The Classics 005

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Aladdin Sane sits comfortably at Number One on my list of all-time greatest rock albums and has for years. That's saying one thing but, for me, it is a special sort of record; unlike most of the other albums for which I've held an enduring affection (this list includes, but is not limited to, albums like Raw Power, Marquee Moon, White Album, Let It Bleed, London Calling) and I loved almost immediately upon first listen, Aladdin Sane took a number of years to not just move to number one, but to capture my attention at all.

My first Bowie album was, not surprisingly, Ziggy Stardust – which I purchased during the PR frenzy of its' release in 1972. Although I loved that album, I remained tentative about his other works. When Aladdin Sane came out a year later, I passed on it. I remember listening to a friend's copy and liking it, but not enough to make the purchase.

In 1974, I saw Bowie on the Diamond Dogs tour and came out of the concert raving about what a great show it had been, but I was more impressed by the theatrics than the music. He had the most elaborate stage set I had ever seen for a rock show; it depicted a post apocalyptic cityscape. The show was all theatrics; he acted out little skits for every song; being made up for “Cracked Actor”, boxing (for some reason) for “Panic in Detroit.” He sang “Space Oddity” from an elevated chair high over the audience. He sang “Time” from inside a futuristic capsule of mirrors and blue neon. The show was totally his; except for one saxophone solo, the musicians remained hidden behind screens for the entire show. It was an incredible, dramatic performance, but the music itself – rather than the hard guitar rock of Ziggy –  was some funky hybrid that I couldn't really appreciate.

A year later, he went totally disco with Young Americans and I lost interest. Well, not totally. What I really did was start to explore his back catalogue, looking for more of the sound of Ziggy. I found that sound, refined and hardened, on Aladdin Sane. Aladdin Sane was the epitome of everything I loved about Bowie.

Why favor Aladdin Sane and not Ziggy, which is widely accepted as his masterpiece? While I will admit that Ziggy has stronger songwriting, Aladdin Sane just sounds better. The production is crisper and more powerful. To put it simply, the guitars on Aladdin Sane are harder and louder, Which brings us to Mick Ronson. Ronson was not only the lead guitarist in the Spiders from Mars (Bowie's backing band on both Ziggy and Aladdin Sane), he also arranged much of the music; making him responsible for much of the sound of those two albums. He might have been responsible for much of the overall delivery of the album, but it's his guitar on Aladdin Sane which grabbed me, from the Stones-y riffage of “Watch That Man” to the Yardbirds rave-up of “Jean Genie,” from the glittery polish of “The Prettiest Star” to the pure snarl of “Cracked Actor.” I prefer Aladdin Sane to Ziggy because Ronson dominates the former, while he's merely a part of the latter.

I could write an entire column about Bowie's relationship with his fellow musicians, especially Ronson. For years, I thought Bowie had exploited Ronson's talent and then tossed him away. Now I can see it was a much more synergistic relationship. While Bowie may have used Ronson's talent to create his own career, he also gave Ronson the best platform to showcase those talents. This becomes obvious when you listen to Ronson's solo albums, which are, sad to say, mostly crap.

A minute ago I said the songwriting on Ziggy is stronger than that on Aladdin Sane. While this is true, the songs on Aladdin Sane do have one advantage: Ziggy is a fantasy about rock stardom, Aladdin Sane is its' decadent reality. While it still has its' sci-fi moments (notably “Drive-In Saturday” and “Panic in Detroit”), Aladdin Sane is much more down to earth. Even if the earth it is down on is pretty slimy.

The key word to remember and recognize about Aladdin Sane is decadence. From the out of control party which opens the album (“Watch That Man”) through the overt sexuality of his version of “Let's Spend the Night Together” to the faded star looking for a fix and a blow-job in “Cracked Actor,” it's all sleaze. Even the “tender” songs like “Time” and “Lady Grinning Soul” are about looking for a moment of hedonistic pleasure to escape the inevitability of death.

Taking all of those elements into account, it goes without saying that Aladdin Sane is a visceral album; probably the most visceral of Bowie's entire career, which is a rarity because Bowie has always been about control. While Aladdin Sane is certainly produced cleanly and structured carefully, a raw, animal energy still bursts through. In this way, it resembles Raw Power, which was released the same year, with Bowie at the helm. Of course, nothing can compare with the animal energy of Iggy's album, but you can hear its influence on Bowie here; I've always felt a certain yin/yang tension between Bowie and Iggy, and it comes close to resolution on Aladdin Sane.

In the end, it is the tension in it which keeps me coming back to Aladdin Sane. Ziggy is a very calculated album; it was clearly designed to make Bowie a star and, amazingly, it worked. Aladdin Sane is a reactive album; Bowie's reaction to the reality of that stardom he so desperately sought. Because of that, it is both more honest than Ziggy, and more energetic, and that combination has enabled it to grip my musical heart for so long.



Aladdin Sane
has been reissued several times over since its' release in 1973. Buy the most recent edition (released on June 29, 2010) here on Amazon .

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