Aladdin Sane: David Bowie’s glam rock version of America

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David Bowie’s 1973 album “Aladdin Sane” is set to be re-issued on limited edition silver vinyl this year in celebration of the album’s 45th anniversary. The lightning-bolt portrait on the album’s cover is understandably iconic, but is the music worth commemorating?

The album fell between Bowie’s magnum opus of British glam rock “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” (1972), and the Orwellian concept album “Diamond Dogs” (1974) that also served as his departure from the glam genre.

In between albums Bowie also officially killed off his Ziggy Stardust character, marking the end of an era. “Aladdin Sane” is the sound of Bowie consolidating his dominance of the glam rock scene just before exiting himself out of it, while also absorbing distinctly American influences that would influence the very next few years of his career. Bowie would even later dub the album “Ziggy Goes to America.”

And it’s clear why as the style change from previous albums is evident from the get-go; opener “Watch That Man” injects hard and dirty blues riffs and horns lifted from “Exile”-era Rolling Stones (the most American of British bands.) The seductive mystery of Ziggy is also transformed into pure Stone-sleaze with a cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” definitely one-upping their musical depravity.

Elsewhere, “The Jean Genie” musically references down-and-dirty Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, with lyrics alluding to Iggy Pop and the Stooges. The Jacques Brel-theatricality of “Time” is the most European flourish in the group of songs, but its injection of existential paranoia as well as in “Panic in Detroit” is distinctly American. As Bowie descended into cocaine addiction he would hit the paranoia theme more forcefully in the following year’s “Diamond Dogs” album all the way through to “Station to Station” (1976).

“Aladdin Sane “is often forgotten or dismissed as the album after “Ziggy Stardust,” or as Ziggy-Lite. And while Bowie hit many of the same beats as his glam masterpiece, the rawer sexuality and distinct American influence made it something especially different, and even somewhat more coherent to the sometimes vague Ziggy plot.

Bowie performing in Washington D.C. in 1974

Though he would abandon glam, Bowie’s fascination with American music continued in 1974 through to 1975. A preoccupation with Philadelphia soul music created what he what he christened “plastic soul” during the U.S. “Diamond Dogs” tour and the following “Young Americans” (1975) album.

“Aladdin Sane” remains an album some audiences overlook, but its influence on musicians is far-reaching. The androgynous sexuality of Bowie’s music informed bands like The Cure through to the more sensual and lyrically witty Britpop bands like Suede and Pulp in the 1990’s.

Above all else, it’s a consolidation of Bowie’s stylistic achievements up to that point, while pointing ahead to America and the next stage of Bowie’s career. His music would continue to be adventurous but it would arguably never sound as sexy as “Aladdin Sane” ever again.

Grab the album on vinyl here.

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