My Set is Amazing, it Even Smells like the Street: David Live (1974)

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With this post, we have spent the last year looking at the first full decade of David Bowie’s presence in the public consciousness, half of which he spent as an abject failure and half as a luminous success. Following his one-off success with “Space Oddity,” he struggled to make his career work, despite putting out some truly remarkable records. With his glam reinvention as Ziggy, he put his obscurity behind him and became a major name in rock, kicking off an intense period of work and artistic development that paid handsome benefits in the short- and long-term for his career. By the end of 1974, there was no doubt that Bowie was a major success, a major influencer, and (slightly less obviously) a major coke fiend.

At this stage, at least, it was a huge benefit to keeping the market sated with new product (even if some of it never saw official release; see our previous entries on his unsuccessful attempts to adapt 1984 and mount either a Ziggy or 1984 musical). It also clearly provided the fuel he needed to keep exploring and experimenting at a breakneck pace: working with Burroughs’ cut-up lyric technique, increasingly looking to R&B and soul (alongside other genres of music) for inspiration, and taking on the daunting task of largely replacing the band that had brought him so much fame and fortune.

Most of these changes were successful, and his two official albums of ’74 both scored extremely well in the charts, with Diamond Dogs expanding both his audience and musical repertoire considerably, and David Live, despite some serious flaws, solidifying his reputation as a major British artist. For a guy who was, in 1971, looking at already being a novelty act, Bowie’s “second act” — a period of huge artistic and commercial success that wouldn’t wane for nearly another decade — must have seemed to him like every possible dream come true. But he was already starting to pay a price, both in financial and health terms.

As the cover of David Live (which even Bowie himself said made him look like a zombie) showed, the tell-tale signs of cocaine addiction were obvious: never a fellow accused of being overweight, the ghostly light the Dagmar photo captured of him on stage originally made him look as blue as the soul-inspired suit he was wearing. Thankfully, a later re-release of the album properly colour-corrected the image — but Bowie still had the pale pallor of a recluse, and the emaciated frame of a bulimic teenager.

The original release of this album, rush-released to coincide with the second major leg of the tour, also came across as something of a corpse of the original version of the show — even as it showcased a number of interesting (and in some cases enthralling) new arrangements of both the old and new featured songs. Critics listening to the original version complained that the playing was often rather muted, the audience enthusiasm obviously mixed down, the background singing uninspired, and Bowie’s own performance somewhat strained and occasionally off-key.

07fec618dab241267f70f0d2fea3d6dbTony Visconti, called in to do a rush-mix of the live tapes he had not supervised, had to cope with a number of technical problems on the original performances, recorded over two nights in July in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The finished product in 1974 featured both harsh and variable qualities, with studio overdubs of both the horn work and background vocals being required to make it a saleable release. Visconti still says (of the original version) that it is the Bowie project he was involved in that he is least proud of.

There were other problems behind the scenes, to put it mildly: while most reports of the shows from the first leg of the tour are said to have been exciting, fresh, and well-received, the 12-piece band and singers on the first evening of the recording were blindsided to discover that the Philly shows would be captured for a live album release; they had neither been informed of this nor paid extra for it, a major violation of union rules. Hours before showtime, they threatened not to perform.

It’s not clear how Bowie felt about the situation (which would almost certainly have been a failure of his management not to let the musicians know), but he eventually settled it — less than an hour before showtime — by agreeing to pay every member a $5,000 bonus for the recorded shows. While this might have satisfied musician union rules, the last-minute nature of the deal clearly did not sit well with the band, who by most accounts did not perform with the same enthusiasm they had up to this point. This can be heard quite audibly throughout the album, most notably on Disc Two, though I am unaware of which nights are represented by which songs on the album; I only know that the performances vary between great and plodding, sometimes hitting these two extremes one song after the next.

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Photo credit: Terry O’Neill

Still, for those buying the record, the production problems were either unknown or overlooked, as the album did incredibly well — especially given that it was not really as well-produced as other live albums for the period, and got a certain amount of panning from a wide variety of voices, from Lester Bangs to Mick Jagger. In hindsight, the innovation of the new arrangements — already showing off the increasing funk/soul influence Bowie was taking on, as tipped off by his unusual-but-urgent remix of “Rebel Rebel” for the US single — and the skill and variety of styles Bowie showed off in his well-chosen setlist saved the day, even when they didn’t always work on an audio-only level. As later releases proved, even the sub-par performances some say is captured on this record shows off an incredibly entertaining evening that the audience were clearly enthused about.

