"The Jean Genie" is a song by David Bowie, originally released as a single in November 1972. According to Bowie, it was "a smorgasbord of imagined Americana", with a protagonist inspired by Iggy Pop, and the title being a pun on author Jean Genet. One of Bowie’s most famous tracks, it was the lead single for the album Aladdin Sane (1973). Promoted with a film clipfeaturing Andy Warhol associate Cyrinda Foxe, it peaked at #2 on the UK charts.
"The Jean Genie" was composed and recorded in New York City, where Bowie spent time with the Warhol set's Cyrinda Foxe. Bowie would later assert, "I wrote it for her amusement in her apartment. Sexy girl." The song's chugging R&B riff is often compared to The Yardbirds, especially their cover of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man", while the lyrics have been likened to the "stylised sleaze" of The Velvet Underground. The subject matter was inspired in part by Bowie's friend Iggy Pop or, in Bowie's own words, "an Iggy-type character... it wasn't actuallyIggy." The line "He's so simple minded, he can't drive his module" would later give the band Simple Minds their name.
The title has long been taken as a pun on the name of author Jean Genet. Bowie was once quoted as saying that this was "subconscious... but it's probably there, yes". In his 2005 book Moonage Daydream, he stated this less equivocally: "Starting out as a lightweight riff thing I had written one evening in NY for Cyrinda’s enjoyment, I developed the lyric to the otherwise wordless pumper and it ultimately turned into a bit of a smorgasbord of imagined Americana ... based on an Iggy-type persona ... The title, of course, was a clumsy pun upon Jean Genet".
Mick Rock directed a film clip to promote the song, mixing concert and studio footage of Bowie performing with the Spiders From Mars, along with location shots of the singer posing at theMars Hotel, San Francisco, with Cyrinda Foxe. Bowie wanted the video to depict "Ziggy as a kind of Hollywood street-rat" with a "consort of the Marilyn brand". This led to Foxe's casting, and she flew from New York to San Francisco especially for the shoot.
Bowie also recorded "The Jean Genie" for Top of the Pops, the performance being broadcast on 4 January 1973. Unusually for the era, the four-piece band performed live, and included an extended guitar solo by Mick Ronson. Tapes of this edition of Top of the Pops were subsequently wiped, but a copy was made by BBC cameraman John Henshall, who had utilised newfisheye lens camera techniques for the performance. The film has since been preserved for posterity and was shown at the British Film Institute in December 2011. The BBC re-broadcast the clip in its Top of the Pops 2 Christmas Special on 21 December 2011, for the first time since the original broadcast in January 1973.
Some controversy arose in the UK when fellow RCA act The Sweet's issued "Block Buster!", utilising a riff very similar to "The Jean Genie". Sweet's single, written by Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, and recorded and released slightly later than Bowie's song, made #1 in the UK charts while "The Jean Genie" was still in the Top 10. All parties maintained that the similarity was, in Nicky Chinn's words, "absolute coincidence". Chinn described a meeting with Bowie at which the latter "looked at me completely deadpan and said 'Cunt!' And then he got up and gave me a hug and said, 'Congratulations...'"
"The Jean Genie" spent 13 weeks in the UK charts. It peaked at #2, making it Bowie's biggest hit to date. In the US, it reached #71 (this time beating "Block Buster!", which made #73). While biographer David Buckley has described it as "derivative, plodding, if undeniably catchy", it remains one of Bowie's signature tunes, and has often been played at his concerts since its release.
- "The Jean Genie" (Bowie) – 4:02
- "Ziggy Stardust" (Bowie) – 3:13