Synopsis: One of the greatest pop stars of the last thirty years, David Bowie, is recorded live in Australia on his massive Glass Spider world tour, performing 26 classics including ‘Jean Genie’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Fame’ and ‘Young Americans’. Filmed in 1987, Glass Spider was Bowie’s most spectacular and extravagant tour and featured the now legendary 50 foot high spider complete with illuminated flashing legs over the stage.
eyelights: the set-up.
eyesores: the set list.
I don’t get David Bowie’s pop era. I may be a pretty devoted fan (I have a rather healthy collection of Bowie CDs and DVDs), but I never got his ’80s stuff. I don’t dig the albums, and I don’t like most of the singles – even the much-loved duets “Under Pressure” and “Dancing in the Street”.
Firstly, I started liking Bowie with his first comeback album, ‘Black Tie White Noise’, but especially during his subsequent goth-industrial phase ‘Outside’ and ‘Earthling’. Influenced by the movie ‘Christiane F’, I went back to ‘Station to Station’, which I thought was superb – one of his best.
I bought boxed sets and explored Bowie left and right, filling in the gaps as I went. But his ’80s stuff never stuck. In fact, when I first attempted exploring Bowie’s discography years ago, it was ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Never Let Me Down’ that put me off. I hadn’t even heard ‘Tonight’ yet.
Or seen him in ‘Labyrinth‘.
Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. (The music, not Bowie. Or ‘Labyrinth’)
‘Let’s Dance’ finds Bowie at his most popular. Although ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ is the album that made a star of him, it wasn’t until 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’ that he went platinum in the United States – and five times platinum in Canada!
I know. It’s utterly mind-boggling. Bowie’s been around for so long and has had such a significant cultural impact (his arrival on the music scene changed it dramatically) that you immediately imagine that he’s sold a lot of albums. And he has – but far less than you’d have imagined.
I discovered that when I hosted my radio show from 2000 to 2007. My community radio station had a policy of not playing Top 40, and I got into trouble for playing Bowie. I had done my homework, thankfully, and could easily prove that Bowie hardly counts as a Top 40 artist.
But there was a time when Bowie was on everyone’s lips, where he could be found everywhere. The period from 1980 to the mid-’80s found a newly confident peacock strutting about the stage and the charts; the tortured chameleon had been replaced by a glossy pop star.
However, for all his chart success, critics started to pick Bowie apart. His new releases weren’t considered as innovative and in some cases were considered “rotten”. Even Bowie freely admits that it became his creative low point, that the success of ‘Let’s Dance’ had gotten him stuck.
By 1987’s ‘Never Let Me Down’, critics had their knives out. Bowie’s tour in support of it, the Glass Spider Tour, was vilified for its monstrous size, being considered at the time as “the largest touring set ever”. Still, it was well-attended and it changed the nature of rock tours.
The ‘Glass Spider’ DVD set was recorded at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in Sydney, Australia in November of 1987. There is also a special edition, featuring a 2CD live set (interestingly, the last is from an entirely different tour date, at the Montreal Olympic Stadium on August 30, 1987).
The programme begins with guitar feedback, overtop the opening credits. We then find Carlos Alomar, styled with long spikes, glasses and a strange outfit, shredding on stage. Bowie shouts for him to shut up. He stops momentarily, but continues anyway. This is repeated a few times.
Then some dancers come down from the top of the set on ropes. The stage is designed to look like a huge spider, with the spider’s body towering above the stage and its legs reaching out to the four corners. It’s an impressive sight to say the least, even if there’s really not much to it.
The rest of the stage is awash in a vast array of lights, which will be used to great effect throughout the show. Even the legs of the spider will light up from time to time, adding to the monstrosity’s awe-inspiring effect. Beyond the spider and lights, however, the stage has little decor.
Adding to the production, however, is the group of dancers, who contribute a sort of Broadway vibe. They are given a prominent part to play, opening the show with a rap and singing and dancing to an alternate version of “Up the Hill Backwards”, and being part of most of the songs that night.
Bowie tried to create a theatrical show and many of the songs had a sort of theme or gimmick to them. Or he had the dancers perform while he was singing. He made his first appearance on stage by being lowered dramatically from the top of the spider, sitting on a chair, singing in a telephone.
For the the first half of the show, Bowie sported a vibrant red outfit, but there were a few wardrobe changes later on. All of the outfits were eye-gouging ’80s pieces that have not aged particularly well. He barely gets away with his feathered pompadour; only he could get away with that.
What I find interesting about the show is that the stage was set extremely close to the audience, allowing Bowie to interact with them. For “Bang Bang”, he pretended to try to go into the crowd, but was pulled away by the dancers. Later, he reached out and touched hands with some of the audience.
They even staged taking someone from the audience to come on stage with Bowie. In reality it was Melissa Hurley, one of his dancers (whom he would end up dating for a couple of years), and she would pretend to fawn over him as her outfit was changed on stage by the others.
