by Philip Bradley / International Musician and Recording World
THIS IS THE SORT OF THING YOU’RE almost certain that he swore he’d never do. One minute there’s TIN MACHINE, a totally democratic Rock ‘n’ Roll band, with David Bowie as just another member. A radical departure which one sensed was necessitated by a couple of not too brilliant Bowie albums and the ill conceived extravagant debacle, that was the Glass Spider Tour. And then, following on from the lukewarm critical and commercial response to Tin Machine, there’s a greatest hits album (selling very well, thank you), an around the world live jaunt to accompany it and a couple of up-to-the-minute style remixes of an old single – the only thing resembling any new product in sight. On the surface, something of a whole scale artistic retreat?
Certainly Bowie hasn’t enjoyed this sort of popularity and profile since the three hit single spawning, multi-Platinum selling Let’s Dance and associated Serious Moonlight Tour. Changes Bowie – little more than the marriage of two previously available compilations – has held a top three chart position from day one. And the remixes of Fame, two by ARTHUR BAKER, one by JOHN GAS (engineer of LA Babyface) and the other, featuring QUEEN LATIFAH, courtesy of MARK THE 45 KING, hit the shops just ahead of the man playing all the faves, in front of the 9,000 odd crowds packing out the Docklands arena. But none of this in itself would have been sufficient to entice the man on stage to recite the musical highlights of his 25 year career for one last time.
The real reason was apparently the loving care taken by the small American label, Rykodisc, in restoring and digitally mastering his entire RCA back catalogue for release on CD; from Space Oddity right through to Scary Monsters. It was a process that involved Bowie on a personal level, helping the company to select extra tracks for inclusion on the CDs: “I would look for old obscure tracks and demos and so on and they had their fingers on stuff I’d forgotten about, so between us we compiled a lot of original things that hadn’t seen the light of day. What impressed me was the care they take with the product.”
A greatest hits tour is of course something that people (not least of all, probably his accountants) have been trying to convince him would be a good idea for a long time: “I gave in last year when Ryko said ‘it would be great if you would help support this thing’, and I said, ‘let me think about it’. So I went away and thought, well I’ve never done it before and I’ll probably never want to do it again so what about if I do these songs for the last time.”
Things could have got really tacky if he had tried to reform The Spiders From Mars and punctuated the set with the corresponding makeup and costume changes. Probably the most obvious option would have been to call on the services of his stalwart side kick CARLOS ALOMAR, but Bowie decided that a meander through his back catalogue need not be devoid of a sense of style – both musical and theatrical.
“Carlos is a wonderful guitar player with whom I’m sure I’ll work again,” he explains, “But the fact that he is so familiar with the songs is the reason I didn’t choose him for this tour. It needed the air of unfamiliarity.
The Sound The man that Bowie chose as his musical director, in order to create this air of unfamiliarity was of course ADRIAN BELEW, which was a bit of a cheat really, since that particular Electric Cat played along side both Bowie and Alomar on the Stage tour, a set that included a run through of a fair number of back numbers that feature in the Sound and Vision set.
The band are in fact Belew’s own – drummer MICHAEL HODGES and keyboard player RICK FOX – supplemented by ERDAL KIZILCAY, from the Glass Spider line up, on bass. (Belew’s outfit has no bass player, the bottom end duties being assigned to the sequencer or Rick Fox’s left hand). An all together more concise ensemble than that featured on Glass Spider.
“It’s a much smaller sound.” confirmed Bowie at the New York pre-tour press conference. “It’s not quite as orchestrated as any of the other tours. The plus is that there is a certain kind of drive and tightness that you get with that embryonic line up, where everybody is totally reliant on the other two or three guys, so everybody gives a lot more.”
This show is a far cry from the 14 people on stage for Glass Spider.
“David asked me to come and play with him,” recounts Belew. “He even offered me the option of using Rick and Mike, with whom I was touring the Mr Music Head album. Being a music director, I was very careful to preen from the songs any of the details and things that were unnecessary and would only get in the way of stadium Rock-type performance. I wanted the band to sound very plain and unadorned. I also wanted them to go from sounding like an orchestra for Life On Mars to sounding like a garage band for Panic In Detroit.”
