Share this site - Email/Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest

Aladdin Sane
David Bowie

RCA 4852
Released: April 1973
Chart Peak: #17
Weeks Charted: 22
Certified Gold: 8/3/83

Mick RonsonDavid BowieAladdin Sane's title song is this album's "Five Years." Ominously, within parentheses after the title, are the dates "1913-1938-197?." The first two are the years before the outbreak of the first and second World Wars, respectively, and we have no reason to think that 197? represents anything but a year prior to the date of the third. The music is hothouse orientalism, jagged, dissonant and daring, yet also wistful and backward-looking. Phrases like "battle cries and champagne" evoke images of earlier, more romantic wars. The impatient chug of the machine (the electric guitar) gently clashes with the wilder, more extreme flailings of a dying culture (the piano). We have been deposited in the realm of Ives and Stravinsky.

Mike Garson's long piano solo is fabulously imaginative and suggestive, incorporating snatches of Rhapsody In Blue and "Tequila." Only a couple of words of the lyrics indicate over what point the song title's question mark must be hovering. The reference to sake, the Japanese drink, in the first verse, and the last verse's "Millions weep a fountain/just in case of sunrise" suggest the land of the rising sun as a potentially significant future locale. While writing this album, Bowie decided to tour Japan (where he has recently been performing), and Ziggy was described on the last album as "like some cat from Japan." The relationship of Aladdin's visitations to the outbreak of war is not clear. Is it his appearance, or our failure to embrace him, which plunges us into strife?

David Bowie - Aladdin Sane
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Although a good portion of the songs on Aladdin Sane are hard rock & roll, a closer inspection reveals them to be advertisements for their own obsolescence -- vignettes in which the baton is being passed on to a newer sensibility. "Watch That Man," the album's opening number, is inimitable Stones, Exile vintage. Mick Ronson plays Chuck Berry licks via Keith Richard, Garson plays at being Nicky Hopkins, Bowie slurs his lines, and the female backup singers and horns make appropriate noises. Like Ziggy, one of the subjects of Aladdin Sane is rock & roll (and its lynchpin, sex), only here it is extended to include its ultimate exponents, the Stones.

Taking up the warning he gave in "Changes" -- "Look out you rock & rollers/Pretty soon you're gonna get a little older" -- David presents "an old-fashioned band of married men/Looking up to me for encouragement." To emphasize the archaism of these fellows, there are references to Benny Goodman and "Tiger Rag." Jagger himself has become so dainty "that he could eat you with a fork and spoon."

"Let's Spend the Night Together" continues the Stones preoccupation. Here, one of the most ostensibly heterosexual calls in rock is made into a bi-anthem: The cover version is a means to an ultimate revisionism. The rendition here is campy, butch, brittle and unsatisfying. Bowie is asking us to re-perceive "Let's Spend the Night Together" as a gay song, possibly from its inception. Sexual ambiguity in rock has existed long before any audience was attuned to it. However, though Bowie's point is well taken, his methods are not.

"Drive-In Saturday" was conceived during Bowie's passage through the Arizona desert. It is a fantasy in which the populace, after some terrible holocaust, has forgotten how to make love. To learn again they take courses at the local drive-in, where they view films in which "like once before...people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored."

"Panic in Detroit" places us right in the middle of a battered urban scape. Ronson deals out a compelling Bo Diddley beat which quickly leads into a helter-skelter descending scale. The song is a paranoid descendant of the Motor City's earlier masterpiece, Martha and the Vandellas' "Nowhere To Run." The hero is "the only surviver of the National People's Gang," the revolutionary as a star (shades of Sinclair), Che as wall poster. By the end of the song, all that is left to claim his revolutionary immortality is a suicide note, an "autograph" poignantly inscribed "Let me collect dust."

Rock and revolutionary stardom are not the only varieties which are doomed. In his work Bowie is often contemptuous of actors, yet his is, above all, an actor. His intent on "Cracked Actor," a portrait of an aging screen idol, vicious, conceited, mercenarky, the object of the ministrations of a male gigolo, is to strip the subject of his validity, as he has done with the rocker, as a step towards a re-definition of these roles and his own inhabiting of them. "The Prettiest Star," the album's other slice of cinematic life, again asserts the connection between secular and celestial stardom. But the song itself is too self-consciously vaudeville.

"Time" is a bit of Brecht/Weill, a bit of Brel. All the world's not a stage, but a dressing room, in which Time holds sway, exacts payment. Once we're on, as in all theaters, time is suspended and will no longer "In quaaludes and red wine" be "Demanding Billy Dolls" -- a reference to the death of Billy Murcia in London last summer.

