MAY 30th - NOVEMBER 28th 1987
David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar
Peter Frampton: Guitar
Carlos Alomar: Guitar
Carmine Rojas: Bass
Alan Childs: Drums
Erdal Kizilcay: Keyboards, Trumpet, Congas, Violin
Richard Cottle: Keyboards, Saxophone
Melissa Hurley/Constance Marie/Viktor Manoei/Stephen Nichols/Craig Allen Rothwell aka "Spazz Attack": Dancers
Up The Hill Backwards | Glass Spider | Day-In Day-Out | Bang Bang | Absolute Beginners | Loving The Alien | China Girl | Rebel Rebel | Fashion | Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) | All The Madmen | Never Let Me Down | Big Brother | Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family | '87 And Cry | "Heroes" | Sons Of The Silent Age | Time Will Crawl | Young Americans | Beat Of Your Drum | New York's In Love | The Jean Genie | Dancing With The Big Boys | Zeroes | Let's Dance | Time | Fame | Blue Jean | I Wanna Be Your Dog | White Light/White Heat | Modern Love
In March 1987 Bowie took a five-piece backing group to press conferences in Toronto, New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Munich, Stockholm and Amsterdam, previewing his forthcoming world tour with performances of "Day-In Day-Out", "Bang Bang" and "'87 And Cry". He promised that the tour itself would be "overflowing with make-up, costumes and theatrical sets" (sadly not "theatrical sex", as one of the British tabloids excitedly reported).
The fact that the press conferences were mini-concerts in themselves is an indication of the commercial scale of Bowie's new undertaking. Glass Spider was to be his most extravagant rock-theatre spectacular since the Diamond Dogs show - but now the venues were massive stadiums and the budgets and expectations were far higher. In the spring of 1987 Bowie negotiated a sponsorship deal with Pepsi, for whom he filmed a commercial with Tina Turner. There was a feeling of betrayal in some quarter's that rock's great outsider, whose anti-American anger was still manifest in "Day-In Day-Out", should be linking arms with one of the quintessential symbols of corporate business. Bowie freely admitted that the motive was to raise capital for a massively expensive tour. "I could have afforded to tour on my own, but I couldn't have afforded to tour in quite such an elaborate way," he told i-D magazine.
The key creative personnel were all veterans of past extravaganzas. Lighting design was in the hands of Serious Moonlight's Allen Branton, while Mark Ravitz once again designed the stage set, but perhaps most significant was the return of Diamond Dogs choreographer Toni Basil. Since last working with David, she had choreographed Talking Heads and scored a hit of her own, 1982's transatlantic smash "Mickey". In collaboration with New York's avant-garde ISO Dance Theatre, Basil devised a series of outré routines and recruited five professional dancers to develop them with David, who attested to collecting "lots of bruises" during rehearsal. To allow the necessary freedom of movement, for the first time he elected to use headset mikes of the kind pioneered by Kate Bush on her 1979 Tour Of Life.
In early April the promotional band, now augmented by the addition of Erdal Kizilcay, began an eight-week rehearsal period in New York. Work shifted the following month to Rotterdam's Ahoy Hall and Feyenoord Stadium, where Ravitz's breathtakingly preposterous "Spider Environment" had been constructed: a network of scaffolding and catwalks reminiscent of his original Hunger City set, dwarfed by a 50-foot-high spider whose glowing body and illuminated legs framed the split-level stage. Bowie told reporters that the show, like the song it was named after, was "based on that part of a child's life when he realises he can't rely on his parents forever." He promised "a lot of elements, movement, dialogue, fragments of film, projected images. Ultra-theatrical...The show has a slight narrative form that's tenuous to say the least; it's almost what I believe a modern musical should look like. It has a lot to do with the audience and how they perceive rock music and all those clichés and stereotypes." Promotional billboards displayed a chaotic collage of rehearsal shots, tigers, spiders, horses and circus clowns.
