Should be a good article for you Bowie-fanatics out there. Enjoy!
Broadway`s got nuthin` on this
Bowie`s new show features the kind of sensational stage effects that even Broadway could only afford for brief periods in the 30`s and 40`s. Martin Kirkup reports on Bowie`s `new style` debut from Montreal.
This may be the last big production type of tour that I do,” Bowie had told me back in April. At that time I`d wondered why, cynically assuming that there`d be a touch of the old “His first farewell tour” promotion behind the remark, since it was apparent that Bowie`s direction was towards greater use of theatricality in his performances.
After watching the debut of his new tour at Montreal on June 14, however, it finally seems inevitable that if he`s to continue performing in public he`ll have to do it as a smaller kind of production, because after this tour I simply can`t imagine what he`d do to top it.
His new show features the kind of sensational stage effects that even Broadway could only afford for brief periods in the 1930`s and 40`s, when Florenz Ziegfeld had his dancing girls walk through streams onto rising staircases built in the great old theatres. I doubt whether even Ziegfeld linked so many outrageous effects together into one two-hour show, as Bowie now does. By comparison, the timid “rock theatrics” of an Alice Cooper or a “Jesus Christ Superstar” look decidedly like a `Punch & Judy` show, and right now it`s hard to imagine how any other rock star could go further than the new limits Bowie`s established.
Bowie aimed for the maximum possible visual effect, and I think that he succeeded entirely in what he was trying to do. “Come on up to Montreal for the first night, it`ll be worth your while,” he suggested earlier in the month, “it`s a show, and I think it`s very exciting.” Retrospectively, I can see that the words “show” and “exciting” weren`t just casually used, they convey the essence of what his new tour is all about.
When he arrived in New York on the S.S. France on April 11. Bowie had moved straight into a suite in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on Fifth Avenue, and begun a routine that persisted for the next two months. Rising after noon, and usually as late as three in the afternoon, he`d start a strenuous series of rehearsals that often ran from five o`clock to well into the next morning, when he`d head to a bar or club to unwind and perhaps check out the new talent.
During those ten weeks he could often be seen flitting behind the stage at a concert, by Roxy Music for example – “well, they`re the only English band worth seeing, aren`t they”, at a reception, like Todd Rundgren`s, or in a small club seeing new bands. “Yes, I`ve seen a lot of good new bands this time. A lot of bands with good names, anyway, how d`ya like `Leather Secrets` and `Television`?”. And if you talked to him then he was friendly, witty, and perceptive about anything at all except his own music. A question about how the long rehearsals were going would elicit only “Oh, you don`t even have to ask, I`m so happy with this band”, and that`d be that.
Now it`s revealed that those rehearsals had as much to do with practising and perfecting the tricky stage techniques as they had to do with preparing his new band. Bowie had hired Jules Fisher to collaborate with him on the stage presentation and design, and Fisher`s the best designer around at the moment in America. He`s got a list of awards that starts with shows like “Hair”, “Pippin” and “Lenny”, and runs on as long as your leg. I`ve seen Broadway plays like “Ulysses in Nighttown”, where Fisher`s lighting and design were the only good things about the show.
The set that he and David have created for the tour is impressive from the moment you walk into the arena and see it. The stage is dominated by a huge scaffolding arch with a cat-walk looking like an imported section of Tower Bridge set thirty feet above the stage. Even higher than this are two gigantic lighting towers, disguised as skyscrapers. The immediate effect is of looking into a surreally distorted city. Off to the right is the area set aside for the band, with two whole keyboards complexes and a large drum-kit, while off to the left stands a six-foot tall red, spurting cock! RCA may have castrated the “Diamond Dogs” cover with their sneaky airbrushes, but Bowie has his revenge here.
Bowie had come up to Canada the day before the concert to give everything one last run-through. Since it`s a nine-hour, 600 mile drive from New York City I had decided to do the same thing, a fact worth mentioning only because David`s going to be driving to every gig too. He still refuses absolutely to fly, so most of the concerts have been arranged at convenient hundred mile intervals across the continent.