The Vision Rehearsing the 30 or so songs took around two weeks, creating the stage show and the visuals took considerably longer and thought nothing resembling the sheer mechanics of Glass Spider was involved, artistically it was breaking a considerable amount of new ground.
The man himself again; “We’re using a real Opera screen. It’s the largest use of video ever: 40ft by 50ft high video images through state of the art projection systems built for it.
“We are using special film; it’s a contemporary combination of film and video. I’m delighted with it, it takes a lot of pressure off of me.
“With the Station To Station tour, we worked very much on the lighting… I think we have returned very much to that for this one.”
HUMAN FEEL “The interesting thing about Rock is that at some point there’s a complete disassociation between the physical image and the perceived image. At some point the image becomes another person’s altogether, which the first personal can’t even completely control. And that thing – a kind of social manifestation – is what people are coming to see. It almost has nothing to do with the performer themselves.” So says EDOUARD LOCK, designer and choreographer for the Montreal-based contemporary dance group LA LA LA HUMAN STEPS, explaining what it was that interested him in working on what must be one of the most innovative stage shows ever designed.
Since forming La La La Human Steps 10 years ago, Lock has been exciting audiences worldwide with his imaginative use of movement and dance. Having met Bowie, prior to The Glass Spider Tour, there has been a mutual desire to work together (Bowie in fact approached Lock to work on Glass Spider but prior commitments prevented this occurring). The chance finally presented itself, when they collaborated on an experimental piece, choreographed to Look Back In Anger and performed as part of Intruders At The Palace, a series of benefit performances on behalf of the ICA.
Six months ago Bowie was on the phone again, this time to get Lock to create the images and routines for Sound and Vision. Lock agreed and the staging, involving a massive central screen made of Opera gauze onto which computer controlled images synchronized to the music were to be projected, began to take shape. With the assistance of scenographers LUC DUSSAULT and LYN LEFERVE, Lock developed the technique which involved a series of both related and often unrelated images to be projected while Bowie performed, either in front of or behind the screen, and at one point, even allowing a giant Bowie to dust with the real one.
“What I wanted to was avoid the usual pitfalls,” continued Lock, “you can amplify sound to reach large areas, the problem is that the technology hasn’t extended itself to visuals. You can still go to a stadium and see a pea on stage. You can’t see anything of the performer’s face. Rock’s traditional answer has been to extend the stage set, which actually makes the problem worse. It just underlines how small the human being is.
“I don’t think people come to stadiums for the music. They can listen to records if they want that. They come to the stadium to meet the artist. And that meeting which the person desires to see, that face, never actually happens.
I wanted to build an architecture based around the person as opposed to the set. Make the person into the building; use bits of the face, etc. to create a more spherical architecture.”
The Technology The matching up of sound and vision was of course the crucial part of such a scheme and that’s where SMPTE came into the picture. At the start of each song Rick Fox sends a SMPTE signal which is read by the film projectors, kicking off all the SMPTE procedures for the film and starting up the musical sequence at the same time. That in turn sends four clicks to Mike Hodges, who then starts off the band. Viola!
The effect definitely grabs the crowd at the arena, the obvious interplay between video – on such a massive scale – Bowie and the music must have them all doing mental gymnastics trying to figure out how it’s done and what actually comes first. How many realise it’s all down to an invisible stream of digital information?
Songwise things are fairly predictable, Ziggy, Blue Jean, Panic In Detroit, Station To Station, John I’m Only Dancing, Fame – a la ARTHUR BAKER House mix – they’re all there.
Unexpected might be The Alabama Song, half way into the second set, in amongst stuff like Let’s Dance and Modern Love. A rendition first aired on the Stage Tour, it gives Belew ample opportunity to weird out. One from Bowie’s own list of faves must have been Be My Wife, from Low. Working with ENO is a period Bowie has fond memories of, even if his former record company were a little less than impressed…
“When we followed up Young Americans with Low, RCA said they would gladly pay for me to go to Philadelphia and record another Young Americans, because what I was working on was a load of rubbish,” laughs Bowie. “At this point I was interested in what was happening in Germany, with KRAFTWERK, CAN, etc. There was feeling in the air, everybody was playing with a new identification of music, as failed painters do. BRIAN (ENO) hadn’t worked with Soul/Dance, I had.
