Thursday, 30 June 2011
David BOWIE: Aladdin Sane
(#125: 5 May 1973, 5 weeks)
Track listing: 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
Let's begin with Charlie Chaplin. Why not? Did he not also come out of south London, eventually to find his way to Detroit and machines? The differences between Chaplin and Bowie are otherwise too numerous and irrelevant to examine here, but note that in Modern Times he sees the automobile conveyor belts of Detroit as something approaching an end; an end, he scarcely needs bother to underline, of and to everything he cherished or nurtured about humanity. But in 1936 he could hardly see how those same belts could indicate a regeneration, a way forward for the otherwise abandonable, a future of Berry Gordy and Derrick May and Marshall Mathers...oh, and Iggy Pop. Contrast with the euphoric downhill helter-skelter lines of "Panic In Detroit" and it's clear that the chaos in itself provides the elements of what Bowie perceived in 1973 as being the future; he finds this man, a hero, a semi-shadowed representation of a recent, redder past ("the only survivor of the National People's Gang"), he runs around in rage, perhaps collecting a fantasy ransom, but when he returns the man is dead ("A gun and me alone"). There's norhing for it save to turn into his hero; there are too many riots, too much blood, too many foreboding shadows - but the performance is anything but sinister, Linda Lewis' backing vocals erupting into hysteria, Mick Ronson's guitar scratching furious atonalities. He is scared, this man, but there's hardly any doubt that he wants it.
And it is that wanting that makes Aladdin Sane such a violent and precious bursting out from the embryo of Ziggy Stardust, this forsaking of smallness, of provincial vulnerabilities, cutting all his foolish mash-ups and crazy patchwork quilts of twisting pop history and miraculously making it all fit, and also focus. Although the era's music press was generally unhappy about it - the term "sellout" recurred in reviews - the album thrust Bowie unquestionably into the foreground, an abruptly-arrived main event; this was the active catalyst which put the rest of his non-Deram back catalogue into our Top 30 (and only The Man Who Sold The World failed, and only just, to crack the 20), which forced a lot of people to realise that, suddenly, new things mattered, even if their raw material was often as old as, and sometimes older than, those who were to be replaced, superseded.
Without wishing completely to drop the necessary wariness when around Bowie, Aladdin Sane pulled off the trick of sounding better than anything else around it while simultaneously sounding like nothing this tale has yet seen, not even the Bolan tribute "The Prettiest Star," originally recorded in 1970 as a flop follow-up single to "Space Oddity" complete with guitar solo by Bolan himself. On this version the T Rex rhythmic throttle is introduced but there remains the odd Kurt Weill-isation of a hitherto relatively conservative song (the torchy "cold fire"s at the beginning chill the singer's tongue) and Ronson's solo is rather more anxious and angry than Bolan's. And in the meantime Bowie sings of the golding past and how it could still prove to be the future.
The record was a major development, even (or especially) from Ziggy; the latter has always borne for me the air of a Home Counties secondary school attempt at a rock opera; the singer's pronunciations on "Five Years" and "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" are very actorly in an auditioning-for-RADA manner and Bowie and Ken Scott's production is underpowered, waferthin, and I think deliberately so; the music smells of stained nylon, festering fifties cupboards, forlorn boarding houses, damp pre-rock streets, and it may well be that this was a quiet revolt against glossy, bombastic, state-of-the-art seventies rock. Everything on The Rise And Fall seems to sneak under the duvet, cosying up to one's eyes or ears like a forbiddden comic book, or a microscopic transistor radio emanating Radio Luxembourg, assuring its listener (as "Suicide" makes clear) that he or she is not alone in feeling like they do - this could represent a way out, and for a few million teenagers, bored with their big brothers barking on about the sixties, it represented much more than that.
What Aladdin Sane does, however, is marry up the spirit of nearly-newness in Ziggy with a sounder development of the various ideas hinted at on 1971's Hunky Dory, the first Bowie album to sound like an integrated, conceived sequence of music. The lyrics are at this stage still largely nonsensical, but there is already an impatience boiling; "Life On Mars?," resurrected as a top three single some 18 months after its initial album release, is lyrically one of those inane Waste Land pastiches which every impressionable schoolboy writes at age sixteen, but somehow Rick Wakeman's piano, Buckmaster's strings, the telephone in the bathroom, all combine to make it something more than its parts; a jumbling up of the immediate past in order to enable a foreseeable future. Songs like "Andy Warhol" and "The Bewlay Brothers" build on this ambiguity and jog, if not yet quite run, with it.
