Released: 24 November 1972
David Bowie: vocals, guitar, harmonica
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, vocals
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Woody Woodmansey: drums, tambourine, maracas
‘The Jean Genie’ was the first song recorded for Aladdin Sane, David Bowie’s sixth album. It was recorded in New York in a single take, and peaked at number two on the UK singles chart.
Each of the Aladdin Sane songs, apart from the cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, was accorded a geographical location on the record label, to signify where it originated: ‘Watch That Man’ (New York); ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’ (RHMS Ellinis); ‘Drive-In Saturday’ (Seattle-Phoenix); ‘Panic In Detroit’ (Detroit); ‘Cracked Actor’ (Los Angeles); ‘Time’ (New Orleans); ‘The Prettiest Star’ (Gloucester Road); ‘The Jean Genie’ (Detroit and New York); ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (London).
The annotation of Detroit for ‘The Jean Genie’ is likely in relation to Iggy Pop, a resident of the city and one of the song’s inspirations. In 1999 Bowie said the song was “focused around Iggy, an Iggy-type character to be fully fair. It wasn’t actually Iggy.”
‘The Jean Genie’ was an ode to Iggy, I guess, or the ‘Iggy-type’ person – white trash, trailer-park kid thing – the closet intellectual who wouldn’t want the world to know that he reads. I think it’s a really good song and I actually enjoy playing it and singing it. It’s one of the few that I can keep going back to. I guess it’s because it is essentially rooted in straight old-fashioned blues. I mean, it’s basically Muddy Waters’ ‘I’m A Man’, isn’t it?
BBC Radio 2
‘The Jean Genie’ is believed to have emerged from a jam on board the Spiders From Mars’ Greyhound tour bus, as they travelled between Cleveland and Memphis on 23 September 1972. It originally had the working title ‘Bussin’’, and originated after Mick Ronson began playing the central riff on his new Gibson Les Paul guitar.
On the way to Memphis, during an impromptu guitar jam at the back of the bus, the seeds for what would become ‘The Jean Genie’ were sown. I think George Underwood was playing around with chords that were very similar to the Yardbirds’ cover of Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m A Man’. Mick was also playing guitar. The whole bus was singing ‘We’re bus, bussing, bussing along’, something banal like that, and it kind of summed up the general feeling. The melody and phrasing was not too dissimilar to the part of the chorus in ‘The Jean Genie’.
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Bowie later claimed that the song was written in New York City. He spent several nights in the city either side of a 28 September show at Carnegie Hall, and is likely to have written the lyrics around that time.
Starting out as a lightweight riff thing I had written one evening in NY for Cyrinda’s enjoyment, I developed the lyric to the otherwise wordless pumper and it ultimately turned into a bit of a smorgasbord of imagined Americana. Its central character was based on an Iggy-type persona and the setting was inspired by Max’s Kansas City. The title, of course, was a clumsy pun upon Jean Genet.
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‘The Jean Genie’ was performed by Bowie during all his major tours, with the exception of the Outside, Hours and Heathen tours.
Occasionally Bowie played the Beatles‘ ‘Love Me Do’ on the harmonica during performances of the song. During the final concert of the Ziggy Stardust Tour, at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973, the two songs were performed as a medley with Jeff Beck guesting on guitar.
A live version recorded on 20 October 1972 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was included on the 30th anniversary edition of Aladdin Sane in 2003, and later on Live Santa Monica ’72. The song was also included on David Live, the 2017 expanded reissue of Stage, and the posthumous albums Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74) and Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78).
I wanted to get the same sound the Stones had on their very first album on the harmonica. I didn’t get that near to it, but it had a feel that I wanted – that ’60s thing.
New Musical Express