Thankfully, time and improvements in audio technology meant that later on, the album would be remastered from the bare original tapes — a job that happily fell to Visconti himself in 2005. As far as this reviewer is concerned, this is the only version of David Live that should still be acknowledged: the corrected colour cover matching perfectly with the rediscovered and enhanced performances to do as much justice as possible to the show, and recapturing more of what that portion of the tour — halfway between the grim Orwellian Diamond Dogs and the forthcoming “plastic soul” of Young Americans — must really have been like.

Side note: a dozen years after the 2005 update, Visconti was called upon once again to help remaster another document of the later, “Soul Tour” part of the overall tour, called Cracked Actor. This album started off life as a high-quality soundboard bootleg (then called A Portrait in Flesh) of the 05-September performance in Los Angeles, after Bowie had reworked the show, ditched the hideously-expensive and problematic “Diamond Dogs” city set, and replaced many of the original tour performers with his Young Americans entourage, having recorded that album during a short summer break in the tour.

It was during this return to the studio to cut Young Americans that the overdubs for David Live were done, and as a result of the studio experience and personnel changes, the second half of the tour took on a distinctly funkier, looser flavour, according to those who witnessed it. As can be heard clearly on Cracked Actor, the injection of Young Americans material ahead of the album’s release had clearly livened up the band, the singer, and the audience.

All that said — as a document of the first leg, the 2005 version of David Live, now properly remixed and restored by Visconti, is now a valuable document, though it could never capture the remarkable (and expensive) visual aspects of the first leg, which including moving and functional cityscape sets and functional props, like streetlights. The 2005 resurrection and the original 1974 version are both included in the recent Who Can I Be Now? box set, though the 2005 version was and still is available separately.

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A rare glimpse at the “Hunger City” cityscape sets used on the first leg of the tour (which apparently cost $275,000 in 1974 dollars), largely abandoned during the second “Soul Tour” leg

In addition to greatly improved sound (though still with detectable issues throughout), the 2005 version also corrects the track listing back to the original running order, restoring songs that had been cut from the 1974 release or inserted randomly as “bonus tracks” on later re-releases. One of those restored was Bowie’s high-wire performance of “Space Oddity,” which was sung into a wireless mic hidden in a telephone from high above the stage. It was previously left out of other versions of the album due to the poor quality of the captured vocal, but Visconti was able to use digital software to patch it up sufficiently to put it back in the album — albeit with a still-noticeably poorer quality than found with the stage mics.

Two other tracks, “Time” and a cover of the Ohio Players’ “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” were originally returned to the recording in the 1990 Rykodisc version, along with a brief segue where Bowie introduced the band. In addition to those songs and “Space Oddity,” the 2005 release also restored “Panic in Detroit.” The 2005 version of David Live is, of course, this one we will be using for this review.

The audio difference in this version is immediately obvious with the very first track, “1984.” David’s vocal is remarkably improved from the 1974 vinyl and 1990 CD releases, and the entire mix is far better balanced and less harsh, particularly in the blending of the (overdubbed) sax and background vocalist parts. While the vocals are considerably restrained from the Diamond Dogs version, it seems like this may have been due to it being the show opener, or perhaps a difference in the first and second nights of recording; his vocals warm up considerably later on, though he is not without strain or occasional other issues. Most of the arrangements here seem designed to prevent Bowie from over-straining his voice, a sensible precaution on a long tour (80 dates, though two were eventually cancelled) but resulting in inevitable complaints of a loss of urgency and energy in the performance from time to time.

The US single arrangement is used for “Rebel Rebel,” and the first and second numbers quickly establish the important presence of Mike Garson on keys, Earl Slick on guitar, and David Sanborn on alto sax (Richard Grando plays the baritone sax, while both would switch to flute as needed, such as with the opening number). Slick, doing his first work with Bowie on this tour, would go on to replace Mick Ronson for the next two tours and albums — and others later. The ever-reliable Herbie Flowers supplied the bass. Tony Newman, who played drums on the album, did the same for this part of the tour tour.

By the time the third track, “Moonage Daydream,” comes along, Bowie seems fully warmed up (or this is from the second night) and turns in a strong performance. Likewise, the entire band seems fully engaged for the suite of “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” — although, as there is a lot of sax and background vocals here that were laid on later, it’s hard to properly judge. Overall, when combined with the visual and theatrical elements that would have been part and parcel of it, the entire suite seems to work better here than it did on the original album.

