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David Mallet
David Bowie

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 105 min.
Price: $39.98
Release Date: 5/8/2001

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David Bowie: Glass Spider (1987)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 8, 2003)

15 years after the fact, David Bowie’s 1987 “Glass Spider” tour remains something of a punchline within the industry. The show long ago became noted for its excess, as it offered flash over substance. Bowie must be glad U2 staged their much-ridiculed “PopMart” tour in 1997, for at least it took some of the pressure off of him.

Although most regard it as common fact that “Glass Spider” and “PopMart” sucked, please allow a dissenting opinion. I won’t provide a defense of “PopMart” in this space – that’ll have to wait for its DVD release, if that ever happens – but suffice it to say I thought the critics totally missed the point.

As for “Glass Spider”, I can’t quibble too much with some of the arguments against it. At worst, the show seemed overblown and silly. The stage was fairly nonsensical, and the goofy dancers openly detracted from the experience much of the time. Even the artist himself appears less than enchanted with the program now.

But still, it’s Bowie. On his weakest night, he still tops 99 percent of all other performers. In my ever-so-humble opinion, no one can touch Bowie on stage; he’s the one against whom all others are measured. When he’s off-kilter, he’s still interesting, but when he’s on, it doesn’t get any better.

Despite the lame trappings of the stage and the dancers, Bowie remained on during much of “Glass Spider”, and that factor alone made it work. Admittedly, I have more than a little sentimental attachment to the show, so I can’t state that I’m terribly objective toward it. I was a Bowie fan before I saw “Glass Spider” in 1987, but I liked the show so much that it set me down the path to super-fandom. I took in four of those concerts and have subsequently seen Bowie live on an additional 47 occasions, with another four to come soon.

”Glass Spider” simply opened my interest in Bowie to a new degree. Over the next couple of years I got more and more interested in his music. By 1989, Bowie was clearly my absolute favorite musician. That spot had changed periodically during the prior years. It went from the Beatles to the Stones to the Kinks to Springsteen. However, once the honor landed on Bowie, he never let it go; more than a decade later, Bowie remains The Man.

Would this have occurred had I not seen “Glass Spider”? Perhaps, but it still seems clear that the concert had a strong impact on me. As such, I’ll always maintain a fond spot in my heart toward it.

But does that mean it’ll entertain anyone today? Actually, yeah, it does. I hadn’t watched the Glass Spider video in a few years, and honestly, I feared I might not think much of it anymore. I knew I’d still like much of the music, but I thought I’d lose patience with the sillier aspects.

While the show remains moderately incoherent, Bowie’s magnetism still is strong enough to carry the day. The man’s a total marvel as he effortlessly takes control of the stage. Few singers seem as “at home” up there; Bowie looks like he was born under the spotlights, and his presence easily makes up for the absurdity of the staging.

Clearly a “concept” piece, in its recorded incarnation, Spider makes little sense. That happens for a couple of reasons. For one, the performance came from the end of the tour. Very early on, Bowie dropped a few numbers that made its “rock stars vs. reality” theme more explicit. Some elements of that remained, but they failed to appear coherent. Granted, they probably never were very understandable, but they omission of those numbers obscured the point even more.

In addition, the video incarnation of Spider cut a few songs from the original November 1987 concert. We lost “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, “All the Madmen”, “Big Brother”, “’87 and Cry”, “Beat of Your Drum”, and “Time Will Crawl”. The last two weren’t missed terribly. “Beat” is a pretty weak tune, and while I like “Crawl”, the number stood alone in the show, so it could be excised without much notice or harm.

However, the other four omissions came at a higher price. “Monsters” and “Madmen” showed up between “Fashion” and “Never Let Me Down”, while “Brother” and “Cry” matched together between “Never Let Me Down” and “’Heroes’”. They fit into more of the conceptual part of the show and left a hole when they were cut. They also happened to all work really well live. I believe these edits occurred to ensure the concert would fit onto a standard videotape back in the Eighties, but I still intensely dislike them. Actually, that argument makes little sense. The program runs only 105 minutes, which left some time on a two-hour tape for at least two or three of these songs; I see no reason why all six got the boot.

Nonetheless, even without those tunes, I continue to enjoy Spider. Probably the concert’s greatest weakness stemmed from its high reliance on numbers from Never Let Me Down, Bowie’s then-current – and much-reviled – album. The omission of “Cry”, “Beat” and “Crawl” reduces the amount of Down heard on the DVD, but its presence remained moderately heavy. We still got four tracks from the record: “Glass Spider”, “Day-In, Day-Out”, “Bang Bang”, and “Never Let Me Down”. Given that other peers like the Stones and McCartney usually perform only a handful of new tracks during their shows, the level at which Bowie emphasized Never Let Me Down in 1987 seems remarkable.

