Aladdin Sane – Brainful of Bowie

by Charles Shaar Murray / NME

14th April 1973

Bye-bye, Ziggy. It was nice seeing you, and I hope you’ll keep in touch. Hello, Aladdin Sane, make yourself at home. David Bowie’s new album is just about ready for you, and with it comes a whole new set of hypotheses, poses, masks, games, glimpses, put-ons, take-offs and explored possibilities. More prosaically: one new record, nine David Bowie compositions (two slightly used) and mildly outrageous reworking of “Let’s Spend The Night Together”.

Three months ago, I sat on the floor in the mixing room at Trident Studio’s in the company of David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Ken Scott and sundry others and heard the bulk of this album hot off the tapes. Since then I’ve carried the memory of it around with me, waiting to hear it again and see how accurately I’d remembered it.

Even with that preparation, it’s still quite a brainful to assimilate at one hurried mental gulp. In an ideal world, one could give it a fortnight’s uninterrupted listening before attempting to tell anyone about it, but as you may have noticed if you’ve been reading the papers, we do not live in anything even vaguely approaching an ideal world. So, for the better or for worse, here are a few snap impressions on my first day with “Aladdin Sane”.

Firstly, the cover, which will be a definite asset to any chic home. You’ll see it strewn on Axminster carpets in expensive colour supplement stereo ads, and carried with token attempts at unobtrusiveness under the arms of the fashionable.

On the front is a head and shoulders shot of David with blush-pink make-up and a startling red and blue lightning bolt painted across his face and a small pool of liquid behind one collar-bone. Inside, with more lightning bolts, is David nude, but with a silver-grey solarisation that hides the naughty bits. Somewhere in the process he’s lost his feet, which was hopefully not too painful.

So you play the record. Immediately Mick Ronson’s guitar roars out of the speakers, and you’re sucked straight into “Watch That Man”, a nightmare party sequence straight out of Dylan’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man”, where “There was an old-fashioned band of married men/looking up to me for encouragement – it was so-so”. It’s a nice, tough opener.

With the title song, Bowie sets to in earnest. Its full title is “Aladdin Sane (1913/1939/197?)”. It will be noted that the first two dates marked the prelude of two world wars, and the third – well, have you checked the papers lately? It’s the first real outing for pianist Mike Garson, who spans time and place like most pianists span octaves. Imagine Cecil Taylor playing in a ’30s night-club the day after the atomic catastrophe, and you may have some idea of what Garson lays down. Aladdin, it appears, is going off to fight: “Passionate bright young things take him away to war,” sings David with a kind of deadpan melancholy, as Ronson’s guitar howls like a wolf with its foot caught in a trap and Garson’s ornately menacing piano tinkles like the very fabric of existence itself slowly shattering into icy splinters. Would you believe the most unusual anti-war song of all time? Well, that’s only track two.

As Garson hammers his final chord, we’re straight into “Drive-In Saturday”, with which you’re probably already familiar. So let’s rush headlong into “Panic In Detroit”, which recalls the Stones just a little bit, and the Yardbirds are in there as well, courtesy of Mick Ronson’s Beckish guitar. It’s a faintly impressionistic tale of a revolutionary group wiped out by the police, and it may refer to the Ann Arbor White Panthers and John Sinclair. The title is endlessly reiterated. Finally for the first side, “Cracked Actor”, which is about an elderly movie star who picks up a young girl, thinking that she wants him for his fame and not realising that she thinks he’s her smack connection. The spirit of Lou Reed hangs over this track as David sings: “Crack baby crack, show me you’re real/Smack, baby smack, is all that you feel/Suck, baby, suck, give me your head/Before you start professing that you’re knocking me dead.”

The first track on side two is “Time”, intellectually the heaviest thing on the album. Like “Aladdin” itself, it features Garson up front. If “Ziggy Stardust” was David’s “Clockwork orange” album this is his “Cabaret” and the ’30s vamp behind the voice makes the lyrics even more sinister than they might otherside seem. Only David Bowie could sing the words “We should be on by now” and make them imply that somehow mankind has taken a wrong turning. Not making way for the Homo Superior perhaps?

“The Prettiest Star” was written three years ago and issued as the follow-up single to “Space Oddity” on Mercury, but it was deleted and never issued on an album. Here, it’s been re-recorded. It’s a light little song dedicated to Angie, and serves as a wind-down period after the intensity of “Time”.

Hot on its heels is David’s own reading of Mick n’ Keith’s “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, as premiered at the Rainbow, with Garson playing the riff in augmented chords and David doing an Eno on Moog. It rips and snorts just like it ought to, and then we’re into “Jean Genie Revisited” before the closer “Lady Grinning Soul”, which shows that even when David’s sentimental, he’s doing it in style.

The above notes are first impressions. The album’s changed slightly since I first heard the tapes in that the recut “John I’m Only Dancing” has been replaced by “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, originally intended as the B-side of “Drive-In Saturday”, and a then incomplete track called “Zion” has been replaced by “Lady Grinning Soul”. After some more concentrated listening, some different things might emerge, and in that event I’ll take some space later to discuss them.

Meanwhile, how does it stack up against its predecessors? I don’t know. David Bowie’s last three albums have become so deeply embedded in my head that it takes considerable effort to integrate a successor into that patch of brain cells that store his music. One thing I know is that “Aladdin Sane” is probably the album of the year, and a worthy contribution to the most important body of musical work produced in this decade.

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