by Nicholas Barber / The Independent
19th November 1995
THERE’S one problem with David Bowie, and that’s David Bowie fans. They go on about his being a revolutionary chameleon, but half of them – including, I assume, the man a few seats along from me in a perfect Ziggy Stardust costume – would prefer it if there weren’t any more ch- ch-changes, thank you very much. So I may have been the only person at Wembley Arena on Tuesday who didn’t burst into tears when Bowie left without having played “Jean Genie”, and who had actually been looking forward to the songs from Outside (RCA). This new album is an epic, atmospheric descent into a freaky dystopia, an aural Blade Runner. Could Bowie recreate it live? And how would Ziggy over there react if he could? All the signs were encouraging.
One sign said “OPEN THE DOG”. And in case any French people in the audience were slightly confused, another sign dropped from the roof declaring “OUVREZ LE CHIEN”, to ensure that they were even more confused. Two bodies were hanging nearby, their legs protruding from sacks, and a few other shrouded misshapes stood on wooden chairs. The stage was layered in beige carpets, rumpled and folded as if designed to trip up an unsuspecting guitarist, and a kitchen table and chair were set centre-stage. So far, so eerie and noirish. A thin, chilly synth chord emanated from somewhere within the smoke, joined by some stark piano clangs and twisting bass notes: the intro to the desolate, ponderous “The Motel”, a hostelry which makes the Bates establishment seem inviting.
Bowie prowled into view. This was the first of his shows in Britain, but he was utterly at ease, his movements grace- ful and fluid, even during his pseudo- flapper dancing. A venerable citizen of that rock ‘n’ roll realm between cool and daft, he wore a kind of black sleeveless shellsuit, smeared with white stripes. True, it’s unlikely to catch on, but the fact that he wasn’t sporting an Armani suit was surely cause for celebration. And he was in tremendous voice, with an accent from the East End of outer space (“waiting so long” becomes “whiting sow long”) and an operatic vibrato … except when vocoders turned him into Davros from Dr Who.
Because tonight’s music was techno-goth, mutant dance rock, industrial cyberpunk. Those who found it off-putting should have been put off by Outside, so nobody could claim they hadn’t been warned. If you can’t stand the beat, get out of the kitchen.
The band were of such consistent brilliance that it would be unfair to single out any individuals. But I’m going to anyway. Veteran Bowie pianist Mike Garson provided his trademark baroque tumbles; Reeves Gabrels – a survivor of Tin Machine – played a nicely unhinged guitar; and the bald, barefoot Gail-Ann Dorsey’s bass-playing and vocals were as striking as her looks.
There were even some oldies, including “Scary Monsters (and Supercreeps)”, “Under Pressure” and “Boys Keep Swinging”. Bowie had vowed never to play his past hits again, so these few were a bonus, even if he did introduce them by laughing, “Let’s do something silly”. The implication here was that a five-album, “non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle” about an art- ritual murder set in 1999 is gravely sensible. Sensible, no. Scary and super, yes.
But if the 48-year-old Bowie had been rejuvenated, maybe it was because his warm-up act, a certain Morrissey, had acted as his Portrait of Dorian Gray. Only 36, he seemed much older, a senile dodderer in a shiny mod suit, awkwardly miming punches and whipping his mike lead in slow motion.
“Good evening, we are your support group,” he announced to a two-thirds empty hangar. “You are very welcome to Wembley.” Frankly, Moz fans, you are very welcome to Morrissey. His material, mostly from Vauxhall and I (Parlophone) and Southpaw Grammar (RCA), had glints of charm in among the squealing squawl of guitars, but the word-Smith himself was deadened, vacant, a singer in a coma, his celebrated wit as sparkling as a mug of Bovril.
His fans are zombies, possessed by a force they cannot comprehend, destined to keep flinging themselves on to the stage – lemmings in reverse – in a hollow mockery of the adulation they gave consciously years ago; while Morrissey is cursed to stumble through his songs until doomsday, or until Johnny Marr rescues him, whichever comes sooner. No wonder the rumoured duet with Bowie didn’t occur.
On Wednesday, the brothers Finn performed in Islington’s Union Chapel, which has to be the most beautiful venue in London. Neil and Tim stood in front of the pulpit, framed by stone pillars, the focal point of the octagonal church. Whether this was an appropriate location for “Where is my Soul”, or “Angel’s Heap”, which tells of Tim’s seduction by an ex-nun, is a matter for the Synod. But as the Finns’ voices danced and swam with each other and floated up to the high, intricately carved ceiling, it was definitely a spiritual experience.
Along with tracks from the Finn album (EMI), they leafed through the bulging back catalogue of their days together in Split Enz and Crowded House. As they took turns on bongos, guitars and a piano (with the intermittent aid of a tape of Rolf Harris-style Aboriginal rhythm noises), you didn’t miss either band. It was mysterious, wistful and winsome. Who says the devil has all the best tunes?
David Bowie: Birmingham NEC (0121 780 4133), Mon & Tues; Belfast Kings Hall (01232 323744), Thurs; and touring.