“We had no format, five or six notes, two or three chords, repeated over various cut ups and repeated.”
Open ended collaboration has often been an important element in the divergent strains of Bowie’s music. With Let’s Dance, it was NILE RODGERS, “Frankly the song Let’s Dance didn’t start out to be anything more than just another track on the album. It was Nile Rodgers who took it and structured it in such a way that it had incredible commercial appeal.”
One Below Zero Tonight’s encore is yet another case in point, Pretty Pink Rose, which appears on Adrian Belew’s new LP. “I didn’t want to be seen as going back to being a sideman for David Bowie, even though I love David Bowie. And what we decided was maybe it’d be good if David came and did something on my record to make sense of this touring. I sent him five tracks that I’d not have any vocals, and he sent me back a song called Pretty Pink Rose that he hadn’t used but thought it might fit in with my album. We went to record that in New York and because we’d been rehearsing for the tour, his voice was shot. He said ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t sing it today’. I said ‘okay’, I’d work on another song that hadn’t got vocals and he could go home and rest. But he said, ‘let me hear that’. He began writing lyrics and about half an hour later, he’d finished a song called Gun Man. I was amazed. He then went in and sang it two or three times and that was it.”
Both Pretty Pink Rose and Gun Man appear on Belew’s new LP, Young Lions, out on 5 May.
Bowie meanwhile plans to continue working with TIN MACHINE, a second album is already well under way and the band will soon be back on the road. A new Bowie solo album in also on the cards.
“At the moment, I’m keen to do things in the studio on my own,” he confirms. “I have no idea how they will turn out because I’m not going to write anything before I’ll just grab some instruments and go in.”
ERDAL KIZILCAY – BASS
Fender Jazz Bass, Padula fretless bass, 1200 watt Crown Amp, 2 Seymour Duncan 400 watt amps, 2 Boogie cabs, Korg A3, Boss Octaver.
“Dave phoned me up and said, ‘Are you ready for the tour?’ I said ‘what tour?’ And he said ‘My tour, and this time I want you play the bass’.” ERDAL KIZILCAY, top session man turned producer/solo artist is busy explaining how he first heard the news about David Bowie’s Sound And Vision Tour.
Turkish born – Kizilcay – now, incidentally a Swiss patriot – grew up in the beautifully warm climes of Istanbul in the 1960s. He first became acquainted with music at the tender age of either years old, when he took up the chance of lessons on the violin. Very soon, however, he was also playing trombone, piano, drums and percussion and by the time he was 14, he had turned professional and was playing in Dance bands in local night clubs.
Eventually, at the age of 19 he began to tour Europe with a Turkish band, and as such was exposed to more and more Western music. At first it was the Pop music from the likes of THE BEATLES and DAVID BOWIE (apparently, David was a bit of a star in the land of the Saz), although, after a time, Erdal became fascinated with the sound of Jazz music, and in particular, JACO PASTORIOUS.
“When I heard JACO PASTORIOUS, I realised the power of the bass. You can be very simple and just play two notes, or you can be very powerful and play more.”
Taking up residency in Switzerland, Erdal carved out a comfortable living as a session player. In 1982, he bumped into a bloke called David Bowie.
“He had heard about me and just called up. We worked on the pre-production for the Let’s Dance album. Since then I’ve worked on Labyrinth, When The Wind Blows – which I co-wrote with David – and Never Let Me Down and The Glass Spider Tour.
“In this tour, it’s nice to play bass because there are some nice bass licks on David’s songs. We’re allowed a little room to put in our own ideas and on songs like Space Oddity, I play fretless bass. Although, overall, I felt you should keep the bass pretty much like they were. Maybe with a few breaks, here and there, but no great big bass solos on every track, otherwise you wouldn’t be here!”
Erdal Kizilcay has a solo artist publishing deal with EMI.
ADRIAN BELEW – GUITAR
3 Fender Strats, custom built (Khaler trems. G50 guitar synth built in, Fender Lace Sensor pickups) – Rack containing: 2 Korg A3s, Roland GP8, Roland G86, Roland G50. Hush unit (to cut down noise), Mitigator, Flash Units (to direct the signals).
