Friday, 18 May 2012

Aladdin Sane (1973)

In a recent interview, Bowie described this album as 'Ziggy goes to America', and as a bit of a filler - a semi-Ziggy album droppe dinto his recoridng schedule almost as a placeholder for a different, non-Ziggy album. He's uner-playing the quality of the songs on offer but he's not wrong about the American influence.  At its most obvious - the very title 'Panic in Detroit', the flirtation with doo-wop at the start of the same track, the Muddy Waters steal for 'The Jean Genie' - it works very well, even if at the lower end  -  filtering the States via a Rolling Stones fixation, the chugging rock of 'Watch That Man' - it comes across as a mildy (if appropriately) schizophrenic mix of the sort of straight-forward US rockers not seen since 'Man Who Sold the World'  and slices of weird Americana, science fiction and even a smattering of torch song.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Watch That Man"   4:30
2. "Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)"   5:06
3. "Drive-In Saturday"   4:33
4. "Panic in Detroit"   4:25
5. "Cracked Actor"   3:01
Side two
No. Title Length
6. "Time"   5:15
7. "The Prettiest Star"   3:31
8. "Let's Spend the Night Together" (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) 3:10
9. "The Jean Genie"   4:07
10. "Lady Grinning Soul"   3:54

This album was banned in Rhodesia as 'undesirable', you know.  They musn't be big Rolling Stones fans is my theory, because that band pops up all the bloody place on Aladdin Sane.  For a start 'Watch That Man' is like a Stones song if anyone in that band had any genuine imagination, and 'Let's Spend the Night Together'. while being my second least favourite Bowie cover (see a few hundred words below for anyone desperate to know what track I think is even worse), is a considerably better version of the Stones' original.

Ignore those two, however, and concentrate on the great bits on this lp.  Mike Garson's wonderful trails of piano, Bowie's fragments of lyrics and his voice, moving from wavering insecurity to bellowing grand-standing - and back again - in the space of ten songs.

The title track in fact contains my favourite piano playing of any song ever.  Garson starts off letting runs of notes tinkle up and down, then throws in some dischordant chords, as though he's just thumping his hands on the keys, before launching into a long, mad, rocking piano solo described by one very good Bowie blogger as the best such solo of the decade.  Afterwards he combines with Bowie on sax for a while, like geese farting the fog, before that brilliant ending of little trills and single thumping notes.  It's the end of the world, just as propheised in the dates in the song title.

'Drive in Saturday', in contrast, is the first really American song on the album.  True, it first name-checks Mick Jagger, but other than that this is one of Bowie's very best stabs at sci-fi pop.  Ostensibly a song about two lovers (one more keen than the other, but isn't that always the way) and their attempts to 'get it on', but it's peppered with the same sort of post-apocalyptic lyrical asides which make the song come across as a musical accompaniment to the movie 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'.

Perhaps the strange ones in the dome/ can lend us a book we can read up alone
And try to get it on like once before/When people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored

Mentions of the Astronette and fall out saturation (treading similar territory to Kate Bush and 'Breathing' a few years later), cement the science fiction disaster setting but at heart this is still a pop song about a young American, taking his car and his lover to the drive-in, hoping to take things further, but she's not sure whether she should let him, for all that she tells herself she loves this latest Buddy in a long line of nameless lovers.  Ooh, even as I type that ridiculously unpunctuated sentence out I'm gobsmacked that Bowie fits quite so much into lyrics which I've heard described as meaningless by some people. Bizarrely, it's long been rumoured that Bowie offered this song to Ian Hunter, but the Mott the Hoople frontman turned it down.

Whether 'Panic in Detroit' is actually about the Detroit Riots of 1967, thugs that Iggy Pop knew as a kid or something else entirely, it remains the most amazing b-side to a genuinely crap a-side of all time.  Bowie's cover of 'Knock on Wood' remains his only real creative mis-step of the seventies and backing it with a track voted Mick Ronson's greatest guitar masterpiece serves to highlight that fact something awful.

'Cracked Actor' is vile.  Probably Bowie's most unpleasant lyric of all time.  No, not probably - definitely.  Did he ever again write a line as brilliantly horrible as

Forget that I’m fifty/Cos you just got paid

 or create a character as revoltingly self-obsessed and grubby as the eponymous actor, stiff on his legend, a few years from his Hollywood highs, coked up and looking for cheap sex?  That the description (if not the loss of fame) could, in part, equally apply to Bowie himself a mere year or two later is the world's least surprising irony - a lack of surprise made concrete by the title of 1974's Alan Yentob helmed documentary on the man himself...

