David Bowie: As a new album arrives, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of 'Aladdin Sane'
David Bowie's album 'Aladdin Sane' came out 40 years ago today. Here's a look back on the work that more than holds up today, including the behind-the-scenes story from Bowie's pianist Mike Garson.
He insisted the future would be a bleak, blasted landscape, populated by panicky, gun-toting radicals and people whose only fleshly pleasures are as mechanical as an animated film about robots. Even our most promising rockers would be dead by one misadventure or another. But before this even happened, there would be a Third World War, one that would finish us off before this ugly, Orwellian existence could even begin.
That’s what he said. That’s what David Bowie said on his 1973 album, "Aladdin Sane." So how did he make The Apocalypse sound so groovy that we couldn’t wait for the world to end? Mostly it was the music, which was arguably, the most lyrical, indelibly melodic, and rockin’ stuff the man with the orange shag and unmatched eyes had yet made. In any case, on the occasion of "The Next Day," Bowie’s first new album in a decade, it’s time to celebrate the old. "Aladdin Sane" turns 40 in April and it still stimulates with an undimmed intensity.
When it was first released, the stakes were high. With his previous record, which introduced hubristic rocker, Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had finally broken through. After years of folky tunes and false starts, he found false eyelashes and blush worked better. In his glittering jumpsuit and stacked heels, Bowie’s identity may been ambiguous. As for those high stakes? Well, this is the guy who began "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" with a dicey proposition: that the world would end in five years. It was now a year later. What, we space cadets wondered, would he do for an encore?
Make good on his promise. That’s what David Bowie and his wonderfully poisonous Spiders did. What seems most in jeopardy in his brave, barren new world is rock 'n' roll itself. On two tracks, there are distinct references to the extinction of the music we loved. In the album’s opener, "Watch That Man," our humble narrator describes a party where “an old-fashioned band of married men/Were looking up to me for encouragement.” Everybody knew this had to be Bowie’s cheeky description of The Rolling Stones. Still, to hear those thirtyish thugs depicted that way was really depressing. The only ameliorating aspect, the thing that made the idea tolerable, was that Bowie and band were now rocking harder than the Stones. Led by first lieutenant and guitarist Mick Ronson, "Man," with its power chords and Chuck-Berry-screaming-like-Little-Richard vocal, made it clear who was now The World’s Greatest Rock And Roll Act.
Not five songs later, on "Time," Bowie mourns the overdose of drummer Billy Murcia, who’d been the driving backbeat of the New York Dolls, a band who hotwired rock and were driving it down the road at a merciless speed. But referencing Murcia proved Bowie didn’t shy away from the fact that music was falling apart, that perhaps there’d be no rock in years to come, even though his Spiders belied this with every crashing downbeat.
If these deaths didn’t worry you about the future, listening to the record’s ominous title track made you wonder if there’d even be one. "Aladdin Sane," crowned by Mike Garson’s piano (sounding like Monk in a manic state), is not just the record’s showpiece but also its mission statement. Clearly, it’s about world war. Was a third one on its way? Who would we be fighting, anyway? One minute David’s referencing Japanese “sake,” the next he’s dithering on about “Paris or maybe hell.” Did he know something we didn’t?
Garson says this about this epic song and his unforgettable playing on it: “First I played a blues solo. David said, ‘No, that’s too common.’ Then I tried a Latin solo. Finally he said, ‘You played on the avant-garde scene in the ‘60s. Play something like that.’ So I did one take of that (atonal) solo and he was thrilled. I quoted from 'Tequila.' There’s some 'Rhapsody In Blue' and 'On Broadway' there, too. I didn’t understand the words. But the title led me to believe that’s where I should go.” Although he didn’t hear the record “for 20 years,” Garson says plenty of others have – and they still call him because of it.
“There’s something about that solo that keeps increasing people's interest," he said. "Gwen Stefani, Smashing Pumpkins, they all called me to work with them. All because of ‘Aladdin.'”
Listening to "Aladdin Sane" at the age of seventeen, when you’re already confused, might confuse you even more – gloriously so. There’s the futuristic, Philip K. Dick vibe of "Drive-In Saturday," where even in a darkened parking lot, you’re still in the dark. There’s "Panic In Detroit," where revolutionaries not only ran your city, but your school! Finally, Bowie covers "Let’s Spend The Night Together," so fast and crazy that if you put the Stones’ version on right after, Mick sounds as naughty as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Parents were right to fear this extremely open-minded alien.
Eroticism slowly disappeared from Bowie’s songbook over the next few albums (with the glorious exception of "Rebel Rebel"), but the idea of existence as dystopia never has. Now sixty-six, having survived indifferent notices, Bowie remains resolute about the horrors of life on earth on the new album "The Next Day." It’s appropriate, if disquieting, to hear the man who once saw outer space as our only out call the stars “sexless and unaroused.” Plus they peer down on us with awful indifference. He also moans about his “not quite dead” body, which is “left to rot in a hollow tree.” The disc’s final track, "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die," references the loneliest man in rock 'n' roll. Bowie sings, “Oblivion shall own you/Death alone shall love you.” It makes World War Three sound like a larf in comparison.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this. After all, David Bowie has been a man of many masks since his career took flight. He may no more be this aging wretch than he was the rock and roll suicide on "Ziggy," the cleaned-up, crucifix-wearing kid singing "Heroes" or the mad prognosticator on "Aladdin Sane." And finally, does that matter?
As we celebrate this record, forty years on, today’s kids will wonder why their favorite rockers seem so tame in comparison. The rest of us will smile and remember the twisted kicks this record gave us as we sat between the speakers in our bedrooms. We may even be tempted to paint lightning bolts on our faces and wonder about the wild exploits we missed out on. Artistically, that’s one cool accomplishment for the artist, for listeners to be able to claim that so long ago, David Bowie, with one record, so utterly expanded our horizons. It may be simple, but it’s true: you really have to love a guy for that.