David Bowie: ‘Aladdin Sane’

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David Bowie had already been written off as a one-hit-wonder after he failed to follow up his hit single “Space Oddity” (1969) with any commercial success. His first full length album was just a hodge-podge of songs he had collected over the years, and certainly gave no clue as to what was to come. By 1970 Bowie had hitched up with guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson, who was to become the perfect foil during Bowie’s rise to fame.

The next album, “The Man Who Sold The World” (1971), although a good album, suffered from too many long guitar solos, repetitive themes, and lack of direction from the man himself. “Hunky Dory” (1972) was a concerted effort by Bowie to catch up with his friends like Marc Bolan, who was riding high in the charts. Even though it was brilliant, it just failed to spark the public’s imagination, or perhaps too much imagination as on the cover Bowie wore his hair long – and worse – a long dress, too.

A quick re-think, a sharpening of the sound, a haircut and dye, the stage act re-shaped, the band “The Spiders From Mars” solidified into the perfect little hard-rockin’ outfit of the blonde haired bombshell Mick Ronson on guitar; the impossibly side burned bassist Trevor Bolder; Mick Woodmansey on drums looking like a reject from the Bay City Rollers; and avant-garde keyboard player Mike Garson. Then came the startling appearance on Top of the Pops with the new single “Starman” and just like that, David Bowie was the most famous pop star in the world. Easy when you know how!

The album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” was a massive hit around the world. But could they follow it up? Could Bowie turn himself into a proper musician and not just some here today, gone tomorrow pop star?

“Aladdin Sane” was written and recorded on the road, and that makes it even more of an achievement as it outstrips its predecessor in brilliance. It’s a record that defines the high-glam period of the spring and summer of 1973, a period that indisputably belonged to Bowie, The Spiders From Mars, and their millions of fans.

By the day of its release, April 13th, 1973, “Aladdin Sane” had already chalked up advance sales of 100,000, making it the fastest selling British pop album since the heyday of the Beatles. It became Bowie’s first UK number one, a position it held for five weeks. It contained two Top 3 singles in “The Jean Genie” and “Drive In Saturday”, and was also the first Bowie album to reach the US Top 20. Indeed, “Aladdin Sane” heralded a period of chart dominance for Bowie. During the summer of 1973 he had five albums in the UK charts at the same time for a total of 19 weeks.

The songs on “Aladdin Sane” were the work of a man on the cusp of genius. The playing of the Spiders was inspirational (try the piano solo from Mike Garson on the title track, or Mick Ronson’s guitar riff on “Panic in Detroit” to get some kind of idea). The choice of the Rolling Stones cover “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is perfect. But all the originals are masterpieces.

David Bowie in 1974.
David Bowie in 1974.

Rating: 5 Stars

Track List:

Watch that Man

Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)

Drive-In Saturday

Panic In Detroit

Cracked Actor

Time

The Prettiest Star

Let’s Spend The Night Together

The Jean Genie

Lady Grinning Soul

Musicians:

David Bowie – vocals, harmonica, saxophone

Mick Ronson – guitars, piano, vocals

Trevor Boulder – bass, vocals

Mick (Woody) Woodmansey – drums

Mike Garson – piano

Ken Fordham – Bux-saxophone, flutes