THE EARTHLING TOUR

JUNE 7th - NOVEMBER 7th 1997

 

Musicians:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Saxophone

  • Reeves Gabrels: Guitar

  • Gail Ann Dorsey: Bass, Keyboards, Vocals

  • Zachary Alford: Drums

  • Mike Garson: Keyboards

Repertoire:

Quicksand | I'm Deranged | Pallas Athena | V-2 Schneider | Fun | Is It Any Wonder | O Superman | The Last Thing You Should Do | Telling Lies | Stay | Battle For Britain (The Letter) | Hallo Spaceboy | Fashion | Under Pressure | Little Wonder | The Motel | "Heroes" | Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) | Outside | Looking For Satellites | The Man Who Sold The World | Strangers When We Meet | I'm Afraid Of Americans | Seven Years In Tibet | The Jean Genie | The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction (As Beauty) | White Light/White Heat | Queen Bitch | Waiting For The Man | All The Young Dudes | Dead Man Walking | Fame | The Hearts Filthy Lesson | Look Back In Anger | Panic In Detroit | Always Crashing In The Same Car | Moonage Daydream | I Can't Read | The Supermen | My Death

Following a month's sabbatical after his fiftieth birthday concert, Bowie and his four-piece band remained on call from February through to April 1997 with a string of television and radio appearances to promote the release of Earthling. Bowie's February 8th performance of "Scary Monsters" for NBC later appeared on the compilation Saturday Night Live - 25 Years. On February 12th, CNN and MTV were on hand to record David unveiling his star on Hollywood's Walk Of Fame. On March 14th he was in Toronto to film the video for the forthcoming single "Dead Man Walking", a song that would become the focal point of public appearances over the next month: three different performances, recorded on April 8th and 10th, would later appear on the US compilations Live From 6A, Live I IV and WBCN: Naked Too.

In mid-April the band crossed the Atlantic to begin rehearsals for their next major tour. Like the Outside jaunt it would last six months, by the end of which Bowie had been touring, on and off, for well over two years. "Honestly, it would be a sin not playing live when I've got a band like this," he told Q. "They're the best group I've had in twenty years, right up there with The Spiders in terms of cohesive musicianship and attitude."

Rehearsals began on April 20th at the Factory Studios in Dublin, previously the rehearsal venue for Tin Machine's It's My Life tour. The set-list drew on the repertoire established during 1996 and at the birthday concert, and among the influx of Earthling tracks (all of them save "Law (Earthlings On Fire)") came additions like "V-2 Schneider", "Fame" and "Pallas Athena". The most startling new arrival was a nine-minute reworking of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" on which Gail Ann Dorsey sang lead vocal. In addition to her bass guitar and vocal chores Dorsey was now playing keyboards, while some of the more techno-oriented numbers were enhanced by pre-recorded DAT backings (questions were raised about quite how much of the show depended on programmed samples, but if nothing else it demonstrated that Bowie had indeed moved into the techno-dance realm).

David Bowie - Union Jack frock coat on the Earthling Tour 1997

During rehearsals the band visited London to play "Dead Man Walking" on Top Of The Pops. After a secret show at Dublin's Factory on May 17th, rehearsals moved to the Brixton Academy in preparation for two warm-up gigs at London's 720-capacity Hanover Grand. It was the first time since 1972 that Bowie had kicked off a tour in his home country.

The Hanover Grand shows on June 2nd and 3rd were billed respectively as "Famous Five" and "Little Wonderworld". The announcement that each would be split into two parts - a conventional round of songs followed by a "dance" set - attracted a great deal of interest from the British press, who were busy filling column inches with barbs about why a 50-year-old rock star who had just floated his back catalogue on the stock exchange felt the need to embark on a tour of sweaty little clubs. On this occasion, in the presence of the likes of Noel Gallagher, Gary Oldman and Goldie (for whose album Saturnzreturn David had recorded his contribution a few days earlier), Bowie successfully seduced many critics. The Mirror raved about "one of the most astonishing concerts I've ever seen," describing the sound as "awesome", the band "easily his best since The Spiders" and the overall package "a blistering answer to those who say he's lost the plot." But not all went according to plan on the opening night, as The Guardian's Caroline Sullivan reported: "At the end [of the first set] he confirmed that his 'little drum'n'bass set' would follow the interval - and the audience voted with its feet." As far as Sullivan was concerned, there was a happy ending: "Those who left missed something fearfully loud, sweaty and hypnotic. Bowie, honking away on his saxophone, looked more like one of his new jungle buddies than like David Bowie Plc. Which is the way it should be."

