40 years later: Mike Garson recalls what it was like to record ‘Aladdin Sane’ with David Bowie – an Indie Ethos exclusive
April 20, 2013
Earlier this week, EMI Records reissued a new remaster of David Bowie’s darker-side-of-glitter follow-up to last year’s 40th Anniversary reissue of the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Aladdin Sane’s 40th Anniversary reissue arrives in simpler CD form, with no DVD audio or vinyl equivalent. But it remains a very interesting moment in the evolution of Bowie.
Though riding an increasingly popular wave of stardom at the time, Bowie had begun to tire of splitting his persona between Ziggy and Bowie. The follow-up album’s fractured portrait, with the so-called “Ziggy Bolt” painted over Bowie’s rosy, if somber, face and the play on “A Lad Insane” in the title belied the amped up sound of a talent in top form.
Inspired by his first U.S. tour for Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had embraced the glamour of L.A. and the seediness of New York for much of the album’s inspiration. It gave the interstellar glam rock of Ziggy a grittier, down-to-earth sound. Though still working with the luxuriant guitar blasts of Mick Ronson, Bowie threw in some soulful female vocals. He also picked up New York-based jazz pianist, Mike Garson, who brought one of the most distinctive approaches to the piano ever to a rock record. Garson has since become Bowie’s longest-ever go-to for piano (until this year’s the Next Day).
If there was one musician Bowie has had worked with, besides guitarists, that have come to help define Bowie’s sound over the span of his career, Garson’s touch on piano cannot be ignored (for a comprehensive look at their career together see this series of earlier posts). Despite Bowie’s work with Rick Wakeman of Yes on 1971’s Hunky Dory, Garson’s angular approach to his instrument offered a more distinctive touch. On stage, Garson would never play the same solo twice. It’s ever-shifting quality fascinated the singer who knows so much about changes it has become cliché to call him “the chameleon of rock ‘n’ roll.”
You may just be able to call Garson the chameleon of piano playing, which affords him a kind of distance to his work. When I called him last month to ask him for his thoughts on his first studio album with Bowie, he seemed rather surprised that his solo on the album’s title track has grown into such a big deal. “Now, after fuckin’ 40 years, ‘Aladdin Sane,’” he says of the praise he gets for the minute-and-a-half solo that’s the song’s centerpiece. “People are writing, and I’m seeing these things I’m shocked [about] because I never heard this song for 20, 30 years after I recorded them, people saying things like, ‘It might be one of the best rock solos in history,’ and it’s not even rock playing. But, you know, history sometimes proves things out.”
The title track of the album opens with such a soft touch it feels ethereal. The keys rumble with the reverb of the hollow body of the Bechstein piano at Trident Studios in London, where the album was recorded in the winter of 1973. Garson’s touch is soft and pillowy, as are the light strums of an acoustic guitar by Bowie and murmuring electric guitar accompaniment by Mick Ronson, the soft, elastic plucks by bassist Trevor Bolder and the drum taps by Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. “Watching him dash away … swinging an old bouquet,” Bowie sighs before responding to himself in a higher octave: “dead roses.”
After a false shift where the song may be building to a larger sound, with Bowie turning a sigh to a rat-tat-tat, stuttering pause, the group pulls back for another short verse of easygoing, ghostly quality. Bowie sings the follow-up line similar to the first: “Passionate bright young things … takes him away to war — don’t fake it.” Another stutter, and the song shifts to strident piano and chugging guitar, as Bowie coos, “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane/Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise/Who’ll love Aladdin Sane.”
Again the song falls back to its delicate beginning of delicate touches for one more verse and, at the two-minute mark, makes a leap toward a now irrepressible charge, with a distant saxophone by Ken Fordham howling out a few large, breathy notes. Garson begins to play the hook with more staccato force, trills here and there. The drums and bass pound along below, straight and steady, as Garson grows terse for one moment and squeezes in bits of notes from one range and another while still miraculously keeping the theme intact. He hammers keys here and brushes keys there, teetering on the edge of chaos while always remaining in check. With the echoing howl of the sax returning, Bowie returns with the “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane” chorus, and Garson does not stop his rawboned riffing as Bowie repeats “We’ll love Aladdin Sane” and takes a tangent to growl “Say the lights are oh so bright on Broadway” like some cosmic joke to the tattered jazz that encapsulates this bizarro song. Ronson holds back his guitar so that Garson may tangle with Fordham for a bit, as the song fades.
The fade out of this song should also not be underplayed. Ronson’s guitar becomes apparent here as it sighs a few tiny chords of reverb. Meanwhile, Garson toys around tersely on the higher end, as Fordham seems to sob into his sax for some soft sighing final notes. For a few seconds all that remains is the piano. Garson plays quick, seesaw runs on his right hand, then pumps out a few billowing bass chords with his left. There’s one last all-encompassing chord and a pause for the reverb of the piano, before he ends with one final, sly irrepressible trickle with his right hand. Clearly a mad duel of an orgy of instruments has played out and Garson came out a victor with a little wink at the end.
