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Uncut NOVEMBER 2018 - by Rob Hughes
DANCING WITH THE BIG BOYS
The 1980s were another decade of profound transformation for David Bowie. He achieved fame and success on an unprecedented scale - but was it worth it? As a new multi-disc boxset documents Bowie's superstar years, Rob Hughes hears from friends, collaborators and confidants about "survivor's guilt", island hopping with Iggy Pop and disappearing stage props. "Looking back at that period, you might even think Bowie was ahead of his time," says Carlos Alomar. "It's just that people weren't ready to receive the message..."
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Few are sure what really happened to the Glass Spider. As with many matters concerning its creator David Bowie, its fate has become the subject of much mystery and hypotheses over time. What is certain, however, is that a sixty-foot-tall arachnid - complete with over six thousand metres of lights - never made it back home after the final date of Bowie's Glass Spider Tour in Auckland, New Zealand, in November 1987.
One story suggests that the contraption was buried in a hole near Auckland airport. A local roadie claims he bought most of the set and kept it in his warehouse, before finally selling it for scrap. Even Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton - Bowie's long-term allies and both guitarists on that tour - are unable to recall what unhappy fate befell the giant stage prop. Bowie, perhaps jokingly, once claimed he "just put the thing in a field and set light to it. That was such a relief!" It is a version of events backed up today by bassist Carmine Rojas. "David looked like he was glad to be finished with it all," he recalls. "It was a magnificent bonfire of the spider, which I think was a metaphor for moving on to the next big adventure."
Of all the tributes paid to David Bowie after his death in January 2016, few were dedicated to the Glass Spider Tour. Tied to his Never Let Me Down album, the Glass Spider Tour symbolised the extravagance of the era - employing dancers, film projections, stage props and hydraulic equipment that reportedly cost a million dollars-a-week to maintain. Critically, it also represented a turning point in the artist's career.
The Glass Spider Tour ended up as the fourth most successful tour of the decade, behind The Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels, Michael Jackson's Bad and Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse Of Reason tours. Here was Bowie, jostling for space among the heavyweight stadium elite. For an artist who had spent his career exploring masks and characters, he had found a new role to try for size - Bowie the superstar, with the kind of global reach his '70s years could only hint at. But was it worth it?
From the beginning, Bowie had shown an interest in theatrical high- concept works, elegant showmanship and restless reinvention, and he continued to explore these ideas during the '80s - only on a colossal scale. Bowie had entered the mainstream: the world was watching. But the trajectory of Bowie's '80s - from Pierrot to pop star, goblin king and a glass spider - was divisive, to say the least. And not just for Bowie fans. "Dylan gave voice to the alienated, but David gave voice to the freaks," says Reeves Gabrels, who began working with Bowie in the late '80s. "He wasn't a pop star. He just happened to be able to make some pop records every now and then. That's how he kept the machine running. But he was an artist. The function of entertainment is to make you feel good, the function of art is to make you feel."
"I think there's a certain conflict between who you are and what you are, which has a lot to do with the time you say it," says Carlos Alomar. "That's always been a problem with David, because he always says things ahead of his time. Concerning whether he wanted to be a rock star or not, I don't think he ever really thought like that."
By setting fire to the giant spider in a field outside Auckland, Bowie called time on his most successful period. His career, so consciously self-wrought, had seemingly taken a wrong turn. Bowie had tested his fans' mettle before - transitioning from glam to soul to electronica and beyond. But this time something was different. Bowie, the saviour of outsiders everywhere, had become Bowie the insider, complete with a bouffant peroxide-blond quiff, a pastel-lemon suit and a disarming smile. Perhaps this move into the mainstream was simply another volte-face in a career full of equally unorthodox twists and turns?
But it wouldn't last - as Bowie himself seemed all too aware. "I'm going to be huge," he had prophesied to Melody Maker's Michael Watts back in 1972. "And it's quite frightening in a way, because I know that when I reach my peak and it's time for me to be brought down, it will be with a bump."
December 8, 1983. David Bowie is playing the final date of his Serious Moonlight Tour. The show, at the cavernous Hong Kong Coliseum, proves to be especially emotional. After a stunning Space Oddity, he delivers a short speech that gives some indication of the tour's scale and impact. "This is handkerchief time for all of us," he says, his voice low and wistful. "It's been eight months on the road now. We started in March this year, and I think we've done just about every country in the world."
A little later, he finishes the main set by playing a rousing version of Imagine, to mark the third anniversary of John Lennon's death. Bowie's long-standing guitarist Earl Slick, who'd also played on Lennon's Double Fantasy) album, had suggested they commemorate the occasion. "Thank you and goodnight," Bowie waves as the last chord fades. He and the band hug briefly, before returning for their final encores. Then, after ninety-six shows in fifteen countries, it is over.
"That tour opened him up to a totally different audience," says Alomar, who, with the exception of Let's Dance, had been by Bowie's side since 1975's Young Americans. "As well as Europe and America, Serious Moonlight went to Australia, Singapore, New Zealand. We were suddenly projecting into these giant arenas, doing crazy concerts. It was a different mindset for him, but when confronted with this large-scale endeavour - even the costumes came from a New York opera company - David immediately rose to the challenge."
