Julian Shah-Tayler and Friends – Album Review: “Forget That I’m 50”

Photo and artwork by The Cracked Intelligence

This is quite possibly one of the most challenging reviews I’ve ever attempted, as how do I even begin to write about an entire cover album – with contributions by ten different artists – of David Bowie’s iconic 1973 album Aladdin Sane? Each of the album’s 10 tracks could warrant its own detailed write-up, so reviewing the new 50-year anniversary cover album Forget That I’m 50, by singer-songwriter, producer and remixer Julian Shah-Tayler (aka The Singularity) along with a host of artists, within the context of the original album is no small task. This will essentially entail a simultaneous track-by-track review of two albums!

It’s safe to say that David Bowie was one of the most influential and groundbreaking music artists of the second half of the 20th Century. His work was universally acclaimed by both critics and musicians alike, and loved by millions of fans. Over a career spanning nearly 50 years until his death in January 2016, his musical output was astonishing, consisting of 26 studio albums, 21 live albums, 46 compilation albums, 10 extended plays, 128 singles, 3 soundtracks and 12 box sets. Throughout his lifetime, Bowie sold more than 140 million records worldwide.

Among his more fascinating works was Aladdin Sane, his sixth studio album released 50 years ago, in April 1973. The album followed his breakthrough work The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and was written and recorded in London and New York in December 1972 and January 1973 during breaks in his Ziggy Stardust Tour. Co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, Aladdin Sane was his final album recorded with his backing band the Spiders from Mars, which consisted of Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Woodmansey on drums, with additional contributions by pianist Mike Garson, two saxophonists and three backing vocalists.

Bowie wrote most of Aladdin Sane while on tour in the U.S., consequently, the songs are strongly influenced by his experiences and perceptions of the country. The lyrics reflect both the pros of his newfound stardom and the cons of touring and that stardom, with its attendant demands by record executives, agents and fans, and being surrounded by an assortment of sycophants, groupies, drug dealers and other unsavory characters, all clamoring for his attention. In his 1996 book Bowie: Loving the Alien, biographer Christopher Sandford wrote that the album revealed that Bowie “was simultaneously appalled and fixated by America“, evidenced by the fact that many of the songs’ lyrics make references to urban decay, drugs, sex, violence and death. In fact, Bowie described the album’s title character, a pun on “A lad insane”, as “Ziggy Stardust goes to America“. He further elaborated: “Aladdin Sane was my idea of rock and roll America. Here I was on this great tour circuit, not enjoying it very much. So inevitably my writing reflected that, this kind of schizophrenia that I was going through. Wanting to be up on stage performing my songs, but on the other hand not really wanting to be on those buses with all those strange people. Being basically a quiet person, it was hard to come to terms.” (The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg, 2016)

Additionally, some of the songs are influenced by the Rolling Stones, including a cover of their song “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. The striking album cover artwork, shot by Brian Duffy and featuring a lightning bolt across Bowie’s face, was the most expensive cover ever made at the time and is regarded as one of his most iconic images.

Julian Shah-Tayler is a singer-songwriter, producer and remixer who’s originally from Leeds, England, and now based in South Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles. Influenced by 80s and 90s New Wave, Britpop and Electronic Rock, the prolific artist creates music that some of his fans have described as “if David Bowie and Depeche Mode had a baby”. In fact, he’s in a Depeche Mode tribute band called Strangelove, and also a Bowie tribute act The Band That Fell To Earth. He’s had an illustrious and successful music career for over 20 years, both as a solo artist under the music moniker The Singularity, and as a collaborator with numerous musicians and producers. He won a “Golden Trailer” award for his work with Lana Del Ray on the trailer for the Disney film Maleficent, and had one of his songs performed by “Tellavision” during the “Unite for Humanity” charity event at the Oscars. Three of his songs were used for the music movie Plush directed by Catherine Hardwicke (who also directed Twilight). Shah-Tayler also cofounded a charity called “Art Angeles”, which provides music instruction for underprivileged kids in Watts.

