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.