In the studio
Aladdin Sane was the third Bowie album produced by Ken Scott, and like its predecessors contained a single cover version – this time a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let Spend The Night Together’. Scott would produce just one more album for Bowie, the 1973 covers collection Pinups.
Aside from the Rolling Stones song, the oldest song on the album was ‘The Prettiest Star’, which was written in late 1969 and first released as a commercially-unsuccessful single in March 1970. It was re-recorded for Aladdin Sane with Bowie’s latest musicians, with Mick Ronson providing a new version of Marc Bolan’s original guitar part.
Tantalisingly, ahead of the main recording sessions for Aladdin Sane, Bowie’s manager Tony Defries contacted Phil Spector to enquire as to whether the maverick producer would be interested in recording Bowie. Since Spector had recently worked on albums by John Lennon and George Harrison, a letter was sent to the Beatles‘ Apple company at 3 Savile Row, London. Spector did not respond.
As manager for RCA Recording Artist, David Bowie, I write to inquire if you are interested in working with him on his next album to be recorded at Trident Studios in London January 1973. I have enclosed four of David’s albums so that you may become familiar with his work before our next contact.
The credits on Aladdin Sane state that it was “Recorded at Trident Studios, London”. However, much of it was taped at Olympic Studios in London and RCA Studios in New York, making it Bowie’s first international album.
‘The Jean Genie’ was the first song recorded. It was taped in New York on 6 and 7 October 1972 at RCA’s Studio D, with Bowie producing, and performed in Chicago on the night it was completed. The song was mixed in mono and stereo later that month in Nashville by Bowie and Mick Ronson.
We did it in just one take, adding some harp [harmonica] and other things and that was it. It took about one-and-a-half hours from start to finish and the single was being pressed in England within weeks.
Bowie continued to work on the new songs while touring America in October and November. He also revived some older numbers, including ‘Time’, which had been demoed by George Underwood in 1971. Bowie’s songwriting was so strong during this period that a mooted live album with the working title Ziggy Stardust – US Tour Live was parked in favour of new studio recordings.
Bowie and the Spiders From Mars returned to RCA in New York on Monday 4 December, where they were joined by producer Ken Scott. Several songs were recorded for the album during this period, until Bowie sailed back to England on 13 December.
On 9 December they recorded ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and ‘All The Young Dudes’, with Bowie playing saxophone on both. Also recorded at RCA was an early version of the song ‘Aladdin Sane’, although the lyrics were not finalised until Bowie was returning to London aboard the RHMS Ellinis the following week, and it was later re-recorded at Trident.
At this time, recording studios in New York were heavily unionised, and Scott was not allowed to do any of the work of the in-house engineer Mike Moran. On one occasion, this nearly resulted in the cancellation of the entire session.
The engineer and the second had gone out to dinner, and hadn’t come back yet, and we were all in the studio, ready to go to record the next song. So, I just hit one switch on the board so that they could hear themselves in the headphones, and we started working on the next song. Meanwhile, the engineer came back, and he just lost it! He shouted, “You’re not allowed to do that! We could call a strike and close the whole place down. You’re not in the union!” We managed to calm him down and continue, though, for a while I thought we were going to have a complete strike on our hands!
Aladdin Sane 30th Anniversary edition
Finishing touches were added during a week at Trident Studios from 19 January 1973, although precise details are scant. The work including the recording of ‘Panic In Detroit’, a new arrangement of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, possibly the unreleased track ‘Zion’, and an early version of ‘1984’.
The album was completed on 24 January, with final touches for ‘Panic In Detroit’ and the addition of lead vocals to the song ‘Aladdin Sane’. The following day Bowie sailed once again for New York aboard the SS Canberra.
On 31 January, Ken Scott compiled the Aladdin Sane master tape at Trident. This had eleven songs, with the addition of the new sax version of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ ending side two. The song was dropped prior to the album’s release.