His band and entourage were leaving the Hotel Windsor just as I arrived, informing me that they were off to “a final dress rehearsal” – yup, those were the words used. As the elevator doors opened and I stepped forward to enter, I could see a flash of red hair surrounded by tall and muscular men. Bowie emerged in a wedge of bodyguards, pausing briefly to say “Hello” – I stuck out a hand to shake his, but pulled it back quickly when an ultra-efficient guard flexed himself at me. I mean, there are things I`d rather not go through just to shake someone`s hand.
For the whole day before the concert it became impossible to turn on the TV or radio without hearing either a track from “Diamond Dogs”, or – more importantly – an advert for it and the concert. The whole campaign that`s been mounted by “MainMan” and RCA should become a model of its type.
“The album of the century” voices proclaimed regularly on all the dozen different radio stations, “century”?. And since Montreal is a bi-lingual city (just imagine one of those cute sexy French accent marks over the “e” of Montreal) all the papers informed one of a “Concert rock avec ce fameux chanteur anglais”, ah mais Oui! et maintenant le pouf celebre, Monsieur Bowie. But oddest of all, on television a short colour film of Bowie in the studio leering at the camera and muttering “Awright then?”.
Nevertheless, the next night at the Forum it was apparent from the empty rows of seats that the concert was only about 90% sold-out. The biggest anomaly in American rock shows now is that the British bands who are hugely successful in the States. Foghat, Robin Trower, Peter Frampton and Sharks among them, tend to mean very little back home, while groups like T. Rex, Slade, and Roxy Music have failed to really dent the American charts or consciousness.
Bowie falls into this latter group, he just hasn`t the stature in America that he`s won in Britain. He does very well in some areas, and for example he sold two concerts in Toronto and a whole week in Philadelphia very quickly indeed, but in other regions he may not be playing to full houses.
In Montreal, though, there`s a hard-core Bowie following, and the usual painted faces, dyed heads, and Bowie lookalikes make an appearance. RCA has even run “lookalike” contests for free tickets. From the moment you enter the arena you`re enveloped by the sounds of moog hisses, tolling bells and howling dogs that emerge from the huge speakers positioned along the hall, and soon the crowd are involved in studying the stage set, and you can feel the tension rising. After all, this is David`s first gig since he announced last July 3 that he was quitting live performances and then disbanded the hugely successful “Spiders from Mars” band.
As the houselights finally dim, searchlights begin to sweep the hall, the “1984” theme blasts out, and there`s Bowie in a white suit, flanked by two singer/dancers and with his band almost invisibly positioned well to stage right. Throughout the first three numbers the sound balance is tinny and distorted, but with “Sweet Thing” it all suddenly comes together. For this number Bowie`s walking along the bridge set high over the stage, with a raincoat pulled over his shoulders and looking very much like that old “Strand” cigarettes advert. He stays there, removing his coat and jacket, to do a cooler and clearer version of “Changes” than he`s previously done, then gets down to ground level for a fast “Suffragette City”.
The songs themselves have changed much more in this show than they previously did in live performance. The next song, “Alladin Sane”, for example, is now done as a boogie number, with those manic, fragmented melodies turned into solid and chunky chords with organ and sax leads replacing Garson`s mad piano. This segues into “All the Young Dudes”, which is taken at half the pace Mott the Hoople do it, it`s slow and final, and more of a requiem than an anthem.
Now here I`m deliberately avoiding describing the stage effects that accompany the songs. This tour may hit England in the autumn, and to describe all the staging in detail is a bit like recommending an Agatha Christie novel and then telling you that the butler did it. But perhaps one example will give you an idea.
The stage blacks out for just five seconds at the opening acoustic-guitar chords of “Space Oddity”, and when a spotlight suddenly flashes on simultaneous with the lyric we see Bowie sitting inside a rocket segment high in one of those fake skyscraper lighting towers, quietly singing into his astronaut`s microphone. The spot illuminating him is the only light in the whole arena, everything`s pitch black, and then suddenly the seat and Bowie begin to glide out of the capsule, just like a scene from “2001”. Very slowly Bowie is lowered out into mid-air high over the audience for the rest of the song, until as he slumps and the astronaut dies he is retrieved into the space-ship. It`s all done with a crane, of course, but the first ten seconds before you work that out are very exciting indeed.
