Aladdin Sane was my first Bowie album. Not the first Bowie I heard, and not even the first of his albums I listened to, but the first one I lived with until I learned it. It was among a collection of albums that had belonged to my dad, that his brother Jake saved until I was sixteen to pass on to me. All of those records had an impact on me, and I know all of them in the same way that you know the people you live with: every nuance of every instrumental part is ingrained deep into my memory and my musical consciousness. Listening back for the first time in many years, and hearing how odd much of this record is, it explains a lot about my musical proclivities. Aladdin Sane is probably the record of which people are most likely to say ‘oh, that’s David Bowie’s glam rock album’, and in both its musical styling and its visual presentation it is extremely glam. But it is not a glam record in the way that other records made at the time by the likes of T-Rex or Mott the Hoople are glam rock: as ever, Bowie was appropriating the musical zeitgeist to his own ends, which remained as creatively subversive and ultimately inscrutable as ever. While the atonal, two-fisted Latin piano solo on the title track is the only really overtly avant-garde element in the arrangements, these are all clearly Bowie songs, with his own distinctive and characterful approach to writing chords and melody that always do the things that pop music is supposed to do. And while a lot of them deploy the kind of heavy shuffle riffs and beetle-browed grooves proper to glam, the songs are arranged and performed with enormous sophistication and musical subtlety. Every track is carefully crafted. The only thing that could be characterised as ‘throwaway’ on this record is the lyrical text.
Clearly this is a controversial statement. Generations of young people, feeling uncomfortable with expectations of conformity, have gone deep into Bowie’s lyrics, and found meanings that seem to relate to them personally. In his songs they have recognised the kind of alterity they feel themselves, as they grope towards an adult sense of self in a society which bombards them with a bewildering and disorienting torrent of visual and sexual propaganda. Bowie is clearly always someone who is deciding for himself, about sex, gender, social allegiance, fashion, lifestyle, and all the rest of it. Aladdin Sane is no exception to this kind of lyrical valency, and I was no exception to the kind of impact it can have on a questioning teenager. So when I say that his lyrics are ‘throwaway’ I don’t actually mean to say that they lack value or meaning. But the many hours that have been spent puzzling over them, trying to work out what they’re ‘about’, have never pinned them down to specifics. Bowie did not take topics and comment on them, he didn’t tell anecdotes from his personal experience of life and love, and he did not invent narratives with coherent plots and characters. He basically tended to fling words at the wall and see what meanings stuck to them. I mean this almost literally: I haven’t read about the process of making Aladdin Sane specifically, but I do know that it was Bowie’s habit to turn up at the studio, in the later stages of making an album, and extemporise lyrics as he recorded them. If you look at the lyrics to any of these songs on paper, although they may revolve around a catchy pop refrain, they have a kind of random quality to them, like early Bob Dylan. This core of ambiguity is largely responsible for their ability to speak so directly to so many different people, it seems to me. There are so many wonderful, arresting images on this record, so many social atmospheres evoked so vividly and connected so loosely, that Bowie seems to gather up a whole sackful of decadent, exciting and permissive cultural, social and personal meanings, and just dump them on the listener’s lap. Having become a librarian since I last listened to this record, I was surprised to discover that I still get a mention: ‘perhaps the strange ones in the dome/ will lend us a book we can read up alone’ Bowie sings in the whimsically contrarian opening verse of ‘Drive-in Saturday’. There he goes again, giving me a handle to hang my sense of identity on, whether I want it or not. I certainly am strange, and there is actually the old framework of a glass dome hidden above the false ceiling in the converted corn exchange I work in. This is Bowie’s real genius, evident on this album as much as any: he creates atmospheres, and builds worlds, and there’s a place for almost everyone in them. They’re open to us all.