The show that opened in Rotterdam on May 30th was nothing if not spectacular, beginning with a protracted rock-star entrance which ensured that the audience had already worked itself into a frenzy by the time David appeared. After a pre-show tape of The Kronos Quartet's classical arrangement of "Purple Haze", Carlos Alomar appeared alone on stage, thrashing up a storm of Hendrix-style guitar reminiscent of Robert Fripp's performance of "It's No Game". True to the original he was cut off in his prime by a disembodied but familiar scream of "Shut up!", eliciting an outbreak of mass hysteria from the crowd. Suddenly the stage was alive with activity as four of the dancers abseiled to the stage from the belly of the giant spider. Garishly attired like the extras in the "Ashes To Ashes" and "Fashion" videos - leathers, tutus, New Romantic make-up and Rocky Horror drag - the dancers mimed to the first of several pre-recorded dialogue interludes, a cut-up of images of urban brutality, before moving into the first verse of "Up The Hill Backwards". Finally the music segued into the opening chords of "Glass Spider", and as Bowie's voice was heard intoning the spoken narration, he emerged at last from the spider's mandibles, descending to the stage in a chair and speaking into a telephone in the style of 1974's "Space Oddity" routine. From then on all hell broke loose as Peter Frampton burst from the shadows to deliver the first of many guitar solos, the dancers enacted frantic spidery movements, and Bowie, in a refulgent red suit and spats designed by Freddie Mercury's favoured costumier Diana Moseley, danced downstage to meet his public.
The remainder of the show was a non-stop blitzkrieg of crazed routines. At the beginning of "Bang Bang" David hurled himself at the audience, Iggy Pop-style, only to be pulled back by the dancers who then dragged a screaming fan from the front row and thrust her towards him. When David started to fondle her he received a slap in the face and was dragged into a raunchy pas de deux as the girl, Melissa Hurley, dropped her screaming fan act and revealed herself to be the fifth member of the dance team, planted in the front row in a lampoon of the transparent fakery of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark" video (not to mention Bono's real-life re-enactment of it at Live Aid).
After some further dialogue during the intro to "Absolute Beginners" ("We can't have rock stars cross-breeding with normal people!"), Bowie embarked on an elaborate vogue routine with dancer Viktor Manoei, while the others unravelled Melissa Hurley's dress to create a new backdrop. "Loving The Alien" offered a dumbshow in which Bowie and the dancers became blindfolded "believers". "Scary Monsters" found David prowling the catwalks way above the stage. "Fashion" heralded a staggering piece of choreography marrying the 1974 boxing mime with a new sequence in which the dancers physically hurled Bowie about the set. For "Never Let Me Down" he knelt downstage, wilting between verses only to be revived by Melissa Hurley's oxygen mask. "'87 And Cry" adapted another Diamond Dogs routine as David, now in a futuristic jumpsuit, was tied up with ropes by helmeted astronauts. In "Sons Of The Silent Age" Peter Frampton took over the chorus while Bowie acted as puppeteer to Constance Marie's remarkable contortionist act. For "Let's Dance", Hurley and Nichols performed a body-popping duet while the others' giant silhouettes were projected against the backdrop.
Most extravagant of all was "Time": head to foot in gold lamé, Bowie perched atop the giant spider, sporting a pair of angel's wings which unfurled on cue. During the first chorus he descended into the body of the spider and abseiled back to the stage, in the process incorporating a meticulous recreation of "The Hanged Man" of the Tarot, his outstretched arms and crossed-leg posture hailing specifically from the 1942 Thoth Tarot deck designed by none other than Aleister Crowley: this transmogrification from angel to Crowley's Hanged Man was one of several echoes of darker times incorporated into the show, most of which were entirely lost on the audience.
During an extended "Fame" the dancers assembled a Sputnik-like sculpture out of drums, music stands and guitar fretboards, winched it aloft and joined David in a body-thrashing dance. The final "Modern Love" was choreographed as an extended walk-down and bow. Throughout it all, Allen Branton's massive light show surpassed even his Serious Moonlight achievements. The spider changed colour from blue to pink to gold to green, while the barrage of Vari-lites set into its belly created landscapes of colour and light that changed with each song: twinkling blue stars for "Glass Spider", banks of yellow squares forming a city skyline for "China Girl", and madly flashing spotlights for "Rebel Rebel".