The appeal to an afterlife, or its equivalent, which is implied in this song, using the theater as its metaphor, is further clarified in "Lady Grinning Soul." The song is beautifully arranged; Ronson's guitar, both six-string and twelve, elsewhere so muscular, is here, except for some faulty intonation on the acoustic solo, very poetic. Bowie, a ballad singer at heart, which lends his rock singing its special edge, gives "Lady Grinning Soul" the album's most expansive and sincere vocal.

Aladdin Sane works over the same themes that were raised in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars -- issuances from the Bowie schema that date back to The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie is cognizant that religion's geography -- the heavens -- has been usurped, either by science or by actual beings.

If by conventional lights Bowie is a lad insane, then as an Aladdin, a conjurer of supernatural forces, he is quite sane. The titles may change from album to album -- from the superman, the homo superior, Ziggy, to Aladdin -- but the visions (the elimination of gender differences, the inevitability of Armageddon, and the conquering of death and time as we know them) -- and Bowie's rightful place in them -- remain constant.

- Ben Gerson, Rolling Stone, 7-19-73.

Bonus Reviews!

David Bowie talks a lot about being a Seventies artist, which is ridiculous. If anything, he represents the end of something, not the beginning: I doubt that there is more of a Sixties artist now before the public. (Do you think it was an accident that when finally got a hit single -- "Space Oddity" -- it was song that was recorded in, and reeks of, 1968?) Of course, the fact that he feels obliged to make such statements is probably the best indication of how artificial his work actually is; when a real Seventies artist finally arrives, he or she will hardly need to tell us. Bowie has also remarked on several occasions that he isn't really a rock-and-roller, the implication being that he is somehow above all that, and the calculated cynicism of this kind of talk and of almost every move he's made in his quest for rock-and-roll stardom is reflected throughout Alladin Sane. Perhaps cynicism is too polite a word, and what I really mean is dishonesty ("The Rolling Stones," David announced last year, "are through," and yet the album is loaded with references to the Stones, both musical and lyrical -- Jagger's name is bandied about, and there's even a cover of one of their best songs).

Some specifics: as might be expected, the album is superbly produced, and the band sounds better than ever: Mick Ronson may be the most faceless of the new guitar idols, but he knows all the tricks, and David himself seems to be trying very hard not to sound like a night club singer, which is a real plus. But his songs continue in the same vein as Ziggy Stardust, which means that while some of them rock out quite nicely, like "Watch That Man," more often they're melodically unmemorable and filled with Bowie's characteristic brand of meaningless pseudo-poetics, the same kind of wretched excess we endured from so many Dylan imitators in the Sixties. To be fair, there is one conspicuous exception: "Cracked Actor" is a simple, effective tale of the decay of a faded Hollywood star, and the music is stark and compelling. It's also the shortest song on the album, which may be significant.

Dave Marsh has suggested that what Bowie lacks most of all is innocence. Well, that's true, certainly, but far more crucial, I think, is that he lacks passion. It's not surprising, considering that he has seriously tried to convince us that he's not even human, but passion is indeed in short supply on Alladin Sane -- and if you doubt it, check out his possibly parodistic mangling of "Let's Spend the Night Together." For that matter, I've already heard two local teenage bands performing his "Suffragette City" with more real feeling than David has displayed in his entire career.

This album, on almost every level, is a classic shuck, a hollow, depressing exercise that has annoyed me more than anything since Cream's Wheels of Fire. After David's last record, which closed with "Rock and Roll Suicide," I was tempted to suggest that he stop making promises he wasn't prepared to keep. This time he's saved me the trouble.

- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, 8/73.

Combine raw energy with explosive rock and the end result is this newest effort. With three LP's already on the chart, Bowie can easily make this number four. The English production smacks of a high polish and a gut-level fervor. Nine of the tunes are by Bowie. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' "Let's Spend the Night Together" is the 10th. Bowie's imagery is often obtuse but it doesn't seem to matter, for the production is what matters: the sonic impact is all-important, and there's plenty of vocal exertion and instrumental exuberance for pizzazz. Best cuts: "Watch That Man," "The Jean Genie," "Lady Grinning Soul" (slow and delicate).

- Billboard, 1973.

The pubeless is-he-naked? illustration inside the doublefold suggests not bisexuality but asexuality -- the affliction of a romantic for whom love turns nasty, awkward, and exploitative when touched by lust. So maybe the bleak future Bowie likes to scare his fans with is a metaphor for his own present, the American phase of which is reflected by these hard-rocking mechanisms. But the cover, "Let's Spend the Night Together," opens other possibilities; its lyric suggests an alternative to the brutality of "Cracked Actor" and its music can help you through the bitterest realities. As a result, this is more interesting thematically than Ziggy Stardust, and it's also better rock and roll. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The "Cracked Actor" had some act to follow in Ziggy: Aladdin Sane only fulfilled its follow-up role in part. Inspired by experiences on their 1972 American tour, Aladdin Sane (a title later claimed to refer to Bowie's brother or alternatively Bowie's perception of himself) now shows the Spiders to be an even tighter band. This in particular applies to Mick Ronson who delivers some stinging guitar licks though he adopts a very fuzzy tone. This has a tendency to close up the overall sound even from CD. The bigger more reverberant productions leave this CD lacking in clarity which gives Ziggy its impact.