It was while accompanying FRANK ZAPPA on a world tour that BRIAN ENO spotted ADRIAN BELEW and recommended him to BOWIE, who was looking for someone to provide a more off beat foil to the water tight rhythm playing of CARLOS ALOMAR, on the worldwide Stage tour; someone good enough and radical enough to pull off something comparable to what ROBERT FRIPP had just laid down on Heroes. Bowie followed up Eno’s lead and was suitably impressed. He was later to go on to work with Eno’s and TALKING HEADS on Remain In Light, as well as with TOM TOM CLUB and the YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA and later joined Robert Fripp in the resurrected KING CRIMSON. On top of all of which he found time to release a series of solo avant-garde Pop albums, including the inspirational Lone Rhino LP.
Ballet for a Belew Whale Following the Stage tour and double live LP, Belew was again invited to work with Bowie, this time in the studio to work on the criminally underrated Lodger.
“Originally the Lodger LP was to be called Planned Accidents,” tells Belew. “When I arrived, they (Bowie and Eno) had about 20 tracks already done: bass, drums, rhythm guitar, but no vocals. They said, ‘Adrian, we’re not going to let you hear these songs. We want you to go into the studio and play accidentally – whatever occurs to you’.
“The control room was downstairs and the recording area above it. They could see me on closed circuit TV but I couldn’t see them. I would just suddenly hear ‘1,2,3,4…’ in the headphones and a track would start. I was just to play whatever came to mind. I didn’t even know what keys the songs were in or anything.
“The on particular song I remember where I lucked out on was Red Sails, ‘cos I started the guitar feeding back and it was right in key. Anyway, they would let me do this maybe two or three times an by then I might know something about the song, so it was over. I wasn’t allowed to do anything else. They would take the ideas that I’d had and make some sense out of them.”
Belew actually began playing guitar around the same time as people like HENDRIX and BECK were carving out their respective places in the Rock and Roll hall of fame. It was the desire to surpass all their techniques – which he had all to quickly mastered – and push the instrument into further realms of expression that led him to develop what is now a much imitated approach.
“By the ’70s I realised I could play like all these people and didn’t like the sound of any of them. And everything I caught myself playing a stock lick. I would try to think of something else.”
This brought on tendencies to imitate various environmental sounds, beginning with car horns and seagulls (check out Big Electric Cat on the Lone Rhino LP) and to utilise almost every conceivable playing position along and beyond the fret board.
Added to which was a good deal of mucking about with tunings and of course a loving devotion to signal processing.
Playing The Belews Naturally enough the man’s guitars are themselves something a little beyond the ordinary. “My main guitars are vintage Stratocasters that have been customised by the Fender Custom shop. They put the latest hardware and tremolo on, and they build in the Roland GR50 guitar synthesizer. It’s a design that I made for them and they’ve built me four of them now. I want them to feel and play like an older Rosewood neck Stratocaster. They hand make them, the Fender Custom Workshop still has all the old pre CB8 lathes and stuff that Fender had.”
Belew’s rack is a serious affair – and there are two of them in case one goes down: “There’s the GP8 and GS6 ganged together, the GP8 is very noisy and the GS6 has the ability to quiet that down. The G96 also has stereo delays and choruses, and has several guitar sounds that I like that I developed – they sort of sound like Vox amplifiers. There’s a Roland pitch shifter, which is a mini rack device. The only thing I use that for is backwards guitar. The two A3s have a variety of sounds that I like, they’re very warm sounding units and have modulated delays that actually sound like a double guitar.”
The two A3s give Belew a stereo set up and the effect are routed together by Flash routing boxes, allowing things to be chained in any order. At the end of the line is a Midigator pedal board; which will allow effects change to be activated from an external source like a keyboard or sequencer.
Belew would normally use a JC120/Fender Twin amp combination, for the Bowie shows everything went directly to the PA and was fed back to him with stereo monitors, one either side. As for the other two members of Belew’s band, MICHAEL HODGES uses a Tama kit and RICK FOX uses current Music Tech Mac ‘n’ Rack with Vision software to drive a variety of Yamaha and Roland units.