Last year, Shah-Tayler released his critically-acclaimed album Elysium. I first learned about him in March, when I reviewed British band WINACHI’s EP FOR YOU I’D KILL, which featured a wonderful remix by him. He liked what I wrote, and sent me the music and press release for Forget That I’m 50, which was subsequently released on April 15th. Faced with the daunting prospect of reviewing it, I allowed my penchant for overthinking and analysis paralysis to cause me considerable stress and delay, but at long last, I’ve finally written my review. (Shah-Tayler has since put out yet another new release, his collaborative single and video for “Kiss Me (Goodbye)”, with L.A.-based alternative rock collective Beauty in Chaos, which just dropped May 3rd.)

Released via the new Harmony Records label, Forget That I’m 50 is a collaboration with his friend and mentor David Chatfield, in which they reimagine the ten songs of Aladdin Sane. Shah-Tayler produced or executive produced six of the album’s ten tracks, and performs on two: “Cracked Actor” and “Lady Grinning Soul”. So let’s get to the album, shall we?

Opening track “Watch That Man” was written after Bowie saw two concerts by New York Dolls, whose first two albums many critics believed represented the American response to the British glam rock movement. Impressed with their sound, Bowie wanted to emulate it on a song. According to Genius, the song describes the goings on at one of the New York Dolls’ after-parties, with Bowie taking note of all the guests, but paying special attention to “That Man”, the Doll’s lead singer David Johansen. The remake, by L.A.-based singer-songwriter, composer and producer Gene Micofsky, who also happens to be the guitarist in Shah-Tayler’s Bowie tribute act The Band That Fell To Earth, is a rousing, sped-up take on the original, honoring its adrenaline-fueled glam rock’n’roll feel with exuberant guitar work.

The title track “Aladdin Sane“, unquestionably my favorite on the Bowie original, was inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies, which Bowie read during his trip on the RHMS Ellinis back to the UK. (Wikipedia) It’s more experimental than his then-typical glam rock sound, with a jazzy, almost progressive feel, highlighted by Mike Garson’s spectacular piano work. The lyrics describe how young men are enticed into enlisting into the armed forces, and “Aladdin Sane” is a homophone for “A lad insane”, reflecting Bowie’s belief that one would have to be insane to volunteer himself to go off to war. The new cover version, by the beautiful L.A.-based singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Beck Black, still retains some of the original’s progressive elements and sophisticated jazzy vibes, but instead of the dominant piano, we have terrific psychedelic guitars, along with some plucked sitar and heavier percussion. Black’s seductive vocals are wonderful, and do justice to Bowie’s original. I love how at the end of the song, both Bowie and Black sing the almost imperceptible line “The neon lights are oh so bright on Broadway“.

Drive-In Saturday” was written following an overnight train ride between Seattle and Phoenix in early November 1972. Seeing a row of silver domes in the distance at one point on the journey, Bowie assumed they were secret government facilities intended for use after a nuclear attack. The lyrics describe how radiation has affected people’s minds and bodies to the point that they need to watch old video films in order to learn to have sex again. Bowie further elaborated “some people are living on the streets and some people are living in domes, and they borrow from one another and try to learn how to pick up the pieces“, also noting that the song was set in the year 2033 (Genius) : “I’ll ring and see if your friends are home. Perhaps the strange ones in the dome can lend us a book, we can read up alone. And try to get it on like once before, when people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored like the video films we saw.” Musically, the song has a relaxed doo wop vibe, highlighted by exuberant saxophone blasts, and I love how Bowie emphasizes the chorus line “His name was always Buddy!” The remake, sung by Northern California alternative electronic artist Darwin, retains the doo-wop feel, but is even mellower and more contemplative, with lovely instrumentals and gentle backing vocals by Ash Reyes that nicely complement Darwin’s pleasing low-key croons.

Next up is “Panic in Detroit“, which was inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the Detroit riots in 1967 and the rise of the White Panther Party, specifically their leader John Sinclair, whose ideas Bowie compared to the rebel martyr Che Guevara in the dark lyrics. The song has a punk rock groove, highlighted by the interesting use of congas and world percussion that were later added after the drummer Mick Woodmansey refused to do the Bo Diddley beat that guitarist Mick Ronson and Bowie desired. Linda Lewis of “Rock-A-Doodle-Do” fame sang the wailing free-form vocals in the background. (Genius) The reimagined version, vibrantly sung by Natalie Wilde (who also sang backing vocals on the previously mentioned WINACHI song “FOR YOU I’D KILL“), and accompanied by some terrific percussive instruments and guitar work, does justice to the rousing punk rock feel of the original.

