Old Orange Hair Is Back

by Ben Edmonds / RAM

March 1976

Bowie World Tour Preview

David Bowie is back out on the road again, and he’s outwitted everybody, but everybody honeychild, by dumping the theatrics and adopting a Frank Sinatra-ish stance in front of a hotpoop band. Ben Edmonds chronicles history in the making, all the way from scenic Vancouver. That’s in Canada, dumbo… .

Mr. David Bowie could hardly have selected a more suitable jumping off point for his 1976 world tour than Vancouver, British Columbia, (somewhere in) Canada.

It’s a northwest port city, closer to Alaska than San Francisco – spiritually as well as physically, and it has managed to remain remarkably provincial despite a head count nearing the million mark. Its populace was substantial (and starved for rock and roll) enough to ensure Bowie a quick sell-out of the 17,000-plus Coliseum – a proper introduction to the kind of venues he’ll be seeing regularly on his global campaign.

Canada is about as off Broadway as you can possibly get. If the show here didn’t make it on any level, there was still plenty of time for adjustment before it would be subjected to too much media scrutiny.

Just before the tour, Earl Slick, the guitarist who’d become Bowie’s most crucial tool for shaping the sound of the last couple of albums and tours, made a disillusioned getaway to a solo career with a group of his own, leaving Bowie’s band without its principal musical focus. And for the first time in Bowie’s career, it was nearly impossible to pinpoint who his audience would be. The success of his Fame single had put him on intimate terms with both the Top 40 and disco machines, and there was no telling how this element would mesh with the glitter leftovers, or how David intended to deal with this situation.

The crowd that tumbled into the Coliseum on opening night wasn’t offering any answers to the question of what type of audience the New Tour will reach. Everybody looked basically like the person sitting next to him, prompting the thought that Vancouver has but a single rock and roll audience, one which probably considers that an attraction big enough to warrant hiring the Coliseum is automatically an event worth seeing. The crowd could just as easily have been here to pay homage to ZZ Top or Joni Mitchell.

The music piped in over the PA as the multitudes gathered was nonstop Kraftwerk, a German electronics band for whom Bowie had expressed great admiration the previous afternoon (citing German groups and Roxy Music as the only European rock of any significance). The crowd was unusually attentive to this music at first, most likely because the mechanised sound that the band specialises in could easily have been mistaken for one of the taped introductions that Bowie’s been known to utilise in the past. But it was only Kraftwerk, which meant that they hummed on long after they should’ve had the good sense to take five.

After more of this fascist drone than any upstanding Bachman-Turner Overdrive audience could reasonably be expected to tolerate, the crowd began to fight back. The more vocal among them took to greeting Kraftwerk’s every lyrical insight with rude observations at maximum volume, and everybody banded together in an effort to clap the music into submission at the end of every number.

It was Bowie they wanted, and Kraftwerk was not their idea of an acceptable substitute.

Un Chien Andalou, a classic piece of surrealist cinema made circa 1929, was Bowie’s opening act. One of the first scenes in the 17-minute film, in which director/protagonist Louis Bunuel slices open a woman’s eye (in reality a cow’s) with a razor blade, riveted the 1976 audience just as abruptly as it had 47 years previously. A third of the way through, however, and this crowd was just as lost as 1929’s had been.

Written by Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou was the first film to be recognised as a serious attempt to impose surrealist concepts on a cinematic medium. It’s a series of scenes connected by the kind of absurd tangential threads that would later figure prominently in the style of (among countless others) the original Monty Python TV series.

The aim of the surrealists was to disorient their audience into a fresh state of consciousness, but this rock and roll audience was not into viewing things conceptually. All they knew was that they couldn’t make sense of any of it, and after about six minutes they ceased to even try.

Looking back, it made a great deal of sense for Bowie to open up in this fashion. The surrealist concept of irrationality as a means for the redefinition of reality has obviously had a hand in the constant change and stylistic skin-shedding that have been the only source of consistency in the course of Bowie’s career. With Kraftwerk and Un Chien Andalou he’d gone over his audience’s head twice, quite possibly hoping that in the confusion they might also loosen the grip on their expectations for him. Whatever the verdict on that count, it did serve to make straightforward musicality on his new stage show seem that much more on-target.

After a comparatively brief interlude during which the screen was hoisted and final stage preparations made (to the further strains of Kraftwerk: a prospect the audience found about as appealing as a dental extraction without anaesthetic), the lights dimmed for real and Bowie’s band took the stage. The lead guitarist, frozen in a single spotlight, stood directly in front of his amplifier with his back to the audience, grinding out feedback that, as the lights were slowly raised to afford the rest of the band some visual definition, dissolved into the intro to Station To Station.

Then Bowie, whose shows have always featured the entrance of the star to some sort of grandiose fanfare, sauntered onstage as casually as if he were involved in nothing more remarkable than a regular drop into the corner pub. The show was on and Bowie’s entrance set the tone for all that followed.

The distinguishing characteristic of this latest David Bowie presentation is its conscious exclusion of any kind of extraneous theatrics. Gone are the props, the flamboyant costumery and all of the other visual aids on which Bowie has historically leaned to establish a new frame of reference with each succeeding show. Bowie had created a situation where the most radical option available to him was to simply go out there and play his rock and roll straight up. And for 90 minutes, that’s exactly what he did.

Endlessly embellished accounts of Bowie’s mercilessly self-destructed state of health, and ex-guitarist Earl Slick’s sour prediction that he (i.e. Bowie) was incapable of standing up to an entire tour, had fuelled plenty of the sordid speculation that invariably multiplies whenever a major rock personality chooses to keep his offstage activities to himself. Any question of personal hygiene, however, was answered during the first number. Bowie appeared in a simple outfit consisting of a white shirt with French cuffs, and matching black vest and pants, carrying at least ten more pounds on his slender frame than when he’d last been spotted in Los Angeles. His hair was the same severely slicked back red with frontal highlights that he sported in The Man Who Fell To Earth promo pix and his latest LP Station To Station’s cover.

He was in fine vocal form, the erratic vocal picture presented by the Young Americans album having given way to a far more authoritative performance. The role Bowie has chosen to play this time around is that of front man to a hot rock and roll band.

As you might well expect, his concept of being a front man is as individual as his concept of rock itself, but the important thing is that it was a role he obviously enjoyed beyond an actor’s care with his craft.

The staging was as stripped down as the rest of the presentation. No distracting visuals of any kind, there weren’t even any coloured lights. The lighting system comprised solely of white lights – a concept that, Bowie explained at the final rehearsal, has been ‘nicked from Brechtian theatre’.

The effect of the white lights was in some ways more stunning than any colour combination could possibly have been. As the show progressed, a flexibility within the simple white emerged which could be either cold or warm – depending upon Bowie’s performance. The strobe effect in Panic In Detroit (from his Aladdin Sane LP) was chilling, but the way Bowie filled a solitary spotlight in Word On A Wing (from Station To Station) radiated warmth with an equal intensity. White lights, and when they were on, David and the band supplied the white heat.

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