It may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m not just about Rock and Metal. In fact, if you name a genre, there’s a pretty good chance I can talk about it for hours. Unless it’s Pop Music, I really hate that s*it. Jazz, soul, funk, blues, even classical music has a place in the Gray household. It’s just that sitting at the head of the table will always be loud guitars and Marshall stacks.
This is down to the fact that I’m a child of the ’70s and, as everybody knows, that was the decade that music attained perfection. So many fantastic albums saw the light of day during this period. Exile on Main Street, Highway to Hell, Bomber, Physical Graffiti, the list goes on and on, and right at the start of this 10 year period, a certain Mr David Bowie dropped the two best albums of his career. Ziggy Stardust in ’72 which was swiftly followed a year later by Aladdin Sane.
Both records are concept albums, of a sort, that look at fame and the many pitfalls that come with it. Even if Ziggy does it to a sci-fi backdrop of an alien rock God coming to Earth just as it’s about to end, they’re Bowie at his best. With the first, he took the Glam Rock stylings of Marc Bolan and cranked them up to 11, and with the second he did it all again, this time just in America.
According to Bowie himself;
I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, I was trying to move into the next area—but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy as a secondary device. In my mind, it was Ziggy Goes to Washington: Ziggy under the influence of America.”
Now, far be it for me to argue with a Legend, but that “…pale imitation of Ziggy” line has always stuck in my craw. I’ve always considered Aladdin Sane the superior of the two records, but normally when I make such a claim, the other people in the discussion are already on the phone to the men in the white coats.
So, how to prove it?
Initially, I was going to do a piece explaining how I’m right, and everybody else is wrong, but after I actually put some thought into it, I’ve decided that the best way forward is to do a track by track comparison to see which comes out on top.
This means that I could quite easily disprove my own theory on the subject, but live by the keyboard, die by the keyboard as they say (and if they don’t then they should), so join me as I take a walk through the worlds of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane and pray to the Rock ‘n’ Roll heavens that I come out of this smelling of roses.
“Five Years” vs. “Watch That Man”
If both of these albums tell a story, then their opening tracks are the journey’s jumping-off point. “Five Years” is pretty self-explanatory as it focuses on the news that the Earth is dying and we’ve got half a decade before the whole place goes boom. As you can imagine, this isn’t greeted with great enthusiasm from the general populace. As the lyrics progress, we see Cops kissing the feet of Priests, Mothers crying their eyes out at the thought of their children perishing, and people reacting to the news the way the character did in The Simpsons to the fire-drill. The music is a slow, gentle burn of sound punctuated by an almost anthemic, if somewhat morbid, chorus.
“Watch That Man”, on the other hand, is as upbeat as “Five Years” is depressing. But it’s also a lot more difficult to figure out who the titular “Man” actually is. This is down to the fact that most of Bowie’s lyrics are nonsense, but it could have one of two meanings. Either, the man is a dealer that Aladdin Sane is being warned about or, as I like to think, the song is split, and the verses are from his perspective where the chorus is sung from an outsider’s view, warning anyone who’s listening to watch out for Aladdin Sane as he is crazy.
Either way, it’s a better opening track as it grabs you by the face and slaps you about. And as far as I’m concerned that’s what I want from my rock music.
Better Track: “Watch That Man”
“Soul Love” vs. “Aladdin Sane”
This is a no-brainer. Though I’m a huge fan of the groovy that runs through “Soul Love”, the sweeping landscape that is “Aladdin Sane” is on another level. Mike Garson’s piano work here is sublime. Dreamlike one moment, nightmarish the next, especially at the end where his solo sounds like a descent into madness.
Wow, that was very arty of me.
Nonetheless, a simple set of lyrics accompany this musical masterpiece. Though most people assume it’s just a song about war, I’ve always thought that it had a double meaning and that Bowie was comparing live performances to a battlefield while basking in the glow of the after-show high as he walks the streets, waiting for the sun to rise.
Okay, enough high school philosophy, time to get back on with the nob jokes.
Better Track: “Aladdin Sane”
“Moonage Daydream” vs. “Drive-In Saturday”
Where the previous entry was easy for me to figure out, this was the most difficult. I adore both of these songs and really didn’t want to have to Sophie’s Choice them, but I’m nothing if not a professional, so here we go.
The reason I love “Drive-In Saturday” so much is that I’ve never heard anything like it, but it sounds like every song I’ve ever known. I can’t really explain it any better than that. It’s the most familiar unfamiliar track ever recorded, and that chorus blows me away every time. If it were up against any other track off of Ziggy Stardust, it would’ve won without a second thought, but “Moonage Daydream” is an entity unto itself and is my favourite Bowie track of all-time.
That riff, those opening lyrics, all building towards a hook that could catch a 400 pound Great White without breaking a sweat. “Moonage Daydream” is the definition of Rock ‘n’ Roll as far as I’m concerned.
Better Track: “Moonage Daydream” (but only bloody just)
“Starman” vs. “Panic In Detroit”
Everyone and their grandma knows “Starman”. It’s quintessential Bowie, and he lays his Sci-Fi fantasy at the door, Ziggy is coming and we all need to buy some aftershave. There is no doubting that it’s a classic, but there’s just something about “Panic In Detroit” that appeals to the madman in me.