But what to do now it was over? While most of the band chooses to return home after the Hong Kong gig, Bowie stays a while longer in the Asian-Pacific, accompanied by his devoted assistant, Coco Schwab. Together with Iggy Pop, he travels to the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java. There, as Bowie visits colonial-style houses deep in the jungles or watches the monsoon rains pour down, it is possible that he takes a moment or two to reflect on the remarkable events of the last twelve months.
"I'll go back into my retreat when I finish the tour," he'd told one US TV interviewer midway through the dates. "I've learned a lot from this tour about what works and what doesn't."
1983 was a watershed year for Bowie. He was finally free from the contractual grip of ex-manager Tony DeFries, who (despite going his separate way eight years earlier) had a share of all Bowie royalties up until September '82. His tenure with RCA was over too, enabling him to sign a new deal with EMI America for a reported $17,000,000. Then came Let's Dance - a bright, well-heeled mix of R&B, funk and pop, co-produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers. Recorded in just seventeen days, it was EMI's fastest-selling album since Sgt. Pepper.
"Diehard Bowie fans act like those records of the '70s - Ziggy Stardust, Pin Ups and the others - were these massive records, but they weren't," says Rodgers. "They were interesting, wonderful, theatrical rock'n'roll records. They were great artistic products, but they weren't Let's Dance. We've got to be honest, the numbers tell the story. I know people who'd never heard David Bowie, but when they heard the song Let's Dance - boom! - they went out and bought that record."
Certainly, the figure who bounced into his press conference at London's Claridge's Hotel to announce both the album and tour was very different to the Bowie of old. Sharp-suited and tanned, with a fresh peroxide hairdo, he looked fitter than he had in years. Even his old bandmates were taken aback. "It was the healthiest I'd ever seen him," laughs Alomar. "When I first met David in '74, he was a thin, ninety-eight-pound addict - 'Oh my God, eat something!' Now I was looking at him and thinking, 'Wow, something's happened. He looks healthy, he's enthusiastic, he's smiling, he's raring to go.' He was like that guy who loves boxing and every time you meet him he's hitting some hidden punching bag. And this had nothing to do with drugs. It was lovely to see."
Bowie's newfound populism was magnified by the anticipation over the Serious Moonlight Tour - his first live shows since Isolar II in 1978. But that seemed so many David Bowies ago. Now, Bowie's audience was very different. "I've never thought of him as a pop star, even though we had three commercially successful hit songs on the radio," offers Rojas, who played bass on Let's Dance and the Serious Moonlight Tour. "Yes, he was an international star. But I'm not sure that he craved it. He was actually a true artist trying to formulate his ideas."
In July 2018, Carlos Alomar and his wife Robin Clark closed Brooklyn Museum's David Bowie Is... exhibition with a lecture titled The Soulfulness Of David Bowie. It's a factor that Alomar believes was more integral to Bowie's passage through the '80s than any notions of becoming a pop idol. "He'd bitten the apple when he created the Spiders From Mars in the '70s," he says. "But I don't think David looked at stardom as an end goal. The journey itself was the thing that interested him."
For Bowie, however, it was an uncertain process.
"I remember looking out over these waves of people and thinking, 'I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?"' he confessed in 1997. "I suddenly felt very apart from my audience."
"Let's Dance was way bigger than he expected it to be," says Alomar. "And there's this sort of success remorse that goes on when you are accustomed to being eclectic and cool and underground. But Let's Dance is still a cool record. It's just big. It's a big cool record."
Managing expectations was a major struggle - especially for an artist who'd shifted styles with such autonomous freedom during the '70s. The success of Let's Dance was ultimately confining; Bowie had become a brand. As if to remind him of his fearless, trailblazing past, Bowie's old label RCA chose to belatedly release the soundtrack to Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture in October 1983 - just as the Serious Moonlight Tour reached the stadia of Japan.
Five months after the Serious Moonlight Tour ended, Bowie was back to the studio. "While we're on tour we get called by the record company," explains Alomar. "They say, 'The record's doing great and sales are amazing. We need another album right away.' This is what really bummed David out, he hated that."
Eager to make good on their new employee, EMI wanted Let's Dance II. While the notion of repeating himself had never been part of Bowie's philosophy, he was mindful of the amount of faith - and money - they'd invested in him. "David told me about how Let's Dance was what he and Nile wanted to do and it just happened to be a hit," recalls Reeves Gabriels. "Then he tried to replicate it and it was forced. He felt like he kept getting this really big audience - whereas he used to just have this really big cult audience, as he put it - and didn't know who they were any more."
In the previous decade, Bowie sought out collaborators who could keep up with his shifting aspirations - be it Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, Brian Eno or the black rhythm trio of Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. Inviting Nile Rodgers to oversee Let's Dance may have been a masterstroke, but Rodgers believes the reason he wasn't asked back to produce the follow-up album "was because of the tremendous success of Let's Dance. There's a big difference between the world before Let's Dance and after. It changes everyone. And I think David definitely had some sort of... we call it 'survivor's guilt'."
