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Week 86 | Serious Moonlight (Live ‘83) and Glass Spider (2018)

Earlier this year, I had been listening to two surprisingly good “new” live CDs released in 2018 but recorded in the 1980s. Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour, promoting “Let’s Dance,” was probably the peak of his mass appeal as a pop star. The following major tour, Glass Spider, which was promoting, “Never Let Me Down,” was the first occasion for me to see Bowie live. The studio album is remembered as one of Bowie’s worst, and the tour is sometimes remembered as the epitome of garish excess. That said, these two live albums are terrific.

Though the Serious Moonlight tour was highlighting “Let’s Dance,” it was also Bowie’s first tour since “Scary Monsters,” which is my favorite album. Many of the books and articles I’ve read about Bowie, especially after his death, treat “Scary Monsters” as something of the zenith of his career and the mid-late 80s as the nadir. Many fans consider “Let’s Dance” to be a sellout album, and what followed to be the continuation of a downward spiral. None of that is evident on this live CD.

To begin with, Bowie’s voice is the strongest I have heard it on a live album. Along with these two new live albums, I had also been listening to “Santa Monica ‘72,” which is also in contention for the best Bowie live album. Bowie sang in a higher pitch back in 1972, and he punctuated his singing with more warbles, lilts, sighs, huffs and other techniques that came off as edgier and more suggestive than his later vocal technique. That said, “Santa Monica” is really the only live album that puts those techniques on full display. Even, “Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture” features a slightly deeper voiced Bowie who dropped many of the vocal tricks.

A decade later, Bowie was trying to do different things with his voice. One of those things was to go deep and stay there. This is maybe most noticeable in, “Cat People,” which he successfully carries off on “Serious Moonlight.” “Cat People” is an excellent song that usually doesn’t make it onto “best of” lists, in part because Bowie’s “best of” list can easily go on and on, but also because Bowie didn’t really work it into his rotation much after the Serious Moonlight tour. I suspect part of the reason was the challenge of maintaining the low pitch in later years. It is one of the highlights of the album, but also is the best example of why the album is so good— the strength of his voice.

There are two minor downsides. The first is that the playlist includes nothing “new.” There are no songs on this album that can only be heard on this album. There are no covers of songs that don’t appear on his studio albums, and no radically reworked obscure songs from deep in Bowie’s back catalogue. One of the amazing things about Bowie’s first two official live albums, “David Live” and “Stage,” is that there are no duplicate songs between the four discs. His performance on those albums is not as good as on “Serious Moonlight,” but the variety is stronger. Instead, “Serious Moonlight” includes several songs that appear on many live albums— “Heroes,” “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fame” and more. These are all welcomed, but the album would have been even stronger if it included, say, “Imagine,” which I know Bowie sang at least once during the tour.

The other slight fault is the over-reliance on a brass section. I don’t think of “White Light/White Heat” as a brassy song, but it is on this album. Oh well, the musicians do a good enough job, they just seem to take a little bit of the edge off a very edgy song.

Bowie’s voice continues to hold strong on, “Glass Spider,” but if anything this is an even better collection. The main reason for this is its inclusion of many of the songs off, “Never Let Me Down.” Bowie would abandon these songs after this tour, so they don’t appear on any other live album I know of (there is another “Glass Spider” live album floating around out there, but none of the live albums from other tours include these songs). Collectively, they are the only Bowie songs that sound better live than in their studio versions. They also sound better mixed in with other songs. I don’t hate the album, “Never Let Me Down,” but it lacks the economy of a “Blackstar” or “Station to Station” and becomes nearly monotonous after a while. That’s not the case with this even longer collection.

While “Glass Spider” also does not contain any unique songs, it does include one of those radical reworks— a pop version of, “All the Madmen,” which is one of the collection’s highlights. It’s a highlight because it is something different and unusual, but really the value of these two collections is that they contain a lot of familiar songs that sound close enough to their studio versions to seem “right,” but with enough minor variations to have value beyond a playlist containing those same studio versions. Where the songs vary from their original form, say for instance the spoken word opening of, “Heroes” on “Serious Moonlight,” those variations seem deliberate.

In 1992, an album was released of Jimi Hendrix performing the song, “Red House” at different times. The album contained six versions of Hendrix performing the song, and an additional performance without Hendrix. A similar collection could be pulled together of Bowie singing, “Heroes” from seven live albums— these two, “Stage” (1978); “Welcome to the Blackout” (2018), “The Concert for New York City,” (2001); “Glastonbury 2000” (2018) “A Reality Tour” (2010) as well as bootlegs of concerts such as “Live Aid” and the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert, and of course, the studio version (and others still— like the “other” Glass Spider album that’s no longer in circulation). The proliferation of posthumous Bowie live albums have collectively become something like that for someone like me who wants all of them. For the more casual listener who might just be interested in one, there are basically two options— targeting a phase in Bowie’s career (for instance, fans of earlier Bowie would do well with “Santa Monica ‘72”), or a survey that stretches across phases (the most expansive example of which is, “A Reality Tour”). And in this respect, these two albums, released around the same time, can be thought of as one of each type. “Serious Moonlight” is more of a “best of”— a survey of songs from Bowie’s career to date— almost all of the songs are well known. “Glass Spider” is more focused on Bowie’s songs of the 1980s, especially because of the inclusion of the “Never Let Me Down” songs. Either is a good option. I like them both.

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