Aladdin Sane

June 24, 2010

Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1973).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1974).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1996).
Aladdin Sane (Bridge Benefit Concert, 1996).
Aladdin Sane (ChangesNowBowie, 1997).

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.

Bowie, 1972.

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.)

Five Years

April 30, 2010

Five Years.
Five Years (The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972).
Five Years (live, 1973).
Five Years (Dinah!, 1976).
Five Years (rehearsal, 1976).
Five Years (live, 1978).
Five Years (live, 2003).
Five Years (with Arcade Fire, 2005).

The cycle of the Earth (indeed, of the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously. Having inherited millennia of scientific and technological knowledge it used this knowledge to indulge in its richest fantasies…An earlier age would have seen the inhabitants of this world as ‘decadent’ or ‘amoral,’ to say the least. But even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time some unconscious knowledge informed their attitudes and made them lose interest in ideals, creeds, philosophies and the conflicts to which such things gave rise.

Michael Moorcock, An Alien Heat, 1972.

Our planet’s stock of minerals and fossil fuels, for instance, is already sadly depleted, and it is only a question of time before it is totally exhausted. Once this occurs, that already tottering technological superstructure—the “technosphere”—that is relentlessly swallowing up our biosphere, will collapse like a house of cards, and the swarming human masses brought into being to sustain it, will in turn find themselves deprived of even this imperfect means of sustenance.

Edward “Teddy” Goldsmith, editorial, inaugural issue of The Ecologist, July 1970.

I don’t see much of a future for the human race. I think we’ll probably disappear in the next fifty years.

Goldsmith to Andy Beckett, 2005. (Goldsmith predeceased the human race last year.)

Of all of Bowie’s dystopic and apocalyptic songs (and we’ve many to go), “Five Years” is the most unsettling. The key’s in the details, what Bowie discloses and, more importantly, what he doesn’t—that is, why the world is going to end. It’s as though the planet has received a terminal prognosis and has to get its affairs in order. And Bowie also wisely keeps his perspective on the street, on the masses who, having gotten the news (the same news that “all the young dudes” are carrying, Bowie later said), despair, collapse, debase themselves.

Yet there’s a joy in the refrains of “five years!!” that ring out the song. It’s a final jubilee, a celebration that the miserable struggles of the human race are finally over. The singalong chorus, which Bowie withholds for over half the song, comes as a relief after the string of despairing verses after despairing bridges. All of it is anchored by Woody Woodmansey’s unchanging drum pattern* (Woodmansey said he tried to put “hopelessness into a drumbeat”) and Mick Ronson’s piano chords.

In “Five Years” Bowie tapped into a current of pessimism and resignation that would define 1970s Britain, in novels, films, music and even newscasts (like a 1976 episode of the BBC’s The Money Programme that predicted a 1980 Britain in which “capitalism is but a fond memory”). It wasn’t a solely British phenomenon, of course. US science fiction of the early ’70s was chock full of societal collapses, whether the Planet of the Apes movies or The Omega Man, or novels like Wilson Tucker’s Year of the Quiet Sun, in which time-travelers discover that 20 years is all it takes for America to fall into utter barbarism. An iconic image of the early 1970s is a man standing alone, holding a gun, in a litter-strewn, gutted and empty downtown street.

The millennial fear (hope?) that Western civilization was on the brink of collapse came from all corners, from disillusioned hippies and embattled Leftist sects, from population-boom Cassandras and anti-urbanists (like Robert Allen, an associate editor for The Ecologist who in July 1975 wrote admiringly of the Khmer Rouge, as they were cleansing the cities and taking Cambodian civilization back to nature—“they deserve our best wishes, our sympathy and our attention”), as well as those on the Right who regarded such a collapse as the inevitable end to an indulgent, weak society. Take a film like Dirty Harry, whose contemporary San Francisco setting—a cesspool of muggers, perverts and killers, and the weak government that enables them—already seems post-apocalyptic.

Plus time was running at a Benzedrine pace. It was quite imaginable that human civilization could end in five years, as it seemed as though an age already had expired during the preceding five. To some in 1972, 1967 looked like a lost childhood while 1957 seemed to have occurred on another planet. The future was coming, mercilessly and quickly, to dispatch the present.

The buspeople, and there were many of them,
were shockedandsurprised and amused and annoyed, but when the
word got around that the world was coming to an end at
lunchtime, they put their pride in their pockets with their bustickets and
madelove one with the other.

Roger McGough, “At Lunchtime–A Story of Love,” 1967.

For “Five Years,” along with the novels and films that had inspired earlier songs like “We Are Hungry Men” or “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie drew from a 1967 Roger McGough poem, “At Lunchtime—A Story of Love.” (Bowie had recited it during his cabaret audition in 1968.) The poem’s set on a bus whose riders, learning the world will end at lunchtime, start having random sex. There’s a funny twist at the end, which I won’t spoil.

In “Five Years” the world also turns upside-down upon hearing the news—policemen kneel to priests, teenage girls try to kill children. Bowie’s narrator makes his way through the wrack covering the streets, trying to chronicle whatever he sees (“my brain hurt like a warehouse”), and only despairs when he remembers seeing a friend (or a former lover) in an ice-cream shop, a moment of insignificance now made unbearably poignant. He joins in the chorus with the rest of the crowd, and sings down the world.

As with other Ziggy Stardust tracks, Bowie uses American slang (“news guy” and “TV” rather than “telly”) in the lyric. Even the clunky phrases (“all the fat skinny people” etc.) work, as they read as the discombobulated thoughts of an overwhelmed kid. Another Ziggy staple is the song’s diatonic chord progression, with G often set against E minor (James Perone pegs it as the “Heart and Soul” chord progression (I-vi-ii-V), the “harmonic core” of the 1950s.)

Bowie cut his vocal track in two takes—the first for the verses and bridges, the second for the chorus—because Ken Scott had to reset the sound levels for the throat-tearing chorus. Ronson mainly keeps to piano, while his scoring (a cello-heavy string section) for the track is a typically fine arrangement.

Recorded 8-15 November 1971. A version was cut for the BBC in January 1972,  while the Old Grey Whistle Test TV performance is from 8 February. Featured on Bowie’s 1972-3, 1976 and 1978 tours, along with a stunning performance on the Dinah Shore Show on 3 January 1976. Revived for Bowie’s 2003 tour, while the Arcade Fire duet is from “Fashion Rocks” (if ever an audience deserved an apocalyptic death-curse of a song, it was that one) on 8 September 2005.

Top: Miner’s strike rally in Trafalgar Square, 6 February 1972 (University of Warwick Library).

* Sheet music says 3/4, other sources (the producer Pip Williams) say it’s in 6/8.

Much credit is owed to Andy Beckett’s essential ’70s history When The Lights Went Out, which will be an ongoing reference for this blog.