Instead, Bowie chose Derek Bramble - a decision apparently made on the strength of demos that the ex-Heatwave bassist had recently produced for Jaki Graham. "David always had this thing of wanting to be at the cutting edge," reasons engineer/producer Hugh Padgham. "I think that's why Derek was asked to be producer: 'I'm gonna find this guy who's shit-hot and hasn't really produced anything before and I'm going to make him famous.'"
With Rodgers in the producer's chair, it is possible things might have turned out differently. Sessions took place between May and June 1984 at Le Studio, just outside the town of Morin-Heights, in Quebec. Padgham remembers Bowie grew irritable at Bramble's habit of making him do endless vocal takes, while Bowie didn't have much in the way of new material. "He was doing it so soon after the [Serious Moonlight] tour and he admitted that he couldn't write while he was touring," reveals Padgham, who ended up co-producing the album with Bowie after Bramble left halfway through. "I'm not sure that David knew what he was doing."
Having arrived at such a creative impasse, Bowie's solution was to reach into his past for inspiration. The arrival of Iggy Pop in Quebec contributed to the bigger picture of the album sessions. Together they worked up Tumble And Twirl and, with Carlos Alomar, Dancing With The Big Boys. As a more direct link to their previous collaborations, Bowie also revived two songs from Lust For Life - Neighbourhood Threat and Tonight - as well as another Pop song, Don't Look Down. Theirs was a relationship that thrived on several levels. "The alter ego of David Bowie and the alter ego of Iggy Pop went very well together," says Alomar, who was bandleader on Tonight. "But David Jones and Jimmy Osterberg worked even better. They had a calming effect on each other. They didn't talk bullshit. When they got together in the studio it was like sleeping belly-up - unprotected, unpretentious, willing to accept change: 'Why don't you do primal scream?' 'Why don't you shut up?' They were totally candid with each other."
In 2019, Kevin Armstrong plans to tour as part of Iggy's band, though the schedule is still very much in the air. As Iggy's longtime musical director, and Bowie's guitarist at Live Aid and beyond, Armstrong is well qualified to ponder the nature of their deep-rooted bond. "I've always thought that each of them had something, artistically, that the other wanted," he explains. "Or that completed the other somehow. Iggy's an American garage artist who crossed over and became very influenced by the intellectual, slightly literary European flavours of people like David and Brian Eno. Similarly, I think David looked to Iggy for that animal, rock'n'roll charisma that he's got. That was something that didn't come naturally to David. They're not very similar characters at all really, but they had a brother bond from Germany and the rest of it. And drugs from the early days, I guess."
Just as he'd done in the previous decade - first with his involvement in The Stooges' Raw Power and later The Idiot and Lust For Life - Bowie was on hand when Iggy's career faltered in the '80s. Two years later, Bowie co-wrote, produced and bankrolled Pop's Blah-Blah-Blah album - Iggy's most commercially successful album to date, landing him a Top 10 hit with Real Wild Child (Wild One).
"I never felt competitive with David at all," Pop told Uncut. "I thought he had a set of complementary skills and I thought he had access to a lot of knowledge he could offer me, and then see what happened. I think I functioned as an outlet for his overflow."
For all Bowie's laudable philanthropy, Tonight was not the punchy, finger-popping follow-up to Let's Dance envisioned by EMI. Released in September 1984, Tonight reached Number 1 - but it remains one of the least regarded albums in Bowie's canon. The new Iggy co-writes lacked bite and substance, while Don't Look Down and Tonight - the latter a duet with Tina Turner - were reimagined as torpid reggae. Aversion of The Beach Boys' God Only Knows - which he'd first attempted to cover with Ava Cherry And The Astronettes in 1973, was a low point. Loving The Alien and Blue Jean, the only new songs credited solely to Bowie, were the album's standouts by some distance - the former, especially, saw some of Bowie's interests in esoteric literature, religion and Eastern mysticism resurface.
Bowie had gotten away with a shortfall of fresh ideas on Let's Dance - which included reworkings of Cat People (Putting Out Fire) and The Idiot's China Girl, alongside a cover of Metro's Criminal World - by the sheer dash and dazzle of the production and arrangements. But Tonight had precious little of those qualities. "Bowie was a consummate professional in that he was absolutely the best singer I've ever worked with," Padgham says. "He would nail it in the first or second take, pitch perfect every time. But the content was a different matter. I wasn't crazy about the faux-reggae vibe on Tonight, and I thought Blue Jean was a bit lightweight as well."
Instead, Padgham was left to wonder what might have been. He remembers Bowie and Iggy sketching out the bones of two other new songs in the studio, both of which he felt were superior to the existing ones. "Those two spare songs never got finished," rues the producer, who admits to his memory being a little fuzzy on the sharper details. "What I do remember is that they were rock-oriented and I thought they might really balance the album out more, so that it felt like a proper Bowie album. But I think at that point in proceedings David was like, 'I just want to get this bloody thing done. I just want to get on and enjoy being a pop star for once.'"