Amazingly, as originally conceived, the concert included a whopping 10 tracks from the album; the preliminary show omitted only “Too Dizzy”, a number Bowie hates so much that he insisted it be left off of a Nineties reissue of the album! Considering that the original conception left off “Rebel Rebel” and “Young Americans” – two tunes Bowie openly disdains – the preliminary concert included only a handful of the man’s big numbers. Say what you want about Bowie’s Eighties output, but anyone who planned to go into stadiums – the ultimate lowest-common-denominator setting – with such an obscure setlist deserves some credit.

Given the dodgy quality of so much of Never Let Me Down, the lighter balance of tunes found on this DVD probably achieves a superior balance. This doesn’t mean that I endorse the program’s editing; it simply reflects that Bowie went overboard with tracks from that album during the actual show. Still, I prefer to see him take some chances rather than play it safe with just the tried-and-true oldies.

Actually, the 1987 strongly favored material from that decade. Although Bowie created most of his better-regarded tunes in the Seventies, the show included 15 tracks from the Eighties. In addition to the seven Never Let Me Down numbers, we got the single “Absolute Beginners” from 1986, “Loving the Alien” and “Blue Jean” from 1984’s Tonight, “Let’s Dance”, “China Girl” and “Modern Love” from 1983’s smash hit Let’s Dance, and “Fashion” and the title tune from 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

That left little room for older material. Notably, Bowie ejected staples like “Space Oddity”, “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust”. Indeed, he played nothing from 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, his break-through release. The show’s oldest track was “All the Madmen” from 1970’s underrated The Man Who Sold the World. Fellow obscurity “Big Brother” and hit “Rebel Rebel” came from 1974’s Diamond Dogs, while “Sons of the Silent Age” emanated from 1977’s ”Heroes”, as did that album’s title track.

After this we found a few oldies, most that were hits. “The Jean Genie” and “Time” came from 1973’s Aladdin Sane, while we got both “Fame” and the title track off of 1975’s Young Americans. Absolutely nothing appeared from 1969’s Space Oddity, 1971’s Hunky Dory, 1972’s Ziggy, 1977’s Low, and 1979’s Lodger. Bowie offered a career-spanning show in 1983 on the Serious Moonlight tour; during that outing, he played songs from every album except The Man Who Sold the World. Obviously, he cared less for such a broad overview in 1987.

During that tour, Bowie also tossed out some cover renditions. He played the Velvet Underground’s “White Light, White Heat” billions of times over the years; honestly, I think he’s performed it more frequently than any of his own tunes. It appears here – as it did sporadically throughout the tour – and is joined by another cover of a track from one of his influences: Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”.

Again, while one can quibble with the staging and execution of the 1987 tour, one must give Bowie credit for going out on a limb in regard to his song choices. He’d do so again in 1995 when he went out with Nine Inch Nails as his opening act. Though the shows were generally good, Bowie got his head handed to him. The crowds mainly included NIN fans who weren’t in the mood for that tour’s mix of new material and obscure oldies. With nary a hit in sight, Bowie faced some of the least enthusiastic reactions ever.

Audience fervor wasn’t a problem in the go-go Eighties, though. Even without the hits, crowds seemed to embrace the Glass Spider show. As I already mentioned, I definitely enjoyed it very much, and though it pales in comparison with some of Bowie’s better tours, it remains a sentimental favorite. For all its faults, Glass Spider still presents high-quality Bowie, and that’s good enough for me.

The DVD Grades: Picture D+/ Audio B/ Bonus D-

David Bowie Glass Spider appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Spider offered my second experience with an import DVD from Panorama Music Video; the first came with Paul McCartney’s Get Back. Based in Hong Kong, their region 0 discs seem to be legal in this country; I got my copies of both Panorama DVDs at major mall retailers, and Amazon sells Get Back, so these certainly don’t appear to be bootlegs.

Nonetheless, one shouldn’t expect terrific quality from their offerings. At least that’s the impression I got based on my two encounters with their product. Actually, Spider came as a moderately pleasant surprise after the disappointment of Get Back. Frankly, I think the latter came from a videotaped source. While I can’t claim Spider went back to the original masters for the product, it seemed superior to the McCartney disc.

If one compares my picture grades for Get Back and Glass Spider, my claims of higher quality for the latter may seem confusing. After all, the former earned a “C-“ while the latter got a “D+”. Ergo, Spider looked worse than Get Back, right? Yes, in an absolute sense, but the McCartney piece had farther to fall. It came from a 35mm filmed source, whereas Spider resulted from videotape. Thus Get Back should provide a better picture, so the fact it barely topped Spider made it the greater disappointment.