The whole two-hour show`s like that, each shock surpassing an earlier one. The set never runs out of tricks and surprises.
Visually and dramatically I don`t think the show can be faulted, but this kind of staging has played some strange tricks with the music too. The band are so anonymously presented that you`d never recognise any of them again, Bowie never speaks, even to introduce them. However, they`re very good indeed, and they play the new versions of Bowie`s songs very solidly and precisely.
“Drive-In Saturday” is now done by David on a twelve string acoustic, with just sax and piano backing, and it`s fine in a rather Jacques Brel way. That one works perfectly, but then you also find “Jean Genie” being performed as a slow Frank Sinatra-ish night club song, with David sitting astride a chair, ciggie in his mouth and hat flopping in his eyes. I thought that song was the best thing on the “Alladin Sane” album, but without its raw blasting edge it`s just a prissy joke.
Really, the problem is that Bowie is now doing a one-man star show. There`s no Mick Ronson in the new band to share his lime-light or edge up to a mike with him, just these fine, ultra-competent guys in suits standing in the shadows, and you barely look at them twice.
They`re fine musicians of course, they know their trade and have paid their dues. On bass guitar there`s Herbie Flowers and as Bowie says, “He`s got to be the best in the country”. Herbie`s really a session-man, it was him doing that lovely bass line on Lou Reed`s “Walk On The Wild Side”. If you`ve ever seen him on TV then it was probably with Blue Mink a year or two back, and he was the big tall guy grinning.
On drums there`s Tony Newman, the original drummer in the Jeff Beck Group, and Beck`s one of Bowie`s early idols from the London club scene days. Newman`s very precise and adaptable, and that`s probably why David picked him. Mick Garson is the only survivor from the last touring band, and his style continues to develop and change. These three were the original nucleus of the `74 Bowie band, and early in April David was planning on using two black guitarists to get “a really funky sound”.
However, by the time serious rehearsals had started in May he`d changed his mind. “I dropped the idea of a second-guitarist and decided to have lots of keyboards people”, he says, “so I ended up getting two guys from the old New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. Earl Slick will be lead-guitarist, and Michael Kamen will be second keyboards player. They`re both very talented, Mike`s written a ballet about Rodin which will be performed at the Harkness soon”.
The keyboard sounds are effective and wide-ranging, and have a lot to do with Bowie`s new sound. Earl Slick gets few chances to really extend himself, but when he takes a solo, as in “Moonage Daydream”, he reveals that he excels at strong power chords in the tradition of Pete Townshend. I`d like to have seen him really work out on “Jean Genie” if David had stuck to his original arrangement of it.
Considering that along with the rest of the audience I was so entirely surprised and mesmerised by the visual show, I felt strangely disappointed the next day, and a little cheated in some vague way. I could clearly recall only five or six songs out of the whole show, and the emotional content seemed far less than I`d felt seeing Bowie a year ago.
Over the past three years “decadence” has become a catch-all word used to describe anything in glitter and make-up, but there`s a real and useful meaning behind the word. Apart from its dictionary definition of “deteriorating, declining, decaying” I think it also implies an artform where style has become more important than content. If so, then David Bowie at present is surely a decadent artist.
As a composer and arranger he`s creating some of the best songs of his period. As a performing artist he`s obscuring the form and content of those songs with a style which is flashy, sensational, superficial, and perhaps trivialising. He said recently that “just writing a song is not good enough”, and whether it`s his own inclination or because of the demands of his audience, he can`t simply stand up and play his songs. He has to deliver them within a “jack in the box” stage setting which must constantly thrill and titillate the audience.
On record his music has often thrilled and provoked me, but in concert I simply sit back to be entertained by the spectacle. I`m glad to have seen just how far he could take visual spectacle, but having seen it I`m looking forward to seeing him do a straightforward set, in a small club, because that`s the highest art of all.
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of Sounds also contains articles/interviews with these people: Eric Clapton, Bill Henderson, Moody Blues, Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, Eddie Riff, Leonard Cohen, The Rats, Alex Harvey, Dave Edmunds, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Gordon Lightfoot, Rick Wakeman.
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