DAVID BOWIE: The Birth Of Rock Theatre, Toronto, June 1974

On Sunday, June 16, 1974, I was at the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto for the third night of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs tour. Nowadays theatrical presentations of rock and pop are nothing special. Peter Gabriel has been acting out his songs for years, Kate Bush did it in 1979 (and will probably do it again in August) and Madonna opened the floodgates for all manner of wannabes to present their music alongside dancers, props and everything bar the kitchen sink. It could be argued that Alice Cooper started it all but, compared to what David did on this tour, Alice was a Punch & Judy Show. David never repeated this kind of concert and, of course, it never reached the UK, though it was filmed for a seldom-seen documentary called Cracked Actor.               
        If my report below, slightly edited from the original, sounds a bit breathless, that’s because this kind of presentation was so new that I was pretty much overawed by it. Also, it being a Sunday night I had a write up my longish review very quickly, in longhand on hotel notepaper, then wait until about four in the morning to call London (9am UK time) and dictate it over the phone to a secretary. We’d progressed from carrier pigeons but e-mails were as remote as Bowie himself. It filled page three of that week’s MM as I recall. (I found the pic below on the internet, from the show I saw, photographer unknown.) 

A FEW THOUSAND lucky Canadians witnessed a completely new concept in rock theatre last weekend when David Bowie opened his North American tour in Toronto on Sunday.
         It now seems likely that Bowie WAS speaking the truth when he announced his retirement from rock on the stage at the Hammersmith Odeon last year. For the act that David presents on this tour has as much to do with rock and roll as Bob Dylan has with the gloss of Las Vegas.
         The one-and-a-half-hour, 20-song show is a completely rehearsed and choreographed routine where every step and nuance has been perfected down to the last detail. There isn't one iota of spontaneity about the whole show. It is straight off a musical stage – a piece of theatre complete with extravagant mechanical sets, dancers and a band that stands reservedly to stage right and never even receives so much as a cursory acknowledgement, like an orchestra in the theatre pits.
         The show belongs on Broadway or Shaftesbury Avenue rather than on the road. The whole concept takes a complete turnaround from what a rock audience anticipates, but at Toronto on Sunday it left them stunned. Perhaps the crowd at the O'Keefe Theatre literally couldn't believe their eyes.
         Fittingly there was no encore and the applauding audience was greeted with the announcement 10 minutes after the show stopped that Bowie had already left the theatre. The Colonel Parker touch is forever there.
         The music actually appears secondary to the various effects and dance routines, and while it could be argued that Alice Cooper has taken rock theatre to its extreme level, Bowie has moved onto a totally different level. It was more in the vein of a Liza Minnelli performance, or even a Vegas night club cabaret. A Christmas pantomime would be an unfair parallel, but the ideas behind it were exactly the same.
         Bowie comes out of this show as some kind of magical being. A star above stars, as untouchable as the sky; not once does he address the audience, or even allude to their presence other than an odd grin.
         Each song is linked together so that no delays occur during the show, and he doesn't even take a bow at the end. The material is a sensible mixture of songs from the Diamond Dogs album and assorted old favourites.
         Bowie’s backing band – Earl Slick, an American guitarist, Herbie Flowers on bass, Mike Garson from the old Spiders on keyboard, and Tony Newman on drums – are first class, note perfect to an almost mechanical degree. Their presence – as opposed to their music – is less important than the stage setting and the various effects that evolve from behind hidden doors.
         The dancers, Warren Peace and Gui Andrisan, sing backup vocals and shuffle props and mikes around the stage with total precision. The stage set is taken from the disintegrating metropolis, Hunger City, created from Bowie's imagination for the concept of his new album.
         The rear of the stage is a 20 foot high bridge constructed from span girders that form a catwalk which rises and falls at Bowie's command. Three equally high lighting towers, cunningly disguised as toppling skyscrapers, beam down on the star of the show. Illustrated at the left of the stage, against one of these pillars, is some kind of phallic symbol spurting blood towards the sky. The band are off to the right, towards the rear of the stage.
         Throughout the entire show Bowie goes through a series of well-rehearsed dance steps and mimes to act out each song in the persona of the character involved. The expanse of unoccupied stage in the centre is ample for all manner of complex choreography involving chairs, ropes and sundry other props.
         The Toronto concert began over half an hour late and, of course, there was no supporting act. For 45 minutes prior to Bowie's arrival on stage a tape of odd sounds and peculiar jungle noises was heard through a PA system that was placed half way up the hall instead of actually on the stage.
         Eventually, after some slow handclapping, the lights were dimmed for a roadie in blue dungarees (regulation uniform for the whole road crew) to announce that Bowie was suffering from laryngitis but would appear regardless.
         The opening song was '1984'. Bowie was dressed in a light grey suit with blue and white polka dot, collarless shirt, and red braces. He retained the same outfit for the entire performance, apart from occasionally removing his jacket. He appeared without any noticeable make-up and gone was the spiky hair style of last year and the year before. In its place was a neat parting; it left little doubt about the masculinity of the performer.
         It took a couple more numbers, 'Rebel Rebel' and 'Moonage Daydream', before the significance of the show began to sink in, with the audience realising they were witnessing something totally different from a normal rock concert. The cheers grew louder, but few could imagine the surprises in store.
         For 'Sweet Thing' Bowie appeared on the catwalk for the first time, dressed in a long trench coat and gazing down on the dancers below as he sang and pouted. Yellowing lamp standards up on the wall gave it an eerie but sad atmosphere. Eventually the whole huge bridge machinery swung into operation rather like Tower Bridge allowing a steamer to pass through, and Bowie was lowered between the two pillars to land safely back on the ground.
         The next song was 'Changes', with more dance routine, then 'Suffragette City', 'All The Young Dudes' and 'Will You Rock And Roll With Me', which seemed to close the first sequence of the performance.
         Houselights went up and for the first time as Bowie bent to receive his applause. His rigid facial expression seemed to reflect incredible self-confidence. He knew it was good so there was little point in milking the applause. There was even a suggestion of arrogance – a MainMan star, indeed.
         'Watch That Man' began phase two of the show, though the delay was actually less than most bands take between every number. Next, for 'Drive In Saturday', David played acoustic guitar for the first and only time in the show. Then came another major surprise: with the opening chord of 'Space Oddity' thundering from Slick's guitar, Bowie appeared to have left the arena, then a door atop one of the skyscrapers swung open to reveal him in a seat on a pole – actually a hydraulic boom extending from the base of the phallic symbol. He began the song perched up there, but as the verses progressed and David took on the identity of Major Tom, the boom moved forward and extended diagonally outwards so that he was projected somewhat precariously out above the front rows of the audience. Complete with flashing lights everywhere the effect was nothing short of sensational.
         From then on the various effects came thick and fast, and to grasp every detail one would have to watch at least three shows. At one stage (during 'Diamond Dogs') David was tied up in ropes by the dancers and at another he was in the centre of a boxing ring, wearing boxing gloves to sing 'Panic In Detroit'. He even had a big black dude walk on in a track suit to act as a second, towelling him down and fitting a fresh gum shield between verses. But even these effects paled compared to the Houdini-like routine during the last half hour.
         For this David appeared perched above a platform of mirrors, wheeled on from the rear. The platform turned out to be a gigantic square box rather like some conjurer's lavish prop, into which Bowie descended and disappeared from view. The front doors of the box were then opened by his dancers but... no David. Just a gigantic sparkling, black hand against ultraviolet strip lights.
Eventually the hand lowered to reveal a glittering staircase for Bowie to take the stage once more.
         For the final medley of 'Jean Genie' and 'Rock And Roll Suicide', a tiny but powerful spot at the base of the stage was switched on to create giant shadows of David and his dancers looming over the painted metropolis on the back drop – another eerie but brilliantly choreographed set piece.
         The show was over before you knew it. Suddenly the audience were yelling for more at a stage which had emptied in seconds. The applause lasted some ten minutes before the announcement that David had left the theatre.
         It was the most original spectacle in "rock" I've ever seen, a complete move forward in direction for both Bowie and pop in general. The star comes out of it as an all-round actor/singer/ dancer/entertainer, leaving behind his status as a simple singer/songwriter. Equally worthy of praise are set designer Jules Fisher and choreographer Toni Basil.
         Their attention to detail was almost frightening. During 'Space Oddity' for example, David sang into a telephone receiver rather than a regular microphone, and in 'Cracked Actor' Hollywood-type movie cameras and spots were hastily set up around the singer while a make-up man arrived to splash on face powder. The only unrehearsed item appeared to be when a dancer collided with Tony Newman's cymbals. Two roadies were there in a flash to set matters right.
         Quite how much the setting, machinery and rehearsals must have cost in man hours and money is anyone's guess but it seemed doubtful that Bowie will be signing a bill much less than £50,000 for the project and this may go some way towards explaining the unusually high ticket price.
         Here in Toronto the top price was eight dollars and 80 cents (about £4) while in New York at Madison Square Garden next month the top is 10 dollars and 50 cents, abnormally high by rock standards and setting a new precedent in pricing.
         But David Bowie 1974 is not constricted by rock any more. He looks further ahead than any in rock; his far-reaching imagination has created a combination of contemporary music and theatre that is several years ahead of its time.


