Aladdin Sane - Brainful of Bowie
NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS
April 14, 1973
by Charles Shaar Murray
DAVID BOWIE: "Aladdin Sane" (RCA). 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
new David Bowie compositions (two slightly used) and a mildly outrageous reworking of
"Let's Spend The Night Together."
Three months ago, I sat on the floor in the
mixing room at Trident Studios 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 anybody 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 better or for worse, here are a few snap
impressions on my first day with "Aladdin Sane."
First, the cover, which will be a definite asset to any
chic home. You'll see it strewn on Axminster carpets in 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,
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 are 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 out 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 nightclub 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 deeply 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
Beck-ish guitar. It's a faintly impressionistic tale of a revolutionary group wiped
out by 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 otherwise seem.
Only David Bowie could sing the words "We should
be on by now" and makes them imply that somehow mankind has taken a wrong turning.
Not making its 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 reissued 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
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 being
sentimental, he does 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? David Bowie's last three albums have become so deeply imbedded 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.