Track five, “Cracked Actor“, was written following Bowie’s time spent on the famed Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, where he witnessed prostitution, drug use and sex. The lyrics, which describe an aging movie star’s sexual encounter with a prostitute for whom he feels contempt, contain the album’s title – “I’m stiff on my legend. The films that I made. Forget that I’m fifty ’cause you just got paid.” The song’s a banger, with a hard-driving groove, punctuated by Mick Ronson’s bluesy guitars. The remake, by L.A.-based electro-pop duo Sumthing Strange (consisting of Alex Prusmack and Johnny Santoro), with additional vocals by Julian Shah-Tayler, honors the original quite nicely with it’s bombastic, high-energy treatment. Their grimy guitars and stomping rhythms are fantastic.

Time“, originally written as “We Should Be On By Now” for Bowie’s friend George Underwood, was completely rewritten after the sudden death of New York Dolls drummer Billy Murcia, in November 1972. The lyrics address concepts of mortality, with the original title used as a refrain in the chorus. The inclusion of the word “wanking” caused “Time” to be banned from radio by the BBC. (Wikipedia) The song’s distinctive “burlesque vamp” sound was created by the wonderful cabaret-style piano work by Mike Garson and accompanying guitar lines by Mick Ronson. The cover version is performed by two members of L.A.-based rock band Human Drama, Johnny Indovina on acoustic guitar and vocals, and Steve Fuxan on fretless bass, along with Shah-Tayler on keyboards. This stripped-down remake has a completely different feel, more melancholy and introspective, and I think more reflective of the bittersweet lyrics “But love has left you dreamless. The door to dreams was closed. Your park was real and dreamless. Perhaps you’re smiling now, smiling through this darkness. But all I have to give is guilt for dreaming.”

The Prettiest Star“, written by Bowie as a love song for his first wife Angela Barnett, was originally released in 1970 as the follow-up single to “Space Oddity”. That original featured a distinctive guitar riff played by Mark Bolan of glam rock band T. Rex. Bowie decided to include the song on Aladdin Sane, so it was re-recorded with Mick Ronson recreating Bolan’s original guitar parts almost note-for-note. The rather trippy cover version, by male artist Former Teen (who I was unable to find any information about), is also a sizeable departure from the original, with a fascinating mix of vintage electronic percussion, pulsating synth bass, and quirky synth sounds, accompanied by Former Teen’s offbeat drones.

The inclusion of a cover of the Rolling Stones classic song of lustful desire, “Let’s Spend the Night Together“, acknowledges their influence on the entire record. But whereas the original was psychedelic, Bowie’s rendition is faster, raunchier and more glam-influenced. Several critics have derided it as “camp and unsatisfying”, also calling it a gay appropriation of a heterosexual song, which I find both ridiculous and insulting. At any rate, the cover-of-a-cover, performed by L.A.-based singer-songwriter Jawnee Danger, is the most radical departure of all the tracks on Forget That I’m 50, and I love it!

First off, listening to his version was a bit of revelation for me, as the opening lyrics “Don’t you worry about what’s on your mind, oh my. I’m in no hurry, I can take my time, oh my. I’m going red and my tongue’s getting tied. I’m off my head and my mouth’s getting dry” were scarcely recognizable (I guess that despite hearing the Stones’ original more than 100 times in my life, I’ve never really contemplated the lyrics!) The tempo on Jawnee Danger’s version is slowed down considerably, with a darker, more sensuous vibe that calls to mind some of the songs by Nine Inch Nails. I love the mysterious synths and guitar notes, and his sultry ethereal vocals even sound a bit like Trent Reznor’s.

