America missed the boat when it comes to David Bowie. They didn’t trust his quixotic impulse, failed to believe in the sincerity of his quickly sketched gestures. If his emergence in the guise of omni-sexual, alien messiah (1972’s Ziggy Stardust) was difficult enough to swallow, then the later disclosure of it all as a con, a theatrical pose, proved almost unforgivable.
At least in the hipper enclaves of both coasts, there were those who noticed that Bowie’s theatricality was adding an entirely new dimension to rock music. Presley and Jagger had both donned eyeliner before, but nothing compared to this. Overnight, rock was about more than merely climbing on stage and belting out tunes; it was about drama and presentation, performance as theatre. Alice Cooper and Elton John emerged around the same period, ever more elaborately staged and clad, but what they offered was mere pantomime, vaudeville in comparison. Like Kiss later, they were simply playing dress-up, while Bowie was exploring the idea of costume and disguise. If John was a dynamic composer, then the persona he created owed much to Liberace Bowie’s intellectual passion led him through Brecht, Burroughs, and Genet.
Certainly, no other popular music artist has been so acutely attuned to the visual potential of his work as Bowie. Only Madonna even approaches, and she acknowledged her debt when inducting Bowie into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. So closely related are Bowie’s aural and visual identities that you can, with only a few exceptions, go so far as to assess the merit of his albums by their covers.
Throughout the ’70s, the most prolific and productive decade of Bowie’s career, the artwork is almost entirely iconic and memorable (Ziggy Stardust, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters). If the ’80s are universally acknowledged as Bowie’s most fallow period, then this too is reflected in the confused, forgettable pieces representing the music (Let’s Dance, Tonight, Never Let Me Down). While there have been exceptions to the rule (Pin-Ups — startling cover/mediocre record; Outside — anonymous artwork/intriguing record) — this rule has largely held up all the way through the present. Both 2001’s Hours and 2002’s Heathens are visually and aurally lifeless, while 1997’s Earthling finds Bowie at least interested musically, and visually audacious.
Which brings us to the 30th Anniversary re-issue of Aladdin Sane, an album that features one of the most distinctive images in all of rock music. Bowie’s visage appears across a stark white background, alienated from all context. His body is ashen and grey, corpse-like, while his face appears flushed and pink, strangulated. The lightning-bolt across his features (a symbol for schizophrenia) became a trademark, yet surprisingly only ever appeared once, here, and never on stage. His art autism is pandered to in the Dali-esque bubble that sits or hovers by his collar-bone, adding to the sense of “otherness.” Never did he appear more extraterrestrial than now.
The music itself is equally well known. It reflects Bowie’s transition into a vast new world, both touring America in support of the Ziggy Stardust album, and more significantly, propulsion into an empty world of international fame and celebrity. Neither as perfectly framed nor polished as its predecessor (a consequence of time constraints, industry pressure for a quick follow-up hit), its beefier sound still sometimes packs a weightier punch.
The 30th Anniversary 2-CD Edition is beautifully packaged, the shape of a hard-cover book, approximately jewel-box size. The sleeve notes and chronology, by David Buckley and Kevin Cann, respectively, are extensive and informative, and the quality of graphics and printing exemplary. It is the “rarities” compiled on disc two, however, which are most likely to attract buyers.
Of prime interest here is Bowie’s previously difficult-to-find studio recording of “All the Young Dudes”. Before releasing his own version, Bowie donated the song to Mott the Hoople, a group he’d admired and who were struggling through difficult times, who were, indeed, on the brink of splitting up. Dominated by Ian Hunter’s impassioned vocals, Mott the Hoople’s version became an anthem of indefatigable teenage defiance, and a significant pop hit to boot. Bowie produced the song, adding his own soaring backing vocals high in the mix, and it makes the all-round flatness of Bowie’s version here especially ironic.
Bowie’s reading of the lyric is more one of detached resignation than defiance, signaled not just by the lead vocal but also by doleful accompaniment from his own saxophone. Mick Ronson bravely attempts to breathe fire into the song, but on this occasion Bowie reels him in — at his own expense. Perhaps one explanation may be that Bowie recorded his version after Mott recorded theirs, and he didn’t see any point in duplication? It’s a song he’s toyed with innumerous times live over the years, and when it’s played balls-out it is — even more than “Rebel Rebel” or “Suffragette City” — the greatest anthem Bowie composed.
As for Mick Ronson, the Aladdin Sane sessions captured the very best of him, gorgeously unaware then that Bowie was set to dump both he and his bandmates at tour’s end. Ronson was primarily responsible for the questionable cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on the album proper; a favorite of his to play live, there’s certainly more amp to the Bowie version, but the more authentic stench of sex remains with the original.
On disc two, besides “All the Young Dudes”, there are single edits of “Time” and “The Jean Genie”, both of which are utterly superfluous given the full length versions on disc one. There’s also a version of “John, I’m Only Dancing” that doesn’t belong here. There are also six live recordings, taken from the tour that inspired the album itself. The most interesting of these are a relatively faithful rendering of “Life on Mars”, and a beautiful acoustic version of “Drive-In Saturday” recorded in Cleveland, November 1972. “Drive-In Saturday” is one of the bright shining jewels of the original album, a tender and evocative futurama. This previously unreleased live version exemplifies what extra tracks ought to be about: it holds up perfectly well by itself, yet it also informs on the song’s development from conception to finalized reality. On this occasion, it turns out to be the highlight of the bonus tracks.
Why, however, is it only now being made available?
At the onset of the ’90s, Rykodisc re-mastered and re-released Bowie’s entire catalogue on CD. Due care was taken with the artwork (for example, The Man Who Sold the World was released with its original cover for the first time in over a decade), and bonus tracks from the appropriate period were added to albums where they existed. Aladdin Sane was one of the few albums not to offer bonus tracks due to reasons previously stated: the original product was released as soon as there were enough songs to fill two sides of vinyl.
Rykodisc treated both the artist and his music well, but their licensing deal with Bowie expired several years ago. His new label, Virgin, has again released the entire catalogue, and frankly it’s a shoddy job they’ve done with it. Certainly the artwork, important as it is, looks to have been downloaded from the internet and mass-printed. Meanwhile, it is EMI who are responsible for the 30th Anniversary Aladdin Sane re-issue (are you keeping up?), and one has to wonder precisely what goodies may turn up for the Fiftieth Anniversary edition. Is Bowie simply holding out, saving party favors for each new label he signs with?
One would hope that this version of Aladdin Sane is, at last, definitive . . . but I wouldn’t count on Bowie or his future record labels seeing it that way.