Garson runs through an awkward charge of piano runs at the end of it to bring us to the beginning of a set of Bowie’s recent hits, with “Changes,” “Suffragette City,” and “Aladdin Sane” following in short order. While there is a little strain in Bowie’s vocal on “Changes,” he’s clearly a million miles away from lapsing back into his short-lived cabaret act. He even changes the lyric (back to) “these children that you shit on” in this version.

The “Suffragette City” performance, however, is a good deal less energetic on Bowie’s part, with the saxes and guitar making up for his lacklustre vocal. He does seem, throughout, to have more enthusiasm for songs that get the newer arrangements. Listening to the now Latin-inflected treatment it’s given here, with another trademark bonkers Garson solo, it reminds me of something Joe Jackson might have done on his Night and Day album, and Bowie even throws in two lines from “On Broadway” just to tip his hat at the jazziness of it all.

We then get to one of the first real surprises of the evening — his first formal performance of the incredible hit single he wrote for Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes.” The audience was clearly thrilled, but as with all the Bowie versions of the song, it doesn’t quite work — but not for lack of trying. This time, it suffers from a “theatrical” arrangement that sucks out its urgency (much like “Changes”), which one has to assume was due to the staging. Sanborn’s aggressive alto cuts into it rather too much as well, but his sax falls back into line with the song “Cracked Actor,” which properly belongs more to Slick’s guitar pyrotechnics.

“Rock n Roll With Me,” is where all the various band elements, including Bowie’s vocal, really slide into place. This version works much better than the album version, in our view, thanks to a genuinely more soulful feel (borrowed as it is from Bill Withers, it may not be that surprising that a more R&B arrangement works better).

After cryptically saying “you win” to someone, Bowie launches into a fairly anemic version of “Watch That Man,” a song you’d think the backup singers (including Warren Peace of the Astronettes) would go to town on, but they are strangely held back — as are the rest of the band. Rather than applause, the track ends with a pause before the next number, since this was the end of the first record/CD.

The second disc opens with Bowie telling the audience (who presumably know this by now) “we’re going to play a selection tonight … some silly ones” and then immediately launches into his cover of “Knock on Wood,” likely intended to kick off a short “soul” section but which flops around like a fish on a boat dock. Heavy guitar chords would seem to herald a number from, perhaps, “The Man Who Sold the World,” but it then lurches into cabaret-cum-Elton-John style number with almost no groove (see also Tonight’s terrible version of “God Only Knows,” and other misfire cover versions from across his career). While “Knock on Wood” was released as a single, the world opted to wait for the vastly-superior disco version by Amii Stewart five years later, and even Mick Jagger made fun of how “lame” a version it was (on the 1974 album).

This is followed by “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” with all the soul sucked right out it. A month before he would record Young Americans, Bowie was in the process of aping a soul singer, but had not yet quite found his inner funk. It’s not at all surprising to learn, then, that after recording the next album he scrapped the Diamond Dog stage elements of the tour and much of that band. Among the new background vocalists were a young Luther Vandross and his main Astronette, Ave Cherry. Also brought in for the “Soul Tour” leg was Carlos Alomar, again the start of a long affiliation.

Flowers on bass and Newman on drums were replaced with Doug Rauch and Greg Errico (respectively), but they only lasted a month before being replaced with Willie Weeks and Dennis Davis. The backing vocals expanded from two in the June-July leg to six in September and beyond, which made quite a difference. Slick, Garson, Sanborn, percussionist Pablo Rosario, and Warren Peace were the only on-stage performers apart from Bowie himself who made it through the entire tour.

On “David Live,” it isn’t possible to judge how the audience reacted to these previously-unheard covers and other oddities, but in the opinion of this reviewer the horn sections, lacking trumpets, were very underutilized and sometimes restrained on most numbers, and didn’t offer much to help infuse the needed soul into Bowie’s version (even when they are set free on other numbers). Specifically with “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” (Bowie’s slight retitling), the Ohio Players version remains vastly superior.

After a short instrumental break featuring an uncredited acoustic guitarist (Slick, presumably) and Garson, the audience cheers briefly as it recognises the forthcoming “Space Oddity,” followed shortly thereafter by the unexpected sight of Bowie appearing from the rafters in a chair, singing the song into a telephone (with a hidden wireless mic in it) as he is moved out over the front rows of the audience. The new arrangement is slower and a bit more psychedelic at times, a bit more cocktail-lounge at others — and suffers from both the distortion the wireless mic introduced in Bowie’s louder notes, as well as a generally lower-key performance from all players. Ironically, the 1969 original single was re-issued by RCA a year later in 1975, and finally hit the top of the charts in the UK, rather than this version.