Probably my second-favorite track on Aladdin Sane is “The Jean Genie“, with its chugging R&B guitar riff reminiscent of the Yardbirds songs “I’m a Man” and “Smokestack Lightning”, the former being a sped-up cover of the Bo Diddley original. The song actually began as an impromptu jam titled “Bussin'” that Bowie and his band played on the charter bus while travelling from Cleveland to Memphis. Calling it “a smorgasbord of imagined Americana” and his “first New York song“, with a protagonist inspired by Iggy Pop – a “white-trash, kind of trailer-park kid thing, the closet intellectual who wouldn’t want the world to know that he reads“, and a title that was an allusion to author Jean Genet. (Wikipedia)

Bowie wrote the song to “entertain” Cyrinda Foxe, an associate of Andy Warhol with whom he had a brief affair, and who appeared in the song’s video (she was also later married to both David Johansen of the New York Dolls and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith). “The Jean Genie” was released as the lead single of Aladdin Sane, and peaked at #2 on the UK Singles Chart, making it Bowie’s biggest hit to date, however, in the U.S. it only got as high as #71 on the Billboard Hot 100. The superb reimagined version, by the Michael Aston-fronted version of alt-rock band Gene Loves Jezebel, stays true to Bowie’s original, with some marvelous psychedelic guitar work, as well as great harmonica played by Shah-Tayler. I like how the song ends with Aston ad libbing “Love, love me do. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

The beautiful romantic ballad “Lady Grinning Soul” was one of the final songs written for the album and also a last-minute addition, replacing a sax version of “John, I’m Only Dancing” as the originally intended closing track. (Wikipedia) The song was inspired by American soul singer Claudia Lennear, whom Bowie met during the U.S. tour and was also the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ song “Brown Sugar” (she was an Ikette in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, as well as a background vocalist for several acts, including Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and Freddie King, and was featured in the wonderful 2013 Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom).

In a 2016 interview with The Daily Bulletin shortly after Bowie’s death, Lennear revealed that Bowie called her in 2014, telling her the song had been written about her. With a sound and style that some have likened to a James Bond movie theme, “Lady Grinning Soul” has a serene classical feel, thanks to Garson’s luxurious piano work (which he described as “about as romantic as it gets…French with a little Franz Liszt thrown in there“), accompanied by Ronson’s flamenco-style guitar and Bowie’s dreamy vocals. Shah-Tayler’s reimagined version replaces the piano with his signature lush synths, including a synth guitar that results in some enchanting harp-like sounds. His beautiful emotive singing voice, which sometimes rises to a gentle falsetto, is on full display here, perfectly capturing the romantic sensuality of the original, but even more so I think.

Writing this review required that I listen to Aladdin Sane multiple times, causing me to fall in love with it and fully realize what a truly brilliant album it is, with songs that sound as fresh and innovative today as they did fifty years ago. Also, each song sounds uniquely different, making for a tremendously fascinating listen. Attempting to cover such iconic songs would seem to be an incredibly daunting endeavor, but Julian Shah-Tayler and company succeed and then some. Forget That I’m 50 not only does great justice to Bowie’s original, its overall excellence makes it a great album in its own right.

Here’s Forget That I’m 50:

And here’s David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane:

Connect with Julian Shah-Tayler aka The Singularity:  Facebook / TwitterInstagram

14 thoughts on “Julian Shah-Tayler and Friends – Album Review: “Forget That I’m 50”

  1. Marc Schuster

    I appreciate the challenge of writing a review for this kind of album — and you did a great job of rising to it! Alternating between the Bowie info and a description of how each artist tackled the song is an effective and informative strategy. Nicely done… And now I’m wondering if Jawnee Danger has a Philadelphia connection!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Overall, I think Julian Shah-Tayler and the other artists did a really job around an album I should know better, given how much I love the predecessor “Ziggy Stardust” – especially, since the Spiders from Mars were still around on “Aladdin Sane” and the album did had a good dose of glam rock.

    That said, while Bowie’s glam rock period is my favorite, I’m glad he dropped “Ziggy Stardust”, since he by his own admission the character had taken possession of him. He literally was about to turn into a lad insane!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Badfinger (Max)

    I’ll have to listen to this album soon. I loved Drive In Saturday and what I’ve heard so far. Thanks for the great review Jeff. I’ve always liked the original album and Hunky Dory a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.