April 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.
Let us establish one thing before we move forward: there are no bad songs on David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. It is in all ways a perfect record. This fact is incontrovertible, and made all the more astonishing when one recalls that its release in 1973 came a mere ten months after the world was introduced to another perfect Bowie record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie had made and would go on to make imperfect records; these were not among them.
And let us also remove Aladdin Sane’s longest-lasting contribution to classic rock radio and playlists, “The Jean Genie,” from the discussion of “best tracks.” Its influence and quality are towering; entire volumes could be written about its importance and cultural impact. We’ll skip it here.
What’s left? Nine perfect glam-rock songs, played with nuance and fire, composed under the influence of peculiar times and the enormous personalities that embodied those times. Here are three of those tracks that stand out on Aladdin Sane:
“Watch That Man”: Bowie saw the New York Dolls play and hung out with them a bit, noting the circus of fans and hangers-on that seemed to follow them from show to show, from the venue seats to the backstage, back to the hotels and hangouts. So taken was he with chief Doll David Johansen, he fashioned a character called “Shakey,” who was the center of attention, the engine that propelled the scene forward. “Shakey threw a party that lasted all night,” Bowie wrote, “Everybody drank a lot of something nice,” and off he went, describing the show after the show and around the band. Then he built a cocksure glam-rock bed of guitars and hid his voice in the middle of it all, mixed low, so you have to listen closely. And then he opened one of his best albums with it.
“Cracked Actor”: To conjure the decadence of street life out of one’s imagination is one thing; to decamp to downtown Los Angeles and witness the prostitutes and pimps, the johns and the dealers, the destitute and the businessmen vying for illicit products and services – that was quite another thing entirely. Bowie had the scenes before him; he had their language down pat; he stitched a bunch of distorted sounds together and declaimed over it. "Crack, baby, crack, show me you're real,” he teases, “Smack, baby, smack, is that all that you feel?" And that was the coolest thing – it was a question asked of the characters in the song, but it could have been equally directed at the listener, sitting at home, taking it all in from the LP or the 8-track tape.
“Lady Grinning Soul”: Aladdin Sane ends with a song that not only sounds detached from the overarching atmosphere of the album, but perhaps from time and space themselves. Languid and ethereal where the rest of the record leans into Kinks-like noise and Stonesian swagger, “Lady Grinning Soul” is Bowie ascending to the heavens on a nimbus of soft light and quietude, gently streaking notes from Mike Garson’s piano like so many contrails. After encountering so much rock and roll goodness in the nine preceding songs, it is the perfect place for the listener to land, softly, wondering all the while what adventures Bowie would lead them on next. The best was certainly yet to come.