But did Bowie enjoy being a pop star? Recalling this period to Uncut in 1999, he admitted, "I was a pretty lonely, strung-out kind of guy. Just wasted, in a way." It seemed that navigating the mainstream was a confusing business. You only had to look at David Mallet's video for Loving The Alien - one of the standout tracks of the period. Bowie is seen in a variety of scenes, from a Crusader knight to a groom in full morning suit, posing beside an Islamic bride in a sepia-flooded wasteland. These are cut with footage of Bowie singing on a soundstage, all immaculate hair, patterned jacket and powder-blue pants. It's as if he can't quite decide whether he wants to be an arthouse rover or guest presenter on Pebble Mill At One.
His other forays into the medium were more persuasive. Along with Julien Temple, Bowie devised a twenty-minute film, Jazzin' For Blue Jean, taking on a dual role as the hapless Vic, failing to impress the girl of his dreams, and charismatic rock star Screaming Lord Byron, caked in makeup and dressed in Arabian New Romantic frills. Vic takes the object of his affections to a club to watch Byron, only for the latter to disappear with her afterwards. His parting shot to Byron as he exits with the girl is priceless: "You conniving, randy, bogus, Oriental old queen! Your record sleeves are better than your songs!" It also happened to ring uncomfortably true at that phase in Bowie's life. As a fop whose brash public persona was directly at odds with his offstage personality, Byron represented both a celebration and send-up of the stage characters that Bowie created in the '70s. "He'd invented so many extraordinary versions of himself," Temple explains, "that it seemed nice to come up with another one for the film, which would contrast powerfully with his more nerd-like, fan side in the video."
The flamboyant Byron was the perfect fit. It also looped back to Bowie's formative years of the early '60s and the kind of bands he used to see at the Civil Hall in Orpington - Screaming Lord Sutch, Nero & The Gladiators, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. "I've always been a big fan of Byron and that lineage of British creative characters whose lives had been something that impacted on the culture," Temple says. "I think Bowie really changed how a lot of people thought, beyond just being a musical figure. I also feel that without bands like Screaming Lord Sutch and Johnny Kidd, you wouldn't have had the explosion of the early to mid-'6os. They were crucial figures who had this great link to earlier music-hall popular culture, as well as being pioneers of rock'n'roll. We were trying to find an exotic persona in order to create another kind of imaginary Bowie character."
By and large, however, Bowie appeared to have outgrown his need to assume other identities. Or perhaps made them less discernible. Carmine Rojas, for example, believes that "David's image on stage was another one of his many characters or personalities that he was trying to flush out for the Serious Moonlight Tour." Carlos Alomar disagrees. "We sometimes give up on the fact that he's just a guy," he says. "To be quite succinct, David is an actor who sings. And that's all there is to it. If you take that mentality, all things make sense."
Peter Frampton insists that, essentially, Bowie never changed. "Ever since we used to hang out together at school and play on the art block stairs at lunchtime, we both had the same drive," he says. "I was purely about the music, whereas David, from a very early age, was image-conscious and knew how important that was. I think that was because of his art background, through working with my dad. He was one of the first artists to realise that you've got to keep reinventing yourself."
The association with Temple extended into long-form film. He and Bowie had become close, regularly hanging out at London's Bar Italia coffee spot and exchanging ideas. In 1995, Bowie took a role in Temple's film of Colin Macinnes' novel Absolute Beginners, playing ad exec Vendice Partners. The film was set in 1950s London - the same period that Bowie's rock'n'roll obsessions began to take root. One scene in the film involves him singing and tap dancing over a giant typewriter. Coming on the back of other recent movie roles - The Hunger, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and Into The Night - Bowie appeared to have finally morphed into the all-round entertainer that his early manager, Ken Pitt, had foreseen for him in the latter half of the '60s.
Bowie recorded two songs for the Absolute Beginners soundtrack. That's Motivation - the song he danced across the typewriter keys to - and the title track. Heartbreakingly romantic, with its swooping chorus and show-stopping vocals, Absolute Beginners was one of Bowie's most inspired recordings of the decade. The songs were recorded at Abbey Road studios in June 1985, where a group of session musicians working for Thomas Dolby were handed letters from EMI requesting they work with a "Mr X". It turned out to be Bowie, of course. Kevin Armstrong, leading the studio band that day, remembers Bowie "bouncing in and crackling with energy", before taking him aside and asking a favour. "I think he must've been at the very fag end of any involvement with drugs," Armstrong says. "But he said to me, 'Could you get me some coke?' So I phoned somebody up from the payphone in the hall and told them to bring some to Abbey Road. The guy phoned me back going, 'You'll never guess where I scored it from - Angie Bowie!' I went, 'You'll never guess who it's for - David Bowie!' Stupidly, I told David my guy had got the stuff off Angie, which immediately caused him some alarm. Looking back, I can't believe I told him that."
Luckily for Armstrong, the incident didn't ruin his professional relationship with Bowie before it had even begun. After helping create an arrangement for Absolute Beginners in twenty minutes, Armstrong and the band cut a demo: "David then mentioned that 'When we do it for real I want a girl singer who sounds like a shop girl.' So I told him that my sister sang a bit and worked in Dorothy Perkins. He didn't even hesitate, he just went, 'Right, get her in.' And that was it. Janet rolled up to the actual session and sang it."
