David Bowie: VH1 Storytellers

David Bowie's VH1 Storytellers tells a sad tale: our hero lamentably mines adult contemporary territory while a former label looks for an easy payday.

David Bowie

VH1 Storytellers

Label: Virgin/EMI
US Release Date: 2009-07-14
UK Release Date: 2009-07-06

David Bowie made his formidable reputation by being ahead of the musical curve. His expressive voice, his idiosyncratic use of language and melody, and his deft manipulation of his image frequently set precedent. The high level of quality in the majority of Bowie's music from the 1970s alone still boggles the mind. This period was as fruitful as it was turbulent for Bowie. Fantastic music, famous friends, drugged-out behavior, and bizarre public appearances only contributed to his mystique as a tortured, pop chameleon. By 1983's Let's Dance, Bowie found sobriety and multi-platinum success but had lost some of the most challenging aspects of his music and image. The following years brought hit-and-miss dalliances with industrial music, electronica, and (gulp) Tin Machine. This is a man with stories to tell. It is therefore a shame that with so much classic material to his name, and with so many stories to tell, that VH1 Storytellers feels so pedestrian.

The underwhelming effect of this album is due to some poor choices. Among them, Bowie chooses to highlight his most recent album at the time, 1999's adult contempory-sounding Hours…. Two of the scant eight songs that provide the primary set, "Thursday's Child" and "Seven", come from this uninspiring album. These tracks are tailor-made for the VH1 crowd, so it is no surprise that Bowie, ever the astute businessperson, knows where to pedal his wares. The trouble is, these songs are horribly bland. Watching the DVD, with the crowd stiffly "rocking out" in their chairs to these atrocities offend both eye and ear while killing any momentum that Bowie and his band manage to conjure with more familiar material.

The "more familiar" material includes a spare and stately version of "Life on Mars" with only Bowie's vocals and piano accompaniment. It functions as a decent opener and fits the sterile VH1 set in a strangely satisfying way. Then, Bowie and his full band treat the audience to a version of "Rebel Rebel" lasting all of thirty seconds, complete with a half-hearted audience sing-along. Following the aforementioned "Thursday's Child", a surprise performance of "Can't Help Thinking About Me" provides a welcome diversion from adult contemporary territory. The track, written by Bowie in 1965, was the first single released after he changed his name from David Jones. A re-worked "China Girl" follows and further incites the staid crowd before "Seven" deflates the good times and pitiful chair-bound dancing.

The final two tracks find Bowie and his band finally hitting a minor stride. "Drive-In Saturday" from 1973's Aladdin Sane gets a spirited treatment, despite some overbearing backing vocals, that builds to a genuinely rousing conclusion. As rendered here, the song takes on a less-whimsical quality with the omission of the original recording's whooshing, 70s-era backing effects. If the original dripped with nostalgia for the bygone days, this version positively drowns in it, but it works in Bowie's favor. The world-weary vocals speak to the years of hard living behind him and make the nostalgic longing a bit more convincing than on the original. "Word on a Wing" from 1976's Station to Station follows "Drive-In Saturday" and the track's melodramatic nature suits the occasion and the audience. Bowie tweaks a section of the chorus to a lower register, a decision that dials back the overwrought nature of the original. It is a mainly solid ending to a rather unremarkable and brief set.

As far as the storytelling component of the performance, Bowie the occasional actor gleefully steps into the role. He offers up an anecdote or two that may or may not relate to the song he's about to perform and he frequently dips into mildly amusing impressions. These narratives, however, are not terribly interesting or illuminating. Bowie's affable stage persona does manage to shine through on the DVD, but his stories lose a bit in translation on the audio portion sans visuals. But on a positive note, at least with the CD the listener can avoid seeing all that awkward chair-dancing.

As of this writing, six years have passed since David Bowie released an album of new material, 2003's Reality. Since then, Bowie survived a heart attack and contribution to a Scarlett Johansson album. Given that this performance occurred in 1999 and is of underwhelming quality, it is difficult to see this release as anything but an attempted cash-in for his former label Virgin. Here's hoping Bowie returns soon with some compelling new material to wash away the bland, adult contemporary aftertaste of this release.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.