Photo shoot: Aladdin Sane

The photo shoot for the cover of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane is likely to have taken place on Sunday 21 January 1973.

The photographer was Brian Duffy, who also took the cover shots for Bowie’s later albums Lodger and Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps. The Aladdin Sane shoot was at Duffy’s studio at 151a King Henry’s Road in Swiss Cottage, north London.

I was fortunate to work for Duffy from 71-74, first as assistant then as studio manager. I was there that Sunday when the Aladdin Sane pic was taken and well remember Duffy drawing the outline of the flash on his face. What to me is more technically interesting is the back cover, with the outline of Bowie’s face, which we painstakingly produced photographically when today it would be so quick and easy to do in Photoshop.

The cover remains perhaps the most enduring of Bowie’s iconography, and one of the most famous images in rock music. He never again wore the lightning bolt design on his face, although it was used for a backdrop in a number of live shows.

The design was intended to represent the split personalities deployed by Bowie, although its roots were somewhat more prosaic.

The flash on the original Ziggy set was taken from the “High Voltage” sign that was stuck on any box containing dangerous amounts of electricity. I was not a little peeved when Kiss purloined it. Purloining, after all, was my job.
David Bowie
Moonage Daydream – The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust

Bowie was photographed while wearing nothing but white underwear and the makeup on his face – even his eyebrows were plucked. His body was also given a purple wash, to make him look otherworldly and statuesque.

His appearance then was bizarre even off-stage. His white skin had a waxy translucence and his eyebrows were plucked right off. He looked as if the blood had fled his face into that alien hair. His clothes were that pre-punk style he created with a sidelong glance at the ’50s – tight fitting, black and savage colours, more plastic than glitter – the glitter was in his eyes, unnaturally bright.
Sean Mayes
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According to Duffy, the lightning bolt also had its roots in a ring worn by Elvis Presley, with the initials TCB – meaning ‘taking care of business’ – flanked by two flashes. “Bowie was interested in the Elvis ring which had the letters TCB as well as a lightning flash,” he told the BBC in 2009.

In the end, however, the shape of the famous motif was copied from the brand logo on a rice cooker, manufactured by National (Panasonic), in Duffy’s studio.

National (Panasonic) logo

Outtakes from the shoot show Bowie mostly facing to the left, to give prominence to the lightning bolt. He also looks directly at the camera in many of the shots. Indeed, the one chosen for the cover is the only one in which he looks downward.

Aladdin Sane contact sheet – photographs by Brian Duffy

Duffy used red lipstick to fill in the lightning flash outline. His makeup assistant, Pierre Laroche, became Bowie’s personal makeup artist for the rest of his 1973 tour dates, and worked on the cover of Pin Ups.

The liquid on Bowie’s collarbone, meanwhile, was later airbrushed onto the image by Philip Castle, apparently to create a teardrop effect. Castle had previously created the poster Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the style of which influenced Bowie greatly for the Ziggy Stardust project.

Aladdin Sane was released with a gatefold cover, Bowie’s first since 1969. The inner gatefold had a full length body shot of Bowie, printed at a 90° angle, and the back cover had a red and blue outline of Bowie’s head.

The inner sleeve, meanwhile, carried an artistic rendering of the lightning bolt, as well as song lyrics and credits. The words for ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ were not included. Due to a printing error, nor were the opening words of ‘Cracked Actor’: “I’ve come on a few years from my…”.

Duffy was instructed by Bowie’s manager Tony Defries to make the artwork as expensive as possible, to ensure a committed promotional campaign from RCA. To this end, a seven-colour sleeve was designed by Duffy and his business partner Celia Philo.

In addition to the normal core colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black, elements of silver, blue and red were added to the inner gatefold image of Bowie, which not only added to the album’s retail price, but also took a higher proportion of Bowie and MainMan’s royalties.

Last updated: 4 May 2023
Recording: Aladdin Sane
Recording: Aladdin Sane
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