In short, the show was outrageous and utterly unprecedented. Stadium bands like Kiss and Queen had staged pyrotechnic spectaculars before, but no rock show had ever approached Glass Spider's mind-boggling circus of light, sound and contemporary dance. As theatre, it was spellbinding - if you were close enough to see what was going on. What suffered, inevitably, was the music.
Bowie himself was garlanded with praise. Smash Hits dubbed him "a living legend" whose singing was "excellent" and who looked "barely older than he did 15 years ago as Ziggy Stardust." The Los Angeles Times gushed about his "radiant, sexy superstar aura that may not have been equalled in pop-rock since Presley," while The Independent paid homage to "the visage of the rock idol with the polish of the Vegas crooner." But of the show itself, reservations abounded. "The star was there," continued The Independent, "what was in alarmingly short supply was taste...Bowie has built a career on making hollowness inspirational so it's surprising that such a past master should have lost the knack of structuring a spectacle." Smash Hits complained that the frantic stage activity was impossible to follow, branding the dialogue interludes "completely unintelligible" and adding that "if it wasn't for his bright red suit, you'd be hard pressed to say which scurrying, ant-like figure was David Bowie." Melody Maker found a "paucity of ideas" and Sounds dismissed the show as "frenzied schlock and half-baked goofing". There were even unkind comments about the latest hairstyle: fifteen years earlier it had looked exotic and striking when framing the visage of Aladdin Sane, but by 1987 it had become known as the "mullet" and was irredeemably uncool, associated with an endless parade of Euro-soft-rockers and celebrity footballers.
Despite the reviews, the tour did phenomenal business, progressing through 86 performances in 15 countries. The opening night in Rotterdam was the sixteenth birthday of Bowie's son, who was introduced to the audience for a 60,000-strong singalong of "Happy Birthday". On June 6th David held a press conference at Berlin's Hansa By The Wall, in the very room where he recorded "Heroes" ten years earlier. On the same evening he headlined the last night of a three-day festival in the Platz der Republik, and thousands of East German fans gathered on the opposite side of the Berlin Wall to hear the concert. Border police eventually dispersed the gathering with tear gas, and the ugly scenes were later described by Bild as "a defining moment" in the pro-unification climate that would bring down the Wall two years later. "I'll never forget that," Bowie recalled in 2003. "It was one of the most emotional performances I've ever done." I was in tears. They'd backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn't realise in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we could hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I'd never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did "Heroes" it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it's almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more. That's the town where it was written, and that's the particular situation that it was written about."
In Florence, tragically, a lighting engineer was killed when he fell from the scaffolding. But foremost among the tabloid tattle that followed the tour were the events of October 9th, when a woman called Wanda Lee Nichols alleged that Bowie had assaulted her "in a Dracula-like fashion" in a Dallas hotel room. When the case eventually came to court it was dismissed within two hours, but in the meantime Pepsi made the precipitate decision to withdraw their television commercial.
Although it was certainly derided in some quarters from the very outset, the Glass Spider tour's notoriety has since snowballed out of all proportion. It's customarily likened to the worst excesses of Spinal Tap, and of course it was always going to be anathema to those who think rock stars should stand downstage with only a guitar and a mike-stand for company. All such criticisms might be dismissed if only the music itself had shone through as it should, but sadly it was this, and nothing to do with the dance routines, that was Glass Spider's biggest pitfall. In many ways it was a beautifully full and professional sound, but what it lacked was the necessary bite, its ever-present spangles of synthesizer smoothing away the native edginess of songs like "The Jean Genie" and "Time". Tellingly, the numbers that really succeeded were often those unfettered by choreography: as Rolling Stone noted of the East Rutherford show, "When Bowie cast off the frills and ripped through "Rebel Rebel" and "China Girl", he displayed all the authority for which his shows are renowned...Unfortunately, they only served to make the excesses more apparent."
