For someone whose career has been so dependent upon character, costume, and construct, David Bowie’s music has always been stronger in the studio than live in concert. This is partly because his albums are constructs of character—evocations of time, place, and fantasy with the crucial support of orchestration and studio experimentation—and partly because Bowie himself, a musician behind closed doors and a performer onstage, can savage these constructs by favoring physical and visual aesthetics in a concert setting.
A Bowie live album, then, like virtually all live albums by artists who aren’t Jerry Lee Lewis or James Brown, is an especially superfluous document. With the visual component of the live show removed from the overall experience, albums like David Live (1974) and Stage (1978) offer little more than inferior run-throughs of otherwise indelible album tracks. Likewise, the soundtrack to D.A. Pennebaker’s 1983 concert film Ziggy Stardust: The Movie doesn’t exactly communicate the significance of the show itself (Ziggy’s last). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the two-CD Bowie at the Beeb: The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68-72 (2002) is Bowie’s best live set—taut and lean, it boasts fantastic renditions of some of his earliest material— unsurprising because the rules within a radio recording studio are wildly different than those on the adrenaline-thick tarmac of an auditorium stage.
On 20 October, 1972, a few months after the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie brought his Ziggy Stardust persona, along with his Spiders from Mars (guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, pianist Mike Garson, and drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey) to Santa Monica, California for a live performance at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The show was broadcast live on Los Angeles’ KMET-FM, and has since made the rounds as both the primo bootleg of the Ziggy era and the superior alternative to the Ziggy Stardust: The Movie soundtrack. Though it’s been long available in various bootlegged forms, the show is now getting its “official” 36th-anniversary release from Virgin/EMI as Live Santa Monica ‘72. (Virgin/EMI, perhaps recognizing the concert’s prolonged availability in the trading market, have packaged the disc in a box with reprints of original promotional photos, posters, and Robert Hilburn’s review of the show from the L.A. Times.)
It’s easy to see why the Santa Monica show is so widely hailed—the band comes out blazing with “Hang on to Yourself”, stomps through the moody “Changes”, and sets “The Supermen” alight. Later, in the show’s second half, they jam on the epic “The Width of a Circle” with a sort of frenzied heresy (Ronson is particularly emboldened throughout, and sets off sloppy sparks at whim), and get loose on stripped-down performances of “Moonage Daydream”, “The Jean Genie”, and “Suffragette City”. On this handful of strengths alone, Live Santa Monica ‘72 stands shoulders above any other officially released live album, a document of a night when the band was frequently roused to meet an electric standard.
The major problem with Live Santa Monica ‘72, however, is the extended five-song stretch of ballads in its middle that brings the show’s escalating momentum to a halt. Without the string arrangements of their original studio recordings, both “Life on Mars?” and “Space Oddity” are dramatically undermined. “Space Oddity”, in particular, stripped of its studio effects and stormy orchestration, doesn’t wield the art-construct power of its single version—in fact, it sounds downright silly as an acoustic piece, with Bowie simulating the lift-off section with his own voice. There’s no way that anyone hearing “Five Years” for the first time here would ever want to hear it again: its steady gait goes slack, and then suffers from the zombified backing vocals of the Spiders (“five years” sounds unusually similar to “braaaains”). “Andy Warhol”, perhaps the only song in the stretch that’s not worse than the studio version, is made even more eerie and disquieting, the two acoustic guitars and voices in unison issuing the deadened huzzah of a person obsessed.
I’ve always been wary of Bowie’s cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”, especially within the context of his glam years; not only is it a manifestation, like “Andy Warhol”, of his irrepressible hero worship, but the rugged NYC-isms of its simple narrative are in total conflict with the extraterrestrial ambitions of a character who sings about starmen and apocalypse. It’s unusually awkward here, sandwiched between “John, I’m Only Dancing” and “The Jean Genie”, a sudden insertion of apathetic humanity that reeks of fraudulent rubbernecking. Here, Bowie and his band make the scraggly sound of men, not the expansive racket of immortals.