The solos

When recording Aladdin Sane, the Spiders From Mars were augmented by Mike Garson, a New York pianist who had been recruited for David Bowie’s US tour dates.

Garson met Bowie during an audition for the Spiders. Mick Ronson handed him a chord chart for the Hunky Dory 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 testimony 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!

Mike Garson
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

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 until 2003.

He performed on the 1970s albums Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs, and Young Americans, followed by Black Tie White Noise (1993), The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), 1.Outside (1995), Earthling (1997), Heathen (2002), and Reality (2003).

Garson also performed at more than 1,000 live concerts with Bowie, and can be heard on a number of live albums from Live Santa Monica ’72 to Glastonbury 2000. He accompanied Bowie during the singer’s final live appearance, a November 2006 appearance at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom.

It is, however, Garson’s extended, often atonal piano solos on the song ‘Aladdin Sane’ for which he is best known. The avant-garde improvisation was Garson’s third attempt at the song, following initial solos in blues and Latin styles.

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!

Mike Garson
Artist Interviews, 2008

There are two solos in ‘Aladdin Sane’ – the first from 2:03-3:30, and the second from 4:00 to the end of the song. Garson’s work was a career-landmark, and the pianist later said that “there hasn’t been a week in thirty years that someone hasn’t asked about that solo”.

Well, there’s not much to say about this song other than much of my career was built around this one song and solo.

I find that bizarre since I’ve played on thousands of recordings, hundreds for David, composed and recorded thousands of my own pieces with similar feel to what I played here but this is the one that stuck with people.

In fact, I played this song on the David Live album and that track is rarely mentioned though I had a very good piano solo similar to this one. I really think it has to do with when, where, how – the timing or zeitgeist.

These moments have to do with 1000s of influences happening at the same time in an uncontrollable way. I just became part of that space in the movement and the music just flowed out of me. I suspect the notes found me more than I found them.

For years after we recorded it I never heard this song. It’s only history, for me, that’s told me it was substantial but at the time of recording it I didn’t have that reality.

So here’s the solo. I think you have to be in your 20s to play so maniacal and with so much energy.

The last thing I play here, the tag at the end of this song, is reminiscent of an ending on many jazz songs in the mid-20th century which became part of my vocabulary. It’s unusual and out of context for a Bowie album. So it had it’s own little stamp.

Mike Garson
Twitter, 28 June 2020