Aladdin Sane: 50 Years at Southbank Centre
1973 was an eventful year in the UK, with this country joining the EEC, the advent of the three-day week to reduce electricity consumption, and crippling strikes. It also saw the release of David Bowie’s iconic album, Aladdin Sane. Now, 50 years later, Southbank Centre are holding a special two month-long exhibition to celebrate the occasion, centred around the instantly recognisable and era-defining album cover produced by the renowned photographer, Brian Duffy. The Royal Festival Hall is also putting on a series of musical performances and talks in tribute to the much-missed Bowie, who died of cancer in 2016.
The curator of this exhibition, Chris Duffy, son of the late Brian Duffy, believes that the album cover is “as powerful now as it was then”. He certainly makes a persuasive case here, where one finds the iconic image of an androgynous looking, porcelain-skinned Bowie, his hair red, his eyes closed, a dramatic red-and-blue lightning bolt extending across his face, evidently in makeup. This show charts the creative understanding that developed between the singer and Brian Duffy in their years of working together, with Chris attesting to his father’s ability to help conjure Bowie’s ideas. As a successful music industry photographer himself (he would photograph the Scary Monsters album in 1980 alongside his father), he expresses clear admiration for the collaboration between Bowie and Duffy senior. An evocative quote from the latter appears on a wall beside some of his fashion photographs at the start of the collection, giving some insight into his practice: “Talking about a creative session is like talking about a boxing match. It happened because there was a little bit of magic in the room that night.”
The celebrated image has been the subject of much cultural analysis over the years, with some observers posing the question as to whether the singer’s closed eyes are intended to be read as a death mask; he appears ethereal and otherworldly. Aside from the iconic final cover, one finds Duffy capturing the singer in his Aladdin Sane guise, sometimes with guitar in hand, testifying to the rockstar and photographer’s search for the perfect image, as Bowie sought to continue his career trajectory following his stratospheric breakthrough album, 1971’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Elsewhere are displayed pictures of the Starman singer’s fellow band members, the bassist Trevor Bolder (1950-2013) and Michael “Mick” Ronson (1946-93), the latter of whom’s wife, Suzi – a hairdresser one learns here – created Bowie’s “short, red, spiky Ziggy cut”.
A film shown in the exhibition features interviews with individuals at the heart of the album’s creation, including Duffy, who offers his opinion that the powerful final image was “highly competent work”, rather than a masterpiece. Bowie’s then manager, Tony Defries, reveals that he went out of his way to ensure huge amounts were spent by record label RCA on the cover, with a seven-colour printing system preferred to the traditional four – all to make certain that RCA would consequently spend big on the promotion of the album.
A constant theme is the exploration of Bowie’s continual reinvention of himself throughout his career, the message being conveyed that he encouraged his fans to do the same. In a final room resembling a club, dramatically lit in red hues, silver bags have been suspended from the ceiling, carrying statements made by contributors to this Southbank celebration. One emotive message reads: “When I was 14, David Bowie saved my life. I listened to Aladdin Sane, in particular the song Time, and I felt seen. I read an interview where he expressed surprise that he’d written ‘a gay song’. But that was Bowie for you – contradictory, provocative, playful.”
A nostalgic trip down memory lane and a reminder of this enduringly impactful album cover’s capacity to evoke David Bowie and Brian Duffy’s creative spirit, Aladdin Sane: 50 years promises to entrance fans of this ever-evolving British rock star, whilst highlighting the processes involved in generating publicity images for the industry in that tremendous era of musical invention.
Aladdin Sane: 50 Years is at Southbank Centre from 6th April until 28th May 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.