Armstrong was particularly struck by Bowie's work ethic. "On the day of the Absolute Beginners demo in Abbey Road he was also filming Labyrinth [Jim Henson's musical fantasy] in the same building," recalls the guitarist. "But there was no sense in which he was distracted. He had great focus; he always gave whatever he was doing all of his attention." The ability to fully plug into a variety of tasks was a typical Bowie trait. But summer 1985 proved to be particularly taxing, even for Bowie. Aside from studio sessions and film duties on Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth - a part that involved flouncy shirts, wig and tights - he was also preparing for a slot at Live Aid.
As it transpired, it was one of the defining performances of the day. After a seismic rendition of "Heroes", made all the more impressive by his use of a new and hastily rehearsed band, Bowie dropped Five Years in order to show a heart-rending video of the Ethiopian famine, set to The Cars' Drive. Donations spiked dramatically in its immediate wake.
Bowie's other contribution to the Live Aid cause was Dancing In The Street, an exuberant duet with Mick Jagger. As with Iggy, he and Jagger had been friends since the early '70s. "David and Mick had this kind of slightly camp banter between them," Armstrong recalls of the recording session for the song. "At one point they were on about calling 'Maureen': 'Shall we ring up Maureen?' It turned out they were talking about Elton John."
The success of Dancing In The Street - Number 1 in four countries - underscored Bowie's phenomenal popularity as the '80s deepened. Sales of Tonight flourished in the long afterglow of Let's Dance, going platinum within three months. But Bowie now found himself competing with younger artists like Prince and Madonna, who presented themselves in ways that challenged all categories - much as Bowie had done in the previous decade. Meanwhile, a new generation of artists began to colonise the margins - The Smiths, REM, the Cocteau Twins - occupying the ground Bowie had once emphatically owned.
It was against this backdrop that he recorded Never Let Me Down in autumn 1986. The unofficial consensus among Bowiephiles is that the album represents the biggest hiccup of his career, amplified by its creator's own damning assessment of it as "my nadir". The songs are overlong - admittedly, a common problem with albums from this era, where record labels feel the need to fill all seventy-two minutes of a CD running time - while the arrangements are over-fussy, allowing little room for melodies to breathe.
Yet Never Let Me Down had something that both Let's Dance and Tonight lacked: a glut of Bowie originals. And whereas he'd been content to merely sing on his last two LPs, here he played a variety of instruments, including guitar and keyboards, much as he had done in the '70s. Tonally, the songs had more in common with the abrasive qualities of Scary Monsters than anything else Bowie had attempted during the '80s.
It would be disingenuous to make claims for Never Let Me Down as some kind of unfairly maligned classic. But there was enough promise on there - Zeroes, Beat Of Your Drum, Time Will Crawl - to avert an unmitigated disaster. Bowie's main bugbear, for which he admitted full responsibility, was his sloppiness when it came to the album's production.
Among the musicians was an old schoolmate from Bromley Tech. The son of Owen Frampton, Bowie's art teacher, Peter Frampton had become a key member of The Herd and then Humble Pie before 1976's Frampton Comes Alive! made him a superstar.
Popularity on that scale wasn't particularly welcome. He complained that it stripped him of his credibility and brought him a teen idol status he loathed. When Bowie came calling ten years later, asking him to play guitar on Never Let Me Down, Frampton was still battling his public perception as a faded pin-up. "David and I had kept in touch over the years," says Frampton, three years Bowie's junior. "He'd do stuff like invite me to over to see him in The Elephant Man. And he was also there at the other end of the phone for advice. I think Dave was protective of me. He definitely felt bad for me because of the bad rap I got as the pin-up and the face again. That's why I believe he called me to do Never Let Me Down, knowing full well that he wanted me to play on the Glass Spider Tour afterwards, and that doing both was a way of reintroducing me as a guitar player. For that, I can never thank him enough."
Never Let Me Down sold well, but not so well as to justify the enormous expense of its attendant Glass Spider Tour. Instead, Bowie helped meet the enormous cost by entering into a sponsorship deal with Pepsi. It is possible to view the Glass Spider Tour as Bowie's Spinal Tap moment, a grand folly of ridiculous proportions. He was certainly an easy target - the mainstream star as corporate sellout, adrift from the realities of grassroots rock, lost in an overblown vanity project. But while Bowie could no longer profess to be the outlander he'd been in the '70s, there was more to all this than simply pageantry.
In fact, Bowie was busy establishing deeper connections to his own past. Aside from the inclusion of Frampton, two veterans of 1974's Diamond Dogs Tour - set designer Mark Ravitz and choreographer Toni Basil - were enlisted to help realise his ambition. Glass Spider was the logical conclusion of those Diamond Dogs shows, which Bowie had abruptly cut short when he abandoned the theatrical elements halfway through the tour.
"During Glass Spider, Bowie was the same hardworking, creative person that I'd first met in London in 1973," says Basil. "He had the set planned out and the idea of the dancers scaling down from the top before I arrived. It always had the big thumbprint of his vision, which I just filled in. It was fascinating to see how he would manifest things and jump into them. And how his mind would take him in different directions. David could take an idea and blow it up to another level."
