David Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane': 50 Glam Facts You May Not Know
The headline bid farewell to Bowie's previous stage persona, Ziggy Stardust, and introduced the character who would take his place. Aladdin Sane also doubled as the title of his sixth album, the first since his 1972 commercial breakthrough.
Fame and touring life had opened Bowie's eyes to what it really meant to be a bona fide rock 'n' roll star, feelings that he funneled into his songwriting. "Wanting to be up on stage performing my songs, but on the other hand not really wanting to be on those buses with all those strange people," he would later explain in The Complete David Bowie. "Being basically a quiet person, it was hard to come to terms. So Aladdin Sane was split down the middle."
Released on April 20, 1973, the LP has since become one of Bowie's most popular albums with its instantly recognizable cover. Here's a look at 50 facts about this legendary release:
No. 1. Aladdin Sane was the first album Bowie wrote from a position of significant fame. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars launched Bowie to No. 1 on the U.K. charts, and his performance of "Starman" on Top of the Pops helped solidify his image amongst fans. This new renown took some getting used to for Bowie, a naturally shy, introverted person despite his confidence on stage.
No. 2. The LP featured the introduction of a new persona. Weary of Ziggy, Bowie became Aladdin Sane. He toured the U.S. over the course of late 1972 and early 1973, leaving time on the road to think about who Aladdin was. "In my mind," Bowie later told Rolling Stone, "it was Ziggy Goes to Washington: Ziggy under the influence of America."
No. 3. Bowie manager Tony Defries wanted Phil Spector to help with the album, but the eccentric producer reportedly never replied.
No. 4. Instead, co-production duties were given to Ken Scott, who by then had worked as engineer on four of Bowie's albums, in addition to projects by the Beatles, Elton John, Lou Reed and more. "David has to be the best vocalist I ever worked with," Scott told Billboard in 2017. He estimated that "95% of the vocals that I did with him on the four albums I co-produced were first takes — from beginning to end. It's amazing."
No. 5. Additional engineering was provided by Mike Moran, who by then had collaborated for the likes of the Monkees and Nina Simone, and would go on to work on various other Bowie albums, both in studio and live.
David Bowie Performing as Ziggy Stardust for the Last Time
No. 6. Touring kept Bowie busy, but he still found time to write new material while on the road. Bowie found inspiration in both the physical and metaphoric landscape of America. "The imagination can dry up ... in England," Bowie said in 1974. "America became a myth land for me."
No. 7. Each of the songs (apart from his cover of "Let's Spend the Night Together") was assigned a geographical location, with references to their supposed origins — "Watch That Man" in New York, "Drive-In Saturday" in Seattle and Phoenix, "Cracked Actor" in L.A., "Lady Grinning Soul" in London, etc.
No. 8. The album's title track, fully listed as "Aladdin Sane (1913–1938–197?)," was written at least partially during Bowie's seafaring trip back to the U.K. in 1972. (A frightening experience with turbulence in the early '70s had led Bowie to a fear of flying.) The inscription next to "Aladdin Sane" on the vinyl reads "RHMS Ellinis," the name of the ship Bowie was traveling on.
No. 9. Bowie found inspiration for the title track while reading Evelyn Waugh's 1930 book Vile Bodies, which satirized the rich post-World War I youth of London. "They were totally out of place, still thinking about champagne and parties and dressing up," Bowie told Circus in 1973. "Somehow it seemed to me that they were like people today."
No. 10. Pianist Mike Garson had already been playing with Bowie on the road, but this was the first time he appeared on an album. He would go on to become the longest-serving member of Bowie's band.
Listen to David Bowie's 'Aladdin Sane'
No. 11. In addition to Garson and the Spiders From Mars (guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick "Woody" Woodmansey), Aladdin Sane also features saxophonists Ken Fordham and Brian "Bux" Wilshaw, plus backing vocalists Juanita Franklin, Linda Lewis and Geoff MacCormack.
