JUNE 14th - JULY 20th 1974
David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar
Earl Slick: Guitar
Herbie Flowers: Bass
Tony Newman: Drums
Mike Garson: Piano, Mellotron
Michael Kamen: Musical Director, Electric Piano, Moog, Oboe
David Sanborn: Alto Sax, Flute
Richard Grando: Baritone Sax, Flute
Pablo Rosario: Percussion
Warren Peace/Gui Andrisano: Backing Vocals
1984 | Rebel Rebel | Moonage Daydream | Sweet Thing | Candidate | Changes | Suffragette City | Aladdin Sane | All The Young Dudes | Cracked Actor | Rock'n'Roll With Me | Watch That Man | Drive-In Saturday | Space Oddity | Future Legend | Diamond Dogs | Panic In Detroit | Big Brother | Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family | Time | The Width Of A Circle | The Jean Genie | Rock'n'Roll Suicide | Knock On Wood | Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Even before completing work on Diamond Dogs in February 1974, Bowie was discussing plans to stage the album as a piece of spectacular rock theatre designed to take America by storm. "I must have the total image of a stage show," he had said the previous November. "It has to be total with me. I'm just not content writing songs, I want to make it three-dimensional."
Initially there was talk of expanding the stage concepts of The 1980 Floor Show and the abandoned Ziggy Stardust musical, but David's vision had already moved off in other directions. One of his latest idols was James Dean, pictures of whom adorned his Oakley Street house, and principal among his new creative influences was the company of Amanda Lear, who awakened his interest in Salvador Dalí and, more significantly, took him to see Fritz Lang's seminal 1926 film Metropolis on his twenty-seventh birthday, January 8th 1974. The next day David trawled London's bookshops for every study of Lang he could find; his interest in the expressionist cinema of the German silents, in particular the New Realist school of Georg Pabst and the Nietzcshean nightmares of Metropolis and Robert Weine's 1919 classic The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, would prove central to the conception of his forthcoming stage show. German expressionism's collision of fairytale with freakshow, and its morbid obsession with dream-states, nightmares and comas within which the artist operates like a macabre puppeteer, would remain a crucial ingredient in Bowie's creative palette for the rest of his career.
Choreographer Toni Basil was the first of several Americans summoned to Britain to discuss the tour with David. She had acted in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces and had choreographed George Lucas's American Graffiti. "We just clicked," Basil told the Gillmans, "because neither of us felt that choreography was just steps. One number could have an acting premise, another could have a mime premise, another number had steps and another was more staged and choreographed. With somebody like him you don't have to be limited to one thing." Bowie already had ideas for the staging of individual numbers. "David had this idea about having ropes tied around the necks of some dancers," Toni Basil told Jerry Hopkins. "When I told him he could do it if he was careful, he yelled at Corinne, 'The "Diamond Dogs" number is back in!'"
Jules Fisher,a prominent lighting director whose credits included the first American tour of Tommy and the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, was also consulted by David. "For Diamond Dogs, he had an understanding of German expressionist art and film," Fisher later explained. "He wanted that image and I'd seen all those films...He said, 'I see a town, like the one in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari...'" Fisher introduced Bowie to set designer Mark Ravitz, who recalled that "David gave me three clues: Power, Nuremberg, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis." Ravitz assembled a list of images suggested by his conversations with Bowie: "tanks, turbines, smokestacks...ecce homo drawings by George Grosz, grotesque decadence, fluorescent tubing...state police, alleyways, cages, watchtowers, girders, beams, Albert Speer". Ravitz's original design, involving giant Nazi-style banners rising from the stage, was rejected by David in favour of a less literal interpretation of the three "clues".
Co-designed and constructed by Chris Langhart, the Diamond Dogs set was more elaborate than any previously attempted for a rock tour, and cost an unprecedented $250,000. Based on the expressionist designs of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, a giant backdrop depicted the nightmarish Hunger City skyline, tilted in jagged perspective. To either side stood two massive aluminium skyscrapers, linked by a moving bridge which would rise and fall during the show. The specialist props, run by hydraulic mechanisms and early forms of computer control, were to be built from scratch.