The "dance set" turned out to consist of hard-hitting and radical reworkings of the likes of "Pallas Athena", "I'm Deranged", "Dead Man Walking" and "The Last Thing You Should Do". The most unusual feature was an extended revision of "Fame" based around a sample of the line "Is it any wonder?", which would later be restructured in the studio as "Fun".

Prompted by the first night's exodus, Bowie switched the sets for the following evening to perform the drum'n'bass numbers first. Barbara Ellen of The Observer was mightily displeased: "exhaustingly tedious...we all have to stand for an aeon, listening to what sound like the cast of Star Wars falling down a fire escape. During "Little Wonder" from the Earthling album, the bass vibrations got so unpleasantly deep and loud, I could feel my internal organs changing position. If I start urinating out of my nipples, I will know who to blame...For God's sake man, you're a living legend. In future, play the old stuff, and stop trying so hard." The Mail On Sunday's Giles Smith was more interested in the present, confessing that although he enjoyed the post-interval oldies, "a small, perverse part of me would have been interested to see him keep the faith - thundering on in the first mode until the last fan was either entirely won over or had left the building under a white flag."

Reeves Gabrels, David Bowie & Gail Ann Dorsey - Hanover Grand, London, June 1997 - Earthling Tour

Melody Maker gave the show an unmitigated slating, describing the new material as "more dishearteningly wretched than you could ever imagine." The NME was similarly dismissive of the Earthling songs but remained cautiously happy about the show in general, commending "V-2 Schneider" as "surely the funkiest he's sounded in 20 years", "White Light/White Heat" as "breathtaking", and finding "Fame" and "Fashion" "both kicked up the arse by more nostril-terrifying bass."

A further warm-up gig followed in Hamburg before the Earthling tour's official opening night at Lubeck on June 7th. A string of club dates followed before the "dance" numbers were either abandoned or incorporated into the main set. The favoured warm-up acts were now techno DJs rather than support bands. Just as the new music was more gutsy and instinctive than the 1.Outside material, so the band's performances had become less regimented. David himself, his red-dyed hair fading to blond during the course of the summer, had taken to wearing baggy slacks, polo-necks, T-shirts and even jogging bottoms, although an element of theatre remained in the loose-fitting white Nehru suit and the brocaded Indian ensemble he sported at some of the festival dates.

Although the show was less stagey than its predecessor, Bowie's penchant for set-dressing was still in evidence: the stage was dotted with abstract objets, including the inflatable eyeballs that had appeared at the fiftieth birthday gig. The lightshow was stunning, tapping into the club ambience with a furious stroboscopic assault on the senses, but the main visual element was provided by a series of disorientating back-projections: a psychedelic whirlpool for "Little Wonder", a flashing chessboard of squares for "Stay", a trip down a 2001 time-tunnel for "V-2 Schneider", expanding stars and stripes for "I'm Afraid Of Americans", and what the Glasgow Herald described as "a porno vid that would make Madonna blush" for "Fashion". Although deferring to his band during the solos Bowie remained an animated focal point, dropping into little mime routines throughout the show - plucking imaginary arrows from his body, Saint Sebastian-style, was a new favourite. Most of the time, however, he was busy playing either acoustic guitar or saxophone.

When the tour reached the Czech Republic in late June, Bowie took the band to Sono Studios a few miles outside Prague where, according to engineer Pavel Karlik, various tracks were recorded including a new version of "Outside", a long number sung to a metronomic backing by Gail Ann Dorsey (very likely a studio rendition of "O Superman"), and some 30 minutes of what Karlik described as "film music". None of these recordings would see the light of day.

