “Time,” for example), and his ability to make the bizarre familiar with a strong chorus without detracting from the artistry of the song.

Speaking of Hunky Dory, “Prettiest Star” should sound very familiar, with its melody and feel echoing “Kooks.” This lovely little tune actually pre-dates Hunky Dory, as the original version was a follow-up single to Space Oddity that he recorded with Marc Bolan of T. Rex fame. The single bombed, perhaps because the world wasn’t quite ready to overdose on an androgynous rock star, or perhaps because Bowie was still in relative infancy and still working on his phrasing. I’ll go with the latter explanation because the two versions are similar but the Aladdin Sane version features a more confident, in-command Bowie and a cleaner glam-rock arrangement.

We interrupt this program for a mid-review rant. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” will never appear on my fuck playlists, no matter who’s singing it. Why? It’s very simple: I hate fucking euphemisms. Let me clarify that sentence: I hate fucking (used as an intensive) euphemisms and I hate fucking euphemisms (euphemisms applied to the sacred act of fucking). Is that fucking clear now? A euphemism is “a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant.” I wholly reject the notion that sex is offensive or unpleasant, and anyway, what the hell would “innocuous sex” look like? We keep our clothes on and stare longingly at each other’s genitalia? Yes, yes, yes, I realize that open discussion about sex was not socially acceptable in the mid-60’s when Jagger and Richards wrote this tune, but I find hypocrisy annoying in any era. While thousands of sexual euphemisms have been employed in popular music over the centuries, this one really pisses me off because it’s so painfully obvious what two people are going to do if they spend the night together. If they were spending the evening together, okay—let them play Scrabble or catch an early movie. But if they’re spending the night together, and they’re consenting adults, NO ONE IS GOING TO BELIEVE THAT SPENDING THE NIGHT TOGETHER MEANS WE’RE HAVING A SLEEP-OVER OR A PLATONIC PAJAMA PARTY.  So why not go ALL THE WAY? “Come On, Let’s Fuck Together” would have been a vast improvement—even if the censors bleeped the dreaded F-word.

We now return to our review of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.

Euphemisms temporarily aside, David Bowie’s version of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is far superior to the original, which lopes along like a humble cowboy faced with a reluctant virgin. An exploding synthesizer and Mike Garson’s radical, dissonant, urgent piano set the tone, and wham!—the band starts down the track like a bullet train. When Bowie sings “I’m in no hurry, I can take my ti-hi-hime,” he is lying through his teeth, suffering from serious anxiety that his balls are about to explode. When he cries, “Oh, my!” in the second verse, I know that all I have to do is show him my tits and he’ll come in a New York second. The slowdown leading to Bowie’s poetry is a bit of theatrics I can do without, but without those kind of diversions, Bowie wouldn’t be Bowie, and I love him for that.

And I love him even more for “Jean Genie,” a fuck playlist perennial. I find it fascinating that this song thrills me so, given its lengthy musical genealogy from Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” to the Bo Diddley original to the raving Yardbirds version of the mid-60’s. I can feel my ass getting into gear as soon as I hear Mick Ronson’s hard-and-fast picking and the entry of Trevor Bolder’s bass. When the band settles into the irresistible groove they maintain their discipline like good boys and give David plenty of room to play. Instead of going manic on us, though, Bowie approaches the vocal with a laid-back but unmistakeable attitude, reinforcing the tease. When part of the band jumps the chord pattern a bit too soon and Bowie responds by telling them to “Get back on it,” he sounds like a man on life support desperate to maintain contact with the building, teasing groove. I tend to agree with the characterization of the lyrics as the “stylized sleaze” of the Velvet Underground, forming part of the erotic background instead of telling a story. This fits the backstory, where Bowie said he wrote the song in the apartment of one of Warhol’s female devotees, whom he described as a “sexy girl.” Given his tendency to indulge in long, unintelligible explanations of some of his works, his brevity speaks volumes. “Jean Genie” is about sex, meant to inspire sex, drips with sex, and should be the national anthem of the entire fucking world.

Alladin Sane closes quite appropriately with the drama queen tour-de-force, “Lady Grinning Soul.” Mike Gerson’s piano in this piece falls somewhere between Liberace and Liszt; I picture David doing this vocal in a full-length evening gown at the late-night drag show. While it would have been easy for this song to inspire the giggles, Bowie’s obvious sincerity and commitment to the role make for a strangely alluring listening experience. The lyrics are the best on the entire album, describing a multi-talented, independent woman—just the kind of woman who strikes terror into the hearts of the insecure male population. David Bowie encourages men everywhere to give into her temptation AND SO DO I!

