DAVID BOWIE AND FRIENDS: THE FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY CONCERT

JANUARY 9th 1997

 

Musicians:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Saxophone

  • Reeves Gabrels: Guitar

  • Gail Ann Dorsey: Bass, Keyboards, Vocals

  • Zachary Alford: Drums

  • Mike Garson: Keyboards

  • PLUS GUESTS (see opposite)

Repertoire:

Little Wonder | The Hearts Filthy Lesson | Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) & Fashion (with Frank Black) | Telling Lies | Hallo Spaceboy (with Foo Fighters) | Seven Years In Tibet (with David Grohl) | The Man Who Sold The World | The Last Thing You Should Do & Quicksand (with Robert Smith) | Battle For Britain (The Letter) | The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty) | I'm Afraid Of Americans (with Sonic Youth) | Looking For Satellites | Under Pressure | "Heroes" | Queen Bitch & Waiting For The Man & Dirty Bvld. & White Light/White Heat (with Lou Reed) | Moonage Daydream | Happy Birthday | All The Young Dudes & The Jean Genie (with Billy Corgan) | Space Oddity

"An ageing rock star doesn't have to opt out of life," Bowie told Jean Rook in 1979. "When I'm fifty, I'll prove it." And, eighteen years later, he did, launching his new album Earthling in a star-studded charity concert at Madison Square Garden.

The decision to stage the show in New York was, Bowie explained, a logistical one. "All my crew are American," he told the BBC apologetically. "Economically, it was more feasible to do it in the States than take all the caboodle back to Europe." The venue was also a convenient one for the roster of predominantly American artists booked as special guests: the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, David Grohl and his Foo Fighters, Frank Black (long admired by David, who had been citing the influence of Pixies on his work for nearly a decade), and best of all Lou Reed, introduced by David as "the king of New York". There were British guests too; as support Bowie had chosen rising Anglo-Canadian stars Placebo, and in a long overdue collaboration he secured the services of Robert Smith, The Cure's brilliant singer-guitarist who had attested to Bowie's influence on his work for many years. "Smith and Jones together at last!" joked David. "He doesn't seem 50," said Smith later, "He seems about 15 and 100 at the same time." Following the gig, Smith (whose tongue-in-cheek birthday present for David was a fossilised chameleon) enlisted Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati to guest on The Cure's 1997 single "Wrong Number". Gabrels, who would go on to play with The Cure on several more occasions, later revealed that Madonna was also among the concert's mooted guests until late in the day.

With Earthling not due on the shelves for another month and only "Telling Lies", "Little Wonder" and "Seven Years In Tibet" thus far revealed on stage, the show boasted several brand new songs. All but two of the Earthling tracks were performed, as were a couple from 1.Outside, while most of the obvious crowd-pleasers were held back until late into the evening. Brilliantly, the new songs threatened to steal the show: "Seven Years In Tibet" and "Battle For Britain" were delivered with devastating energy and conviction, while "Hallo Spaceboy", boosted by no fewer than three drummers courtesy of the Foo Fighters, was a riot. Even so, the concert achieved an appropriate air of nostalgia with the unexpected revivals of "Quicksand", "Queen Bitch" and "Space Oddity".

Billy Corgan
Billy Corgan

David Bowie And Friends: The Fiftieth Birthday Concert

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Frank Black
Frank Black

David Bowie And Friends: The Fiftieth Birthday Concert

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Robert Smith
Robert Smith

David Bowie And Friends: The Fiftieth Birthday Concert

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Billy Corgan
Billy Corgan

David Bowie And Friends: The Fiftieth Birthday Concert

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David Bowie: The Fiftieth Birthday Concert with birthday cake!

Overseen by the Outside tour's set designer Gary Westcott, the staging was an intriguing combination of old and new. The Outside tour set was augmented by the reappearance of Sound + Vision's gauze screen and accompanying projections: "Moonage Daydream" was now backed by images from the "Life On Mars?" video while "Battle For Britain" featured the "Fame 90" vogue routine. "Telling Lies" harked back to Serious Moonlight's bouncing globe, as David unleashed a horde of giant inflatable eyeballs on the unsuspecting crowd. But the most remarkable visual aspect was the incorporation of Tony Oursler's unsettling "Media Sculptures", as featured in the "Little Wonder" video. Pre-filmed shots of Bowie's face were projected onto the blank heads of the malformed figures dotted about the set: during "Looking For Satellites" the stage came alive with distorted Bowie-faces chanting the backing vocals.

Dressed in a lace-edged black shirt and a succession of foppish jackets, including his Union Jack coat and a preposterous Labyrinth-style rococo number for the encores, David was in fine voice and appeared to enjoy himself immensely. His duet with Robert Smith was a particular joy - two of British rock's great suburban poets side by side, picking out "Quicksand" on their acoustic guitars, was a sight to cherish - but the highlight, surely, was Lou Reed's guest spot. Seldom had Reed let slip such a broad grin as the one that spread across his face when he and David launched into the opening bars of "Queen Bitch". The inclusion of Reed's "Dirty Bvld." was a masterstroke, and Gail Ann Dorsey later said that "looking over to see David and Lou Reed together was the greatest thrill for a little girl from Philadelphia."

A less certain note was struck by Billy Corgan's rather self-serving contributions to "All The Young Dudes" and "The Jean Genie", but by that stage in the evening it mattered little. The party mood was sealed by the presentation of a birthday cake while Gail Ann Dorsey led the audience in "Happy Birthday", and David's closing performance of "Space Oddity", again accompanied by the Sound + Vision projections, was the perfect encore. "I don't know where I'm going from here," he told the crowd, "But I promise I won't bore you."

There were criticisms in some quarters that Bowie didn't use the occasion to reconvene old line-ups and turn the gig into a nostalgia trip, but this is surely missing the point: that's exactly what David Bowie never did, and for once the critics were firmly on his side. "More than most performers his age, Mr Bowie has repeatedly staked his career on the new," said The New York Times. "In the new songs Mr Bowie sang, he uses jungle as an overlay of double-time energy and implacable noise, revitalising what might have been stately arena anthems." The New York Daily News noted that the concert "kept one eye firmly on the future. Instead of serving up dewy-eyed rehashes of sounds from eras dead and gone, Bowie...shook classic numbers to their core. He also devoted roughly one-third of the show to recent and brand new material." According to The Boston Globe, "The startling triumph of this set was that Bowie's new material is his strongest in years...both edgy and immediately accessible."

The pay-per-view broadcast on American TV (directed, incidentally, by "Time Will Crawl" veteran and Robert Smith acolyte Tim Pope, with a crew of cameramen who included up-and-coming film student Duncan Jones) incorporated bonus performances of "I Can't Read" and "Repetition", recorded backstage at Madison Square Garden. In April 2011 the Netherlands-based Immortal label released the concert, bonus songs and all, on both CD and DVD under the title David Bowie & Friends: Birthday Celebration (IMA 104250); however, like the same label's Glass Spider release of a few years previously, this was an unlicensed, illegitimate and frankly pointless product, its mono sound and dingy picture of considerably poorer quality than the freely available bootlegs.

The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg

The Complete David Bowie

by Nicholas Pegg

New Edition: Expanded and Updated

"This is the best Bowie reference book one could ever hope for"

Tony Visconti