Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity.
Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies.
Bowie was scared of airplanes so he took a ship, the R. H. M. S. Ellinis, home to Britain in mid-December 1972. During the trip he read Waugh’s Vile Bodies and found, he thought, similarities between the novel (completed months before the 1929 crash, and whose narrative ends in a near-future with WWII already underway) and his own times. He soon got a song out of it.
At a London press conference in the summer of 1972, just as Ziggy Stardust broke, Bowie seemed unnerved by his success, though he had been trying to be a pop star for nearly a decade. Something disturbed him about his rise, he said, along with Lou Reed’s new prominence (“Walk on the Wild Side” would hit the Top 10) and the Glam boom. Once there had been well-groomed boys in matching suits on Top of the Pops. Now there was Roxy Music, who looked like extraterrestrials in a witness relocation program, or Slade and Roy Wood, hill trolls in Halloween costumes, or The Sweet, a bubblegum group who leered at their audience and seemed to be sharing a private joke. It was a sign that modern civilization had reached the point of absurdity – its entertainments had become bizarre and sordid, even menacing.
It is hardly surprising that they were Bolshevik at eighteen and bored by twenty…There was nothing left for the
younger generation to rebel against except the widest conceptions of mere decency. Accordingly, it was against these that they turned.
Waugh, “The War and the Younger Generation,” 1929.
People like Lou [Reed] and I are probably predicting the end of an era. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people – absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.
In Waugh’s novel, ridiculous young people dress up in costumes, sleep with each other, have treasure hunts on city streets at midnight, drink and drug themselves to oblivion; it ends on a battlefield. “Aladdin Sane” was Bowie’s parallel sequel: a premature epitaph for his own lost generation. Though this time the party would end with a nuclear holocaust (hence the song’s (1913-1938-197?) subhead – Bowie seemed to really think that the world would end before 1980).
There’s a sadness and frailty to “Aladdin Sane,” set in B minor, with its lyric a meager collection of fragmented images – glissando strings, bouquets of faded roses. It’s as though Bowie realized the decadence of Waugh’s era had a panache his own time lacked. Bowie had just come off a months-long rock tour of America in 1972, and had endured/enjoyed the debauchery, the loud fashions, the noise, the bad food. It was a flyblown existence and Bowie wanted a nobler victim: in “Aladdin Sane” he invented a more glittering world to snuff out.