The second side kicks off with a song which is less unpleasant, but not by a lot.  In fact, the first few verses would work just as well if you took them as descriptions of the cracked actor himself.  Probably not, though, because that character would still be wanking now, still be buzzing on Quaaludes and red wine, still be looking old.  Whereas by the end of this the singer is crooning that perhaps Billy Murcia (recently decased New York Dolls band member, the Billy Doll of the second verse) is in a better place, smiling now.  It's been described as  'terrible' lyric, and it's certainly lacking in subtlety, but that doesn't seem out of place to me on this album and besides, even when the lyrics aren't perfect, this is an track where the music is always interesting.

I like 'The Prettiest Star' a lot, especially in single format, backed by the original (and best) version of all but forgotten classic 'Conversation Piece'.  But it's the cuckoo in the nest on this album.  Where 'Watch That Man' and 'Let's Spend the Night Together' out-Stones the Stones, and 'Cracked Actor', 'Time' and 'The Jean Genie' are by turns brutal and nasty, 'The Prettiest Star' is a slight, pretty, love song showing its roots as a song from three years previously, when 'Letter to Hermoine' and 'Memories of a Free Festival' were ideal examples of Bowie's work .  True, Bowie and Ronson coated the original in more Aladdin Sane style instrumentation, beefing up the guitar, adding horns, throwing in some backing vocals but for me this attempt to shoehorn the track into the album ends with it being less than it was, like a young girl trying to put on her mum's makeup, or a nice fresh piece of steak slathered in BBQ sauce (or some other strained simile of your choice).

Anyway, in both forms I like it better than 'Let's Spend the Night Together'.  Yes, it out-rocks and is in every way better than the Stones' version but since I could barely fill a double album of great Stones' tracks, even using their entire sprawling back catalogue, that's not exactly the biggest and proudest boast ever.

Rolling Stone's review at the time only mentioned 'The Jean Genie' in its final paragraph, dismissing the track as one of the three weak ones on the album.  But as the reviewer was also apparently under the impression that one of the tracks was called 'Pretty as a Star', I think we can ignore his opinion! Apparently arising from a jam on a bus trip by Ronson and Bowie' equipment manager, Will Palin where the lyric was 'Bus, Bus Bus, - we're going 'Busin'!', the track is now thought of as a Bowie staple, on a par with 'Rebel Rebel' and similar rockier Bowie numbers from the period (Bowie has claimed, incidentally, that the harmonica in the song was a deliberate attempt to ape the Rolling Stones).

(Want to hear a lovely, Dr Who related story from Kevin Cann's 'Any Day Now' regarding Bowie playing 'The Jean Genie' on British chart show, Top of the Pops?

Wednesday 3 January 1973

Dressed in their unusual stage outfits, The Spiders spend time between takes in the BBC bar. "An episode of Doctor Who was also being recorded, so there were actors in futuristic costume drinking there", said Trevor Bolder. "People were approaching us asking what parts we were playing.'

Sadly, Bolder was probably wrong and these were people recording somehting else - no Doctor Who was being filmed at the Beeb that day, so he's either mis-remembering or it was another show entirely. Ta to Jim Smith for the Dr Who info.)

And finally, 'Lady Grinning Soul', the lushest, most sensual song Bowie had written to that point - possibly the lushest and most sensual he's ever recorded (and in another Stones' reference allegedly about the same person as the Stones' 'Brown Sugar').  Hearing it for the first time as a thirteen year old, busily buying every Bowie album I could this was the track that I kept putting on, over and over again, flipping the needle up and back a bit every three minutes, doing my best to make sense of the lyrics - what's an Americard? (a credit card, I discovered years later).  And canasta? (a card game not played very often in Wester Hailes in the early 80s).  

And as for the mention of breasts...well I was thirteen...

The Great Missing Track

Has to be Bowie's version of 'All the Young Dudes'.  Written - allegedly - while sitting cross-legged on Ian Hunter's living room floor, this ode to glam and side-swipe at the rock 'n' rollers of the previous musical generation is, to be honest, better when done by Mott the Hoople but it's no slacker when Bowie has a go either.


  1. Yes. Always loved this album, and one of his very best I'd say.

  2. Very interesting analysis of a classic album.