David Bowie Retrospective Series – Part 14: “My Dear Man, I Am Not Pissing in a Sink”

The Live Albums:

Bowie at the Beeb

Sure, it’s not as much a live album as it is a compilation of early radio sessions, but Bowie at the Beeb nevertheless captures some great performances at a rarely heard period of Bowie’s career. Of course, there’s a good amount of material from the Ziggy period, and that’s great, but the performances from that era are much more polished, and many live recordings of the Spiders from Mars are already available (as we’ll find out below). The real draw to this collection is the inclusion of live performances from the self-titled album to the Space Oddity, Man Who Sold the World, and Hunky Dory period. Especially concerning the earlier material, some of the versions on these discs are, arguably, even better than their studio counterparts (“Silly Boy Blue,” “Karma Man,” and “Let Me Sleep Beside You”). Otherwise, it’s simply a pleasure to hear some of the performances of the not-often-performed Space Oddity cuts like “Cygnet Committee” and “Memory of a Free Festival.”
Not a comprehensive live album per se, but Bowie at the Beeb is a must-have for any Bowie fan regardless.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Also, if you can get your hands on the rare editions with the 2000 BBC Radio Theater performance, I’d highly recommend that release as well. For the record, it’s basically a “Greatest Hits” sort of performance with a few rarities.

 

Live Santa Monica ’72:

Widely distributed and traded as a bootleg before its eventual official release in 2008, Live Santa Monica ’72 is a recording of Bowie at the peak of his time as the androgynous, other-worldly rock god, Ziggy Stardust. As a portrait of the performances with the Spiders from Mars, this disc is a gem even though there are some flaws. There are some flubbed lyrics and blatantly off-key backing vocals (listen to this version of “Five Years”), but its historical significance and sheer energy make it an essential addition to any Bowie fan’s collection.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture

The infamous performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 was where Ziggy’s death took place as captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s legendary film (also well worth seeking out), and that alone makes this soundtrack album an essential live album. But more than that, the performances captured on this record capture some truly great moments of the Spiders from Mars at their most potent. Some of the songs and guitar solos may be a little too long and there are a few shaky moments, but the palpable enthusiasm captured in this recording alone make it a memorable performance worth owning.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

David Live

After the release of the bleak masterwork of Diamond Dogs, there came a live document of the resulting tour, simply called David Live. With grandiose set pieces trying to depict the landscape of the studio album’s Hunger City, perhaps David Live would have been more of a spectacle if it had been a filmed performance like the Ziggy Stardust film rather than simply being an audio recording. As it stands though, this is a weak entry. Bowie’s performances are hit or miss on this disc, and he sounds a little too detached, sometimes bored. The record is worth listening to as it’s likely the only place that live recordings of “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing Reprise,” will be found, but it’s only really recommended for die-hard Bowie fans.

Rating: 2 out 5

Stage

Coming in the midst of the “Berlin Trilogy,” Stage is a notable live album as being the only official document of the concerts held at this legendary period of Bowie’s career. However, this album has gotten some flack for not having enough of a “live atmosphere” with some even claiming that the recordings sound as if they’ve been doctored too much in the studio after the actual concert. Whether or not this is the case (it’s doubtful it was cleaned up that much anyway), Stage is a great live album that has some exceptional material if one takes the time to appreciate it. If you’re looking for a gritty, raw album live the Santa Monica recordings, this one isn’t for you, but otherwise, Stage is more than worth the space in anyone’s collection.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Serious Moonlight (Film)

After the commercial hit of Let’s Dance, Bowie embarked on a supporting tour that was filmed for television and eventual release on home video. This concert footage is a lot of fun, and if you’re looking for a “Greatest Hits” type of Bowie concert, this is the one to pick up. Bowie and his touring band seem like they’re all having fun in this show with material ranging from the Space Oddity album right up to the newly released Let’s Dance. If you haven’t seen this live film, it’s highly recommended to devote fans and newcomers alike.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Glass Spider

Oh boy.

The Diamond Dogs tour, judging from written reports, was an ambitious and highly theatric undertaking, but for the record it was supporting, it seems like it would make sense to embark on such a venture. But this… this is just silly. And unnecessary.

Coming after the substandard release of Never Let Me Down, the Glass Spider tour was another attempt at a theatric tour complete with some weird-ass choreography, a giant spider… oh yeah, and Peter Frampton.

The resulting Glass Spider film and (if you get the right version) audio recording is kind of a mixed bag. The presentation is just as silly as it sounds, and sometimes it’s downright absurd (what the hell was with that rendition of “Up the Hill Backwards”?). But there are some good moments here. Some performances, like “Absolute Beginners,” “Never Let Me Down,” and “Jean Genie,” are actually pretty well done, and the recordings of “All the Madmen” and “Big Brother” on the audio version are interesting inclusions to this tour.

Overall, this is a weird, weird live album/film. It’s pandering, misguided, completely gratuitous, and sometimes embarrassing. But with that being said, it is kind of entertaining, if not just to see how over-the-top the 80s were for Bowie.

Rating: 3 out of 5

VH1 Storytellers

Bowie’s Storytellers spot came after the release of his 1999 album, ‘Hours…’. This is an interesting live film/audio recording in that it’s a much more stripped-down performance than can be found on any other such Bowie release, and the material included (“Word on a Wing,” “Always Crashing in the Same Car” – only on the DVD – , and a new interpretation of the early “Can’t Help Thinking About Me”) is pretty interesting in itself. But the real draw to this release is the inclusion of some candid, funny stories and background information on some of the songs. If you haven’t gotten to see this one, it’s highly recommended even though it is pretty short.

Rating: 4 out of 5

A Reality Tour

Similar to howSerious Moonlight was effectively a “Greatest Hits” kind of live recording, the Reality Tour film and audio recording follows this same format, but with much more material and to a much greater effect. With over 30 songs included that range from the 1970 Man Who Sold the World all the way up to Reality, there is a wealth of material to take in here. Some great inclusions are “Under Pressure,” a reworking of “Loving the Alien,” and a three-song summation of the Ziggy Stardust album. Out of all of Bowie’s live albums, this recording (both the video and audio portions) is easily the most comprehensive and accessible for fans of any caliber.

Rating: 5 out of 5

~Stephen

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