The Glass Spider Tour was certainly multifaceted. Aside from complex routines involving Bowie and the dancers, there were costume changes, guitar-solo spots for Alomar and Frampton, plus big set pieces that referenced those from the Diamond Dogs Tour. At one point, Bowie was lowered onto the stage in a chair, speaking into a telephone, just as he had in '74. Though this was nothing compared to the performance of "Time", for which a winged, gold-suited Bowie abseiled down from the top of the spider's body.
"There was a lot happening on that stage," recalls Carmine Rojas. "It was like Lindsay Kemp meets Mad Max and had a baby. I said to David, 'This has to be a head-fuck to take on.' He said, 'My dear boy, you're absolutely right. She's a handful.'"
It didn't always work. Adverse weather at some of the outdoor shows caused the more daring manoeuvres to be scrapped. At other times, the lengthening summer daylight hours meant that the light shows became redundant. The detailed routines tended to lose their impact in the bigger venues. "It was very difficult for people to grasp onto, especially in a stadium atmosphere," Rojas admits. "The concert itself would have been a lot more suited for theatres."
"David was sometimes playing to giant arenas of sixty to eighty thousand people," adds Alomar. "So the frame of reference had gone galactic. Money was being thrown at this tour every day like you wouldn't believe. Suddenly, we had a new way of looking at the concert stage and the concert performance." According to Toni Basil, "the Diamond Dogs Tour changed rock'n'roll theatre for ever, and Glass Spider blew it up even more. I think Glass Spider was a huge influence on Broadway shows, because it had all the sets and through-lines, plus all the groundbreaking technical stuff."
Perhaps the most memorable night of the tour came in June '87, when Bowie played before eighty-thousand Germans at Platz Der Republik, a short distance from the Berlin Wall. Less than a mile away lie Hansa studios, where Bowie had cut "Heroes" ten years earlier. "The crew had set up PA speakers pointing east towards the Wall, so that the East Germans could enjoy the concert too," recalls Rojas. "There was a moment in the show when we heard them sing back the chorus of "Heroes". A few us were in tears."
"There are very few moments where everything really reaches that pinnacle, and that was one of them," says Alomar. "It was so emotional." The vast crowd on the other side of the Wall was eventually dispersed by police with tear gas. On his death in 2016, the German Foreign Office paid tribute on Twitter: "Goodbye, David Bowie. Thank you for helping to bring down the wall."
The Glass Spider Tour can be seen as the lavish endgame of Bowie's '80s, the point where he turned his back on mainstream commercial fame. Reeves Gabrels, whose then wife was a publicist for the US leg of the tour, befriended Bowie. "We'd hang out in his dressing room, watching Fantasy Island with the sound off and doing made-up voices for the characters," he says. "David once told me that the only thing good about being famous is that you can get a good table in a restaurant and free tickets for shows. He was eager to do something that would destroy any commercial pop expectation where his career was concerned, but also something that would shield and preserve the Bowie brand name for the future. Something to fall on the grenade."
Bowie's wish was to pull back completely and return to basics. But what exactly did that mean? Ostensibly, Bowie hadn't properly been in a band since the 1960s - when he'd played in beat groups The Konrads, The King Bees, The Manish Boys and The Lower Third. But things were different now. He wasn't just another struggling face on the regional touring circuit; he was David Bowie. At least if Tin Machine - the band Bowie formed with Gabrels, Hunt and Tony Sales, veterans of Iggy's '70s outfit - didn't allow Bowie to 'disappear' as fully as he might have liked, the band environment did at least recalibrate his working practices. "I wanted to be part of a group of people working towards one aim," he told Uncut in 1999. "Success was rather immaterial. I needed the process to acclimatise myself again to why I wrote, why I did what I did. All those issues that an artist going through 'a certain age' starts to think about. Of course, smack on '87 was forty for me. I'd been thinking, 'OK, I'll go off and paint now.' I'd made a lot of money. I thought, 'I could just bugger off and do my 'Gauguin in Tahiti' bit now.' But then what do you do? Re-emerge at sixty somewhere?"
Gabrels describes Tin Machine as "Glen Branca meets Neil Young" - and certainly the band's excursions in experimental rock laid the groundwork for Bowie's solo work in the '90s. In this context, it's possible to view Bowie's '80s in a different light. The success of Let's Dance and the Serious Moonlight Tour was due to a chance convergence of art and commerce, at a time when Bowie was perfectly primed for it. His subsequent trials, from Tonight through to the Glass Spider Tour, were a manifestation of the struggle to break free of the constraints that mainstream acceptance had brought. It was a decade of transformation that led to Bowie being reconciled with his own creative self. Never again would he court the mass market. His '80s experiences convinced him that his true place was on the artistic fringe. Had Tonight never existed, then neither would Outside or Earthling. Had he not made Never Let Me Down, then he might never have arrived at Blackstar. On their own peculiar terms, the '80s are as vital a part of Bowie's legacy as his '70s.
