David Bowie’s albums since The Man Who Sold The World had been made with a small cast of core musicians. On Aladdin Sane, however, he broadened his sonic palette in ways not heard since 1969’s David Bowie (Space Oddity).
Although Bowie’s touring band, the Spiders from Mars, were still in place, his new musical collaborators allowed him to make his most elaborate and expansive music to date.
All our ears and minds had changed, and we were looking for different things. The drum sound was much, more live than it had been before. With David’s arrangements – he threw a lot more in than he did in Ziggy. And then there was the addition of Mike Garson. There had been acoustic piano before which Ronno or Bowie had done, but they’re not the greatest keyboard players in the world, and Mike made a big difference. On Ziggy it was all very sparse – there had been two bits of synth – that was it. Now on Aladdin Sane there were a lot more keyboards, mellotrons, a Moog synthesiser, as well as acoustic piano.
Aladdin Sane 30th Anniversary edition
The album’s most distinctive new sound was Mike Garson’s piano work, which drew on classical, jazz and avant-garde influences. His work on Time, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ and the title track in particular gave the album its defining sound.
Mike Garson had been invited to audition for the Spiders From Mars’ next US tour dates. In the studio, Mick Ronson handed him a chord chart for the song ‘Changes’ and asked if he could play them. Garson did so, embellishing the chords, and after a few bars was stopped by Ronson who told him: “You’re in! You’ve got the gig”
It’s a pretty big cultural shock, coming into the middle of 1972 and being part of that. Here I am, a jazz musician, walking into RCA studios in New York in jeans and a t-shirt. These guys are dressed to kill: each one of them, in broad daylight, dressed like they’re going on stage! Each with different colour hair, different boots, different outfits. I thought to myself, ‘This is wild, maybe this can be fun.’ I said to my jazz people when I came home from the audition, ‘You guys are gonna think I’m nuts, but I’m gonna do this, something feels right about it, I think there’s talent there…
For Aladdin Sane, I just went and played the way I play, and David had the ability to pull out three or four type styles that I could do. ‘Aladdin Sane’ was avant-garde, ‘Time’ had aspects of stride music from the ’20s but with an avant-garde twist, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ had much more of a romantic kind of vibe, like Franz Liszt or Chopin or Rachmaninoff. Then you have ‘Watch That Man’ and ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, which were pretty much just rock piano playing. It was absolutely maniacal – and David was craving for that. Like him, I’m a receptacle of the vibe, the zeitgeist, and what he needed and wanted. It wasn’t forced, it came out. I haven’t done that, except a few times I played it with him. That’s not how I normally played, but that’s what he was looking for and it made him very happy. So you know, I’m a hired hand and I’m there to deliver and it’s comfortable to me and I’m not violating my integrity.
Ken Scott, which is testamony to his brilliance as a producer, just got the best piano sound. He EQd it and compressed it. David had previously been so guitar-heavy, with Mick Ronson and all that, and he literally told them, ‘This is going to be a piano-driven album.’ So that was only to my benefit that I didn’t have much to compare to, because I was just playing. And when I look back now and see how it shifted from the album prior, the Ziggy album, it was like, ‘Oh my god, he had a plan.’ I was just a puppet!
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Garson became Bowie’s longest-running collaborator – playing, uniquely, in the band for Bowie’s first and last ever US concerts, and on a number of Bowie’s studio albums in every decade until 2003’s Reality. It is, however, Garson’s extended, often atonal piano solo on the song ‘Aladdin Sane’ for which he is best known.
When I was recording the famous ‘Aladdin Sane’ track for Bowie, it was just two chords, an A and a G chord, and the band was playing very simple English rock and roll. And Bowie said: ‘play a solo on this.’ I had just met him, so I played a blues solo, and then he said: ‘No, that’s not what I want.’ And then I played a latin solo. Again, Bowie said: ‘No no, that’s not what I want.’ He then continued: ‘You told me you play that avant-garde music. Play that!’
And I said: ‘Are you sure? ‘Cause you might not be working anymore!’ (laughter). So I did the solo that everybody knows today, in one take. And to this day, I still receive emails about it. Every day. I always tell people that Bowie is the best producer I ever met, because he lets me do my thing… I just played what I heard! I had never played a solo like that on my jazz gigs, I was playing be-bop!
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In addition to Garson’s piano, Aladdin Sane featured backing vocals, saxophone and flute, the latter played by Ken Fordham and Brian ‘Bux’ Wilson.
The guest singers were Juanita ‘Honey’ Franklin, Linda Lewis, and Geoffrey MacCormack. Perhaps the standout performance was by Juanita Franklin, whose remarkable vocals on ‘Panic In Detroit’ paved the way for Bowie’s soul excursion on Young Americans.
The other singers were both Brits. Lewis was a soul singer who scored her own UK hit single Rock-A-Doodle-Do in 1973, while MacCormack was one of Bowie’s former schoolfriends. He toured with Bowie in the 1970s, appeared on other albums up to 1976’s Station To Station, and co-wrote the Diamond Dogs song ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll With Me’.