The piano

The piano used for Aladdin Sane was Trident Studios’ black 1891 Bechstein grand. It had an impressive lineage, having appeared on numerous major rock recordings. The Beatles were among the first to use it – it appeared on their 1968 single ‘Hey Jude’, which were recorded at Trident, and also on the White Album songs ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Martha My Dear’, and ‘Honey Pie’.

It had a tremendously bright sound that unfortunately was lost when the sound board had to be replaced. Because of its inherent sound it was remarkably easy to record. Two, maybe three, microphones and just a little eq… I have heard many pianos in my time but I have never heard a better “rock” piano than that one.

The Bechstein grand was used all over Hunky Dory, becoming perhaps the most distinctive sound on the album. Its bright tones were instantly recognisable, from the opening notes of ‘Changes’ and ‘Life On Mars?’ to the high flourishes on ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Song For Bob Dylan’. Mostly it was played by Rick Wakeman, although Bowie used the instrument on ‘Eight Line Poem’. The piano also featured on the Ziggy Stardust album, where it was played by Mick Ronson, and on Aladdin Sane, where Mike Garson took it to the next level.

We were in London at Trident Studio, a beautiful studio, and they had a beautiful Bechstein piano. We would record every evening. The wild thing was we had these big speakers and they would blast the music out of the speakers. Not like they do these days in the studio where it’s controlled. Every night we blew a pair of speakers.

But they had this Bechstein piano, this magical piano. Freddie Mercury played on it and Paul and John played on it. The notes found me: you couldn’t make a mistake at that studio…

The room was electrified. I didn’t think much about it, but I could feel it in the room, they thought, like, this was the messiah arriving. I was just doing what I do, just playing, and this was a big deal for them.

Mike Garson
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The Bechstein had been hired by Trident from London piano dealer Jacques Samuels. In 2007 producer Ken Scott described it as “probably the best rock and roll piano ever. A Bechstein that had had something done to it to make it really hard.”

The instrument was used on numerous other classic recordings in the 1970s, including Queen’s first two albums, Nilsson’s ‘Without You’, Elton John’s early hits, Lou Reed’s Transformer, plus others by Supertramp, Carly Simon, Genesis and many others. Few other individual instruments can be said to have had such a profound mark on the sound of classic rock.

In the studio

An early version of ‘Aladdin Sane’ was recorded at RCA’s New York studios in December 1972. At that time Bowie had few lyrics, and the recording remained incomplete until the following week.

The final version was recorded in January 1973 at Trident Studios in London’s Soho. Mick Ronson had written a chord chart giving the other musicians a guide to work from.

One of those very simple recordings. Just some reverb echo on the snare and then playing with the reverb on David’s vocals. Everything else is from the players. That amazing piano by Mike Garson, a memorable WTF moment.
Ken Scott, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

Mike Garson’s jarring, fractured, and often dissonant piano solo was a one-off which he admitted was never bettered. It was, at the very least, like nothing heard before on a mainstream rock record.

I haven’t been able to play this solo better since then. I did it with David dozens of times live and quite a bit on my Bowie Tour alumni shows over the years. Never did it better than this particular take.

I think some sort of maniacal surge of energy came through me and I was just channeling. I was getting so much admiration and respect from David in the booth and Ken Scott – a wonderful producer along with Trevor, Mick and Woody Woodmansey.

I don’t think I could have played a wrong note that day and there’s thousands of notes on this particular solo!

The funny thing is this is based on just two chords – an A & G. Occasionally there’s another chord thrown there like an F. The song itself has more chords starting on a B Minor 9. But really the solo is two chords like the Champs song ‘Tequila’ from the 50s.

This must have been my homage to every time I played all those songs as a kid while taking it to left field – very outside playing. Very dissonant. Very avant-garde. But it has a humor about it with accessibility despite how really crazy it is.

Mike Garson
Twitter, 28 June 2020

‘Aladdin Sane’ was one of nine songs recorded in November 1996 by Bowie, which were first broadcast on the BBC Radio 1 show ChangesNowBowie on his 50th birthday, 8 January 1997. The recordings were issued on compact disc and vinyl as ChangesNowBowie on 18 April 2020, as part of the annual Record Store Day.

Live performances

‘Aladdin Sane’ was first performed live in February 1973 at the start of Bowie’s second US tour.

It was played more frequently during the 1974 Diamond Dogs Tour, with recordings available on the live albums David Live and Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74).

The song was revived in 1996 for Bowie’s Summer Festivals Tour. For some of the dates Bowie sang part of the Kinks’ ‘All Day and All of the Night’.

One fine day in the 90s on tour, Reeves Gabrels wanted to trick David and play my piano part on his guitar while I played his guitar part on my keyboard. I can say unequivocally that my guitar solo was better than Reeves’ piano solo that night.
Mike Garson
Twitter, 28 June 2020

The 1996 live performances featured Gail Ann Dorsey sharing vocals with Bowie, as she did on that year’s ChangesNowBowie studio recording.

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