Ian Gordon Craig said...

It could be argued That Screaming Lord Sutch started it all.... But then again he probably nicked it from Jay Hawkins.

I probably read this review "back in the day", sat in a cramped, dark Liverpool bedsitter, post art college daydreams, pre professional responsibilities. At that time whole albums would be previewed on the radio (Alan Freeman?), so everyone held tiny microphones from portable cassette recorders to the speaker and sat in absolute still silence for the duration. In that way I played a rough cassette constantly of Diamond Dogs til the album was released. It became my favourite Bowie.

When David Live was released I liked that even more. At first it was weird to take, having seen the Aladdin Sane tour. But the reworked back catalogue sat well alongside the new album tracks, and it was only through articles like yours we ever got to imagine what the whole presentation would have been like.

I wonder how much footage apart from Cracked Actor exists that we’ve never seen. In those days many cameras were only able to shoot very short sequences.

Thanks for posting, Then and Now.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Thanks Ian. I take your point about Lord Sutch, and Hawkins. I reviewed Diamond Dogs for MM but such was the preciousness surrounding Bowie that I was summoned to Mainman's offices in NY to listen to it (once) and not even allowed to take notes, let alone tape it. The sole reason for this attitude was to create the impression that DB was somehow in a league of his own. The upshot was that the review was a bit patchy, incomplete, as I recall. I though he was surrounded by idiots. Loved DD all the same though.

Anonymous said...

Hey Chris, Jaffo here

I remember a lad at school bringing that article in and us all poring over it in the playground because, if memory serves, that was the first time any of us had seen pictures of the 'new look' (ie non-Ziggy looking) Bowie. Great to read that again. All the best