For a start, it’s claustrophobic as hell. The salsa leanings of the rhythm, along with the all-around heavy feeling of the guitar, seem to sit on shoulders like a ton of lead weight and the lyrical content offers no relief.
Based on stories that Iggy Pop told his friend of revolutionaries, villains, and rogues that he’d known in his home town, he also shared his experiences of the Detroit riots of ’67, giving Bowie more than enough material with which to weave a tale of full-blown anarchy, with Aladdin Sane right in the middle.
Better Track: “Panic In Detroit”
“It Ain’t Easy” vs. “Cracked Actor”
Bowie would’ve been the first to tell you that the real blood that ran through the veins of these records was Mick Ronson, and nowhere is that more on show than these two tracks. “It Ain’t Easy” is almost a country track right up to the chorus when Mick’s guitar kicks in, giving the whole thing a completely different feel. It’s catchy as can be, and though I’m a fan of it, “Cracked Actor” is on another plane altogether.
From the moment it kicks off, it sets out its stall as to what it is, and that’s a hard rock riff-fest. Ronson’s playing is never dirtier or louder anywhere throughout his career and “Cracked Actor” is still the greatest piece of axe-wielding he ever did.
Bowie’s word-smithing is pretty decent as well. “It Ain’t Easy” is told from the viewpoint of a Preacher, at least in my opinion, warning of the perils of stardom and all the trappings that come with it. Basically, don’t have fun, ever, or you’re going to Hell. “Cracked Actor” deals with a faded movie star who picks up a hooker and has sex with them while taking a ton of drugs. So, y’know, true sex, drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Better Track: “Cracked Actor”
“Lady Stardust” vs. “Time”
“Time” is a masterpiece that shows how fragile and fleeting the whole concept of fame is, with Aladdin Sane falling apart to a musical background that was Dark Cabaret three years before Amanda Palmer was even an itch in her daddy’s pants.
“Lady Stardust” looks at how Ziggy is perceived by his fans, and possibly the press, as he tries to be the Rock Star with a heart of gold.
Both are brilliant, making this a tough one.
Better Track: “Time”
“Star” vs. “Prettiest Star”
Two songs, both with “star” in the title, but unlike the previous entry, it’s easy to choose a winner here.
“Star” is a good old-fashioned honky-tonk Rock ‘n’ Roll song while “Prettiest Star” is the kind of tune that wouldn’t be out of place on a Michael Bublé Christmas album.
Better Track: “Star”
“Hang On To Yourself” vs. “Let’s Spend The Night Together”
Straightforward. I hate this version of The Stones song with a passion. Bowie shouldn’t have been doing covers, he wasn’t a f*cking tribute act and the only reason I can imagine that this found its way onto Aladdin Sane is that he was friends with Jagger. Or he was too lazy to write any more than nine songs.
Doesn’t matter that “Hang On To Yourself” is a handy little tune, it could’ve been the aforementioned “Prettiest Star” and it would’ve still gotten the nod.
Better Track: “Hang On To Yourself”
“Ziggy Stardust” vs. “The Jean Genie”
And here is where I expect most of the abuse to come from down in the comments section. “The Jean Genie” is a better song than “Ziggy Stardust” and I’ll die on that hill. It’s grittier, it’s nastier, and it’s the kind of song that captures the seedier side of life so expertly that it’s how I’d expect New York or LA to look like as soon as I stepped off the plane.
Don’t get me wrong. “Ziggy Stardust” is anthemic beyond belief and will always be, to many people, the track that defined this era of his career more than any other. Still, if I had to take one with me to a desert island, I’d take the chain-smoking, hard-living, “Jean Genie” over the androgynous space alien every time.
Mainly because he’d have some cracking stories to help pass the mindless hours while we awaited rescue.
Better Track: “The Jean Genie”
“Suffragette City” vs. “Lady Grinning Soul”
Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma’am!
Enough said really.
Better Track: “Suffragette City”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” vs. Er…Nothing.
Well, this is the easiest thing I’ve ever had to do. Aladdin Sane only ran for 10 tracks where Ziggy Stardust had 11, meaning that “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” wins by default. This is a shame, as it’s not my favourite track. It does cap the album off quite well, and if you take it as the final word in the narrative of Ziggy Stardust, then Bowie is telling the listener not to fear, he will always be with you, and you are not alone.
Better Track: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
I went into this little experiment, hoping that I could prove once and for all that my theory that Aladdin Sane was the superior of the two records wasn’t as bat-s*it crazy as it sounded. And I have, kind of. If it hadn’t been for “Moonage Daydream”, then the first six side by side comparisons would’ve been a lightning coloured wash. It isn’t until we get into the latter stages of the album that Bowie kind of falters, knocking out a couple of half-arsed tracks in “Prettiest Star” and an unwanted cover version.
The fact remains; however you feel about me and my preposterous propositions, that when David Bowie passed away just two days after his 69th birthday, the world became a much less interesting place. Fortunately, he left a body of work that has a little something for everyone and a back catalogue that covers nearly all forms of music.
For me though, I’ll stick to those years he wasn’t afraid to plug in an electric guitar and jam out some tunes and no matter what guise he was under, be it Ziggy or Sane, he made enough of noise that rock fans will never forget the boy from Brixton anytime soon.