Editor’s Note: This week has capped off a remarkably strong run for David Bowie fans, what with last year’s pretty damn good album The Next Day, the touring exhibition and film David Bowie Is, and now the release of the three-disc career retrospective Nothing Has Changed. It’s a solid set, with an interesting reverse-chronological conceit and two new songs–the jazzy “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” and the industrial-tinged “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore“–that prove, at the very least, that the 67-year-old Bowie hasn’t lost his mercurial edge. As a semi-professional curmudgeon, however, I feel that it is my duty to remind us all that It Was Not Always Thus. So come with me and my 21-year-old self for a nostalgic trip to those dark days when David Bowie wasn’t cool. It will make you appreciate the hip elder statesman Bowie we have now, and it will allow me to say I posted something to the blog this week. That’s a win-win in my book. – Z.H.
Conventional wisdom says that the ’80s weren’t kind to rock. For the most part, though, that’s an exaggeration: any decade that managed to yield classic albums like the Gun Club’s Fire of Love, Tom Waits‘ Rain Dogs, Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, and the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa couldn’t have been all bad. What the ’80s really weren’t kind to was Rock with a capital “R”: those graying, fading superstars who had seemed so hip and dangerous in the 1970s, only to be revealed ten years later as charlatans in banana-yellow slacks. Even cows as sacred as Bob Dylan were unable to escape the branding–remember, this was the decade of Dylan and the Dead. But when all is said and done, few musicians of the ’60s and ’70s were to fall quite as precipitously, or as spectacularly, as David Bowie.
That’s because, unlike Dylan, the Stones, or the former Beatles, Bowie never seemed all that dated in the first place. The waning years of the 1970s had seen him adapt all but seamlessly to the new world order of punk, releasing a trio of classic albums produced by Brian Eno before opening the new decade with an equally fashion-forward, but rougher-edged Tony Visconti collaboration, Scary Monsters. The stage seemed set for continuing relevance–but instead, he decided to court the pop charts. Any evidence necessary to prove that the Bowie of 1983 was a dramatically different figure from the Bowie of 1973 can be gleaned from watching just two representative films: D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust concert film, and the promo from Bowie’s “Dancing in the Street” single with Mick Jagger. In the former, all the right elements are in place: theatrical posturing, sexual ambiguity, and a gritty, arty approach to rock’n’roll that still sounds vital today. In the latter, we have what is easily a career low point for both artists, complete with campy and ill-choreographed dance routines, an utterly soulless musical arrangement, and a concept (Dave and Mick, you guessed it, “dancing in the streets!”) that was about as rock-bottom as the video’s budget.
The good news about the recently reissued Serious Moonlight, a visual document of Bowie’s 1983 tour for the Let’s Dance album that was previously available only on VHS, is that it isn’t anywhere near as bad as “Dancing in the Street.” The bad news, however, is it also isn’t anywhere near as good as Ziggy—or Low, or Heroes, or Station to Station, or Diamond Dogs, or Young Americans, or just about any other pre-1983 Bowie record you care to name. Those hoping that the DVD might shed some light on the reviled-in-retrospect “pop phase” of the Thin White Duke’s career, perhaps unearthing a classic performance or two, be warned: any way you spin it, Serious Moonlight is not vintage Bowie.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. This being David Bowie, the concert at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition Coliseum is less a traditional rock show than it is a combination of show-stopping soul revue, cheeseball Vegas extravaganza, and community theatre pantomime. The back-up singers strike ridiculous poses; the band is dressed variously as colonialist jungle explorers, Russian cossacks, and fedora-wearing “toughs” straight out of Guys & Dolls; and the peroxide-blonde pompadour sported by the man of the hour is probably the fashion nadir of an artist who’s made a semi-career out of skirting the edges of bad taste. So if taking cheap shots at bad ’80s fashion is your style, then Moonlight will be your personal goldmine: everything from Earl Slick’s indulgent, shredtastic guitar solos to the multitude of bad video effects piled on by music video director David Mallet screams of the decade of excess.
As for the music itself, it’s a mixed bag, leaning heavily toward “forgettable.” Bowie is in good voice throughout, particularly on a version of “Life on Mars” from Hunky Dory that blows the roof off despite its incongruity on a slick 1983 setlist. But his performances, while technically proficient, often feel contrived and false–a judgment that isn’t helped by his bizarre mix of constant mugging and wax-dummy James Brown dance moves. The standout worst moment is an unconscionably hammy “China Girl,” during which Bowie bellows the “oh baby, just you shut your mouth” line in Charlie Chan Engrish before turning around and miming a make-out session schoolyard-style: a humiliating display that puts the final nail in Iggy Pop‘s formerly-haunting original, now turned indelibly into a winking C-grade Orientalist fantasy. But there’s plenty more where that came from: watching the aforementioned back-up singers make “scary” faces in front of a strobe light during an otherwise well-done performance of “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” is to witness a decline into self-parody so irredeemable, it makes it even more amazing that Bowie’s recent Reality tour was as good as it was.
In truth, though, the real place where Serious Moonlight falls short is its intent. Touring off the back of a dance album produced by Nile Rodgers, with a crack band including Carlos Alomar and Chic drummer Tony Thompson, the Serious Moonlight shows could have been seriously funky, a culmination at last of the “plastic soul” concept Bowie had worked up in the abortive 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. Instead, we get an attempt at career holism; everything from “Space Oddity” to a sucked-dry “Cracked Actor” gets played, doing justice to neither the players nor the material. Only occasionally–with a serviceable medley of “Fashion” and “Let’s Dance,” or better yet, a nervy version of Low‘s “Breaking Glass” that sounds like Bowie and company had been listening to Talking Heads‘ Remain in Light and taking notes–does the music live up to its promise. But when matched with a sloppy mix (vocals and lead guitar way up front, rhythm section pretty much non-existent) and all the other aforementioned flaws, these fleeting moments of light just aren’t enough. Let this be proof: the ’80s weren’t kind to David Bowie. Fortunately, though, he’s had the last fifteen years to make up for it.