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Update: Album 21 | Glass Spider Tour Live (2007)

Update (8/13/23)

The following post from 2018 was about what I guess is now a rare live recording of Bowie during the Glass Spider tour of 1987. As you will read, I reference having seen a broadcast of the concert on PBS. Perhaps the record was a bootleg, though I don’t think so. Subsequently, however, to the extent this was an official album, it has been supplanted by an excellent 2018 release (click here for my comments on that album, as well as a live album of the Serious Moonlight tour that was released at the same time).

So, what I was writing about below has become something of a mystery. I’m pretty sure it is a different collection of live recordings from a single concert on the tour. I’m pretty sure it was the counterpart to the video I saw on PBS. The one thing I know for sure is that the video I linked to in 2018 has been disabled, and I’ve replaced it with an audio recording of a Glass Spider concert— so if you listen to the clip, it is different than the actual album I write about below.

All that’s very confusing and that’s my fault because what I was really doing was using the knowledge that such an album existed as an excuse to really write about the tour and the concert I attended during the tour, which was my first Bowie concert.

The one other note I’ll add is that I have come to better appreciate Never Let Me Down, which many consider to be a contender for Bowie’s worst album. The tour, which some of those same critics look down upon as gaudy and overblown, was a whole lot of fun (at least I had fun at the one concert from the tour I attended). Some of the songs on Never Let me Down have surprisingly good lyrics, which I will address in an upcoming post. And a 2018 reissue of the album that combined new instrumental performances with Bowie’s original vocals unleashed some of the songs’ innate potential. Anyway, here’s what I wrote back in 2018:

What I originally wrote 8/18/18
A Glass Spider tour concert in Toronto in 1987 was the first Bowie concert I ever saw. It was the experience that cemented my fandom. The experience, which was almost as much a visual show as a musical show, was big, exciting and communal, but it also turned out to be a good first concert because most of the subsequent concerts I attended seemed even better. In ensuing years, the tour and the album it was promoting (“Never Let Me Down”) have not been remembered fondly by most commentators, but I do.

I don’t think the tour would be reviled today had it not been for the album, which I agree is one of Bowie’s weaker studio efforts. But the concerts are not the album. The video attached to this commentary is of an entire Glass Spider concert, which begins with several songs off “Never Let Me Down” followed by a few other songs from the 1980s. To me, Bowie’s live performance of the songs from the album are far superior to his studio recordings of the same songs. Watch the video— they come off as real rock and roll songs. This is atypical for Bowie, who usually is better in the studio (though I also experienced the concerts differently than the act of listing to live albums of concerts— attending is better).

As is often the case, Bowie is acutely aware of sequence. He starts with his newer material before transitioning to some of his older, harder-edged material until near the end of the concert performing two covers that are so hard-edged as to seem out of place with the rest — the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat.” I don’t remember if he performed these songs at the concert I saw, but I have to imagine that at least some in the audience were probably stunned at this point, that family-friendly MTV Bowie took the path from radio-friendly pop to songs that at least I think are about kinky sex and drugs. If audience members weren’t stunned, Bowie’s journey, which included songs that eased the transition, such as “Fashion” and “Time” (one of his more spectacular performances of that song), helped to introduce them to the full Bowie, nit just the pop icon.

All that said, there are several caveats about this performance— first, I am really commenting on the video. I had seen this before— it was once broadcast on PBS. I have no idea why it was broadcast on PBS, but I saw it, was delighted and in fact wrote to PBS encouraging future airings of Bowie concerts. The then watched and listened to the whole thing in preparation for writing this commentary. I am struck by the audio and visual quality, and more importantly by the choreography and physical performance. Bowie is performing as much for a camera (and there are several— different camera angles distinguish this video from some other concert movies) as he is for a stadium audience. The set itself— a giant glass spider, is almost as much a part of the show as the performers. While this is the opposite of intimate, it is certainly spectacular.

I have not actually heard the CD version. It exists out there. Copies are available for re-sale on line for exorbitant prices, so I don’t own a copy. It appears that the play list on the CD is different from that in the video, so this is not actually a commentary on the CD itself. If I ever get it, I will write new commentary.

But the video is…well, its great. It probably works better than the CD because the show, the dancers, the costumes, the set, even Bowie’s facial expressions add a lot to the music.

The Glass Spider tour is sometimes pegged at the nadir of Bowie’s career. He all-but abandoned his songs from “Never Let Me Down” after this tour. For an artist known for frequent style-shifts, there is a certain continuity to Bowie’s music (or at least his albums) from “Hunky Dory” to “Never Let Me Down,” but his next effort, “Tin Machine” marked as clean a break as Bowie could make. That radical a shift almost certainly hurt him commercially. I suspect that had Bowie released “Tin Machine” after “Scary Monsters,” it would have been better received and better remembered. Today, after reading multiple reflections on Bowie’s career since his death, the whole period from “Tonight” to “Tin Machine II” is usually lumped together as a low point. This is unfair, and the broad sweep takes in undergoing targets such as the Glass Spider tour (and live recordings of it).

***

If you have found this web site, chosen to read my comments on the Glass Spider tour and have read this far, you might be wondering what I meant by seeing continuity from “Hunky Dory” to “Never Let Me Down.” The two are very, very different albums, but stick with me a little longer here:

“Queen Bitch” is on “Hunky Dory,” which stands out as a little different from the other songs on that album, but would fit in nicely and in fact presages “Ziggy Stardust” or, even more so, “Aladdin Sane,” his next two albums. “Panic in Detroit,” on that latter album describes the kind of dystopia that “Diamond Dogs” is all about (that song could hav easily been swapped for for “Rebel Rebel”). “1984” on “Diamond Dogs,” is really a disco song that could have fit in nicely on “Young Americans” or “Station to Station.” The songs, “Stay” and “Station to Station,” both from the album of the same name, are statistically similar to music that would appear on the Berlin Trilogy and “Scary Monsters.” “Let’s Dance” is a shift from “Scary Monsters,” but “Scary Monsters” is not only the creative culmination of New Wave but it is also a pop album that was enormously successful and one of the initial experiences for MTV. He certainly performed hits like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” during his 80s concerts— oddly, this very “Glass Spider” video features a chorus framing the first two songs with a chanted version of “Up the Hill Backwards.” The thread between “Let’s Dance,” “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” are obvious. If you wanted to stretch it, I’d say that I could imagine adapting “Time Will Crawl” into a Tin Machine song, but that’s a stretch. After Glass Spider, Bowie detached himself from his entire back catalogue for a few years and tried something totally new.

For him it was an end, for me it was just the beginning.

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