Aladdin Sane: the flash of genius behind David Bowie’s iconic portrait

Loving the alien: Aladdin Sane was the fastest-selling pop album since The Beatles - RCA/UK
Loving the alien: Aladdin Sane was the fastest-selling pop album since The Beatles - RCA/UK

David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane (1973)

Album covers tend to divide into two approaches: portraits of the artist or conceptual representations of the music. David Bowie was adept at combining both. He appears in various guises on the cover of 24 out of 25 solo studio albums, disappearing only for the elegiac swansong, Blackstar, released days before his death in 2016. Given his high cheekbones, sleek jawline, piercing eyes and fantastic hair, it would have perhaps been a waste to adopt a more abstract approach.

Yet the best Bowie artwork reflected musical themes, whether posing as an exotic rocker on a grimy city street for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars (1972), a half-man half-canine on dystopian concept album Diamond Dogs (1974) or the stilted black-and-white model of Germanic alienation on “Heroes” (1977). There were atrocious missteps, too, such as the singer leaping enthusiastically about a vaudeville set on Never Let Me Down (1987) – to be fair, the album was every bit as terrible as the cover suggested. But one particular record sleeve would become the most iconic portrait of his shapeshifting career, created with a flash of genius.

What is it?

Aladdin Sane was Bowie’s fifth album, released in 1973, purpose-built to cement the success Bowie had belatedly found with the rock and roll alien Ziggy Stardust. The cover features a head-and-shoulders shot of a bare-chested, purple tinged Bowie, eyes closed beneath a shock of red hair, body vanishing into a white surround. A jagged red and blue lightning bolt slashes across his face. An otherworldly airbrushed tear nestles in his clavicle, indicating some strange sadness. Reflecting Bowie’s fascination with the deification of pop idols, his thunderbolt death mask is a startling representation of a rock God fallen to earth.

The Story Behind the Cover

The photographer was Brian Duffy, one of the “terrible trio” – along with David Bailey and Terence Donovan – who broke the mould of fashion photography in the swinging Sixties. Bowie cheerfully referred to Duffy as “a lunatic,” and worked with him extensively in the Seventies. The session took place in January 1973, at Duffy’s studio in Swiss Cottage, north London, with graphic designer Celia Philo helping direct proceedings, and make-up artist Pierre LaRoche on hand from the House of Arden.

David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour at Earl’s Court in May 1973 - Hulton Archive
David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane tour at Earl’s Court in May 1973 - Hulton Archive

Prior to the shoot, Duffy discussed ideas with Bowie during recording sessions at Trident Studios in Soho, London. Bowie had written most of his new album on tour in the US, where he was struggling with the same excesses and paranoia of fame that he had predicted in song for his Ziggy alter ego. Bowie was already tiring of the character but admitted he was “tempted to go further, only because it’s so popular”. He referred to the album as Ziggy Goes to America, and toyed with several titles, including A Lad Insane, Love Aladdin Vein, and simply Vein, the latter rejected for being too druggy. Many of its songs dealt with mental disintegration, influenced by private fears regarding Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry.

Having studied mime with Lindsey Kemp, Bowie had a fascination with Japanese Kabuki theatre, an inspiration for the face make-up. Bowie later claimed that “the flash was taken from the High Voltage sign that was stuck on any box containing dangerous amounts of electricity.” Duffy, however, recalled Bowie’s fascination with a ring worn by Elvis Presley, with the initials TCB (Taking Care of Business) flanked by two flashes. In the event, the thunderbolt motif was copied by Duffy himself from something far more mundane: a brand logo on a rice cooker in Duffy’s studio kitchen manufactured by National (Panasonic). Seated at a mobile mirror table, make-up artist LaRoche initially drew a tiny flash onto Bowie’s forehead. Duffy was not impressed.

“No, not f****** like that, like this!” he snapped, grabbing a lipstick and drawing a jagged outline right across Bowie’s face. “Now fill that in!” According to the recollections of studio manager Francis Newman, “it took Pierre about an hour to apply properly. The red flash is so shiny because it was actually lipstick.” Bowie was photographed naked but for white underwear. Even his eyebrows were plucked. His body was given a purple wash, to add to his otherworldly allure. Contact sheets show Bowie mostly with eyes open with a mad stare, his face turned left to give prominence to the bolt. The frame chosen for the cover was the only one in which he has his eyes closed, lending a death-mask aspect. Duffy was under instruction from Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries, to make the artwork as expensive as possible, to ensure a committed promotional campaign from RCA. British airbrush artist Philip Castle added the oversized teardrop and touched up a full-length portrait for the inner gatefold. Castle had previously designed the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, another big influence on Bowie.

Post-production was elaborate, employing a seven-colour printing process rather than the usual four. The end result is one of the most memorable sleeves in rock history. If Ziggy Stardust addressed the pain of the alienated star, Aladdin Sane struck deeper. The thunderbolt dividing his face hinted at the implications of the title pun, casting Bowie as both pantomime hero and mad child, twisting in the glare of fame. As the title song goes: “Who will love a lad insane?”

What is the music like?

Aladdin Sane may be the greatest Bowie album of the glam rock era, produced by Ken Scott with a punchier, wider sound than Ziggy Stardust. Bowie’s touring band the Spiders From Mars remain in place, led by interstellar guitarist Mick Ronson, but jazz pianist Mike Garson’s playing is prominent, there are saxophones, flutes, strings, Mellotrons, Moog synths and a soulful trio of backing vocalists. There’s added grooviness to rockers such as Panic In Detroit, The Jean Genie and Cracked Actor and a lush romanticism on The Prettiest Star and Lady Grinning Soul. Drive In Saturday is a sci-fi doo wop blast, whilst the Brechtian cabaret of Time represents Bowie at his most imperiously melodramatic. Released in April 1973, Aladdin Sane became the fastest-selling British pop album since the Beatles, entering the UK charts at number one, where it remained for five weeks. By the summer, all five Bowie albums to date were in the UK charts simultaneously.

What is its legacy?

LaRoche was hired as Bowie’s personal make-up artist and worked on the cover of Pinups (released October 1973). Duffy went on to take cover shots for Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters… and Super Creeps (1980). The thunderbolt remained synonymous with Bowie throughout his career, becoming even more ubiquitous after his death. It has been used on clothing, fridge magnets, calendars, lighters, beer mats and widely parodied as memes featuring other celebrities. Lady Gaga has it tattooed on her side. An outtake from the session featured on the poster for the David Bowie Is exhibition in 2013. But Bowie himself never sported the bolt after that one photo session.

But Bowie himself never sported the bolt after that one photo session. He was already tiring of his rock persona, and publicly killed off Ziggy, Aladdin and the Spiders From Mars on July 3, 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon, on the final show of his British tour. “I wasn’t at all surprised Aladdin Sane made my career,” Bowie once noted. “I packaged a totally credible plastic rock star, much better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody’s.”

Where do you rate Aladdin Sane’s cover – and music – in Bowie’s cannon? Neil McCormick will be in the comments section of this article between 4pm and 5pm today