One of the things I used to do as a child was flick through my father’s album collection, and stare in fascination at the covers (there was no such thing as the internet in those days. My God, some of us even read books!). There was Tarkus by ELP (a favourite of mine); Houses of the Holy seemed always mysterious; Let it Bleed and Exile on Main Street were both equally enthralling, if a little weird; The Beatles were present too of course; just looking at Sgt. Pepper’s was like having a trip all in itself (no wonder I used to gaze at it so often). Santana, Weather Report, Gerry Garcia, Steely Dan, Return to Forever, you name it, my old man probably had it (but no ABBA I’m happy to say).
Yet there was also another LP which would grab my attention, and that was Aladdin Sane. Now flash this cover at some kids at the local primary school and they’d have probably run away in fright, had nightmares even (Bowie was no Ronald McDonald), but I was mesmerized. Was this being some sort of alien? And if so, what was his/her or its actual story? And what was the lightning bolt supposed to signify? So many questions, most of which remain unanswered even to this day. And what about that title? It’s true that Bowie was no stranger to mental illness (his brother suffered from schizophrenia), so if we think of it as ‘A Lad Insane’, as just about every Bowie critic/biographer has already noted, it begins to perhaps make a little more sense.
The album opens with “Watch That Man”, just the sort of thing to get the party going, but in true Bowie fashion, the lyrics are an illogical assortment of visual references and cryptic metaphors. “Every bottle battled with the reason why… A lemon in a bag played the Tiger rag”, and on it goes. Nor are the words to the title track, which follows, any more cerebrally comprehensible. However none of that matters one bit, as it’s such a pretty tune, even if Mike Garson’s avant-jazz piano is attractive and disturbing at the same time.
The Doo-Wop inspired “Drive-in Saturday” is like listening to The Ronettes performing German cabaret, with a pinch of Lou Reed thrown into the mix. And now we’re back to good ol’ ballsy rock and roll with “Panic in Detroit”. Mick Ronson plays a dirty, addictive riff, while Bowie intones in his own sort of James Joyce way about some revolutionary who resembles “Che Guevara”, and how the song’s narrator wants his autograph. Ronson rips it up on “Cracked Actor”, a tough, heavy rocker, whose subject matter seems to gravitate around S&M (hopefully I’m not the only one who has thought this). Bowie conjures a bit of Brecht on the exquisite “Time”, which is so good that I’m sure Andrew Loyd Webber could have written a whole musical based around it.
“The Prettiest Star” is a lovely cinematic slice of pop nostalgia (it turns out Bowie recorded a version three years earlier with Marc Bolan on guitar), while The Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” gets a steroid upgrade, and would have fit perfectly on his Pin Ups album of the same year. “The Jean Genie” is another catchy rock stomper, forever destined to be included on every future compilation and guaranteed regular airplay on classic FM stations the world over. I especially like the way Bowie throws in a little Howlin’ Wolf reference here and there with his vocals. The last track, “Lady Grinning Soul”, is a thematic piece, where once again Mike Garson plays some exquisite piano, as Bowie expresses his inner Hollywood diva, like the opening to a film starring Roger Moore.
Aladdin Sane turned out to be Bowie’s biggest seller to date, which is not surprising, considering the quality of the material. I’m also sure that having two hit singles hurt none either (“Jean Genie” and “Drive-in Saturday”). But no matter what the album title might suggest, Bowie was anything but insane, just the opposite in fact. The man was a highly switched on, intelligent artistic entity who knew how to play the music industry. By the 70’s, breaking down the barriers of gender was big business, almost the sole Raison d’être of glam if you will. And while Marc Bolan may have been the first to pioneer this new stylistic genre, it was Bowie who took it to an entirely new creative level (though who could forget Peter Gabriel’s Fox in lady’s frock outfit?). The boys might have enjoyed playing hard-hitting and manly rock and roll, but now, thanks to glam, they could perform it in women’s makeup and frilly feminine outfits.
Reinventing himself with each new release was a smart and strategically calculated tactic. Ditch Ziggy and assume a new guise lest your audience get bored and wind up ditching you. That way, you’ll always be a step or two ahead of the fans (and any rivals), who will always be receptive to whatever latest genderless-superstar-alien-hermaphrodite creation their idol could think of. And that’s what we have here: an album by a man who couldn’t repeat himself even if he tried.