There were some interactions between them on subsequent songs and Hurley was given a lot of the spotlight, doing a number with another of the dancers on “Absolute Beginners”, amongst other things. To be fair, all of the dancers got the spotlight at various moments throughout the show.
There was a simple but cool choreography between Bowie and another dancer during “Sons of a Silent Age”, with him using his hands to draw her to him and push her back as though he were a magician. She was anchored down on skis, so her body would sway at his command, but remain in place.
Otherwise, Bowie’s participation in the theatrics was limited, aside for being lowered from the top of the spider a couple of times (the second time on blue angel wings). He mostly focused on singing and doing minimal mime stuff along the way, beaming broadly with the confidence of a seasoned pro.
Unfortunately his apparent enthusiasm (given how exhausted he was on the Glass Spider Tour, having produced and coordinated the whole affair, he must have been dialing it up) didn’t make up for the quality of the songs, which were culled from his most recent efforts.
Since his latest offerings were pop songs, it left him with very little to do but sing while the backing band (which included Peter Frampton) took care of the music. He only got to rock it out on a few numbers, mostly towards the end of the set – a glorious reprieve after an hour of middling fare.
What I find interesting is that I quite like listening to some of these songs, but they make for poor concert fodder. In fact, I actually quite enjoy listening to the 2CD set, which feature mostly the same songs, in the same order. But, for some reason, watching them being performed is quite dull.
Although tweaking a set as the tour progresses is something rather common, it’s interesting to note that the songs that Bowie ended up removing were all lesser-known ’80s songs – which were then replaced by more familiar tracks from the ’70s that were far edgier. It was a good choice.
For me, the highlights were “Rebel Rebel”, which totally rocked after a series of disappointing pop songs, and the closing set which was more of a rock set, with Bowie finally breaking out the guitar, and “Let’s Dance”, which, despite its repetitiveness, had some excellent instrumental passages.
There’s also the encore that gave us alternate versions of “Time” and “Fame” (where he brilliantly incorporated Edwin Starr’s “War” into the lyrics) and the two-track segment that included guest Charlie Sexton on guitars. Having five guitars and one bass was over-indulgent, but it rocked.
Frankly, the worst moment was “Blue Jean”, a terribly bland pop song. Why it was part of the encore is beyond me. “Never Let Me Down” also left me unimpressed, lifting part of its melody from “China Girl”, which had just been played three songs prior – and which also lacked substance in a live setting.
To make matters worse, the show had a few audio issues. For one, when Bowie talked it was all muddled, leaving me to wonder if the singing was pre-recorded. This notion was further cemented when Bowie was tossed about by the other dancers during “Fashion” and not once sounded winded.
There was also a moment during “The Jean Genie” when Alomar and Frampton did a guitar back-and-forth and Frampton is so buried in the mix that you can barely hear him – so it ends up being a one-sided exchange. I can’t help but wonder why the engineers didn’t pick up on this. Or why it wasn’t just remixed.
There were also some awkward edits in the programme itself, making it quite clear that it wasn’t a full show (Bowie did eight shows in Sydney). As well, instead of leaving the drum solo in, bridging the two sets, they cut it out, and they also cut the break between the main set and the encore. A damned shame; I would have preferred it uncut.
But, ultimately, the key problem is the set list. Bowie’s ’80s output was simply weaker than the rest. It’s worth noting that he has not performed any songs from “Never Let me Down” since this tour; he himself has become quite unhappy with that part of career, feeling that the songs got lost in the studio.
1. Intro/Up the Hill Backwards 7.0
2. Glass Spider 7.5
3. Day-In Day-Out 7.0
4. Bang Bang 7.0
5. Absolute Beginners 6.75
6. Loving the Alien 6.75
7. China Girl 7.25
8. Rebel Rebel 8.0
9. Fashion 7.0
10. Never Let Me Down 6.75
11. “Heroes” 7.25
12. Sons of the Silent Age 7.5
13. Band Introduction n/a
14. Young Americans 7.5
15. The Jean Genie 7.0
16. Let’s Dance 7.5
17. Time 7.5
18. Fame 7.0
19. Blue Jean 5.5
20. I Wanna Be Your Dog 7.25
21. White Light/White Heat 7.5
22. Modern Love 7.5
Bowie would go on to burn his ‘Glass Spider Tour’ set at the end of the tour. It had been an excruciatingly stressful tour for him that it was a relief for him to put a permanent end to it. But he maintains that it was a game-changer and that he would never ever do another show of that scale.
Personally, I’m very happy to have finally seen it. I had seen small clips on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ back in the day, well before I knew anything about Bowie, and always wondered what it was like. But I suspect that I will stick to the CDs in the future. Watching the show wasn’t all that it could have been.
And, frankly, there are plenty of other DVDs I can watch if I get a hankering for some Bowie.
Dates of viewings: December 27, 2014 + Jan 1, 2015