Recorded in London and New York in 1973 to a backdrop of infidelity and egotism, ‘Aladdin Sane’ saw Bowie break from musical convention and transcend Glam Rock, the movement he had spawned.
These ‘underground’ records are usually introduced in conversation thus: ‘Yeah [insert classic album title] is alright, but [underground album] is the one the real fans prefer’. This is often nonsense. The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/ White Heat’ is supposedly their ‘underground’ work, but only the cloth-eared would favour it above their melodious eponymous album of 1969.
By the winter of 1972 Bowie was bored. ‘Ziggy Stardust’, his triumph of pop conception, had caught the attention of a society in decline, touching the nerve of an England in meltdown and winning serious critical acclaim along the way. Eager to capitalise on this success Bowie’s management targeted America. A US tour was arranged and in a marketing technique to exaggerate Bowie’s status, no expense was spared. Despite the extravagance, less cosmopolitan states remained cautious and the empty shows drained money. As the financial implications of the tour sank in, a depressed Bowie returned to England to confront the deadline for the next album. After the success of ‘Ziggy’, the music press were sharpening their knives expectantly. However, in a move that became typical, Bowie absorbed the pressure, channeling the nervous energy into creating a schizophrenic self-portrait on his new project, ‘Aladdin Sane’.
The schizophrenic nuances found on ‘Aladdin Sane’ gave an insight into Bowie’s mindset as he and the Spiders entered Trident Studios in January 1973 to record. Although Ziggy the character had achieved mass critical acclaim, the actor playing him was living in poverty. ‘A lad insane’, as it became known, dealt with the stark contrasts dividing the life of an artist for whom impending stardom was inches out of reach. Although the US tour had been anti-climatic, several switched-on American cities had been captivated by Bowie and, as he pondered the direction of the next record, America dominated his thoughts. Although against releasing ‘Ziggy 2’, the commercial benefits were impossible to ignore so in compromise the theme of Ziggy in America framed ‘Aladdin Sane’.
The influence of America saturated the album, with several tracks rooted lyrically in Bowie’s American experiences as the bus groaned across the vast wastelands of the land of the free. This is evident on ‘Panic In Detroit’, which channels into the anxieties plighting the streets of Detroit in a Motown-esque call-to-arms.
The album also sacrificed the linear narrative of ‘Spiders’ in favour of a more experimental sound which saw Bowie, empowered by the production skills of Ken Scott, embrace commercially successful reinvention for the first time. ‘Watch That Man’ aggressively broke with the polish of ‘Spiders’ in favour of a Stones influenced blend of raw blues, which saw the vocal lost in a sleazy wall of sound.
Equally diverse, the title track was one of several to incorporate the piano playing of avant-garde jazz pianist Mick Garson who weaved his jazz playing into a two-minute piano solo that elevated Bowie above his peers. The sense of the otherworld is recaptured on a sleeve depicting Bowie gazing vacantly from an expanse of white nothingness while a lightning bolt slashes his face in two to conjure the schizophrenic symbolism of some faraway planet.
The planet evoked by the sleeve could be the site of dystopian ‘Drive In Saturday’, which depicts a barren future society where inhabitants have to relearn sex via watching old drive-in movies. Bowie taps into the concerns of a society gripped by cold war fear in this commentary on the consequences of an Orwellian future society.
‘Aladdin Sane’ had entered the UK charts at No.1 to propel Bowie from outsider to legend. However, after 18 months of touring, a cancerous exhaustion was rotting the band from the core, and following a lacklustre performance at Earls Court, Bowie seized the opportunity to amputate the festering wound while burning Ziggy in to the conscience of rock iconography. In the final moments of an arousing performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 the falling star made his most provocative statement yet. Set against the backdrop of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, the dramatic announcement of "that will be the last show we ever do" reverberated around a silent hall to send shockwaves of disbelief through an atmosphere thick with distilled emotion.
‘Aladdin Sane’ bridged the gap between ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’. With advanced orders of over 100,000 the album finally clarified Bowie’s position as an established rock ‘n’ roll star. In maintaining his fan base while diverting to more experimental territory Bowie was confident he could hold a crowd and set the trend. Crucially this period saw the beginning of Bowie as pop auteur. Brimming with self-belief after having the audacity to kill off Ziggy, he went on to reinvent himself time and time again, becoming a key innovator and changing the face of the musical and cultural landscape throughout the seventies.
After Hammersmith. fans feared Bowie was finished, but in private he had been planning his next move as far back as the European tour, and, while wolves chased the trans-European express through the wilds of Siberia, he dwelled in his carriage dreaming up a renaissance of diamond dogs and future nightmares to be unleashed while the myth of Ziggy smouldered in the ashes of the Hammersmith Odeon.
Words by Shane Gladstone
Released: April 13th 1973
Produced By: Ken Scott & David Bowie
01. Watch That Man
02. Aladdin Sane
03. Drive-In Saturday
04. Panic In Detroit
05. Cracked Actor
07. The Prettiest Star
08. Let’s Spend The Night Together
09. The Jean Genie
10. Lady Grinning Soul
David Bowie : guitar, harmonica, keyboards,
Mick Ronson : guitar, piano, vocals
Trevor Bolder : bass
Mick “Woody” Woodmansey : drums
1973: In The News
• Elvis Presley performs his televised concert from Hawaii – over a billion people tune in.
• Building on The Sears Tower in Chicago was completed, becoming the world's tallest building.
• Paul McCartney is busted for growing marijuana on his Scottish farm and is fined $240.
• David Blaine is born, or just appears…
• Bruce Lee dies
1973: The Albums
‘Black Caesar’ ’ James Brown
‘Burnin’’ Bob Marley & the Wailers
‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ ’ Pink Floyd
‘For Your Pleasure’ Roxy Music
‘GP’ Gram Parsons