The palpably-lower energy heard in Disc Two thus far extends to the next number, the title track of the Diamond Dogs album, which is greeted with considerably more enthusiasm by the briefly-heard audience than is given back by the performers. Compared to the original, the performance throughout is lethargic, and the background vocals literally sound like they were recorded underwater, in what was presumably an intentional effect on stage but is disconcerting in the hearing. How a band can turn such a lively and well-written number into such a mundane club performance I don’t know, but this was likely one of several targets for the critic’s ire on the lower-quality performances here and elsewhere, though a brief highlight is David’s added shout of “keep cool, the Diamond Dogs rule, okay?” with an echo effect on it.

Things pick up considerably from Bowie on “Panic in Detroit,” with the band and the singer finding some new energy (again, I suspect this is from a different night than “Diamond Dogs” before it), and the saxes again trying to fill in as a whole horn section (which is really what was needed). Slick really goes to town here during the solo break, though the background singers remain somewhat lower-key than they should have been. The number ends rather abruptly with some (very clearly) grafted-on audience reaction.

By contrast, “Big Brother” benefits considerably from a new and superior arrangement to the album, convincing vocals from Bowie, and someone appears to have woken up the backing singers. This number segues into the Sanborn-dominated “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” this time a mercifully brief and sax-heavy version, ending with the “runout groove” repeated “bruh” vocal.

Having been spliced back into its correct running order, there’s another noticeable edit in the tape before the audience welcomes “Time,” which (even only in the hearing) is clearly part of the staging that would have accompanied “Big Brother/Chant.” For the former, Bowie sang inside a glass-and-mirror “asylum,” and used the “Chant” section to re-emerge to sing “Time” seated in a giant open hand (“big” brother, get it?). Now here is where we get a full-on relapse into faux-Rocky Horror-cabaret best suited for rock theatre, with a dramatic performance from David and (finally) strong support from the band and other singers. Even Garson gets a few moments to go a little berserk on the keys: he’s more of a punk rocker on that instrument than he could have known (punk at this point only being a small cult scene in New York City and London; a glimmer in Joey Ramone’s eye, you might say).

“The Width of a Circle” also seems to work well with this arrangement, helped along with (surprisingly) equal contributions from Slick, Sanborn, Garson’s Mellotron, his backup singers, and Richard Grando’s bass saxophone along with Newman’s drums. A true collaboration in all parts that works really well as both a song and a jam piece, working way better here than in its original incarnation, complete with its big showy finish.

bowie-74This smartly moves into a rather chill opening for the first few lines of “Jean Genie” before bringing back the power for the chorus, then reverting back to the low-key intimacy for the second verse (where the audience can, remarkably, be heard clapping along). Throughout David Live, the audience reaction is mostly simply added at the end as (enthusiastic) punctuation on the musical sentence, and occasionally heard reacting to the beginning of a song.

Like Stop Making Sense, the listener is only periodically reminded that there was an audience at all for this, though the dynamics, staging, vocals, and other elements always make it clear this was a live recording. As we’ve noted, the stagier arrangements used throughout work better with some numbers than others, and with “Jean Genie” the new arrangement is appropriate for the circumstances and fine for it, but in no way does it best the raw power of the studio version.

Likewise, the end of the show and “Rock and Roll Suicide” merits an opening cheer as Bowie starts the number quietly, and shows off how rough (on some notes) his voice had gotten after such prolonged and mostly strong singing, but it is carried off — albeit with less urgency — and Bowie introduces the band and the cheering fades, and we’re done.

Next up: Because it provides a notable contrast and record of the quite-different second leg of the same tour, we’ll again digress and take a look at Cracked Actor, now a posthumous “official bootleg” (hat tip Bob Dylan) that was again blessed by Pope Visconti of the Church of Bowie in a new mix released in 2017.

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About chasinvictoria

Writer/Editor, Comic Performer, Doctor Who fan, radio DJ, Punk/New Wave/Ska fiend, podcaster, audio editor, film buff, actor, producer, leftie (literally and figuratively), comedian, blogger, teacher, smartarse, and motormouth. Not necessarily in that order.

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