Public reaction to this album was one of mild disappointment though it did produce the classic singles "Jean Genie" and "Drive-In Saturday," both still doing the rounds of the juke-boxes today.

- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.

Dissonant, panoramic, sexual confusion from cover to contents. With the exception of the ill-advised inclusion of an abbreviated version of the Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together," there's an undeniable power in the songs and the production -- tinkling piano notwithstanding. It ain't a pretty picture -- it's a barren, vacuous world of sensation without feeling, sex without lust, contact without connection. But Bowie, always the litmus of current attitudes, hit the nail on the head with Aladdin Sane, which went a long way toward burnishing his legend. Ryko's remastering results in a splendid sounding recording, effectively conveying the power and energy in the original grooves. A-

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

It rocks harder than Ziggy Stardust... but flirts pretty closely at times with cabaret death (courtesy of Mike Garson). "Watch That Man" is a fine rocker that manages to draw inspiration from the Stones' Exile on Main Street, while not totally abandoning the tight-assed rhythmic stiffness inherent in the glam sound. Other highlights include "Jean Genie," "Cracked Actor," and "Panic in Detroit." * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Aladdin Sane pushes the boundaries of pop music by prominently incorporating jazzy pianos in the rock 'n' roll mix. Written during Bowie's Ziggy Stardust tour, the album focuses on the singer's peculiar view of life in America, as captured in songs such as "Drive-In Saturday" and "Panic in Detroit." * * * * *

- Aidin Vaziri, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

"I think 'Aladdin' was much more in the area of 'Ziggy Goes to America,'" Bowie remarked of the Ziggy sequel written largely during his first extensive U.S. tour. "Time" bridges the two albums, but "The Jean Genie" and a raunchy cover of "Let's Spend the Night Together" show a louder, harder, sexier Bowie.

Aladdin Sane was chosen as the 277th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

The ultimate rock chameleon did not change colors between 1972's groundbreaking Ziggy Stardust... and 1973's Aladdin Sane (his breakthrough effort in America). He was still the same glitter-rocking starchild, "making love to his ego" through song.

Written mostly during Bowie's 1972 tour of America, Aladdin Sane picks up where Ziggy left off to serve as a brutal memoir for one rock Martian's meteoric rise to the top. The tracks ooze desperation and alienation as the central character strives, through a haze of drugs and alcohol, to find some kind of enlightenment and, perhaps, rediscover himself. Admittedly, the theme never gels in Ziggy-like fashion, but the album proved to be a worthy -- if more mercurial -- follow-up, thanks to such diversely addictive songs as "Panic In Detroit," "Time," and "The Jean Genie."

As with Ziggy, guitarist Mick Ronson is as much of a star as Bowie. He slams through Keith Richards-style licks on the stunning opener, "Watch That Man," and makes like Godzilla walking into Suffragette City with the vicious "Panic In Detroit." Producer Ken Scott, who engineered The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour and "White Album," moves from sleek sophistication on the title track to raunchy rock with "Cracked Actor."

Mike Garson's distinctive keyboard flurries decorate the spine-tingling closer "Lady Grinning Soul," while Bowie's melodramatic reading of "Time" is the album's one true anthem. The record's one failure comes from the misguided remake of the Stones' "Let's Spend The Night Together," heralding Bowie's disappointing next album, the covers-only collection Pin-Ups.

- Jim Harrington, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

After a year of touring America in his Ziggy persona, Bowie and his music got heavier on Aladdin Sane. It has sex, drugs and decadence galore, from the Hollywood teen-junkie-hooker satire "Cracked Actor" to "Watch That Man," the funniest and kinkiest of Bowie's many Rolling Stones rips.

- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone, 8/25/16.

 Reader's Comments

No comments so far, be the first to comment.

 Buying Options
Read more reviews, listen to song samples,
and buy this album at

CD Universe
Prefer CD Universe?
Click here.

Alibris connects shoppers with thousands of
independent music sellers around the world.

eBay Music
Search for great music deals on
CDs, vinyl and tapes at eBay.

 Main Page | The Classic 500 | Readers' Favorites | Other Seventies Discs | Search The RockSite/The Web