Released: 19 April 1973
Mick Ronson: electric guitar
Mike Garson: piano
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums
The title track of David Bowie’s sixth album, ‘Aladdin Sane’ was most notable for the celebrated avant-garde piano solo by Mike Garson.
I don’t really think he’s me… It’s my interpretation of what America means to me. It’s like a summation of my first American tour.
Circus magazine, July 1973
The song was written aboard RHMS Ellinis as Bowie returned to London from his first US tour. On the journey he read Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies, a satire of the wealthy “bright young things” partying in London after World War One.
The book dealt with London in the period just before a massive, imaginary war. People were frivolous, decadent and silly. And suddenly they were plunged into this horrendous holocaust. They were totally out of place, still thinking about champagne and parties and dressing up. Somehow it seemed to me that they were like people today.
Circus magazine, July 1973
The protagonist of Vile Bodies was Adam Symes, a novelist whose foiled attempts to marry Nina Blount were obliquely recounted in Bowie’s song. In the new telling, ‘Adam Symes’ became ‘Aladdin Sane’, a new persona for Bowie and an extension of his Ziggy Stardust character.
The name ‘Aladdin Sane’ was also a pun on the words ‘A lad insane’, possibly in reference to Bowie’s half-brother Terry Burns, who struggled with poor mental health. Bowie also toyed with alternative titles for the album, including A Lad Insane, Love Aladdin Vein, and simply Vein.
Originally, I felt Love Aladdin Vein was right, then I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t write them off so easily’ – so I changed it. Also Vein – there was the drugs thing, but it’s not that universal.
Disc & Music Echo
Keep in mind I was a little kid on my own in the back stage area playing with crash cases, with no one but annoyed roadies watching me move their kit around… ????
— Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) June 28, 2020
The song’s full title was ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’, with the first two dates in parentheses referring to the years immediately prior to the two world wars. Bowie was fearful of an impending third conflict, hence the question mark in the final date.
That was about young people just before the two wars wanting to go and screw girls and kill foreigners.
Bridge School benefit concert, 19 October 1996
Bowie sang an extract from The Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’ during the second piano solo – “They say the lights are oh so bright on Broadway”. Due to this, on the liner notes of the 1981 compilation ChangesTwoBowie the song was listed as ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)/On Broadway’, with Bowie sharing songwriting credits with Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller. The co-credit was dropped for subsequent reissues.
When Aladdin Sane was released on compact disc by Rykodisc in 1990 the song was listed as just ‘Aladdin Sane’, but the parentheses were brought back for the 1999, 2003, and 2013 reissues.