Listening to the few people who try to articulate why this is better than Ziggy Stardust is a pretty wacky experience. I’ll make it simple for you: the only thing Aladdin Sane has over Ziggy Stardust is its punny title.
We need to talk about “Let’s Spend the Night Together” immediately. The only thing worth keeping is the piano intro, which concludes in the first ten seconds of the song. Afterwards, we’re treated to a sped-up version of the original riff, which is fine, but I can’t exactly chalk it up as a point to David Bowie’s team, since it’s not their material. But then David Bowie opens his mouth and the whole thing goes to shit. To his credit, he does make the song his own, but his over-the-top delivery of the vocals in an effort to glammorize it to recapture the sheer sexual energy of “Suffragette City” (without any of the things that made that one great) has a novelty effect that wears off within 5 seconds. After that, it becomes grating. Also, I question the integrity of abandoning those ridiculously fun wordless vocals of the original, which might have given this one a touch of melody that it so desperately needs. On a good day, I can forgive its inclusion on the album; Aladdin Sane plays as a love letter to the Rolling Stones and Bowie introduced the song in live renditions with “This one’s for Mick (Jagger).” Moreover, one must remember that the album was completed a mere ten months after Ziggy Stardust, so I understand Bowie opting to cover a song instead of making an original; he must’ve been suffered creativity exhaustion at that point. Fine, but why the hell was this chosen as a single b/w the infinitely better “Lady Grinning Soul” is beyond me.
I’d stop there, but unfortunately, Ben Gerson (of RollingStone)’s review of the song is more puzzling than the song itself; “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. […] 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.”
Um…what? Actually–no, that gut reaction does not even begin to convey my bewilderment, and since I’m a very passionate man who knows how important it is to say certain frowned-upon words, let me change that: Um…what the FUCK? How on Earth does Bowie “ask us” to “re-perceive” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” as a “gay song?” The only lyrical differences are Bowie’s added, “They said we were too young / Our kind of love was no fun / But our love comes from above / Let’s make love.” So, other than the fact that Bowie was the androgynous champion, where in those lyrics suggest homosexuality? This is not to say that I have a problem with homosexuality, but I do have a problem with bad writing, especially writing that is paid for.
My point of the piano intro being the best part of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” actually extends to the rest of the album. The worst criticism of any David Bowie album, especially those where he was being the definitive glam rocker, is that Aladdin Sane is not a David Bowie album. It is simply an album that features David Bowie. The team throws everything–female backing vocals, Mick Ronson’s guitar, “Suffragette City”-style piano–at opener “Watch That Man” in an effort to obviously recapture the Rolling Stones’ energetic “Rocks Off.” As co-producer Ken Scott noted, “‘Watch That Man’ was very much a Stones-sounding thing, with the vocal used as an instrument rather than as a lead. When it came to mixing the track, to get the sort of power of it, I just put everything up front, which meant losing the vocal.” Okay, that’s all well and good, but remember something like the final moments of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” where David Bowie found himself in a room full of musicians? He still stood out. Here, this is basically Mick Ronson’s show. This is not a fault of the production. This is, however, a fault of David Bowie for not bringing anything special to his performance.
Meanwhile, take one listen to the pseudo-title track that follows. It’s actually my favorite song here–forget “The Jean Genie,” which gets more attention than it should, though it’s still good. Sure, David Bowie provides a nice melody, something that both “Watch That Man” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” lacked. But “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) stands out because of its rather excellent avant-garde jazz section (one of my favorites, actually). That’s the work of Mike Garson (on piano) and Trevor Bolder’s tangible bass (Oh my God, it sounds huge), not David Bowie. The solo, with its staccato chaos, manages to articulate the sheer urgency that is conveyed in the title better than Bowie’s lyrics (the first two years referencing when the first two World Wars began, and the last one a reference to the ongoing Cold War or the impending apocalypse).
If Mick Ronson was the saving factor of the “Rocks Off”-tribute “Watch That Man,” his riff also saves the “Gimme Shelter”-tribute “Panic in Detroit” from being a completely forgettable mess (those female backing vocals try their best). Meanwhile, “Drive-In Saturday” continues the quality of “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)” thanks to the use of its backing vocals. Note again, that my compliments to these songs are never given to David Bowie. The second side of the album is mostly a mess, saved by its last two tracks. “Time” begins well enough, thanks to the carabet-style, but it plods along, and the ending is barely worth the 5-minute wait. “The Prettiest Star” is the second worst track (well, maybe the worst, since this one doesn’t have the piano intro that the Stones cover did), a track that originally surfaced as a single that no one ever heard (released after “Space Oddity”), and one that Bowie clearly should’ve just forgot about. Again, it’s just evidence that Bowie should’ve taken a few more months to up the songwriting that would’ve made Aladdin Sane infinitely better. “The Jean Genie” is probably the only song on the album where David Bowie actually matters, but the real winner here is the underrated (maybe the most underrated of Bowie’s discography) closer “Lady Grinning Soul.” It’s unfortunately overlooked since it follows one of Bowie’s bigger singles, but the interplay between the Western acoustic and electric guitars with the Romantic-era piano is fantastic. And while that makes it sound like it’s another case where Bowie doesn’t matter on his own track, it’s not–the way he hits all the high notes without resorting to “screeching” as he did on Ziggy Stardust helps the track stand out even further.
PS: apparently they released a 40th anniversary edition without the bonus tracks found on the 30th anniversary edition (of which, the only real thing worth listening to is the sax version of “John I’m Only Dancing”). Who the fuck needs these things?