On April 11th 1974 Bowie arrived in New York to preside over the publicity campaign for the imminent release of Diamond Dogs and to begin assembling musicians for the tour. Herbie Flowers, Mike Garson and Tony Newman were retained from the Diamond Dogs sessions. Having played lead guitar on the album himself David was without a soloist, and his first instinct was to reach back to a time before the arrival of Mick Ronson. In April he contacted Space Oddity guitarist Keith Christmas who, much to his surprise, was flown out to New York. There Christmas encountered a lifestyle he described as to Christopher Sandford as "straight out of Fellini...David was doing amyl nitrate all of the time. He collapsed on the concrete stairs in one club. I grabbed him as he went down...A couple of nights later we were rehearsing alone in the studio. David took me into the loo, whipped out a double-sided razor and slashed into a huge chunk of coke. Some time around then it dawned on me I wasn't going to be on the tour." The two would briefly collaborate again a couple of years later, on the little-known out-take "Both Guns Are Out There", but in the meantime Diamond Dogs was not for Christmas.
A potential replacement was quick to appear. "I've found a really incredible black guy called Carlos," David told pressman at the post-show party of Todd Rundgren's Carnegie Hall gig. This was of course Carlos Alomar, soon to become one of Bowie's key collaborators. The two had met a few days earlier at RCA's 6th Avenue studios while recording overdubs for Lulu's version of "Can You Hear Me", and Bowie was immediately besotted. However, Alomar was already earning upwards of $800 a week in session fees and gigs with his band The Main Ingredient, and was unimpressed by Tony Defries's offer of $250 per week. Negotiations broke down and Alomar's place in Bowie history was deferred until later in the year.
After seeing a neoclassical ballet production based on the sculptor Auguste Rodin, David hired its composer, New York keyboardist Michael Kamen, as the tour's musical director. Kamen, who would later win fame as a composer and Pink Floyd arranger, introduced Bowie to David Sanborn and Richard Grando, percussionist Pablo Rosario, and a young guitarist called Earl Slick, who played with Kamen's New York Rock Ensemble. Finally, backing vocalists Gui Andrisano (the husband of Kamen's ballet collaborator Margo Sappington) and Aladdin Sane veteran Geoffrey MacCormack (now calling himself Warren Peace) were recruited to participate in Toni Basil's choreographed set-pieces, enacting the roles of the "Dogs" themselves who would shadow David's every move on stage.
Band and choreography rehearsals continued for four weeks in upstate New York. As the results were translated onto Mark Ravitz's elaborate set for dress rehearsals at Port Chester's Capitol Theatre in early June, the vast technical demands of the show became apparent, not least during a serious incident on stage. "I've never met anyone who could think so fast on his feet," recalled Toni Basil. "The bridge broke when [Bowie] was on it. It was the first day of rehearsal with the set, a few days before the tour started. As the bridge was falling, he calculated precisely when it would hit, jumping into the air just before the crash to avoid the shock." Stage manager Nick Russiyan later told biographer Tony Zanetta that "The technical problems were never resolved before we left Port Chester. David was in great danger physically, and could have gotten electrocuted or killed."
The tension on set was compounded by other factors. With the exception of the two backing vocalists, the band were informed that they would spend most of the show concealed upstage behind black drapes, as the presence of eight musos together with their drumkits, keyboards and amplifiers would detract from the sci-fi spectacle of Hunger City. For their few appearances they were given tailor-made 1940s suits to wear, a move better received in some quarters than others: Earl Slick, whose long hair was shorn off at Bowie's behest to match the period feel, later recalled that drummer Tony Newman would regularly sabotage his costume and once even ripped it into tatters before the show. The band faced contractual fines if they ad-libbed or deviated from the the rehearsed arrangements, but while some accounts have construed this as rock-star megalomania run wild, in truth it was grounded in sound technical considerations. With elaborate scenery flats and lethally heavy counter-weights flying hither and thither every evening, there could be no margins for error: an unscheduled extra coupe of bars' worth of guitar solo could have created serious problems. In essence, the Diamond Dogs show had more in common with a stage musical than with a standard rock concert. This was its great fascination but also, perhaps, its fatal flaw.
There could be no doubting the sheer scale and spectacle of the show that opened at the Montreal Forum on June 14th. As the lights went down on Hunger City and a spotlight picked out David at the end of the first verse of "1984", the audience received the first major shock of the evening: Ziggy Stardust was well and truly dead. Devoid of war-paint, his auburn hair streaked strawberry blond and swept back James Dean-style, David wore a sharp blue two-piece suit, the first of a new set of costumes designed by Freddie Burretti. For American audiences packed with Ziggy clones who had been waiting a year to see their hero on stage, Bowie's transformation into Halloween Jack was their first taste of his propensity for change.
The music, too, had changed - not only from the proto-punk of The Spiders From Mars, but even from the raunchy garage and doom-laden synthesizers of the Diamond Dogs album itself. Rearranged to tap into the funky black sound David had begun to espouse, and yet dappled with an incongruous big-band feel emphasised by the saxophones, flutes and in particular Michael Kamen's plaintive oboe, the new band sounded more like a post-apocalyptic blues cabaret than a rock group. Some numbers, notably "The Jean Genie" and "Rock'n'Roll Suicide", had been radically reconstructed as schmaltzy Vegas show-stoppers. If it was a shock, it was a magnificent one - but the real shock was the scenery.
