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Two From Bowie: Aladdin Sane and Low Reviewed

These aren’t even my two favorite David Bowie albums. I love em both, mind, but I love other’s more, they are still two enormously good and different albums. “Aladdin Sane” is the cracked actor at his most affected, a fueled by cocaine break down of mammoth proportions. “Low” is the the thin white duke as manic depressive, a downer tinged nightmare in dark shades of blue and a sound so unique it remains a signpost for a musical journey nobody (not even David Bowie) actually took.

So let’s start by saying what we love most and not let’s bother with anything after 83. Maybe “Reality” is better than “Heathen” but I don’t feel strongly about either and though I do love “Buddha Of Suburbia” and the much maligned “Black Tie, White Noise” (the wedding album!) all of it was basically a matter of taste. “Let’s Dance,” a pop stroke that gave him his greatest stateside success and which, despite “Modern Love” isn’ up there with Bowie’s 70s input and let’s forget about the 60s stuff; except for the songs “The Man Who Sold The World” and “Space Oddity” they are only important as harbingers. So here is the real stuff in order of importance:

1) Station To Station
2) Hunky Dory
3) Low
4) Young Americans
5) Scary Monsters (and Scary Creeps)
6) Aladdin Sane
7) The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
8) Heroes
9) Pin Ups
10) Diamond Dogs
11) Let’s Dance
12) Lodger

And even in order of pleasure “Station To Station” is first…. How about in order of drugs?
Hunky Dory – Pot
Ziggy – Alcohol
Aladdin Sane – Speed
Young Americans – Amyl Nitrate
Station To Station – Cocaine
Low – Heroin

From the prolonged adolescence of “Hunky” to the prolonged depression of “Low”… “Low” is to Bowie what “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” was to Lennon: a denial, as Cobain put it. “Low” is broken into two sides (aptly enough) Side One is considered fragments though they are a little long for that, Side two electronic mood pieces original meant as the soundtrack to his Nick Roeg movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth”. “Aladdin Sane” was four years prior, a watershed album as Bowie considered how to continue his career after killing off Ziggy. It would actually take him two years to return proper as a blue eyed soul boy on “Young Americans”.

But both of these albums are more than they appear to be. “Low,” written and performed with Eno, is a selection of sound sculptures written around Eno’s synthesizers and still the most extremely modern lo-fi music. It doesn’t sound like ANYTHING else. “Aladdin Sane” is the music Ziggy was making before he realized the planet was doomed. It is out glam hard rock and cracked speed fueled mega nightmares like a clockwork orange meets rocky horror on a death trip to Detroit (then as now a city in permanent decay) , “a crash course for the ravers” as Bowie warns us and with the Spiders From Mars backing him up (the late) Mick Ronson whose keyboards on the title track set the tone of off kilter mania.

“Blue, blue electric blue that’s the color of my room…” I remember a dazed looking Bowie singing this on Top Of The Pops. It has a long intro, a guitar lick joined by a synth and Bowie sighing loudly like he’s Al Gore or something, chick back up singers, a horn riff, and before the vocals proper even start. It was strange then and it’s strange now, Bowie’s question “Don’t you wonder sometimes about sound and vision?” It’s a strong, strange song about a disconnect that so infects (and seems infected by Bowie’s portrait on the man who fell to earth), there is alienation and then there’s the alienation that occurs when you are autistic or, like Tommy, deaf and blind, the only sound and vision is the ticking of your brains and the passing of the clock and Bowie “pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say”. It isn’t catatonia, it is a deep, unbearable otherness of life where the ego is like Lennon and Ono’s “Listen To the Lion” -just a heart beat of sound. Just a distilled rhythm. How is this a pop single by a rock star? I dunno how it can be so catchy, maybe because everything is background/forward, and because in 77 Bowie was a pop pro who even if what he wanted to do was be a serious artist had absorbed so much of hsis gift he couldn’t help himself. It was a hit.

The mirror image on “Sane” is “Prettiest Star” because a) both songs are star turns and b) both songs should be singles though “The Prettiest Star” wasn’t this time round -instead he chose “Drive In Saturday” and “The Jean Genet” about the French writer and homosexualist Jean Genet who wrote “Our Lady Of the Flowers” on toilet paper in the cell he was jailed in for petty theft. “Prettiest Star,” covered by 60s pop star Peter Noone, was about another prisoner, a silent screen star (think Gloria Swanson) a prisoner of her lost past story with Ronson’s untamed electric guitar in the background and Bowie singing “Hallow Wood is all it takes…” and background singers and handclaps.