"The '70s had been a wild and creative ride for him," offers Kevin Armstrong, who was part of Bowie's band, off and on, for ten years. "But he found that he was losing control of his money, because of his notorious ex-manager. So he was probably craving some stability by the '80s. If you're David Bowie and you've got that creative fire, you can take a few left turns and try out things. Not everything he did was amazing, but if you look at it as a totality, he took risks all the time."
"I always felt that David was well in control over the years," says Frampton. "I'm not saying he didn't have his crazy period - we're all entitled to go nuts occasionally - but his strength of character and sense of survival remained intact. It was a case of 'Knock me down and I'll get up stronger'. He was powerfully self-directed."
"Looking back at that '80s period, you might even think Bowie was ahead of his time," suggests Alomar. "It's just that people weren't ready to receive the message."
How an old friend came to cameo on the Serious Moonlight Tour...
One of the unexpected treats of 1983's Serious Moonlight Tour was a guest appearance by Bowie's former guitarist Mick Ronson. The one-time Spider From Mars was working as a session player and producer, overseeing a new project by Canadian singer Lisa Dalbello, when the tour played Toronto's CNE Grandstand on September 3. Ronson decided to pay Bowie a visit at his hotel, where Bowie - who hadn't seen the guitarist in eight years - asked him to join him on stage the following night. "I think he was a little nervous," bassist Carmine Rojas recalls. "He was three sheets to the wind!"
After an ecstatic reception from the sixty-thousand-deep crowd, Ronson borrowed Earl Slick's blue Stratocaster and proceeded to attack The Jean Genie with gusto. "I really thrashed the guitar," Ronson said later. "I was waving the guitar above my head and all sorts of things. It was funny afterwards, because David said, 'You should have seen [Earl's] face...', meaning he looked petrified. I had his prize guitar."
Ronson became so involved in his own showmanship that he nearly fell off the stage. "As I was watching, I started getting flashbacks from the live footage of Hammersmith '73," Rojas marvels. "Even though he was in that condition, my appreciation for his past triumphs will never waver."
10 NEGLECTED GEMS FROM BOWIE'S '80s
CRYSTAL JAPAN (Up The Hill Backwards B-Side, 1981) - Initially earmarked for Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) but replaced by closer It's No Game (Part 2), this track was actually released as a single in Japan in 1980. A comely instrumental, it was a throwback to the ambient moods of Low and "Heroes".
CAT PEOPLE (PUTTING OPUT THE FIRE) (single, 1982) - Co-written with legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, the original version of the song (with its sinister synthesisers and rushing chorus) is far superior to its Let's Dance counterpart.
THE DROWNED GIRL (Baal EP, 1983) - The most affecting Brecht/Weill track that Bowie covered for the BBC's dramatic adaptation of Baal finds him plucking doleful guitar over a spectral arrangement.
RICHOCET (Let's Dance, 1983) - Bowie later regretted that "it didn't roll the way it should have", but this oddly metred swinger is a fine synthesis of art rock and R&B.
THIS IS NOT AMERICA (single, 1985) - A subtle, sophisticated gem with a luxurious vocal, recorded with the Pat Metheny Group for the soundtrack of The Falcon And The Snowman.
IGGY POP SHADES (Blah-Blah-Blah, 1986) - The best of Bowie's six co-contributions to Pop's comeback album, Shades has a brooding, wistful quality enhanced by Pop's rich baritone.
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS (single, 1987) - Lifted from the soundtrack of the animated film of the same name, Bowie and co-writer Erdal Kizilcay unpack a delicious melody in a sad plea for survival.
ZEROES (Never Let Me Down, 1987) - Indebted to The Beatles and "every '60s cliche I could hink of", and with a sly reference to Prince, Bowie examines the effects of superstardom.
GIRLS (Time Will Crawl B-Side, 1987) - A co-write with Erdal Kizilcay, Girls was first recorded by Tina Turner on her Break Every Rule LP. Bowie apparently intended a Jaques Brel-style chanson; enjoy its warm, swooping Wild Is The Wind charm.
TIN MACHINE I CAN'T READ (Tin Machine, 1989) - It's tempting to view this track - Tin Machine's best - as Bowie's comment on his own artistic failings in the '80s. Full of mood and darkness, with Bowie repeating the phrase "I just can't get it right" over a spare, metallic soundtrack.
"IT WAS A LABOUR OF LOVE!"
The second coming of Never Let Me Down
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Loving The Alien (1983-1988), the latest in Parlophone's ongoing series of Bowie boxsets, is the inclusion of an entirely new recording of Never Let Me Down. Initially released in April 1987, Bowie later dismissed the album as "awful", regretting his lack of application when it came to the record's production. "About a year later, David and I were sitting on deckchairs by Mountain Studio in Switzerland, looking across Lake Geneva," recalls songwriter/guitarist Reeves Gabrels, with whom Bowie had just begun recording as Tin Machine. "He started telling me, 'Y'know, I'm proud of the songs on Never Let Me Down, but I wasn't in the best shape and wasn't as present as I should've been at the sessions.' He later pointed to a couch in the studio and said, 'I did most of my work on the record from there, passed out.' He blamed himself for a lot of it and suggested we try re-recording some of those songs back then. It was a subject that would come up periodically through the years, usually late at night on the tour bus or in the studio."