All comparisons aside, Spider indeed displayed a number of concerns, none of which really surprised me given its origins. Sharpness varied. Close-ups looked reasonably distinct and well defined, but anything beyond that range tended to appear fairly soft and fuzzy. Mostly the picture came across as muddy and without great delineation. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, but edge enhancement caused some problems. Many objects featured a distinct glow around them. Some of this seemed to result from the lighting, but it appeared a little severe to discount totally based on that factor; moderate haloes could be seen at times.

Source flaws didn’t seem apparent, though some video noise showed up at times. Actually, I thought much of what could be ascribed to video distortion really resulted from smoke effects on stage; those can cause a look that seems grainy but isn’t. More problematic, however, were the colors. They varied between excessive heaviness and a faded quality but rarely looked accurate. Background tones seemed thick and murky, while clothes and some lights appeared pale and without much depth. Colors were rather messy and runny at times.

Much of the time the show looked much too bright; white lighting tended to wash out the picture and cause even more of that glowing effect. Black levels appeared fairly flat and lackluster, while shadow detail was too dense and opaque; low-light situations seemed murky and impenetrable.

But you know what? Even with all these concerns, I remained fairly pleased with the image of Glass Spider. Objectively, it didn’t earn anything higher than a “D+”, but subjectively, it represented the original material acceptably well. Without question, a new master from the source would result in a vastly superior picture, but this DVD still gave us the best-looking Spider to date. I did some direct comparisons with my old laserdisc and found the DVD topped it in every way. The LD showed exceedingly runny colors, even worse sharpness, and lots of video noise. The DVD at least tightened up some of these concerns. While I’d love to see a new master made of Glass Spider, this version will do until that happens.

On the other hand, I found the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Glass Spider to provide a very pleasant surprise. Get Back included Dolby 5.1 and DTS mixes, both of which pretty much stunk. It sounded as though they took the audio from a videotape and simply coded it for those two formats with no other work done on the material.

I can’t claim that Spider received any additional reworking, but I do know it sounded much better than Get Back and it held up well even without any form of comparisons. As one expects of a concert presentation, the soundfield maintained a fairly heavy forward bias. Vocals stayed pretty firmly anchored in the center, while the front channels offered very nice stereo imaging for the instruments. The duel guitars of Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton split neatly to the sides (Alomar on the left, Frampton on the right),and the other players showed up in logical locations. All of this blended together cleanly and created a solid spectrum of sound.

Surround usage mainly restricted itself to general reverberation. The mix featured a sibilant echo for Bowie’s vocals to simulate that stadium impression. This became a little distracting on occasion, but for the most part it remained reasonably subdued and effective. On occasion the rears offered some more distinct musical elements – such as at the start of “Bang Bang” – but generally they just reinforced the main audio. It wasn’t a great soundfield, but it worked well for the music.

One minor concern about the soundfield: one a couple of occasions – primarily during the first few songs – I heard a little dropout that favored the left side of the mix. This meant that the left domain briefly dominated the track. This wasn’t a huge problem, and it only occurred a few times, but I wanted to note it nonetheless.

Audio quality seemed quite good. Though the mix poured on a little too much of that sibilant reverb at times, vocals still sounded reasonably distinct and accurate for the most part. This was a stadium concert, so one has to expect a distant quality to the singing, and the disc replicated that well without becoming too detached. Instruments appeared nicely clear and well defined. They always were bright, lively and crisp. Bass response seemed particularly solid. Carmine Rojas’ bass guitar playing fared particularly well, as those elements were deep and rich but still natural. The low-end spectrum really impressed me, as it avoided excessive boominess or heaviness. Overall, the audio of Glass Spider didn’t achieve greatness, but it provided a pleasantly strong experience.

We find almost no extras on Glass Spider. All we get is a concert bio that includes some details about the tour. It mentions the launch date for “Glass Spider”, the number of performances, and the on-stage performers. And that’s all she wrote!

When it comes to my recommendation, I encounter a dilemma. To be sure, the concert depicted on Glass Spider maintains a positive spot in my heart. The show helped initiate me into the wonders of David Bowie, and for that I remain eternally grateful. However, the tour in question also inspires a lot of derision from a variety of folks. It doesn’t merit all of this criticism, but some of it hits the mark.

Still, flawed Bowie is better than the best offered by most folks, so I still find a lot to like about Glass Spider. The DVD itself is more problematic. Picture quality seems fairly weak, though most of the concerns result from the source material. Audio appears generally positive, but the disc includes no substantial extras.

As much as I like Glass Spider, ultimately I can recommend it only to the diehard Bowie fans. You may find it tough to locate a copy of the DVD. I got mine at a national mall retailer, and I’ve seen it listed at a mix of Internet sellers as well. The disc comes at a premium price; expect to pay around $40 for it. That’s simply too steep for what you get. Some of us just have to have something like this, and others like me won’t mind the cost. Folks with less devotion to Bowie should probably skip it and hope that it eventually gets a “real” US release at a more reasonable price.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5172 Stars Number of Votes: 29
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