She’ll come, she’ll go
She’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view

And when the clothes are strewn
Don’t be afraid of the room
Touch the fullness of her breast
Feel the love of her caress
She will be your living end

David’s acoustic guitar solo is pretty impressive, too, and I love the way the fade gives everyone in the band a little action, as if they’re taking their final bow. Theatrics at its best.

Sensuous and dramatic, curious and curiouser, displaying remarkable variety in style and arrangement, Alladin Sane may not be one of Bowie’s best albums, but let’s pause on that thought for a minute and put it into context. If this is not one of his best albums, it’s because we set the bar higher for David Bowie—and I think he made similar demands of himself throughout his career. The truth is that most musical artists would kill to have one album as good as Aladdin Sane, because even when Bowie wasn’t at his best due to circumstances or mood, he was still David Bowie—unique, irreplaceable and fully committed to his art. More than most musicians who kick around for a while without focus or intent, David Bowie understood the vital importance of commitment, of giving it all you’ve got, regardless of the risk.

You can’t clone that. You have to be that. David Bowie is one of the few who got that.

6 responses

  1. I like the album! But there was no big change between “Ziggy Stardust” (1972) and “Aladdin Sane” (1973). It was still the same glitter-rock-starboy, who made love through music with his own ego.

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    1. Ha! Definitely not a great leap forward. I was surprised to learn it sold so well when it came out until I realized David Bowie would have been rock’s equivalent of the Cabbage Patch Doll at the time. A good, generally solid album that filled out his rock catalog and has some seriously hot songs (as noted).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this review. I also love your style but you know that, right!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like many of your reviews, this one makes me want to get the album out and listen to it right now. Well, maybe tomorrow when I’m driving. As much as I love Bowie, I don’t listen to him a ton because his music is so intense. I have to be in the mood for him.

    I agree with your overall assessment of Aladdin Sane, though not with all of the particulars. I’ve never noticed a problem with the sound of “Watch That Man.” I have an old vinyl copy of this album as well as a remastered CD reissue. The song sounds fine to me in both versions, and I can hear every word David is singing. I think the song is a bit underappreciated by Bowie fans. As far as I’m concerned, it is an absolute killer, with the kind of elastic groove that Bowie was so good at creating. As you describe with “Panic In Detroit,” it always seems to be careening out of control, but it holds together.

    I love “Aladdin Sane” too. I think the labored melody is effective because it conveys the sense of decay in the lyrics.

    On the other hand, I’m less of a fan Bowie’s”Let’s Spend The Night Together” than you are. It’s not one of my favorite Stones songs to begin with. Bowie basically turned it into “Suffragette City, Part Two.” He gets an A for effort, but I can’t quite get past the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Cover songs often sound out of place to me on albums that are full of originals, and this is no exception.

    I’ve always thought that side one of this album is totally great and works as one piece of music, while side two doesn’t quite hold together. Bowie was wise to bookend side two with “Time” and “Lady Grinning Soul,” giving it some structure with these two songs that are somewhat similar, but the three songs in between don’t fully relate to one another. I think another high quality original instead of “Let’s Spend The Night Together” may have made this a near-perfect album. Still, it’s really good as is. It has so much energy. Hits you right in the stomach.

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    1. Right after the review, I found a quote from Bowie dating back to 1975 saying he was done with rock ‘n’ roll. Although that wasn’t 100% true, after Diamond Dogs he moved toward funk, disco, soul and “New Age with an edge.” I really didn’t care much for that period, which is why I’m skipping to the Berlin Trilogy. It also makes me appreciate Aladdin Sane that much more.

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      1. I listened to this album again the other day, and you’re right that David’s voice in “Watch That Man” is oddly low in the mix. I guess I had always been aware of this on some level, but I never questioned it. His voice is mixed a bit low on some of the other tracks too, like “Panic In Detroit” and “Cracked Actor,” but they took it to an extreme on “Watch That Man.” Maybe they were going for more of a “live” sound, or maybe they wanted the voice to weave in among the instruments instead of riding on top, so that the full power of the band would be front and center. He had such a great band playing with him during this era.

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