Ziggy changed the world for everyone who heard it (and dressed up like him, and went to see him in concert, running the gauntlet of jeering school peers) but Aladdin made that change definite and more reaching. Its songs were written on the road in the States, where Bowie had toured throughout the final quarter of 1972. As his fame grew he took others, his own avatars, along in his slipstream; in 1973 he helped bring both Iggy (and the Stooges) and Lou Reed back into prominence (or into prominence for the first time) - if Iggy is turning into one of the secret heroes of TPL, and if "The Jean Genie" is by the writer's own admission a portrait of Iggy, hanging out with Bowie in denim-washed California, then the Stooges' grind motors even into "Panic In Detroit"; if Iggy is not the "man" then he wouldn't turn down the chance of being, or becoming, him (so that Raw Power is all the pent-up frustration of Ziggy re-thrashed into unsentimental odes to nothingness, and Transformer is the elegant dinner party accessory to second-person decadence; both seem to jut out of Bowie's orbit like particularly well-fed satellites).
But none of this shelters you from or explains the immediate impact of opener "Watch That Man" which with civilised contempt throws down the glove at the Stones and the Faces and endeavours to make mincemeat of both. Nothing on Ooh La La is as chillingly thought-through as this; and Exile has notice of competition; indeed, upset at RCA's decision to mix his vocals to the foreground in the track, Bowie prevailed and buried them back in the muddy mix. His chief read in late 1972 was Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, a still startling and self-deconstructing novel - does Ginger ever exist, except in Adam's unending dream about treasure and drunken majors? - which begins at the kind of twenties party which the song's scenario is reviving, with its references to Benny Goodman, "Tiger Rag" and - or but - "the bodies on the screen stopped bleeding." In Waugh's book, Adam somehow progresses, or degenerates, or regenerates (the concluding baby is as ambiguous as the child at the end of 2001), from flappy fop to soldier of the apocalypse, receiving dud cheques amidst the fallout. Already Bowie is wondering what would happen if this room, this facade, were to melt to nothingness, to confusion, to atrophy; what if the world is going to collapse, and - pace "Five Years" - what fun the ending would be.
The title track draws out the analogy further - is this a 1929 Quentin Crisp, or a thirteen-year-old Morrissey, or just Bowie himself, eagerly awaiting finality (as the schoolboy parenthesis confirms). Everywhere in the song, amidst its purple pores, the apparent grandeur slowly and methodically disintegrates; he is trying to sing this ballad about dead roses and songs about ballads ("Saddening glissando strings") but the atoms of the song won't let him rest, especially not the piano of Brooklyn's Mike Garson which slopes back and forth between McCoy Tyner/Roger Williams curlicues, intricate Cecil Taylor/Keith Tippett free runs and semi-random quotes ("Rhapsody In Blue" and "Tequila" being only the most obvious). The role of the piano here is ambiguous; does he represent the apocalyptic running down of everything, or a frantic attempt to reassemble everything in a new order? Whatever, the combination of ascetic croon (and, over Garson's second solo, some asthmatic John Tchicai-ish alto from Bowie himself) and post-Coleman jazz traced an irremovable scar on its listeners; certainly, I know of at least one nine-year-old Aladdin Sane admirer who might not quite have persisted with improvised music without this example, or confirmation.
"Drive-In Saturday" is arguably more avant-garde yet, and undoubtedly one of the strangest and most extreme singles to have made the UK top three. Cocking an astute ear to the imminent cleansed revival of the fifties, Bowie sets this selective nostalgia within a post-apocalyptic future, whose survivors - are they mutants, or cyborgs? - can only relearn the art of copulation and reproduction by watching remnants of old fifties movies; thus the creaking Palais saxophones combining with post-Eno electronic whooshes, the references to Jung, Jagger and (yet to be realised!) Sylvian, Bowie's sometimes reflective, other times barking vocals - the song is a warning about allowing the past to dominate our future so heavily if we cannot actively use it to get ourselves forward, or indeed back. Side one finishes with "Cracked Actor"; while touring the States, Bowie spoke of seeing an old Hollywood actor (identity never specified) down on his luck, out of money, full of booze and almost out of life. More than booze, too; there are references to crack and smack, and to "suck baby suck"; give this fallen star a last fuck before he pigs out of the system and down the drain. And yet, somewhere not quite indistinct in the middle, a plaintive "Please stay," maybe remembering the Cryin' Shames' nearly-hit, almost Joe Meek's last prayer for life. Somewhere else in the track there may be a harmonica, and there is the suggestion of two different tempi, as if fussily making up his mind whether or not to live.
