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On This Day In Music… May 5, 1973: 'Aladdin Sane' Gives David Bowie His First No. 1 Album

Bowie's ravaged masterpiece represented the culmination – and eventual destruction – of Ziggy Stardust.

david bowie aladdin sane
Source: RCA

The cover art of 'Aladdin Sane' would give the world a defining image of David Bowie.

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David Bowie’s sixth studio album, Aladdin Sane, which gave the Starman his first chart-topper on May 5, 1973, was also arguably his most troubled LP.

It was the first he had written from a position of real stardom, after 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars had become a smash on both sides of the Atlantic… and he wrote it mostly while touring Ziggy Stardust in America.

If Aladdin Sane is Ziggy’s follow-up, it is also a grittier, bluesier album, and expands the preceding LP’s darker themes – of fame, mental health, decadence, a fracturing of human relationships – into a sphere pop music had not explored before. Even its title, a pun on “a lad insane”, was a reference not only to Bowie’s recently-diagnosed schizophrenic half-brother, but to the toll that the Ziggy Stardust character was taking on the singer’s own state of mind.

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david bowie ziggy stardust
Source: mega

Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' persona had made him a superstar in 1972.

It also represents a metamorphosis, the beginning of the end of Ziggy Stardust, and the start of something new – a ravaged version of Ziggy, inhabiting a world fatally corrupted by fame and glamor. “There was a point in ’73 where I knew it was all over,” Bowie later said. “I didn’t want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life. And I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, I was trying to move into the next area – but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy as a secondary device. In my mind, it was Ziggy goes to Washington: Ziggy under the influence of America.”

If Aladdin Sane was “Ziggy goes to America”, then what Ziggy found when he got there was an altogether stranger, more sinister, more frightening place than the pre-fame David Jones might have dreamed about as a young man in south London. Touring America with the Spiders From Mars in late 1972, Bowie found his alien alter-ego attracted a particular kind of fan.

“He had a sphere of craziness around him,” Spiders From Mars drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey later recalled. “We pulled in the beautiful people. And we also pulled the freaks.”

And nowhere more so than in post-Charles Manson Los Angeles. When the tour reached LA, Woodmansey recalled: “Some guys came over to us and said, ‘Whatever you want drugs-wise, anything you want sexually, doesn’t matter what it is – we can get it.. When I got back to my hotel room, there was a chicken stabbed into my door with blood dripping down. They told me – ‘This is just a welcome.’ It was real bizarre!”

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david bowie
Source: mega

‘Whatever you want drugs-wise, anything you want sexually, doesn’t matter what it is – we can get it.'

The American tour also introduced Bowie to cocaine, a drug he embraced enthusiastically (and near fatally), and the inspiration for his later incarnation, The Thin White Duke.

It is this prevailing darkness that defines Aladdin Sane, with Bowie for the first time writing almost all of the songs for the album while on the road. “Cracked Actor,” written in Los Angeles, portrays a former movie star paying for meaningless hook-ups; “Panic in Detroit” is about the city’s devastating riots of 1967; “Drive-In Saturday” is a nightmarish vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth where humans have forgotten how to have sex and relearn by watching old movies; and “The Jean Genie”, with lyrics like “Sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile” and “He bites on the neon and sleeps in a capsule”, was described by Bowie himself as “a smorgasbord of imagined Americana... based on an Iggy [Pop]-type persona.”

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The album’s title track was written on the long journey back home in December (chronically afraid of flying, Bowie sailed home on the RHMS Ellinis) after reading Evelyn Waugh’s bleak between-the-wars satire Vile Bodies. Its full title “Aladdin Sane (1913 – 1938 – 197?)” was a reference to the years preceding the two world wars, and the implication that the third was imminent.

In Nicholas Pegg’s 2016 book The Complete David Bowie, the singer says: “Aladdin Sane was my idea of rock and roll America. Here I was on this great tour circuit, not enjoying it very much. So inevitably my writing reflected that, this kind of schizophrenia that I was going through. Wanting to be up on stage performing my songs, but on the other hand not really wanting to be on those buses with all those strange people. Being basically a quiet person, it was hard to come to terms. So Aladdin Sane was split down the middle.”

david bowie ziggy
Source: mega

Bowie would kill off Ziggy Stardust just two months after 'Aladdin Sane' topped the charts.

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Aladdin Sane was released on April 19, 1973, and eclipsed Ziggy Stardust to become Bowie’s most commercially successful record to that point, reaching No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 17 in the U.S., with the singles "The Jean Genie" and "Drive-In Saturday" both making the British Top 5.

It also gave the world an image of Bowie that remains iconic over 50 years later. Since described as “The Mona Lisa of album covers”, the naked, eyes-lowered, emaciated and silvery-skinned singer with the lightning bolt slashed across his face was immediately arresting, simultaneously shocking and seductive, frightening and alluring… and at the time the most expensive album art ever commissioned.

If it has since become the best-remembered portrayal of David Bowie, then somewhat unbelievably, the album cover remained the only time Bowie ever donned the lightning bolt make-up.

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Just two months after Aladdin Sane gave Bowie his first No. 1, the singer killed off Ziggy Stardust for good, telling a shocked Hammersmith Odeon audience, “Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do. Thank you.”

If Ziggy Stardust was the start of Bowie’s superstardom, Aladdin Sane was both Ziggy’s peak, and the nightmarish consequence of that fame. As Woodmansey later put it:

“I think he was having a hard time with the pressure he was under, having created this character he had to play every night. So he eventually stayed in character as Ziggy all the time. And Ziggy was pretty f---ing weird. It was impossible having a normal conversation with Ziggy.”


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