Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity.
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies.
Bowie was scared of airplanes so he took a ship, the R.H.M.S. Ellinis, home to Britain in mid-December 1972. During the trip he read Waugh’s Vile Bodies and found, he thought, similarities between the novel (completed months before the 1929 crash, and whose narrative ends in a near-future with WWII already underway) and his own times. He soon got a song out of it.
At a London press conference in the summer of 1972, just as Ziggy Stardust broke, Bowie seemed unnerved by his success, though he had been trying to be a pop star for nearly a decade. Something disturbed him about his rise, he said, along with Lou Reed’s new prominence (“Walk on the Wild Side” would hit the Top 10) and the Glam boom. Once there had been well-groomed boys in matching suits on Top of the Pops. Now there was Roxy Music, who looked like extraterrestrials in a witness relocation program, or Slade and Roy Wood, hill trolls in Halloween costumes, or The Sweet, a bubblegum group who leered at their audience and seemed to be sharing a private joke. It was a sign that modern civilization had reached the point of absurdity—its entertainments had become bizarre and sordid, even menacing.
It is hardly surprising that they were Bolshevik at eighteen and bored by twenty…There was nothing left for the younger generation to rebel against except the widest conceptions of mere decency. Accordingly, it was against these that they turned.
Waugh, “The War and the Younger Generation,” 1929.
People like Lou [Reed] and I are probably predicting the end of an era. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people—absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.
In Waugh’s novel, ridiculous young people dress up in costumes, sleep with each other, have treasure hunts on city streets at midnight, drink and drug themselves to oblivion; it ends on a battlefield. “Aladdin Sane” was Bowie’s parallel sequel: a premature epitaph for his own lost generation. Though this time the party would end with a nuclear holocaust (hence the song’s (1913-1938-197?) subhead—Bowie seemed to really think that the world would end before 1980).
There’s a sadness and frailty to “Aladdin Sane,” set in B minor, with its lyric a meager collection of fragmented images—glissando strings, bouquets of faded roses. It’s as though Bowie realized the decadence of Waugh’s era had a panache his own time lacked. Bowie had just come off a months-long rock tour of America in 1972, and had endured/enjoyed the debauchery, the loud fashions, the noise, the bad food. It was a flyblown existence and Bowie wanted a nobler victim: in “Aladdin Sane” he invented a more glittering world to snuff out.
Bowie built “Aladdin Sane” out of sets of nine—there’s a nine-bar intro, two nine-bar verses, a nine-bar chorus, then another nine-bar verse and chorus, leading to the centerpiece of the track, and the album: Mike Garson’s 45-bar piano solo (or five nine-bar choruses).
The verse is an intricate little thing, sewn through with a three-note motif (F-E-D) that Ronson plays in alternating bars: the motif’s first only a guitar line, then in subsequent repeats Bowie sings the same three notes (“you’ll make it,” “I’m waiting”). The verse vocal is a call-and-response, with Bowie’s six-beat opening phrases, mainly staying on one note (“watch-ing him dance a-way“), answered by three-beat phrases (“dead ro-ses,” “don’t fake it”). The seventh bar of the verse is the variable, as it’s changed chords from the intro (from E to E minor*) while the rest of the verse is exactly the same as the intro. The seventh bar is first given dummy lyrics until, in the last verse, Bowie sings the title over it.** The chorus is simpler, moving to major chords, with its machine-like rhythms driven by Mick Ronson’s guitar, bolstered by piano and bass.
All of this is prologue for Garson’s solo. Garson has already undermined the verses, playing spiky lines that crash against Bowie’s vocal and Mick Ronson’s rhythm. Now he performs a magic trick.
Garson, in Trident Studios with Bowie, Ronson and producer Ken Scott, was asked to play a solo for “Aladdin Sane” over a simple set of chords (A to G to A, repeat indefinitely). Bowie gave Garson no guidelines, just told him to play what he liked. Garson did, and Bowie shot down his first two tries (a blues and a Latin-tinged solo). Bowie told Garson to go further out. On tour, Garson had told Bowie stories of the ’60s New York avant-garde jazz scene—of watching free jazz hierophants like Cecil Taylor. That’s what I want, Bowie said. So Garson sat down and played, off the top of his head and in one take, what is likely the finest rock piano solo recorded that decade, if ever.
Garson’s solo, at first listen seemingly random and chaotic, has a structure—it moves from dissonance and disturbance to the reassurance of memory, then breaks apart again, churning and spinning, until it’s finally yoked back to serve the song. The first chorus (2:04 to 2:21) opens with Garson playing a jarring four-note pattern that disintegrates, splintering into pieces; the second (2:22 to 2:40) is mainly his long, manic runs along the keyboard. The third (2:41 to 2:57) is a list of quotations—”Rhapsody In Blue” and “Tequila,” likely others (maybe a hint of “On Broadway,” which Bowie sings a part of in the outro). The fourth (2:58 to 3:15) kills that indulgence with three bars of furiously pounded chords and ends with the saxophone wending its way back; the fifth (3:16 to 3:33) is the return to earth, as Garson, bowing to time, plays the bassline midway through.
The outro is a maelstrom of saxophone squalls, Bowie singing “On Broadway” and Garson’s piano—the music closes in on itself, slowly fading off, finally leaving Garson playing alone and humbled, reduced to a rationed set of notes. Garson’s last stand sounds like one of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. Bowie may have sung about a fallen world, but Garson’s solo is what a weary, bloated civilization sounds like when it dies.
Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. Performed a few times during the last Ziggy tour, regularly during the Diamond Dogs tour (it’s on David Live) and revived in the mid-’90s after Bowie and Garson had reunited.
*Guitar footnote: It’s officially a change (acc. to the sheet music) from Esus2 to Em11.
**I’ve seen “Paris or maybe hell” sometimes written as “Paris, or maybe Hull,”, which might be a better line.
Top: Art Spiegelman, opening page of “Maus,” Funny Animals, 1972. (Collected in Breakdowns.)