How Aladdin Sane became the most expensive album cover of all time – and David Bowie’s defining image

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If you search David Bowie on Spotify, a familiar icon comes up: the man himself, eyes closed, makeup deadly pale and with a flash of red and blue on his face. This is the photo on the front of Bowie’s sixth album, 1973 sane aladdin. “Perhaps more iconic than the music within,” says the narrator of the Trash Theory video essay above, “it comes across as the mona-lisa of album covers. It was also, at the time of production, the most expensive album cover of all time: it was at the request of Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries, who suspected that sparing no expense on the picture would motivate RCA, his label, to spare no expense. promoting the album itself.

You could call it a bold move for an artist like Bowie, who had just come of age. In the early years of his career, he had accumulated failure upon failure: with the years 1971 Hunky-dorya sort of declaration of commitment to musical and artistic “mutations”, he achieved esteem, but it was not until the following year that he became a real star.

The vehicle for this transformation was the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars, which introduced the listening public to its main character, an androgynous rocker from outer space. Throughout his next year and a half of touring, Bowie took the stage in Ziggy’s glam finest attire, inhabiting the character so fully that he eventually began to question his own sanity.

Although young British audiences never tire of Ziggy and the Spiders, reactions across the United States were rather less enthusiastic. There, says the narrator of Trash Theory, “they weren’t the kind of British rock that rock radio played: hard-hitting, riff-heavy monsters like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones. But that indifference shaped what Bowie wanted to do next. His experience of America inspired a tougher new character, Aladdin Sane. Ziggy Stardust “was a vision of the best a rock star could be, an inspirational figure, while Aladdin was more on the darker underbelly of stardom, filtered through imaginary Americana and futuristic nostalgia” – and the character needed a look to match.

Photographed by Brian Duffy, described in the San Francisco Art Exchange video0 above as “a very eccentric and incredible photographer”, the sane aladdin the cover was printed with a seven-color system unprecedented in the medium. (Until now, four-color printing has been the norm.) According to Trash Theory, Bowie described makeup artist Pierre Laroche’s flash “as representative of schizophrenia, and specifically his mixed feelings about his 1972 US tour.” . (The shape originated from the logo on a National Panasonic rice cooker in Duffy’s studio.) Although the result has become, in the words of curator Victoria Broackes, “probably the most recognizable symbol of rock and roll”, Bowie never assumed this look. on the scene; ahead of him there were still four decades of change to go through.

Related content:

Ziggy Stardust’s Story: How David Bowie created the character that made him famous

David Bowie Songs Reimagined as Pulp Fiction Book Covers: ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Life on Mars’ and More

David Bowie’s paper dolls recreate some of the style icon’s most famous looks

50 years of changing David Bowie’s hair styles in an animated GIF

Lego Video Shows How David Bowie Almost Became ‘Cobbler Bob’, Not ‘Aladdin Sane’

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcaststs about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city ​​books, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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