by Ron Ross / Circus
WHILE HARSHER CRITICS said his music was being lost behind his many theatrical masks, Bowie was planning the live album that would reveal him as a master chef of musical performance.
It was a sultry late afternoon, hours and hours before the prettiest Philadelphia stars and starlets would get their chance to witness David Bowie “Live” in concert. It could have all but broken one’s heart to watch the carefully daubed make-up sweat off their muggy little faces as they milled around the velvet lobby of David’s downtown hotel. While a special guard kept the strangers away from Bowie’s full-floor suite, the elevator men checked for room keys all those sequined pretty things who loitered nervously about, leaving lipstick stains on menthol cigarettes.
Suddenly David whisked through the ominously quiet hall and out to his limousine, accompanied by his strong black ex-prize fighter companions. The spidery children shuddered; David’s face showed no blotches of pancake crimson, his trench coat was tough and tight, but definitely not glittery. Once again David Bowie had beaten his fans to the punch and changed his image.
What David Bowie deprives his followers of on a groupie basis is more than compensated for by the way he engages an audience’s emotions and devotion, As promised, the “Diamond Dogs” revue was mesmerizing: throbbing sensual colors, pantomime, punk poses, and poetry. Now Bowie-maniacs around the country, which David has been crisscrossing in a barnstorm attempt to make his supply meet his disciples’ demand, were sitting up and begging for a souvenir of the show. In New York, where he had created a sensation with the “Aladdin Sane” extravaganza at Radio City, Bowie sold out 24,000 seats for two shows at the gigantic Madison Square Garden in a matter of weeks. Television spots reminded one that Bowie was a MainMan artiste constantly, and a David Bowie lookalike contest was the talk of the airwaves.
It was a startrek worth recalling with a record, so David Live was born, encouraged by Bowie’s summer band: Earl Slick, the darker than brunette lead guitarist; blond drummer Tony Newman; keyboard virtuosos, Mike Garson and Michael Kamen, and heartbeat bassist Herbie Flowers. A discrete but stellar aggregation who had borne professionally the gruelling grind of three months of constant touring, the Dog Pack wanted to remember their crusade as much as those they had entertained.
The Visconti connection
Days after the riotously successful six-night stand at Philly’s Fillmore-like Tower Theater, Bowie and his producer-colleague Tony Visconti were ensconced in the moody dimness of Electric Lady Recording Studios in Manhattan, the house that Hendrix built. They were concentrating on condensing and transforming the theatrical chemistry of the brilliantly diverse “Diamond Dogs 1974 Show” into four spectacular high-fidelity channels, working together side by side once again as they had four years earlier.
During the recording of The Man Who Sold The World, a searing collaboration between David, Tony, and platinum ace Mick Ronson, the triumvirate of theater-rock lived together. “David’s amazed me since we shared the same flat together during those early months of the ‘70s,” Visconti recollected for Circus from his home studio in London. “The times were very demoralizing; it seemed as if David, Mick and myself were the only people that believed in ourselves. We had absolutely no backing from anyone, regretted the Brooklyn-bred studio scientist and rock star translator.
Bowie was a precocious artistic prodigy at that time, afraid to try and fail again as he felt he had after the one-shot hit ‘Space Oddity’ neglected to sell many copies of the album it was on. Visconti had known Bowie since being brought to England by Denny Cordell, who had just begun to produce Procol Harum and the Move in late 1966. (Visconti prepared string arrangements for those early albums — including work on ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’— and because Cordell was busy, he was put to work in the studio after only two days in England.) Working with Bowie was difficult, if rewarding, at the turn of the decade, though.
“At the time Bowie was the laziest person I knew,” Visconti laughed. “He would sleep all day and did very very little work. I was very energetic and that led to us splitting apart, because I couldn’t get him to write new songs or rehearse. Over the years the change in him has been remarkable.”
“I drifted to Marc Bolan,” says Visconti, who produced every top five hit T. Rex ever had until recently. “Bolan had the same enthusiasm as I did about making records. David didn’t. I put all my efforts into Marc, although at the time I was quite honestly torn between Bowie and Bolan. Both of them were a full-time job.”
But unlike Bowie, Bolan was fated for frustration in the States, and this strained the Bolan-Visconti team. “Slider and Tanx were very good albums,” commented Visconti on two of his last T. Rex productions. “But I think Bolan misjudged his public. After that he sort of degenerated. Part of it was due to the fact that he never quite made it in America. He peaked about that time, and rapidly became discouraged. During the last year, he wouldn’t take any advice from me, while he was wracking his brain about how he could make it in the U.S. He seemed to have forgotten the deeper creative energy he always had within him.”