A few numbers in, the amazing set began to perform. David sang "Sweet Thing" from the raised catwalk in a voluminous trench coat, puffing on a Gitane beneath sodium street-lamps as he gazed down at the "Dogs" cavorting on the stage below. For "Aladdin Sane" David mimed with a kabuki stick-mask showing the character's trademark lightning bolt, which also flashed from the skyscrapers above. He sang "Cracked Actor" in sunglasses and Shakespearean doublet, caressing and French-kissing a skull while the Dogs cued him with a clapperboard, powdered his cheeks, photographed him and played spotlights across his face.
A hydraulic cherry-picker supported a chair set into an office window near the top of the stage-right skyscraper. Appearing in the chair, David sang "Space Oddity" into a mike disguised as a telephone, and as the song reached "lift-off" the cherry-picker began to extend over the first six rows of the audience. As David later remembered, the chair "went out about forty foot over the audience's heads, and because of the beautiful lighting that we had, you didn't see the rest of the cherry-picker, you only saw the office chair suspended out there." "Diamond Dogs" began with Bowie up on the catwalk, holding two trailing leashes to restrain the Dogs, who prowled the stage as the bridge descended to floor level. By the end of the song the Dogs themselves had taken over and tied Bowie up with the ropes. Then it was straight into "Panic In Detroit" for which the ropes were unravelled to form a boxing ring in which David, now in red boxing gloves and fanned down by his bodyguard Stuey George, shadow-boxed an imaginary opponent and lost. For "Big Brother" he sprawled atop a glittering ten-foot diamond while the Dogs savaged and scrabbled at it from beneath. The diamond rolled downstage before opening up to consume him; then the sides fell away revealing a giant jewelled hand, whose fingers unfurled to show David crouching in the palm, from where he sang "Time". "The Width Of A Circle" revived the Ziggy show's familiar stuck-in-a-box mime routine, culminating in a new coup de théatre during the instrumental break as Bowie began to tear down the skyscrapers of Hunger City. As Jules Fisher later explained, "they were made of newsprint that could be torn apart, so Bowie actually climbed one of these towers and destroyed the building during the concert." This dramatic gesture didn't survive beyond a handful of early performances, as David later recalled: "It just proved too expensive to do every night, so I only destroyed the buildings on the first few shows." After "The Width Of A Circle" Bowie was dragged to his feet by the Dogs for a wrestling bout and street-fight to the strains of "The Jean Genie", before singing a final, defeated "Rock'n'Roll Suicide" alone on a chair.
There were more conventional moments between the set-pieces, including straightforward renditions of "Watch That Man" and "Moonage Daydream" (during which Earl Slick was allowed to take centre-stage for a guitar solo while David raced behind the set to position himself for "Sweet Thing"), and a solo "Drive-In Saturday" in which David, alone on a bar stool, strummed an acoustic guitar while the Dogs sat to one side, eating popcorn. Otherwise the show was stage-managed down to the last note. After "Rock'n'Roll Suicide" there were no encores, not even a bow. Instead the PA system announced that "David Bowie has already left the auditorium."
The reviews were ecstatic. A Toronto critic described the opening concert as "the most spectacular rock show I have ever seen", while the Winnipeg Free Press hailed it as "unique and brilliant". The Owen Sound Sun-Times hailed Bowie's "perfect, precision-honed showmanship", while Melody Maker reported to British readers that Bowie's "far-reaching imagination has created a combination of contemporary music and theatre that is several years ahead of its time...a completely new concept in rock theatre - the most original spectacle in rock I have ever seen."
However, the initial month of concerts took its toll. The technical demands were immense - for the opening night the scenery took 32 hours to erect, and thereafter the 15 roadies were supplemented by a 20-man union crew recruited at each venue. Nonetheless there were mechanical problems: the cherry-picker malfunctioned during one of the early concerts, leaving David with no option but to perform the next half-dozen numbers suspended in mid-air. On the way to Tampa, Florida, a bee flew into the cabin of one of the transport lorries and stung the driver, who swerved off the road and into a swamp. Crisis was transformed into triumph as the show's announcer declared, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The concert you're going to see tonight is not the show we had planned for you. Due to an unfortunate road accident, half of our stage scenery, costumes, lighting equipment, is in a local swamp fifteen miles north of here. There was talk of cancelling tonight's performance, but David Bowie would not hear of it." The cheers that greeted the announcement heralded a terrific performance which ended in a twenty-minute standing ovation and the only encore of the tour.
