Bowie's Masterpiece Theatre... And, Upon An Empty Stage.
There are few transcendent ‘live’ albums. It’s a short list that begins with James Brown Live at the Apollo, and doesn’t grow much longer. Most ‘live’ albums are no more than souvenirs, gifts from a deity preaching to the converted. Often they’re as comfortable as the tour t-shirt, and last about as long. Once the novelty has worn off, seldom do you listen to a live album over the original studio recordings—not least since most artists are content to duplicate the studio albums note for note anyway, adding little to our understanding of how and why they created the songs in the first place.
Despite containing performances that are boldly at variance with the original song versions, David Live, recorded in Philadelphia in July 1974, has long endured a somewhat spotty critical reputation. In recent years it has been through numerous re-inventions/re-issues, and I’m damn sure if my copy hadn’t come free, I wouldn’t have pony-ed up for this one either. That being said, this newest version finally appears to be definitive, and it elevates a record that has, to my mind, long been under-rated, to something approaching grandeur. It’s like nothing else in the Bowie catalogue, and, more significantly, it captures a recording artist changing direction, artistically evolving, in the way of little else I can recall. Mere ‘entertainment’, it ain’t.
David Live records what came to be known as the ‘Philly Dogs Tour’. The show was originally conceived as an elaborate theatrical riff on George Orwell’s 1984 (upon which Diamond Dogs was based). By most witness accounts, the early shows came to be the apogee of Bowie’s theatrical concert expression—more bold and spectacular than the Ziggy shows, more heartfelt than any later theatrical excursion. Bowie himself has lamented that the only visual record of the shows are the brief, thrilling scenes in Alan Yentob’s BBC documentary of the time, Cracked Actor. Yet the sheer physical effort of performing the show took an enormous toll on the artist, and midway through the tour Bowie, increasingly under the influence of American soul music, became disaffected with the entire enterprise. By the end of the tour, the show was scarcely recognizable from the one that had started out, and Bowie himself was scarcely recognizable as the same musician. ‘Rock’ was all but gone from his sound, and in its place, the ‘definitive white plastic soul’ of Young Americans-era had emerged.
There are myriad differences on this latest re-mixed concert album, even from the most recent previous re-release (the contemptible nature of each new ‘standardized’ edition is beneath significant comment). Most pronounced are the inclusion of two extra tracks (“Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit”) and a newly revamped running order—finally, the songs are sequenced in the same order as performed in the original show. Now, from the opening bars, when a drummer can be heard acquainting himself with his set-up, to the show’s end, when Bowie introduces the band, the set feels complete and indubitably live.
The key that unlocks the album’s new effectiveness is Tony Visconti’s mix. Suddenly the entire horn section, punctuated by the sax of David Sanborn (yes, really), is given much more prominence, and more than ever before, you get to sense Bowie’s new influences, his new direction taking hold. On “Space Oddity”, Sanborn’s heightened saxophone and Mike Garson’s jazz-infused piano lend the song a deeply moving, almost elegiac quality, while Bowie’s raw, coke-damaged voice engenders a surprising warmth and pathos. There’s one particularly telling moment in the song—a moment almost broaching comedy, really—when Bowie exclaims “Good God!” as if he were the Godfather of Soul himself. Given the cosmic aspect of the song, it doesn’t feel entirely out of place (at least if we choose kindness in our interpretation), but it’s a revelatory moment. Doubtless “Space Oddity” was omitted from the original album because of minor sound quality issues, but the performance is both beautiful and tragic.
Most criticisms of the original album focused on the sluggish performance of the band, the pacing of several songs. In 1974, during the week of the recorded shows, money disputes between Bowie’s management and the band threatened the entire performance, only finding resolution at the last moment. Ill-feeling has sometimes been judged to have affected these performances, yet heard now, in their entirety, that scarcely seems justified. Certainly the band benefits greatly from the re-mix. There’s a vastly superior separation between instruments, and between main and backing vocals also. Suddenly the band sounds superbly balanced. On numerous tracks, various nuances and echoes—key elements of performance—have been restored where they’d been edited from the original recordings. It’s hardly as though this was conceived as a ‘polished’ album in the first place, so why such tics were originally omitted is somewhat mysterious.
And not that the show is perfect either—the age of guitar solos was still drawing to a close, and Earl Slick, given free reign, occasionally jams himself into a corner; the instrumental breaks on “Panic in Detroit” do indeed suggest the phrase ‘costume change’. And, not all of the material is Bowie’s best. Diamond Dogs hasn’t necessarily aged as well as other albums, even if that album’s centerpiece, “Sweet Thing”, is a dark, theatrical masterpiece here, a brilliantly conceived portrait of young, thwarted love—“We can buy some drugs and watch a band / and jump in a river holding hands”). Not all of the material holds up quite as well, however.
David Live draws to an appropriate close with a stunning, soul and blues-inflected interpretation of “Rock N’ Roll Suicide”. A Hammond organ, a funereal brass section provide backing, yet Visconti raises Bowie’s aching, fraught vocal high in the mix to stunning effect. Later, commenting upon his gaunt appearance on the album’s cover, Bowie, in a nod to Jaques Brel, suggested the album might have been called David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living in Theory. As the album closes, he indeed sounds like the man portrayed in the song on the brink of rock and roll extinction.
Stage, meanwhile, is a poor album for all the reasons that David Live is a good one. As a live recording it sounds canned and artificial, and unlike Live, offers precious little to our understanding of the artist or his process. True, the distance covered between the two albums—a relatively short, four year period - is striking in terms of the shift in core material, but it tells us nothing that isn’t already apparent from the chronology of the studio albums.
Ironically, unlike David Live, Stage draws almost exclusively from the two eras of work upon which Bowie’s reputation will ultimately rest—Ziggy and the Low/Heroes era. Seldom is either done justice. Low and Heroes are compositional masterpieces, years ahead of their time, but by their very nature hardly lend themselves to the rock concert experience. Both are cold, remote and synthesized. In later years, around the time of Outside (1995), Bowie would play the Low album in its entirety, the only way by which it could adequately be done justice. Here however, the ability to play these largely instrumental tracks live seems little more than a trick, a gimmick. With the opening of “Station to Station” the gimmick succeeds brilliantly for a moment, but that’s about it. In an effort to offset the chilled isolation of the music, Bowie does his best to supply what producer Brian Eno described as “Bowie histrionics,” but it’s a lost cause.
What’s most to blame is the manner in which the shows were recorded. Visconti approached the recording as he would a studio album and it sounds like it. The band was close-miked for fuller separation, the crowd recorded separately, and the failure of this method can only be fully perceived in the Ziggy Stardust song-cycle.
What’s unfortunate is that Bowie’s singing voice seldom sounded as grand or controlled as it does on these versions. Stage marks the point at which his voice had matured, yet precedes the dreadful crooner tendencies which were to mar his slight contribution to the music of the following decade. Anyway, the effort is wasted here. Bowie sounds like he’s singing from inside a telephone booth while the band plays in a parking lot across the street. Somewhere in the distance a crowd occasionally roars or whistles its approval—it’s hard to know whether for the music or for a sports game across town. Only the glory of the songs themselves comes close to redeeming the moment. Maybe in person it was all a spectacle to behold, but as a live recording, it pales in comparison to its earlier cousin.