No. 12. "Drive-In Saturday" was written as Bowie stayed up late while traveling by train from Seattle to Phoenix. Passing through the desert in the dead of night, Bowie reportedly saw a collection of silver domes. "I couldn't find out from anyone what they were, but they gave me a vision of America, Britain and China after a nuclear catastrophe," Bowie told Circus. "The radiation has affected people's minds and reproductive organs, and they don't have a sex life. The only way they can learn to make love again is by watching video-films of how it used to be done." It's still unclear which exact structures Bowie might have seen.
No. 13. Around the same time Bowie was touring and working on Aladdin Sane, he was also co-producing Raw Power for Iggy Pop. Bowie drew inspiration from Pop's stories about growing up in Michigan in the late '60s, a tumultuous era rife with revolutionary activism. This served as the basis for "Panic in Detroit."
No. 14. Bowie and his entourage (which included several dozen people) checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel in the fall of 1972, kicking off a week of grand Hollywood excess. They racked up thousands of dollars in bills, as Bowie penned "Cracked Actor" – a twisted portrait of fame, sex and luxury.
No. 15. The piano used on Aladdin Sane was a black Bechstein grand, housed at Trident Studios in London from 1968 until the mid '80s. The same instrument was also featured on Bowie's Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust, along with other famous recordings like the Beatles' "Hey Jude," songs from the White Album and Elton John's Madman Across the Water. "It had a tremendously bright sound," Ken Scott later said. "I have heard many pianos in my time but I have never heard a better 'rock' piano than that one."
Watch David Bowie Perform 'Cracked Actor' in 1973
No. 16. "The Jean Genie" began to take shape one evening on the tour bus during an impromptu jam session. Ronson was fooling around with riffs and chords not unlike Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man," which became the seed of "The Jean Genie." "It's one of the few that I can keep going back to," Bowie told the BBC in 2002. "I guess it's because it is essentially rooted in straight old-fashioned blues."
No. 17. Aladdin Sane was completed in New York City at RCA studios and in London at Trident Studios, making it Bowie's first internationally recorded LP.
No. 18. Bowie found musical inspiration from the Rolling Stones after deciding to make a decidedly grittier album than his last. "We wanted to make it that much rougher. Ziggy was rock 'n 'roll but polished rock 'n' roll," Scott later said. "David wanted certain tracks to go like the Rolling Stones – unpolished rock 'n' roll."
No. 19. Of course, Aladdin Sane also featured a direct nod to the Stones with its cover of "Let's Spend the Night Together." Mick Jagger is "incredibly sexy and very virile," Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1974. "I also find him incredibly motherly and maternal, clutched into his bosom of ethnic blues." The piano part played by Mike Garson was recorded in a single take.
No. 20. Bowie wanted to make sure he put his own stamp on "Let's Spend the Night Together," admitting in 1991 that his goal was to "fuck the sound up." It was Bowie's first time using synthesizers on an album, and he also added some of his own original lyrics: "They said we were too young, our kind of love was no fun – but our love comes from above. Do it! Let's make love."
Listen to David Bowie's Cover of 'Let's Spend the Night Together'
No. 21. Bowie later claimed that he offered "Drive-In Saturday" to Mott the Hoople, who had hit with his "All the Young Dudes" earlier in 1972. He said they refused, but accounts vary. Ian Hunter said the song was never officially offered to them. "The only thing I can think of is that [shared manager] Tony Defries told David one story and us another," Hunter said in Any Day Now: David Bowie: The London Years: 1947-1974.
No. 22. "The Jean Genie" was the first song recorded for the album, taking only about 90 minutes to complete, plus a few added overdubs later. Reaching No. 2 on the U.K. singles chart, the single was Bowie's biggest hit to date. "I love the famous fuck-up in it where Trevor goes to the chorus too early," Woodmansey wrote in his 2016 book Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie. "He pointed it out to Bowie at the time and Bowie said, 'Leave it in; I like it.'"