The atmosphere backstage, however, was becoming overwrought. Members of the band noted that the collaborative and friendly atmosphere that had prevailed during rehearsals gradually evaporated on the road. A particular bone of contention was the band's resentment at being obscured behind the scenery. "They kept saying, 'We don't like playing behind these bleeding screens!'" David recounted two years later, "and I said, 'Well, you've got to, because I haven't got any parts for you - I don't want people to see you playing, because it doesn't look like a street if there's a bass amp stuck in the middle,' but it was very hard to convince them of that." Matters weren't helped by the two-tier boarding arrangements: while David, Defries and a select clique stayed in deluxe hotel suites, the remainder of the band was consigned to Holiday Inns. David's personal retinue, meanwhile, had been swelled by the arrival of Tony Mascia, a Bronx Italian and former sparring partner of Rocky Marciano, who backed up Stuey George's security duties and drove David's limousine. He would remain on the Bowie pay-roll long after the disintegration of MainMan.
In his Melody Maker review Chris Charlesworth remarked that Bowie's stage presence was far removed from the finely judged simpatico of the Ziggy concerts: "Not once does he address the audience or even allude to their presence, other than an odd grin," he wrote, adding that as a result Bowie seemed like "some kind of magical being", dripping with "almost total arrogance". Although this was a deliberate theatrical effect, it appears that it had begun to follow David offstage. As he later averred, cocaine had wrought a major change in his disposition. Ava Cherry told the Gillmans: "When I first met David, he didn't do drugs. When I first went to England, he would hardly smoke a joint. His personality was altogether different, he was sweet and kind and loving, I loved him so much. When we got to America people started coming on the tours and bringing lots of coke around and of course we were all doing it. But David has an extreme personality, so his capacity was much greater than anyone else's. He would start to change his personality sometimes. It didn't affect his music or how he created, but it would affect how he would react to people, those who really liked him and cared about him." According to Michael Kamen, "One minute he would be a wonderful sweet friend, somebody who was easy to talk to and fool around with. The next minute he was somebody who would burn through you with their eyes. It was a quite sudden switch." With the mood swings came the obvious physical evidence that David's habit was affecting him adversely. Cocaine suppresses appetite and dehydrates the body, and during the tour David's already slender frame became gaunt in the extreme.
According to Angela Bowie, who witnessed the tail-end of the tour, cocaine was also affecting David on stage. His performance, she writes in her memoir, "was erratic. Sometimes, when the coke was working for him, he was brilliant...Other times...he missed cues and forgot moves and botched things up in all kinds of ways." Even so, she admits that "his voice stayed strong" and that "the show was a knockout".
Matters came to a head when Herbie Flowers led a band revolt over payment for the David Live album. The band had not been informed of the plan to record any shows - according to Earl Slick, the first they knew of it was finding "extra mikes everywhere" at the Philadelphia soundcheck - and they turned to Flowers as their spokesman. "Probably David asked me to do the Diamond Dogs tour because he knew it was going to be a long, long tour and he needed somebody he could socialise with," Flowers told Jerry Hopkins, "And we got on very well for a while, until through seniority I became like the trade union representative for the musicians...when we heard they were going to record a live album, I confronted David about it."
"Herbie went nuts," recalled Mike Garson. "How can they do this without our permission? How come we're not getting paid? How come there's no contracts? We're not going on!" So we agreed that we weren't going on stage that night unless we got paid."
There was a confrontation in David's dressing room an hour before the first Philadelphia concert, at which Flowers rejected Tony Defries's proposal that the band members should each receive the union rate of $70 for the live album. Instead Flowers demanded $5000 apiece, a figure agreed beforehand among the disgruntled musicians. Tensions ran high; legend has it that David threw a chair at Flowers during the scene, but Stuey George denied this: "He kicked the chair and it flew backwards," he told the Gillmans, "it wasn't directed at any person. David wouldn't actually get physical with anybody."
The musicians won the day, and Defries was compelled to sign an agreement that they would receive $5000 each - although, in classic MainMan style, they would not see it for two years, and then only after launching legal proceedings. The Philadelphia concert began half an hour late and the atmosphere on stage was less than relaxed, but some considered the performance all the better for it: "When we went on stage," recalled Flowers, "the feeling of liberation in the band was glorious!"
