Last time I covered but one David Bowie album, so it seems like I owe an extra. Today I’ll do just that in the continued exploration of Bowie’s discography, taking us through the rest of the glam rock period and proto-punk, because things certainly changed after this period.
Aladdin Sane is up first; conceived and recorded during Bowie’s U.S. tour of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane is often described as “Ziggy does America”. And that right there seems to be the perfect explanation of the album. Sure, Bowie “killed” the character of Ziggy Stardust on stage during the tour, but his spirit clearly lived on in the titular new character. So similar, that Aladdin Sane’s iconic cover, of a lightning bolt make-up adorned Bowie, is often mistaken as a Ziggy Stardust look. In this album Bowie definitely looked further into his friends and influences of Iggy Pop and the Velvet Underground, as they showed him what it meant to be in the dark corners of America’s cities.
Joining Bowie on the journey was still the Spiders: Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, and the arrangements they provide are as tight as ever. Truly one of the best rock n’ roll back-up bands ever formed. They are undoubtedly a huge part of what makes the glam rock era Bowie so prevalent and beloved to this day. But what makes a huge part of Aladdin Sane memorable is the addition of avant-garde pianist Mike Garson. Take note on the second track, the title track “Aladdin Sane”. The tune grooves and rocks as solid as any of this period of Bowie, and then comes the piano. All over the place, schizophrenic keys dance a manic dance around the rhythm section’s infectious groove, and then outlasting the rest of the band as Garson refuses to let go of the final notes. Garson’s style gives the song a manic, mesmerizing quality that stands as a shining moment on the album. Garson would pop up with Bowie a few times sense, most notably on Bowie’s 1993 album Outside. But that of course is for another day.
Aladdin Sane has a unique place among Bowie’s catalog, it’s arguably more famous for it’s album title than any song on the album, save for perhaps the popular single “Jean Genie”, a full blown 50’s rockabilly tune riding a cocaine high straight to oblivion. The album as a whole has received mixed reviews over time; some critics argue it deserves a higher place than Ziggy, giving the listener more power and stomp than the previous album, where as others see it as a slap-dashed hodgepodge of what Ziggy had already put forth, albeit a different theme. I personally wouldn’t put it nearly at the heights of Ziggy (then again, I don’t put much up there) but the album still garners praise from me. Top tracks include the jungle rhythm fury of “Panic in Detroit” (I swear it’s not just the nod to the city I live in that makes me like the tune), the aforementioned “Aladdin Sane”, and the album high-note, “Time”, which again features Garson’s piano, narrating a earth-shattering waltz from the Spiders, as Bowie frantically shrieks in a stage musical fashion (It’s easy to see how The Rocky Horror Picture Show is pretty much influenced straight from glam era Bowie) about he monster that is the concept (or personification of) time itself, and it’s affect on one’s ability love. “We should be by now” he voices in protest as Ronson’s guitar does what it does best: climaxes over and over. Aladdin Sane as a whole is a great view of the outsider’s look into America in the seventies, the drugs, the style and above all else perhaps, the terror.
Released a little over half a year after Aladdin Sane in 1973 is Pin Ups, an album consisting completely of cover songs.
This could make it more of a footnote in Bowie’s vast catalog, but it bears some mentioning, if not only because it is a solid album, but it is also the last time the Spiders from Mars (aka the Hype) were together with Bowie, although Mick Woodmansey would be replaced with Aynsley Dunbar. Mick Ronson would go on to have a successful solo career (which Bowie would collaborate on every now and then) and also as a recording and touring musician for many other big names, including Morrissey, John Mellancamp (Jack and Diane owes a lot to Ronson) and T-Bone Burnett. Woodsmansey and Bolder would briefly reform the Spiders (without Ronson, but with Mike Garson and a few others) and release an album, before breaking up permanently. So in a sense this album is the last hurrah of the glam rock era, as Bowie would begin to go in new directions afterward. The concept of this album stemmed from Bowie’s desire to give America a taste of a lot of the 60’s-era British rock and roll that influences him during a lot of his formative musician years, with covers from bands such as The Kinks, The Who, Them, Syd Barret era Pink Floyd and the Yardbirds. Bowie’s balls-to-the-wall rendition of Them’s “Here Comes the Night” and the silky-sexy version of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” are the highlights of the album for me. Also it’s worth noting the Pink Floyd song “See Emily Play”, and that in the early 2000’s Bowie joined David Gilmour (of Pink Floyd) on stage for a rendition of the early Floyd song covered here.
With the Spiders disbanded, and without his ace in the hole guitarist Mick Ronson, where would Bowie go? Was glam rock dead? Well, kind of. For Bowie’s next effort, 1974’s Diamond Dogs. Glam got dirty. Bowie took over lead guitar duties himself, which many have cited his more abrasive, harsh style of guitar playing “glam-trash” and a key influence on the first wave of British punk bands such as the Sex Pistols.
His style is evident in one of his most well known songs, “Rebel Rebel”, Many of the arrangements were composed while still touring Aladdin Sane, with Ronson still an influence factor on some of the songs. But Diamond Dogs reflected a change, and not just in band members for Bowie. Beginning as an attempt to make a theatrical production based on George Orwell’s dystopian fiction novel 1984 (as seen in songs such as the titular “1984”, “Big Brother” and “We are the Dead”) the author’s estate denied him the rights, so instead he crafted his own post-apocalyptic world set in New York City, and created the new, yet still rather Ziggy influenced character of Halloween Jack. On the title opening track, Bowie sings of Jack “The Halloween Jack is a real cool cat/And he lives on top of Manhattan Chase/The elevator’s broke, so he swings down a rope/Onto the street below, go Tarzie, go man go”, and with the roaring opening line “This ain’t rock n’ roll, this is…GENOCIDE!” Bowie takes us to a world of decrepit cities, and the punks and prowlers who live, love and die in the ruins of skyscrapers no one can remember why they were built.
Orwell’s novel’s themes of oppression and submission, and the possibly futile attempts to fight them remain clear in the album’s themes and lyrics, but the real treat is Bowie’s continuing demolition of rock n’ roll as dedication to the art. Take in point the three-song mini-epic “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” which pretty much encapsulates and finishes the glam period, and “1984” and “Rock and Roll with Me” provide soul-inspired rifts that Bowie would delve into further in his next album, Young Americans, and pretty much create a whole new sub-genre in the process.For now though, Diamond Dog’s frantic nihilism and shattered glam puts the final nail in the coffin for the glam period, and Bowie would push forward in a different way, never staying with one concept for too long, the gears in his mind always shifting toward something different and new.