Is the alien boy with the lightning bolt makeup on the cover of this 1973 David Bowie album actually Ziggy Stardust? Many think of this iconic image when they think of Ziggy. Such is the fuzzy-edged mish-mash of pop-culture that many inaccuracies, misreadings and plain mistakes become icons for the ages, true or not – and this is one of them. Or is it?

The album is called Aladdin Sane but the character seems to be an extension of the ever-morphing Bowie phantasy persona of the 70s. Bowie himself referred to Aladdin Sane musically as “Ziggy goes to America”, so the Ziggy character logically got the U-S-of-A buff, shine and chrome-plating as well.David-Bowie-Aladdin-Sane

And that same buff, shine and chrome-plating was mirrored in the sound and subject of this new album. Whereas its predecessor, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, told a dystopian tale of rock’n’roll stardom, totalitarianism and suicide, Aladdin Sane seemed to be a celebration of America, freedom and the excesses of the flesh. Where Ziggy seemed very Old World, wrapped in the rain of a bleak future England, Aladdin was all New World, New York, Marilyn Monroe and doo-wop – its vibe distilled into the lyric from ‘Jean Genie’: “New York’s a go-go, where everything tastes nice”.

Which doesn’t mean to imply the music was in any way shallower than Ziggy. Bowie produced these two albums (and arguably, their predecessor, the sci-fi-Gothic Hunky Dory) on a blindingly creative roll. His art was, like the Beatles before him, outstripping all around him in great leaps forward. In many ways Aladdin Sane is a deeper and more creative album than even Ziggy.

One reason was that Bowie seemed utterly unfettered by any limits in his songwriting and lyrics. His established starpower allowed him to now bring in all of his influences from the avant-garde that only were on the periphery of the songs on Hunky Dory and Ziggy. Unlike today where many stars eschew any growth in creativity to consolidate their career positions, Bowie (once more, as the Beatles had done) used his star power to propel his music into some dangerous areas.

Remembering that this was a UK Number One album, check out piano-player Mike Garson’s solo on the title track ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’ – Garson rakes and smashes the piano like the uncontrollable bastard child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Cecil TaylorElton John it ain’t.

david-bowie-ziggy-stardust-costumeThen there’s Mick Ronson’s volcanic Les Paul intro to ‘Cracked Actor’ and the cartoon Berlin cabaret of ‘Time’ – ‘Time/He flexes like a whore/Falls wanking to the floor…’, the fuck-off arrogant cover of the Stones ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ and the nightmare doo-wop of ‘Drive In Saturday’. Bowie tested his fans with some wild creative lunges, and yet, batting at the top of his game, rarely misfired.

Lyrically, Bowie also pushed it. Always a challenging and incisively-intelligent lyricist, on Aladdin he gave us some surreal treasures. ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’s ‘Motor sensational/Paris or maybe hell/I’m waiting/Clutches of sad remains/Waits for Aladdin Sane/You’ll make it…’ or lines that owed more to pulp science fiction than to T.S. Eliot such as ‘Cursing at the Astronette/Who stands in steel by his cabinet/He’s crashing out with Sylvian/Bureau Supply for ageing men’ from ‘Drive In Saturday’.

Produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, the soundscapes are perfect – they ride the line between Velvet Underground menace and 50’s rock on the rockers (almost burying the vocals under the spitting phalanx of guitars on opener ‘Watch That Man’), and sci-fi soundtracks and art music on the moodier pieces such as closer ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (‘Cologne she’ll wear/Silver and AmeriCard’ – Bowie’s lovesong to the seduction of moneyed America).

This reissue is timely as Bowie has just released his finest work in decades – the album The Next Day. Even though Aladdin Sane is of another time and another planet, the cord of Bowie’s art ties the two together unmistakeably, linking the wild alien boy with the lightning-bolt makeup to the current pensive wizard with the faintly sad eyes.

(Parlophone will be releasing the 40th Anniversary Edition of Aladdin Sane on April 12. This 40th anniversary edition has been remastered by Ray Staff at London’s AIR Studios. Ray cut the original LP during his time at Trident Studios and has received plaudits for his remastering of the Ziggy Stardust 40th anniversary edition last year.)

Published April 2013 on theorangepress.net

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