Even before this debacle, Bowie's relations with Tony Defries was rapidly deteriorating. If David was suffering delusions of grandeur they were as nothing compared with the Colonel Parker wonderland now inhabited by his manager, who had become aloof and unavailable even to David, while opening Swiss bank accounts and moving into the gold and futures markets. David, meanwhile, had at last begun to discover the extent to which he had allowed himself to be exploited. He had always mistakenly believed that he owned a 50 per cent share of the company, but as the Diamond Dogs tour unwound he finally realised the true nature of the contracts he had signed with Defries: he owned no portion of MainMan, and while Defries pocketed a full 50 per cent of Bowie's income, David received what remained of his 50 per cent after all company expenditure was deducted. In practice this could mean almost anything Defries wanted it to. "Some of the concert promoters began talking to David, telling him how much he was making," recalled Ava Cherry. "David was amazed when he heard the figures. He had no idea at all." Bowie was all too aware that the tour was losing money hand over fist, costing more to mount each night than it could possibly take at the box office, and he was making up the shortfall out of his personal allowance. In order to bail out the tour's running costs he had already abandoned plans to buy Richard Harris's London house; now, as he became increasingly aware of the true nature of MainMan, the writing appeared on the wall for Defries.
By the time of the Philadelphia dates the show's tight script had already been sufficiently slackened to allow changes to the set: "Knock On Wood" replaced "Drive-In Saturday", and there was room for an Ohio Players cover, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow". All the same, David was rapidly tiring of the show's lack of spontaneity.
The Diamond Dogs tour never reached British shores, owing to the vast cost such an undertaking would have entailed. Tony Defries had initially attempted to sell the show to British promoters, and for a while a nine-day stint at the Wembley Empire Pool was mooted for autumn 1974, but to recoup the necessary costs the ticket prices would have had to begin at a prohibitive £7, unheard of at the time.
But despite its comparatively short run of performances, the Diamond Dogs tour remains the stuff of legend. It was the first rock spectacle of its kind, redefining expectations of what was possible on the concert stage. Never before had a rock tour enlisted the services of a top theatrical designer, and many of the show's innovations - notably the cherry-picker and the hydraulic bridge - have since become commonplace. In 1976 Jules Fisher was hired to design a similarly ambitious set for The Rolling Stones ("They simply couldn't handle the kind of staging that Bowie had," he later recalled), while in the same year Mark Ravitz designed Kiss's Destroyer tour, which truly ushered in the age of pyrotechnic-fuelled stadium extravaganzas.
In its genre-defining theatricality the tour was a triumph on many levels. Angela Bowie later wrote that "I don't think there's ever been anything to match Diamond Dogs. Plenty of shows have been bigger, the expenditure of effort and funds more conspicuous by far, but none has been brighter. None has tried to mean as much or succeeded in communicating its meaning as effectively." Toni Basil believed that "it was the greatest set I have ever seen, it was the greatest rock show I have ever seen...The show was phenomenal, and David was absolutely brilliant." Tony Visconti described the show as "one of the best things David has ever done on stage." The tour's coordinator Fran Pillersdorf told the Gillmans that Bowie "held the stage like Garland...He was the consummate showman. We were in an arena with thousands of screaming people, he was playing against a 45-foot set, and it was his show." For his part, Bowie recalled in 1993 that "It was quite an unbelievable, unbelievable headache, that tour - but it was spectacular. It was truly the first real rock and roll theatrical show that made any sense. A lot of people feel that it has never been bettered...it was something else, it really was."
Nonetheless, even on an aesthetic level the show had its drawbacks. The decision to hire a top-flight band of musicians resulted in a rather peculiar interpretation of the Diamond Dogs material. By any conventional definition it was probably the finest live band Bowie had yet employed, and in terms of sheer musicianship their performance is impossible to fault. But as Bowie recalled in 1997, "Some of my lines had sounded almost proto-punk because of my inabilities as a virtuoso. But by the time they took it on stage, they were playing it in a very musicianly style. Something was lost because of that. That album had a quality of obsession with what I wanted to get over. That's not there when I hear the gigs from that period...They play it too well and with too much fluidity. So to me, Diamond Dogs was never played well on stage, or at least never with the sensibility that the album had."
In its original form, the Diamond Dogs tour breathed its last over two nights at New York's Madison Square Garden - moved from the smaller Radio City Music Hall after increased demand - on July 19th and 20th. The Ringling Brothers Circus, which had a residency at the venue, was still in the process of vacating the loading area, and the presence of elephants and tigers made for an unusual atmosphere backstage. When the tour re-convened in September after a six-week break, during which David's relationship with his manager had deteriorated further, his cocaine habit had spun dangerously out of control, and he had retreated to Philadelphia to begin recording the Young Americans album, it was immediately evident that things were going to be very different.
by Nicholas Pegg
New Edition: Expanded and Updated
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