Bowie returns to London

by Bob Mackie / Sounds

27th October 1973

IT IS 10.45 a.m. on a drizzly Saturday morning, and they’re already lined up expectantly, with David Bowie Fan Club cards and tickets clutched tightly to them like a ration card in the war, lined up neatly along Wardour Street, past the viewing theatres and the dry cleaners and the dusty food shops.

These are night children, tough fragile little Davids and Angies, drawn out at a strange time of the morning like moths to a bright flame that’s about to be extinguished. It says “Midnight Special” on the tickets, and they’re doing their best to pretend it’s another night-time spectacular, with the best going out clothes and a few painted faces, looking strange and unworldly on a bleary morning.

Later on, someone from inside the Marquee comes out and checks that everyone in the queue has tickets, “otherwise you might as well go now”. In the next half-hour or so at a time, and told by one of the men from NBC by whose leave we’re all there to witness the TV filming, that there’s been a mistake on the tickets, and Bowie’s unlikely to appear before 2.30. He makes it clear that we’re all there under sufferance rather than invited guests, and makes it clear that if they could get some brightly-painted dummies to clap realistically on cue, he wouldn’t mind terribly if he never saw any of us again.

American TV politics is hardly more subtle than other forms of it over there, and with rivals ABS having scored heavily with a “Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert” featuring The Rolling Stones (brought to you by the man who brought you The Monkees and The Archies), NBC have taken up the challenge, staging a British invasion in reversal, and figuring out with fair logic that the best competition is a programme starring David Bowie, who, like Frank Sinatra and George Best, has been known to retire.

Bowie having just done an album of ‘favourite things’, they figure they can tie in his own popularity with good old nostalgia, and have had Marianne Faithfull singing “As Tears Go By” the night before. The Troggs, God bless them, are set for the same programme, and if you think they’re going to do “Wild Thing”, you could just be right. The Kinks, Procol Harum, Humble Pie and Stealer’s Wheel are set for further NBC British-recorded shows. Will the shows be seen here? The NBC spokesman thinks it’s very unlikely. First groans of the day from the faithful. Well, really, we’ll be asking for London Bridge back next.

As we file into the simulated ‘midnight’ of the Marquee, there’s a strange band called Carmen doing their stuff for the cameras. We all get shunted out and in again from time to time, depending on where the camera crew wants us. And Carmen keep on doing the same number – even if they get it right, it still has to be done three or four times, because The Marquee isn’t exactly Madison Square Garden, and they can only fit two tiny cameras in there, which means that you need three takes to get different camera angles.

Carmen remain energetic throughout this exhausting schedule, wearing a strange mixture of gypsy clothes and Slade-like glitter, and performing some kind of rock music interspersed with bouts of stiff, traditional Spanish dancing. The girl looks very nice, anyway, and they’re very visual altogether. Can’t understand a word they’re singing, but I suppose that’s Spanish for you.

While Carmen are doing their next run-through, David Bowie makes a neat, foxy entry, strolling confidently around the back of the crowd while they’re all watching the stage, so slim and quick he was hardly there. A quick knowing smile to anyone who isn’t watching the stage, and hey presto! Crafty.

It’s a while before David actually makes the stage, though. First, his band assembles. Aynsley Dunbar, big and muscular, looking all wrong in the group’s black satin uniform, exercises himself with a swift rat-a-tat or two while the others are getting into place. Trevor Bolder, Mike Garson, and second guitarist Mark Pritchard are dressed the same. Mick Ronson, like the brass section, is all in white. There’s a conga player with an earring called Jeffrey and there’s a black duo of back-up singers and dancers.

The female half has red and blue eye make-up, blonde hair under a leopard-skin hat, and wears a black and white striped top and a long red dress unbuttoned to crotch-level up on side. The front-line moves around in a line, and it becomes slowly apparent that the first number they’re testing is “Everything’s Alright”, which was originally done by The Mojos when Aynsley was in that band in pre-Mayall days.

In due course, David comes out to a barrage of screams that returns every time he does. “I’m out of condition”, he admits, but he hardly looks it. He has his multi-coloured blouse open down to the waist above bright yellow trousers, and has has his one long dangling earring hanging there like he forgot to take it off the night before. He launches into a rip-roaring version of the same number, with everyone giving it all they’ve got, stomping the stage confidently while his fellow front-liners sashay around and shoot their arms out at the end of the numbers.

Between takes, we adjourn to the bar where little Zowie, aged about three, is being taken care of by band members and friends. “Fuck awff”, says a nearby New York film crew man to a friend. “Fuck awff”, says Zowie. Everyone laughs. Kids say the darndest things don’t they?

It’s around a quarter to five, and time for the relatively fresh air of London to re-enter a foodless body. Bowie’s staunchest have been here for a maximum of six hours, and so far, they’ve seen him do one number. But they’ve seen him.

Bowie soldiers on, with his costumes becoming ever more bizarre, and the whole thing building to a ridiculous climax. He works his way through “Space Oddity”, “I Can’t Explain”, “The Jean Genie”, a strong ballad called “1984”, from his forthcoming musical, and around 9.45, the climax – A duet on “I Got You Babe”, with Marianne Faithfull wearing a nun’s outfit.

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