Then there is "Time" with its easy outrages - the "wanking," the "quaaludes" - the glance at the fifth form watch, and its reminder to us that there are still, at this point, Jacques Brel and Scott Walker, there are still the rep theatre diphthongs, but the song builds in its great, damaged regret to something grander, from Garson's deadpan piano fills to full band and brass section, and somehow, in this furried mist of vague recollections and mislaid memories, the album's central line, and, I feel, its central premise, materialises:
"We should be home by now."
This is not merely the understandable cry of the touring artist, but something more, a recognition that he too has travelled from the sixties, but that too many people did not find their way out, were still not doing so; the piecemeal determination of the song "Aladdin Sane" inevitably puts Syd Barrett into mind (it can't be him - can it?), and in "Time," following one of Ronson's most unhinged solos on the record, the song too "goes home" and a choir of Bowies emerges for the long "Hey Jude" singalong. "YES!!!" he exclaims. "TIME!!!!" he sobs. Grab it back, wrench the magic from their fingers if you have to.
And so it comes to pass with his "Let's Spend The Night Together." In contrast to the gaucherie of the early '67 Stones - and 1967 was a year where they really didn't know where they were supposed to be going - and Jagger's hope-in-his-pants gung-ho, Bowie and his group storm through the song with a terrible assurance. From its introductory electro-whooshes and Garson's elbow-on-keys snigger, Bowie develops the song to such an extent that he is virtually daring the Stones of 1973 to better it, to be smarter, more astute. He does it as electropop and boozy bar boogie, pretty much at the same time, he gives a ridiculous "ha-HA-HA-HA-HA!" cackle in a falsetto which in the absurdity league table ranks at Gerry Monroe level. The song is taken faster and straighter, at least until the gaping black hole of an interlude wherein Bowie rants on about "Our love comes from ABOVE!" - Prince is fourteen going on fifteen - before which Ronson and Garson more or less demolish the song.
"The Jean Genie" was the album's other big hit single, and interestingly number two in our charts behind "Blockbuster" by the Sweet - both based on the same riff (the Yardbirds' "I'm A Man" which was Sonny Boy Williamson anyway). The Sweet are still my preferred option, if only for their remarkable ability to make apocalypse look and sound like a custard pie fight, but "Genie," though overplayed to the point of nullity on oldies radio, works far more dynamically in the album's context. The music's dynamics are slow-building rather than melodramatic, and that Keith Relf harmonica reappears prominently; Bowie drawls about degradation and fetishes like a newly drunken Dylan and the band are fist-tight around him, rattling tambourine and cobra guitars (especially at the word "reptile"), everything building up, boiling down and coming back for an even greater, if abruptly cut off, climax. No one was being as louche and as popular as this.
'Hullo, I'd forgotten all about you,' said the General. 'I picked up this little lady on the road. I can't introduce you, because I don't know her name. Wake up, mademoiselle.'
Such an unforgiving album, Aladdin Sane, a record revelling in the destruction and re-ordering happening around it, a record arrogant enough to take on the Stones and, moreover, keep the Beatles' red and blue retrospective albums off number one and out of this tale. As a gesture it was unbeatable; this, the new generation said, is ours - more so even than Electric Warrior, it was a declaration that any future, however topsy-turvy and otiose, was preferable to waddling in the detritus of any past. The two will violently collide again in entry #127, but in the meantime Aladdin Sane ushers us out and is finally generous enough to bestow upon us a happy ending, maybe happier than Chaplin and Paulette Goddard walking out into that most uncertain of futures at the end of Modern Times; Garson's florid cocktail piano flourishes set the solemn scene, and then in steals the voice:
"She'll come, she'll go..."
...and it is like the future being born (specifically it sounds like Billy MacKenzie emerging fully-formed from his chrysalis) as the song meanders through impossibly lovely, achy chord changes. There are some Spanish guitar flurries over Garson's ripples which are more Lorca than Dave Dee; "Don't be afraid of the moon," Bowie urges, before fading into his own imperceptible distance ("She will be your living end"), thinking of Scott and "Boy Child," dreaming of everything that will sooner or later emerge because of this record, these gestures, the look - is he naked in that centrespread or just newly dressed? The man who spent the greater part of the sixties as a catch-all joke strides back, in his good time, takes a look, and says: excitement, machines, riots - remember how good these felt, and who knows where they might still take us, with our unbottled courage? That thunderbolt down his face; don't you recognise a kiss when you see it?
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 18:00