Casting about, then, for an object for his creative energies, Visconti became involved with the Flamenco-rock group, Carmen. Before long, he found himself sharing a common interest in the band with another now energetic future soundman — David Bowie. “Carmen brought David and me back together. David heard Carmen’s first album and wanted to use them in his TV special, The 1980 Floor Show,” Tony narrated. “We became great friends again, and David asked me down to the studio to hear some of the Diamond Dogs tapes. I was terrifically impressed; he had produced it all himself up to that point and had sort of run out of energy, so he asked me to mix the final tracks with him. The reason we got back together again, I think, is because David missed the days when we worked on The Man Who Sold The World, which was very much a cooperative effort. In fact, I played bass on that album. The two of us seem to innovate a lot more when we put our heads together than we can when we’re on our own. He was looking for this kind of relationship again, and I certainly was.”
Their next undertaking was the live recreation of Bowie in concert. Not that it was easy to reduce two hours of Bowie-biz onto vinyl. “I missed the recording of the Philadelphia concerts by a day because of transportation problems,” mentioned Visconti. “I wasn’t as happy with the basic tracks that I had to work with as I might have been. The most important thing in recording a live album is to keep the instruments as acoustically separate as possible. A rule of thumb is to maintain the level of instruments like the bass drum throughout the set. Although Keith Harwood is a good engineer, the levels he set for recording Bowie live were a bit inconsistent, and it took ages to clean up the master. We had that trouble on ‘Diamond Dogs’ where the bass drum and the bass guitar weren’t distinguishable enough from each other.”
The resulting album, however, is an achievement in itself. Bowie, so often criticized for overestimating his musical aptitude, trading theater for talent, is stripped down to a vitally musical and entertaining core. David’s ‘All the Young Dudes’ is cocksure, yet sad and somehow grand. ‘Cracked Actor’ cackles and crackles lewdly, the guitar flashing sharp and fast as strobe lights. ‘Big Brother’ has the eerie darkness of a slowly revolving Dead Planet. ‘Diamond Dogs’ is the perfect mixing of steady rock and insane catchy effects. Visconti described in layman’s terms some techniques he used to create “perfect spontaneity.”
“I did want to capture the realism so I miked the audience. In quadrophonic, the crowd noise is in the back, and we wrapped the audience and the band around each other. David and I both love gadgetry and synthesized sound,” Tony declared. “Although David took many devices on tour with him, my favorite is the Keypex. The Keypex cuts the ‘ambience’ out of a recording by clipping off the end of a note. If a bass is very muddy, a Keypex can make it perky and staccato.
An instrument can also be keyed through a Keypex to any other instrument. In other words, if you put the Keypex on a bass guitar and key it to the bass drum, you can make the track sound as if it were put down by the tightest rhythm section in the world. David’s voice at the intro of ‘Diamond Dogs’ sounds like he’s gargling because we used the Keypex to key the vocal to a 20 cycle per second oscillator tone, which created a quavering effect.”
But the most exciting and odd track on David Live is the late addition to the Diamond Dogs Show which Bowie debuted in Philadelphia. Philly is the home of South Street, where “all the hippies meet” in the old Orlons tune. It is also the home of “The Sound of Philadelphia—Philadelphia International Records.” Many hit-making black acts record there, from the O’Jays to the Spinners. The atmosphere in Philadelphia suited Bowie perfectly. One of his MainMan protegés, Ava Cherry, was recording with black studio musicians at the famous Sigma Sound Studios, and David devoured each episode of the funky TV dance show Soul Train.
Accordingly, David added the nasty come-on groover ‘Knock on Wood’ to his set. A rhythm and blues classic made famous by Memphian Eddie Floyd, the material was a natural for Bowie’s big band, making the most of several horns, two keyboards, and a determined rhythm guitar. Bowie lays back on his group and wails. No super-city set could make more of an impression than David’s strutting, smiling, sassy work-out in blue. His “character oxford” tap shoes peeked out perkily from pleated pants as he snapped his braces, and flashed his feet. Bowie indicated he could walk it like he talks it, and made it obvious there’s a man and a half beneath the stagecraft.
“David’s intuition is incredible,” raved Visconti nevertheless. “If he could have been said to have had a fault in the past, it would be that he was always too far ahead. There are things he did with his first band, The Lower Third, in the mid-‘60s when I first knew him that were inspirational. He wore military jackets a year before the Beatles, and had his hair platinum and razor-straight like Andy Warhol’s when he was a teenager.”
Now Tony thinks that Bowie, in his preoccupation with black music, is coming into his own right on target with his 1975 album. “He’s been working on putting together an r&b sound for years. Every British musician has a hidden desire to be black. They all talk about ‘funky rhythm sections’ and their idols are all black blues guitarists. When I was in Philadelphia, I saw Soul Train for the first time, and I was so impressed by the state of black culture. Being black now is a culture rather than a revolution. By the time this album has been released more people will realize that and David’s next LP will be timed just right.”
In the meantime, David Live delivers two albums full of sounds as changeable as Bowie himself, and Visconti’s estimation of his friend and collaborator is eloquent. “David is not well understood by straight musicians who play for a living,” Visconti conceded. “People may find him hard to follow and even hard to take seriously, but believe me, he’s a visionary.”