I can’t imagine what popular music would have been like had there not been a David Bowie. He was a musician, actor, artist and fashionista with such an innate ability to anticipate cultural trends that he remained relevant for over four decades. Somehow Bowie always seemed young and fresh, in large part due to his uncanny way of reinventing himself regularly, collecting personalities, going from crooner to glam-rock star, to the dispassionate “thin white duke,” and the art-rock inventor of the progressive “Berlin trilogy” and beyond. He was, according to one commentator upon his passing, “of the time, at every time.” He remains one of the most recognized personalities in the world, and he is already missed greatly.
While the second stage of his career as Ziggy Stardust, king of glam rock was not my favorite era, I knew other teenagers who lived for this music particularly those on the Hollywood side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Many of these friends never felt they fit in, never believed that anyone understood or spoke for them before Bowie stepped onto the scene with his shocking hair, makeup, dress and confident androgynous manner. If the man never recorded a thing after 1974 he would still be canonized today, yet he continued to change and influence generations. After the Ziggy Stardust tour and movie, Bowie retired that persona, and recorded his last mostly glam album, Diamond Dogs, in 1974. Next up, Young Americans found Bowie delving into American funk and “plastic soul.”
But for this writer, it’s the next album, the 1976 classic Station to Station that really galvanized my interest. The record found Bowie experimenting with synthesizers and the kind of metronomic beat found in German Krautrock. The balance of ice and passion is clear as the title track begins with the ominous sound of trains and minor tones then building to a resolve that emerges into the jubilant final third, beginning with the exclamation, “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love!” Funk and soul tracks like the hits “Golden Years” and “TVC 15” are upbeat, while “Stay” is a grittier boogie, driven forward by an irresistibly funky guitar riff. The beautiful romantic ballad “Wild is the Wind,” the sole cover, must be Bowie’s most spectacular, inspirational vocal performance on record. It’s a tremendous album that represents a bridge between the prior work Young Americans, and the colder ambient classic Low to come.
Bowie’s persona for Station to Station was called the “thin white duke” clad in white shirt, black pants and waistcoat, and passionate dispassion. One writer described Bowie’s new alter ego as a “hollow man who sang songs of romance with an agonized intensity… ice masquerading as fire.” The tour supporting Station to Station stopped at the LA Forum for three nights in February that same year, putting the man and his new myth on display. Bowie reportedly took the stage, sang sixteen songs and left the building stoically. It was a rehearsed, perfunctory yet riveting experience according to those I knew who were able to attend, and as documented in a bootleg film of the rehearsals for the concert tour, and a recording captured one month later at the Nassau Coliseum in New Jersey. That complete live set was released in 2010 on two CDs included as part of a special three CD edition of Station to Station that also came with a booklet, some photos and other extras.
Bowie’s recorded output became even more interesting during the next phase of his career, the so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” working with progressive artists Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Iggy Pop and producer Tony Visconti among others. The resulting albums Low and “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979) are inventive, varied and always surprising. The world tour for Low and “Heroes” found Bowie is perfect voice and brimming with energy, playing with a supporting band of luminaries that included Adrian Belew and Carlos Alomar on guitars, George Murray on bass, Dennis Davis on drums, Roger Powell and Sean Mayes on keys, and Simon House on violin. Recordings from the tour were assembled for the double live album Stage, released in 1978. That album in its original form garnered some complaints due to tinkering with the song order, and other issues. More recently the album was remastered and rereleased on CD with those complaints addressed, the complete set of songs in their original order presented in a compelling stereo mix.
The best official film of David Bowie’s career in the 1970s is the 1973 movie Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – The Motion Picture. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, this is a rare chance to see Bowie during his glam period, taking the stage wrapped in his most influential alter ego. Fifteen songs from the set list are presented, along with a few behind the scenes shots of Bowie back stage. It’s not a polished product; the sound is flawed, sometimes brash, and lots of shots are blurry. But the 1.33:1 framing exposing extra grain and grit seems somehow representative of the early years of the Glam movement. The film played in movie theaters in the early 1970s for a brief time, and was later screened frequently as a cult classic.
The next official Bowie film would not be released until the Serious Moonlight tour of 1983 was captured for the home video market. It means that there is no officially released video to document several key concert tours in the intervening years from 1974 to 1982. Possibly the best film that was made captured a jubilant, well-groomed Bowie performing at the NHK Hall in Budokan Japan on December 12, 1978 on the last night of the Low and “Heroes” tour. Bowie himself is a revelation, leading his all-star band surrounded by pulsating fluorescent light tubes through a show that clearly influenced a host of new wave artists who followed. An hour of this fabulous concert was broadcast on Japanese television including a thirteen-minute rendition of the title track from Station to Station, with an intro that, courtesy of Adrian Belew’s wall of guitar distortion and accompanying keyboards, winds down imaginary train tracks for more than five minutes before Bowie appears and the melody kicks in. The film is well preserved and available on YouTube or via an unofficial DVD release from heavymetalweb.net
There were other televised performances during this time that are also of value. About forty minutes of a live performance at the Beat Club were captured for the German music program Musikladen. Six songs at the Dallas Convention Center and four on Saturday Night Live were broadcast in the U.S. Apparently, performances at Earls Court in London were also filmed, with excerpts shown on the tube there, but this footage has also not been released. It’s a shame that all of this concert footage, particularly the NHK Hall content, has not been expanded, remastered and released officially, rather than on bootlegs and low-res copies on YouTube. Yes, we can enjoy the official audio on the double-album Stage, but we are lacking important video content of this very visual artist. Maybe now with our hero sadly departed, as we gain perspective on the overall arc of his massively successful career, the remaining proof of his mastery will surface.
Tokyo Film Setlist:
- Beauty and the Beast
- Five years
- Soul Love
- Hang on to yourself
- Ziggy Stardust
- Suffragette city
- Station to Station
- TVC 15
Station to Station, 1978
Complete Tokyo concert:
Live at Beat Club Musikladen 1978