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Week 3 | Aladdin Sane (1973)

This is one of Bowie’s major works. The songs are terrific, but as with some other Bowie albums, there’s more to Aladdin Sane than the music— in this case, the cover art is probably the most iconic image of Bowie. The lightning bolt adorning Bowie’s face would forever after become a totemic symbol for Bowie (and the inspiration for many a tattoo).

The two most frequent comments I have read about this album is that it is “Ziggy goes to America” and that it is great, but not as great as its predecessor, The Rise and Fall off Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The first point is fair enough— many of the songs either have a clear American influence or are about something having to do with the United States. Some of the songs, especially “Drive in Saturday,” almost sound like 1950s rock and roll, which was less anachronistic than, say, “Absolute Beginners,” considering Bowie wrote these songs 14 years out of the 50s. But the album as a whole could not have existed in the 50s— its too raunchy.

As to the “not as good as Ziggy” point— though I agree, this point is almost irrelevant. Rarely do I read that “Heroes” is not as good as “Low.” Actually, no other Bowie album is compared as much to Ziggy as Aladdin Sane. This might also be a legacy of the cover art, but saying this album isn’t as great as that album is sort of like saying the Mona Lisa isn’t as great a painting as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Two of my favorite songs are on Aladdin Sane— “Panic in Detroit” and “The Jean Genie.” These are two of the album’s fast, raunchy songs, along with “Watch that Man,” “Cracked Actor,” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Bowie did not group these songs together but rather mixed them in with the album’s slower, more sentimental songs. The effect is to make the progression more chaotic than, say “Ziggy” or “Diamond Dogs,” both of which really should be listened to in their intended order. In that respect “Aladdin Sane” translates well into the age of shuffle and playlists.

I have affection for “Drive In Saturday,” which I literally play every time I go to a drive-in on a Saturday (Bowie really does provide the soundtrack to my life). And although “Time” sits with me as a slightly juvenile song, it strikes me as Bowie’s most explicit declaration that unlike space, which is Bowie’s friend, time is the enemy (this wouldn’t be the first or last time Bowie makes the point— think of “Five Years” or the later, “Never Gets Old” and many others).

Aladdin Sane contains some of Bowie’s least subtle songs until the first Tin Machine album. There is no sign of the “cut up technique,” obtuse imagery, or obscure references in “Cracked Actor.” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was already an obvious song— Bowie adds a spoken word element ending with, “Let’s do it! Let’s make love” (as well as a few other changes, such as singing that his tongue is “tired” rather than “tied”).

Actually, for me, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is the album’s low point. I like that Bowie didn’t shy away from covers, ranging from the well known like this one to more obscure songs that are more associated now with Bowie than with their original artists. But as with the case of others covering Bowie, Bowie didn’t have a magic formula for improving on well-known originals. So I prefer The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”

The other speed bump in the album is its title track. The song “Aladdin Sane” (1913-1938-197?). More oblique than the other songs on the album, the title track is also less melodic and less compact. The song seems to break down at two points, as if the musicians forgot what they were playing— the point at which Bowie starts singing “On Broadway” (he does something similar, better in “Young Americans” when his backup singers randomly throw in, “I read the news today, oh boy”), and the long, avant-garde Mike Garson piano solo. Garson has said that he’s asked about that every week (he said this even recently when I saw him perform at a Bowie tribute concert). I can appreciate the accomplishment and I even like the song— I’m not saying its a bad song— but while I get pleasure in repeatedly listening to “The Jean Genie,” listening to this one more an intellectual than emotional exercise. Anyway, again it isn’t bad and doesn’t derail an otherwise monumentally great album.

Thankfully, my 1990 Rykodisc edition does not include “bonus” material, which is unlike most of the other Rykodisc editions of Bowie albums. In those other cases, the bonus material usually seems out of place and often inferior to the original album’s music.

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