The Piano Player Who Helped David Bowie Go Radical

The Piano Player Who Helped David Bowie Go Radical

Why you should care

Because David Bowie didn’t revolutionize his sound until he hired American pianist Mike Garson.

When David Bowie headed into London’s Trident Studios to work on his new album, he had a tough act to follow — his own. Bowie had already broken big in the United Kingdom, but his 1972 smash, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, made him an international (if not intergalactic) phenomenon. Like everything he did, Bowie wanted his next record, Aladdin Sane, to be a radical work of art.

To help him expand the Spiders sound, Bowie added American pianist Mike Garson to the band. It’s doubtful even the transgressive Bowie could have imagined where Garson’s jazz-influenced approach would take the music.

There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t get an email or a message from a fan or someone asking about the ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo.

Mike Garson, pianist

Despite the makeup and moon boots of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie didn’t have a revolutionary sound in 1972. His fashion and gender-bending shocked conservative crowds and he had an exceptional mastery of pop song craft. But sonically, he took most of his cues from his idols: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and Lou Reed. Compared with what Pink Floyd, Genesis and the Stooges had cooked up in the early ’70s, Bowie’s catalog seemed almost normal.

Then came Garson, Aladdin Sane and a new alter ego with a carrot-colored mullet and lightning-bolt makeup.

The album opens with “Watch That Man,” a glam rocker that Bowie could have easily slipped into Ziggy Stardust. After that, things get wild. The band — Garson, guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, drummer Woody Woodmansey and saxophonist David Sanborn — begin the title track in the guise of prewar jazz band in a Berlin cabaret. Slowly, the beat and volume pick up, carrying the song toward Garson’s piano solo.

Garson’s first pass in the studio was pulled straight from the blues. His second take bounced around with a Latin flare. Neither impressed Bowie. “Then David asked me to do this more avant-garde thing I was doing in the ’60s,” Garson says. “I had no idea that it would work. I even made a joke, ‘Why would I do that? That kind of playing is why I’m not working on the weekend.’”

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Adoring fans reaching out to touch the hand of English pop star David Bowie during a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon.

Source Steve Wood/Getty

Garson’s third take, a free-jazz mess that builds and collapses over almost two minutes (an eternity in a pop song), hints at familiar melodies — “Rhapsody in Blue,” “On Broadway,” “Tequila” — without stopping to breathe. Music critics still struggle to put the sound into words. Bowie biographer Paul Trynka wrote that Garson “added an anarchic, decadent edge” to the tune. Rob Webb from the BBC took a different tack: “[It] sounds as though Jackson Pollock’s blobs might, had they been splattered onto sheet music instead of canvas.”

Other moments on the album creep toward the avant-garde (the guitar solo that ends “Panic in Detroit,” the classical piano prelude in “Lady Grinning Soul”) or charge into straight-up weird (the theatrical, Brechtian turn in the middle of “Time”). But none passed into legend like the title track. “There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t get an email or a message from a fan or someone asking about the ’Aladdin Sane’ solo,” Garson says. It also represented the beginning of Bowie unbound.

Often labeled the ultimate chameleon, Bowie’s sonic restlessness didn’t begin in earnest until Aladdin Sane. His pre-Ziggy work resembled his Ziggy work: hard rock, space-age ballads, British invasion pop. After Aladdin Sane, he abandoned allegiance to any genre. Yes, rock ’n’ roll sat at the center, but every strain of experimental music orbited around it. “Aladdin Sane,” wrote Bowie biographer David Buckley in Strange Fascination, was “the clearest indicator of how Bowie was trying to free himself from the confines of rock.”

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Renowned keyboardist Mike Garson accompanies Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen, performing his live U.K. debut concert at Bush Hall in London.

Source Yui Mok - PA Images/Getty

Garson knows he helped push Bowie into the avant-garde. He also says Bowie tapped him because he had an eye for talent uninhibited by tradition. “I didn’t just bring piano playing to him; he knew piano playing, he had his rock stuff, and it was genius,” Garson says. “He was a great singer, a great producer, a great songwriter, but I brought the history of jazz and classical to him. … There were times when he would say, ‘Play like Stravinsky here, or play like [English composer] Vaughan Williams.’ He would tell me the night before a show, ‘I want you to open the show on your own, playing a medley of my songs.’ He knew how to utilize every musician he hired. He was the ultimate casting director.”

After Aladdin Sane, Bowie went into a string of stylistic shifts in three brief years: a cover album full of quick garage-rock takes, plot points pulled from George Orwell’s 1984 and embedded in a matrix of glam rock and deep disco on Diamond Dogs (1974), an homage to R&B on Young Americans (1975) and a combination of German electronic minimalism, progressive rock and the cartoon funk of George Clinton on Station to Station (1976 ). One piano solo didn’t start it all, but it certainly helped fuel an unprecedented artistic burst.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the names of Garson and Vaughan Williams.

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