No. 23. A music video shot by Mick Rock accompanied "The Jean Genie," with footage captured in October 1972 in San Fransisco. Bowie said he wanted "to locate Ziggy as a kind of Hollywood street-rat" with "a consort of the Marilyn [Monroe] brand," which is what prompted him to invite actress Cyrinda Foxe to appear. In her 1996 autobiography Dream On, she remembered Bowie saying he wanted to write a song about her, and asked Foxe what she wanted. "Something like the Yardbirds," Foxe replied, the same band that recorded Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" in 1964.
No. 24. Bowie's "1984" was recorded during these late-1972 sessions, but ultimately set aside for later inclusion on 1974's Diamond Dogs.
No. 25. Both Bowie and Ronson were credited as arrangers on Aladdin Sane. "We work really well together, on stage and in the studio. We're good for each other," Ronson told Music Scene in 1973. Bowie addedL "Mick's a great technician. He reads music and he can organize the arrangements. I tell him what I want, and he knows how to relay this message to the other technicians."
Watch David Bowie's 'The Jean Genie' Video
No. 26. Garson first tried a blues-style piano solo when recording "Aladdin Sane," and then a Latin one. Bowie nixed both.
No. 27. Bowie pressed Garson for something different on the title track. "You told me you play that avant-garde music. Play that!" Garson later recalled Bowie saying to him. "And I said: 'Are you sure? 'Cause you might not be working anymore!' So I did the solo that everybody knows today, in one take. And to this day, I still receive emails about it. Every day. I always tell people that Bowie is the best producer I ever met, because he lets me do my thing."
No. 28. "John, I'm Only Dancing" had been released as a single in September 1972, but Bowie re-recorded it a month later with saxophones. It was considered as a possible closing track for Aladdin Sane, but didn't make the final track listing. Instead, the updated version was released again as a single in April 1973.
No. 29. That's Bowie playing the saxophone on "Drive-In Saturday." His first instrument at 12 years old had been an alto.
No. 30. On "Panic in Detroit," Woodmansey initially came into the studio with big ideas for the drum part. "I'd worked out a riff: It was very John Bonham, as I'm a big Bonham fan," he told Music Republic Magazine in 2018. Bowie instead asked him to play a simpler Diddley-style beat. "I tried again. There are like 10,000 drummers who could play it like that, and he said – no, not like you'd do it. So, I started playing the Bo Diddley beat and immediately I knew he was right, the bastard! It was so simple and effective."
Listen to the Sax Version of 'John, I'm Only Dancing'
No. 31. They "tried a regular harmonica" on "Cracked Actor," "which would have been like going back to a '60s blues thing, and it just didn't feel right," Scott said in the liner notes for 30th anniversary reissue of Aladdin Sane. So they tried running it through an amplifier, cranked way up, and that did the trick. "It needed to be nasty like that."
No. 32. For "Time," Bowie asked Mike Garson for a sort of old-timey, early-1900s style piano part. "Only David could figure out how to mine every style of piano playing I had learned the prior 20 years and find a place for each style in his vast library of songs," Garson recalled in 2020. "This is a style of playing called stride piano which came from a '20s ragtime technique, with that old corny rinky-dink sound. He even altered the piano to sound old."
No. 33. "Time" was banned from the BBC's radio playlist for its use of the word "wanking." Meanwhile, American stations would sometimes censor the mention of "Quaaludes," but leave "wanking" in. When Bowie performed the song in 1973 for the 1980 Floor Show, he changed the word to "swanking."
No. 34. "The Prettiest Star" was originally released as a single more than three years earlier, and featured Marc Bolan on guitar. When the single failed to chart, Bowie revamped "The Prettiest Star" for Aladdin Sane with an overall grittier sound.
No. 35. A song titled "Zion" was considered for the album at one point, but then replaced with "Lady Grinning Soul." "Zion" has since circulated online as a bootleg, and also been referred to as "Lad in Vein" and "Tragic Moments."