The rest of the fragments side of “Low” are not quite as catchy but they are still pretty fucking awesome, “Breaking Glass” is a denizen of the half lit world of fame beyond fame the synthesizer chords wretch of a break (which actually sounds nothing like anything breaking) (and perfectly answered by Nick Low-e’s “I Love the Sound Of Breaking Glass”) and “You’re such a wonderful person but you’ve got problems” seems like a description of all the glam casualties dying on the rocks of punk about that time. Not to mention Bowie himself who had gone from cracked to paralyzed. These fragments were so awesome they are among his great achiements. Here is the flow of side one ending and starting with the only instrumental on Side One’s lightning strikes of synth :

Speed Of Light
Breaking Glass
What In The World
Sound And Vision
Always Crashing In The Same Car
Be My Wife
A New Career In A New Town

“Sound And Vision” used to be my fave on this album but now I think it’s the last song: the harmonica on “New Career” is so out of place it seems to be exactly where you might thing the vocals would be and the piano playing (like on “Aladdin Sane”) is such a fucking insane presense.

“Aladdin Sane” isn’t like this, “Aladdin Sane” is grasped and panting with a sexual pleasure and disoriented drugginess it’s as if Mr. Sane had gone to Studio 54 and isn’t having the time he should be having at all. Everything is in bad, bad shape. I went to Munich in Germany a coupla years after the olympics and Munich looked like the way “Aladdin Sane” sounds like: it looked gaudy, ostentatious, expensive but you know that beautiful refurbished Hall from the Weimach Republic? Well, there’s a girl on stage getting fucked by a donkey. It was an incredible decline just three years after the Olympics ended in tragedy (and just 28 years after the fall of Nazi Germany, “Aladdin Sane” was released 35 years ago).

“Aladdin Sane” was stuck in a nightclub after the lights were turned on at the end of the night, the last line was snorted and the last dick sucked and all you can see is how seedy everything looks worn out the carpet is, how cheap the mirrors are, how dirty the glasses. “Drive In” Saturday,” “Cracked Actor,” “Time,”… they are all after the party is dead and buried and there’s just Bowie sucking on another cigarette and stroking some cute boys thigh while he shivers and shakes.

It starts with a Stones rip (everything in those days started with a Stones rip) “Watch That Man” : a hip swerve of a song, a sex crazed come on dubbed “New York” on the album and works to the Bowie masterpiece “Panic In Detroit”. “Looks a lot like Che Guevara drove a deisel van…” Somewhere here Andy Warhol’s cliché
comes home to roost because it’s no surprise today that the publicity engine that made Bowie a star is the same one that’s making Obama (or JFK) a star but when people and cities are in a state of perpetual decay, no jobs, no money, no industry, the people who are digging you out are also the people on your teach shirt. The MC5 conumdrum: THE PRETTIEST STAR AS MASS MURDERER. Like Strummmer once said, “if Hitler was here today they send a limo to drive him away…”

So “Aladdin Sane” is the day after and “Low”‘s first side is the year later and Side two? Side two are soundscapes. When Juliana Hatfield said she didn’t get Eno’s ambient work she might have gotten stuff like “Warszawa” the first song on side two but it is music that repays being ignored in the background with an overwhelming dread. It’s what Bowie might have been listening to with the “pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say”. And here is here where Eno (who I loved at this time and up to and including his ambient stuff) seems to be drawing Bowie into a different type of time frame, if you looped “Warszsawa” you couldn’t really tell the beginning from the end , it seems to be an entirely circular sound until the (nonsense) words and even those occur near the middle. “Art decade” comes from a similar place with a chain rattling in time and I keep on seeing Monks walking into a Church for some form of archaic ritual and
“Subterraneans” starts deep and rises ever upwards and llonger like elastic in an all form pieces of music -it feels like a work of alienated urbanism with bizarre lyrics about well nothing I can see: “Share bride failing star care-line care-line care-line care-line driving me Shirley, Shirley, Shirley, own.” Bowie said it was about east berlin but that seems too narrow to me. It’s about social decay.

That’s what connects these two albums in my mind: they are takes on the 70s, a time when the utopian dreams of the 60s did what utopian dreams so often do, evolve into totatilarist dystopia and we, like so many other social organism, form into social hives but we are so confused by that big brain of ours and we are lost to those around us and lost to ourselves.

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