How Aladdin Sane Became the Most Expensive Album Cover Ever — and David Bowie’s Defining Image

If you search for David Bowie on Spo­ti­fy, a famil­iar icon pops up: the man him­self, eyes closed, made up with a death­ly-look­ing pal­lor and a red-and-blue light­ing bolt across his face. This is the pho­to on the front of Bowie’s sixth album, 1973’s Aladdin Sane. “Per­haps more icon­ic than the music inside,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Trash The­o­ry video essay above, “it stands as the Mona Lisa of album cov­ers.” It was also, at the time of pro­duc­tion, the most cost­ly album cov­er of all time: this was at the behest of Bowie’s man­ag­er Tony Defries, who sus­pect­ed that spar­ing no expense on the image would moti­vate RCA, his label, to spare no expense pro­mot­ing the album itself.

One might call this a bold move for an artist like Bowie, who had only just made it big. In the ear­ly years of his career he’d racked up fail­ure after fail­ure: with 1971’s Hunky Dory, a kind of dec­la­ra­tion of com­mit­ment to musi­cal and artis­tic “changes,” he had a suc­cès d’es­time, but not until the fol­low­ing year did he become a bona fide star.

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

Though young British audi­ences could­n’t get enough of Zig­gy and the Spi­ders, reac­tions across the Unit­ed States were rather less enthu­si­as­tic. There, says the Trash The­o­ry nar­ra­tor, “they were not the type of British rock that rock radio played: hard-hit­ting, riff-heavy behe­moths like Led Zep­pelin or the Rolling Stones. But this indif­fer­ence was shap­ing what Bowie want­ed to do next.” His expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­ca inspired a new, hard­er-edged per­sona, Aladdin Sane. Zig­gy Star­dust “was a vision of the best a rock star could be, an inspi­ra­tional fig­ure, while Aladdin was more about fame’s dark­er under­bel­ly, fil­tered through imag­ined Amer­i­cana and futur­is­tic nos­tal­gia” — and the char­ac­ter need­ed a look to match.

Shot by Bri­an Duffy, described in the San Fran­cis­co Art Exchange vide0 above as “a very eccen­tric and incred­i­ble pho­tog­ra­ph­er,” the Aladdin Sane cov­er was print­ed with a sev­en-col­or sys­tem unprece­dent­ed in the medi­um. (Up to that point, four-col­or had been the stan­dard.) Accord­ing to Trash The­o­ry, Bowie described make­up artist Pierre Laroche’s light­ning bolt “as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of schiz­o­phre­nia, and more specif­i­cal­ly, his split feel­ings about his 1972 Amer­i­can tour.” (The shape came from the logo on a Nation­al Pana­son­ic rice cook­er in Duffy’s stu­dio.) Though the result has become, in the words of cura­tor Vic­to­ria Broack­es, “prob­a­bly the most rec­og­niz­able sym­bol in rock and roll,” Bowie nev­er actu­al­ly assumed this look onstage; ahead of him, there still lay four more decades of changes to go through.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: 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” & More

David Bowie Paper Dolls Recre­ate Some of the Style Icon’s Most Famous Looks

50 Years of Chang­ing David Bowie Hair Styles in One Ani­mat­ed GIF

Lego Video Shows How David Bowie Almost Became “Cob­bler Bob,” Not “Aladdin Sane”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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