David Bowie in a brocaded Indian ensemble for the Earthling Tour 1997

After six weeks in mainland Europe the tour returned to the UK, where the previously sceptical NME described Bowie's headliner at the Phoenix Festival on July 20th as "almost too marvellous for words", going so far as to pronounce "Little Wonder" "an ace Bowie tune". The previous night the band had appeared in the festival's Radio 1 tent to play a drum'n'bass set as "Tao Jones Index", the pseudonym under which a limited-edition 12" single of "V-2 Schneider" and "Pallas Athena", recorded in Amsterdam on June 10th, appeared the following month. It was at the Phoenix Festival that Bowie approached fellow performers Orbital with a view to remixing one of his songs, but scheduling conflicts meant that the collaboration was not to be. "It's the biggest disappointment of my career," Orbital's Phil Hartnoll revealed many years later. "Bowie came and knocked on our door at a festival in the nineties and asked us to do a remix, but we had a deadline on a new album to meet and it never happened."

After the final European show in Budapest on August 14th, there was a three-week break before the tour reconvened in Vancouver. Rehearsals for the American leg saw some changes to the set - "Outside" and "I'm Deranged" were performed only a couple more times, while "Heroes" and "Pallas Athena" were dropped altogether. In their place came several new additions, notably "Panic In Detroit", "The Supermen", and the concert debut of the Low classic "Always Crashing In The Same Car". The last two numbers made several appearances in a series of two-man acoustic guitar sessions recorded by Bowie and Gabrels for various radio stations during the American leg, alongside "I Can't Read", "Scary Monsters" and "Dead Man Walking".

The tour zig-zagged across America for the next two months. The Boston gig on October 1st became the first Bowie concert to be webcast live on the internet. Five days later, David found time to film the video of "I'm Afraid Of Americans" in New York with Trent Reznor. The October 14th concert at Port Chester's Capitol Theater (the scene, many years earlier, of technical rehearsals for the Diamond Dogs tour) was added at short notice for broadcast on MTV's Live At The 10 Spot after a last-minute cancellation by The Rolling Stones; Bowie warmed up with three untransmitted numbers before playing an excellent 50-minute set for the broadcast. The following day's gig at Radio City Music Hall was for the GQ Awards, from which a four-song set was broadcast on VH1 the following month.

In late October, by which time David had cultivated an alarming new Mohican hairstyle, the tour moved into Central and Southern America for its final six dates. The last, in Buenos Aires on November 7th, was broadcast in two instalments on Argentine television. Noting that this was where the Sound + Vision tour had wrapped seven years earlier, Bowie delighted the press by declaring, "It's my new tradition to finish my tours in Argentina!" In fact there were brief reprises of the tour in early December, when Bowie played a couple of dates in California, and on January 29th 1998, when he guested at Howard Stern's Birthday Show, later broadcast on E!TV. There were rumours of a duet with Radiohead at the 1998 Grammy Awards (at which Bowie had two nominations, for Earthling and "Dead Man Walking"), but this came to nothing.

If the Earthling tour lacked a little of its predecessor's sense of total theatre, then it substituted a raw energy and excitement not always evident in the Outside shows. The reworking of old favourites was for the most part scintillating: "Quicksand" became a triumphant opening number, Bowie beginning alone on acoustic guitar while the band assembled behind him to strike up for the second chorus. "The Jean Genie" gathered speed after a slow blues intro adapted from the 1974 version. "Fame" was transformed by sinister keyboard effects and deafening blasts of bass. Crucially, such revivals remained vital and coherent within the context of Bowie's latest musical enthusiasms: the techno-styled "V-2 Schneider" and the excellent rendering of "O Superman" were entirely of a piece with the Earthling manifesto. Moreover, just as on the Outside tour, the new numbers held their own with admirable aplomb.

Soon afterwards Bowie spoke of releasing Earthling Live, an album culled from recordings of the European tour. He mixed the album in 1998 with Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati, but Virgin pulled the release from their schedules. Later the same year, tracks from the project were made available as downloads for BowieNet subscribers, and in 2000 the live CD was distributed exclusively to BowieNet members as liveandwell.com.

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

David Bowie - Performing on The Earthling Tour 1997
David Bowie - Performing on The Earthling Tour 1997