Listen to David Bowie's 'Lady Grinning Soul'
No. 36. Bowie met the American soul singer Claudia Lennear in 1972. Often cited as the inspiration for "Lady Grinning Soul," she sang backing vocals for Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes, as well as for acts like Humble Pie, Joe Cocker, and Delaney and Bonnie, among others. "This was written for a wonderful young girl whom I've not seen for more than 30 years," Bowie told the Daily Mail in 2008. "When I hear this song she's still in her 20s, of course." Lennear said she got a phone call in 2014 in which Bowie confirmed things, telling her: "You know you are my lady grinning soul."
No. 37. For reasons unknown, "Lady Grinning Soul" was the only song from Aladdin Sane that was never played in concert.
No. 38. At the time, recording studios in New York were heavily unionized, meaning Scott was strictly forbidden from doing the work of in-house engineer Mike Moran. At one point while Moran was out, Scott innocently hit one switch on the soundboard so the musicians could hear themselves in their headphones, a move Moran "lost it" over. "He shouted, 'You're not allowed to do that! We could call a strike and close the whole place down. You're not in the union!'" Scott recalled for the 30th reissue. "We managed to calm him down and continue, though for a while I thought we were going to have a complete strike on our hands!"
No. 39. "Watch That Man," the leadoff track on Aladdin Sane, found Bowie’s voice drowning in the mix. Scott would later explain that the label actually asked for a version with Bowie's voice louder, but ended up choosing the first version anyway – much to the chagrin of some fans.
No. 40. English model Twiggy was so excited when she heard her name on the radio in "Drive-In Saturday" — "She'd sigh like Twig the Wonder Kid" – that she immediately went out to buy the album to make sure she hadn't misheard it.
No. 41. Other possible album titles included A Lad Insane, Love Aladdin Vein, and, simply, Vein.
Pierre La Roche Doing David Bowie's Makeup in 1973
No. 42. The now famous cover photo was shot by Bryan Duffy, a successful fashion photographer who'd worked for British Vogue, Esquire and Cosmopolitan, among others. He would go on to take photos of Bowie for two more albums, 1979's Lodger and 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
No. 43. Bowie's manager purposefully instructed Duffy to make the cover shot as expensive as possible, so that the label would be invested in promoting Aladdin Sane. Duffy went on to design a seven-color sleeve.
No. 44. According to Bowie, the lightning bolt painted across his face was originally inspired by the symbol seen on "high voltage" warnings. Duffy also said Bowie was interested in Elvis Presley’s ring, which had lightning bolts on it. The final design was copied from the logo on a rice cooker Duffy had sitting in his cottage, using a tube of red lipstick to fill in the color.
No. 45. The makeup designer for the Aladdin Sane shoot was Pierre La Roche, who later did makeup for the cast of 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bowie "has the perfect face for makeup," LaRoche said in 1973. "He has even features, high cheekbones and a very good mouth. I have to be careful, though, because his skin is very fine and some of the base powders I use are very strong. They can make that face quite soft."
Listen to David Bowie Perform 'Aladdin Sane' in Concert
No. 46. The teardrop seen on Bowie's collarbone was later airbrushed onto the image by artist Philip Castle, who also created the poster for Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and did tour artwork for Paul McCartney's Wings.
No. 47. Aladdin Sane was David Bowie’s most commercially successful album at that point, reaching No. 1 in U.K. and No. 17 in the U.S.
No. 48. The album reentered the charts for three weeks after Bowie's death in early 2016, peaking at No. 16 on Billboard's list for top pop catalog albums.
No. 49. Aladdin Sane was reissued in 2023 for its 50th anniversary, complete with a new picture disc LP.
No. 50. With an estimated 4.6 million in sales worldwide, this remains one of Bowie's biggest albums. "I wasn't at all surprised Aladdin Sane made my career," he told Rolling Stone in 1976. "I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star — much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody's."
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