Not Fade Away: David Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ Turns 40

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at David Bowie‘s 1973 classic “Aladdin Sane,” which turns 40 this month. Today (April 16), a special 40th anniversary edition is being released. 

“It’s almost like the treading-water album,” David Bowie said in 1993 of his 1973 classic, Aladdin Sane. It’s a surprising admission from an artist who seems to have a vision for every project he is a part of. If he was, in fact, treading water in the months following his breakthrough album, 1972’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, never has treading water sounded so good.

The album’s producer, Ken Scott, who also produced Ziggy, recalls the recording of the album very differently than Bowie. “My remembrance is of David being as professional and committed as he had been for the previous two albums,” Scott told Radio.com. “I’d have to say that, at least for me, Pin Ups was the treading-water album.” (Scott also produced 1971’s Hunky Dory and 1973’s covers album, Pin Ups.)

Indeed, Aladdin Sane featured one of Bowie’s biggest rock radio hits, “The Jean Genie.” Somewhat ironically, that song was an ode to former Stooges frontman Iggy Pop, a huge influence on Bowie, but someone who was never able to get much play on rock radio. A night out with Iggy was reportedly the inspiration behind another rocker, “Panic In Detroit,” featuring a Bo Diddley-ish beat. The album also featured fan favorites “Watch That Man,” “Drive-In Saturday” and “Cracked Actor.” The latter song, expressing a cynicism for Hollywood stars (“You sold me illusions for a sack full of cheques”) is a theme he returned to on his recent album, The Next Day; on “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” he sings of “satyrs and their child wives” (ouch).

For the most part, Bowie worked on Aladdin Sane with the same people that he used on Ziggy: guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey. “Other than the fact that there was a different pianist there was no real difference [between recording Ziggy and Aladdin Sane],” Scott said. That different pianist was Mike Garson. On Ziggy, Bowie and Ronson played the keyboards, but Garson brought a more advanced level of keyboards to the music.

Bowie and the Spiders maintained their Stones-y swagger (and in fact, covered the Stones’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on Aladdin Sane), but Garson brought a bit more of a free jazz sound. Most notably on the title track, “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?),” which features one of the wildest piano solos on a rock album. Scott recalls being “completely blown away by the final take. It was just so different, so unexpected, but it worked perfectly.” 

In the liner notes to the 30th anniversary edition of the album, Garson noted, “There hasn’t been a week in 30 years that someone hasn’t asked about that solo.” It’s also telling that Garson has remained one of Bowie’s most summoned musicians over the years; he played on a number of the ’70s albums, and has been Bowie’s studio and touring keyboardist since 1995.

While the personnel on Aladdin and Ziggy was similar, Bowie was still evolving, and it wasn’t just because of the addition of a great piano player. It was becoming clear by now (if it hadn’t been before) that fashion was an important visual representation of his music. OnZiggy, he looked like an alien dressed as a glam rocker. By Aladdin Sane, his style was much more elaborate, inspired by Japanese Kabuki. His lightning-bolt makeup on the album’s cover would go on to become his most iconic look.

In the years after Aladdin Sane, Bowie would move away from his Stones/Stooges influences and more into R&B, avante-garde, electronic music, mainstream pop and even metal. As he admitted at the time, “I knew I didn’t have much more to say about rock and roll. I mean, Ziggy really said as much as I meant to say all along.”

“Overall, I love it,” Scott said of Aladdin Sane. “For me it doesn’t hold together as a complete entity the way Ziggy does, but there are a couple of tracks I like more than any single track on Ziggy.” He lists “Drive In Saturday” as his favorite song from the album, but his favorite memory of the album was recording “Time,” but his single favorite performance on the LP was Garson’s aforementioned “Aladdin Sane” piano solo.

Of course, the music he made in subsequent years — including Young AmericansStation To StationLowLodgerHeroes,Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and Let’s Dance all had seismic effects on music.  But if you want to hear Bowie the rock god, look no further than this album and Ziggy Stardust.

Brian Ives, Radio.com

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