Under the guidance of engineer/ producer Mario McNulty, Gabrels is now part of the band responsible for finally granting Bowie his wish, alongside David Torn (guitar). Sterling Campbell (drums) and Tim Lefebvre (bass). The revamped Never Let Me Down also features string arrangements by Nico Muhly and a guest appearance by Laurie Anderson. Bowie himself set the ball rolling in 2008, when he asked McNulty to re-record and remix Time Will Crawl, the album's second single, for his iSelect compilation. "Oh, to redo the rest of that album," wrote a wistful Bowie in the liner notes.
"There were three major changes that David was specifically looking for when we redid Time Will Crawl," McNulty tells Uncut. "One was replacing the cold, badly programmed drum machines with real acoustic drums. He also wanted to have a very modern string arrangement, in the style of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. And the other thing was to make a new arrangement, getting rid of most of what was there, then taking bits and looping them. He was getting creative with the existing track."
Using Time Will Crawl as a blueprint, McNulty and the band - all of whom share history with Bowie - entered Electric Lady Studios in New York earlier this year. The most striking aspect of Never Let Me Down 2018 is its relative simplicity. McNulty has weeded out all the synthetic clutter, giving Bowie's vocals the live-in-the-room feel they deserve. Songs that previously sounded slack now jump with new life. "It was a labour of love and we were following David's wishes and, to some degree, instructions," explains Gabrels. "At one point I thought to myself, 'He's just doing this to fuck with us.' [David] Torn and I cut some of the guitar overdubs spontaneously. We were really having fun, and in a way you're thinking, 'Wait 'til David hears this tomorrow.'"
Campbell, whose studio association with Bowie ran from 1993's Black Tie, White Noise through to The Next Day, some twenty years later, adds, "We didn't have any real plan, we would throw the old multiple tracks up and do them one by one. The spirit of David was definitely in it. You'd laugh if you saw how most of the stuff I did with that man was done. It's almost comedic. We're technically dicking around, but at the same time we know what we're doing."
Zeroes is a prime example of the band's approach to the source material. "David's voice was astounding to listen to after everything else had been stripped away," marvels Campbell, who played on the 2008 version of Time Will Crawl. "I couldn't trip on the record in '87, but just hearing him on an acoustic guitar and vocals made me go, 'Holy crap! This is an amazing song.' It's sounds so much more powerful now."
Tackling Zeroes was a particularly poignant moment for Gabrels. "Mario played it to me with bass, drums and just David's acoustic guitar and vocals on the first day at Electric Lady," he says. "I was like, 'Wow! There's a song here!' It was obvious that a second acoustic guitar would beef it up a little. One of the things David and I often used to do, from Tin Machine through to Hours , is play double acoustic guitar together. Sometimes he'd play twelve-string and I'd play six- string, and vice versa. We'd sit facing each other with our guitars in front of the mics. So I started playing Zeroes on acoustic guitar, with my eyes closed while we were recording. In my mind's eye I saw David sitting across from me. I could see the way he would move his shoulder and even the way he'd cross his legs and bounce the crossed leg while he was playing. He'd look at you, but at the same time get this faraway look in his eye. When I got to the end of the track, I opened my eyes and of course he wasn't there. I knew at some point during the session that I was going to feel like I was about to cry. I was just glad I was sitting alone in the studio when it happened."
Other songs feed from the Bowie back catalogue. The intro to New York's In Love barrels away to the rhythm of Boys Keep Swinging; "Bang Bang, the Iggy Pop cover, is recast in the image of Moonage Daydream. "I turned that one right around, off the top of my head," says Campbell. "If there was one lesson I took from David Bowie, it was about how you could flip the script in a second."
"It was like Mario had cast a great movie," says Gabrels. "We all looked at each other at one point and went, 'Fuck, we should take this band out on the road if only the singer was still alive.' There were a number of things that were said where I could imagine David laughing at them. He was the one who once told me, 'Death will never hurt an artist's career.'"
"I WAS FIGHTING HIM EVERY STEP OF THE WAY!"
How Bowie vetoed Let's Dance II
A full decade had passed by the time Bowie returned to the studio with Let's Dance producer Nile Rodgers. The pair worked together on the soundtrack of Ralph Bakshi's 1992 animated fantasy Cool World, before starting on sessions for Bowie's first solo release of the '90s, Black Tie, White Noise. "He wanted to go back to being much more avant-garde, but I was fighting with him every step of the way to do Let's Dance II," reveals Rodgers. "I said, 'Hey, why don't we bury Let's Dance? Let's just slaughter it! Let's make a record that's more commercial than you could ever imagine.' And David was like, 'No way!' He was recoiling, in a way, from that kind of mega success that he'd had in the '80s. I knew Iman before he married her, because she and I were good friends and used to go out partying. So I'd call her and beg, 'Will you tell your husband to let me make this commercial?' And she'd go, 'But Nile, I love this!' The working title of Black Tie, White Noise was The Wedding Album, so she had a different perspective. I guess it was David's wedding present to her. It was a case of, 'Here's my life, Iman.'"