No one can talk about that song as just a Bowie song, and it has forever been Garson’s shining moment on a Bowie record. As many are quick to praise his frenetic piano on Aladdin Sane’s title track, Garson himself can position himself outside of it and note its magical quality. “The notes found me as much as I found it,” he says of his work on that song. “I wish I could find something comparable … When you have those magic moments, you want to recreate them, but the truth of the matter is you can’t. They have to be what they are, and they have to come in a very organic way, so I can’t force it to happen. I would just like it to happen somehow, naturally, but you can’t force it because they’re bigger than us, when those moments happen. They’re really like spiritual experiences, as far as I’m concerned.”
Garson credits Bowie’s direction during the recording for at least leading him to the result on record. “I considered David the best producer I ever had of anyone that’s ever produced me, and why? On the ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo, I played a blues solo first. He said, no. I played a Latin solo. He said, no. Then he said, ‘Play that avant-garde stuff you told me you played in New York,’ and it was he who pulled it out of me because it wasn’t my first choice. Now, once he said that, it was a take one, but it wasn’t my choice to go there, so I give him big kudos for that.”
Garson does not play on every song on the album, but he does appear on some of its most revered deep cuts. Besides the extraordinary moody journey of the title track, whose long-lost original title included the parenthetical: “(1913-1938-197?)” in reference to the start of the World Wars, he also plays on the album’s most sincerely romantic song: “Lady Grinning Soul.” After a dramatic trilling piano opening by Garson, there’s a pause for silence for a few seconds before Bowie croons, “She’ll come…” unaccompanied, and then the band falls in with a soft swing as Garson provides rapidly trickling finger rolls, and Bowie finishes the opposite end of his sentence: “she’ll go.” The song features quiet, soaring sax and guitar, not to mention dreamy piano work by Garson, as Bowie howls words like, “Touch the fullness of her breast/Feel the love of her caress/She will be your living end.”
“To me, that’s one of his most gorgeous songs,” Garson says. “That’s the David Bowie that I love. That’s just pure, romantic gorgeous voice, beautiful, romantic piano playing, and it doesn’t get better than that for me. I’m not a big rock ‘n’ roll fan when it comes to all the screaming and not singing with a real voice. To me, that’s a crooner. That’s David Bowie. That’s the gift of the man, for me.”
Other songs Garson contributed piano to on Aladdin Sane include “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Watch That Man” and “Time.” He says he recorded most of his parts with the band with the exception of the title track, and there were often few takes. “’Aladdin Sane’ was an overdub,” he notes. “I think I played ‘Time’ with the band, and I think I played ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ with the band. I don’t remember for sure, but I think so, but I think I played ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ with the band.”
He notes that— at least for his part— he took a sort of tongue-in-cheek approach to the last song he mentions, a cover of a 1967 Rolling Stones single. “I just went nuts, personally,” he says. “I don’t even know why I played that crazy beginning, but it just worked. Maybe it was in rebellion or protest or opposite-effect of what Mick Jagger did. Maybe it was just such a contrast and so hilarious because you couldn’t top that vibe that they got, just as a rock band, and what can I add that just turns it upside down? It’s almost borderline humorous.”
He remains humble about his contribution to the album. “It wasn’t just Mike Garson because of ‘Aladdin Sane,’” He says. “It was Mike Garson with Ken Scott with Mick Ronson with David Bowie producing it with the magic of Trident Studios with the magic with of the Bechstein piano, with the fact that the Beatles and Queen recorded there, the whole karmic, historic, archetype magic that the notes found me as much as I found the notes. That’s the real truth. It’s not just Mike Garson. It’s that group effort.”
Superficially, most everyone is drawn to Aladdin Sane for its cover art. That flash of blue and red painted over Bowie’s face overshadowed the teardrop in the man’s clavicle, which hinted at Bowie’s pain of leading a life as a split persona. It’s flashy superficiality overshadowed a grim reality, which was also brilliantly reflected in the resonant music, which carries a subversive depth few acknowledge. The album’s cover became the avatar of the rock star. In the years that followed that flash of face paint has been co-opted by younger music stars like Marilyn Manson in the 1990s and more obviously and recently Lady Gaga, who, like Bowie then, flaunts her bi-sexually as part of her shtick. Like the fleeting magic of what happened inside Trident Studios when they recorded Aladdin Sane, Garson notes that no imitation of the album cover will have the same effect now. “You can’t even hardly recreate it now because it was the ‘70s,” he says. “It was the bi-sexuality. It was the glam rock. It was the look. Right behind me, as I’m talking to you, the poster’s on my wall. My grandkids ask me about it, and it’s amazing. So it’s all those factors, so I was blessed to be able to contribute to that movement.”