Just as he had during the Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie rapidly grew tired of playing to a script. Several of the Never Let Me Down numbers were dropped mid-tour ("New York's In Love" didn't make it past the first seven dates), while "The Jean Genie" and "Young Americans" were drafted in as crowd-pleasers. By the time the Glass Spider video was recorded during the eight-show residency at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, Bowie's sense of relief during the unadorned straight-to-audience numbers was palpable. He was visibly invigorated by the chance to bring a tougher guitar sound to the show in a duet with guest guitarist Charlie Sexton (the first time in many moons, incidentally, that Bowie had picked up an electric guitar on stage). The last of four shows in Melbourne the following week saw much of the spider set and production numbers abandoned due to high winds and heavy rain. Five days later, On November 28th, the tour closed in Auckland. "It was so great to burn the spider in New Zealand at the end of the tour," David remarked later. "We just put the thing in a field and set light to it. That was such a relief!"
In later years Bowie would look back on the tour with diminishing affection. The first major interview with Tin Machine, in Q magazine's June 1989 issue, saw Bowie's new colleagues launch an attack on the Glass Spider show that appeared to take David somewhat by surprise. "To come to its defence, I liked the video of it," he said. "But I overstretched...It was so big and so unwieldy and everybody had a problem all the time, every day, and I was under so much pressure...I just had to grit my teeth and get through it which is not a great way of working."
Even so, Bowie leapt to the show's defence on more than one occasion, pointing out in 1997 that it was considerably more successful when it played smaller, indoor venues: "I'd designed it to be an all-enveloping kind of spectacular, inasmuch as it was a bit three-ring circus, there were always three or four events happening at the same time on stage...Individually there were some incredibly good ideas on that stage, and in a small environment it really worked well...but when you're a thousand rows back it just becomes this huge mass of confusion. None of it makes any sense, and that was a really bad mistake." As the Wembley audiences discovered to their cost, the mistake was compounded when bad weather scuppered not only Bowie's flying angel routine but also the overall acoustics; 1987 was a poor summer and many of the European concerts were blighted by wind and rain, while daylight conditions negated many of the lighting effects that make such an impression on the video version.
But the Glass Spider tour was by no means the bloated disaster of repute, and even Bowie himself wrote it off a little too zealously. For one thing, the show was unavoidably a victim of bad timing. In the post-Live Aid atmosphere there was a general feeling that rock's aristocracy was due for a drubbing, and Bowie was not alone in attracting ridicule in 1987. Veteran journalist Chris Roberts, then with Melody Maker, enjoyed the show but found himself under "overwhelming peer group pressure not to like it."
For another thing, although it has come to be regarded as the epitome of overblown stadium excess, Glass Spider was hugely influential. The cutting-edge ensemble choreography which soon became de rigueur among stadium superstars like Prince, Madonna and Jacksons Michael and Janet (not to mention the relentless parade of synchro-dancing boy bands), owes a tremendous debt to Glass Spider. Paula Abdul's group abseiled onto the stage at the 1990 Grammy Awards. The Rolling Stones' 1989/90 Steel Wheels tour borrowed freely from the show, while U2, the Pet Shop Boys and indeed Bowie himself recycled the multimedia aspects to develop future live concepts. The immaculate "Absolute Beginners" routine brought vogue-dancing out of New York's gay clubs and into mainstream pop a full three years before Madonna's hit single, and provided a springboard for the visuals of Bowie's own 1990 tour.
And when the set-list strayed away from Never Let Me Down and the obligatory golden oldies, it was positively thrilling. The emphasis on Scary Monsters is revealing, particularly when it emerges that "Scream Like A Baby" and "Because You're Young" were still being rehearsed in Rotterdam mere days before the tour opened. Sadly they were abandoned before the first show (as was the less enticing "Shining Star"), but other rarities made the final selection: no other Bowie tour offered "Up The Hill Backwards", "All The Madmen" or "Sons Of The Silent Age". The unexpected revival of "Big Brother", complete with a blockbusting Latin drum solo, was a huge treat. Better still, as the video reveals, when the songs really gelled they were terrific. The surprisingly hard-rocking renditions of "China Girl", "Blue Jean", "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "White Light/White Heat" give the lie to accusations of sludgy, middle-of-the-road performances, and the combination of tight guitar work and Richard Cottle's superb saxophone breaks in "Sons Of The Silent Age" and "Young Americans" is positively blissful.
The Glass Spider tour wrought two other major developments in Bowie's life. Firstly, he entered into a relationship with dancer Melissa Hurley: "We fell in love after the tour was over, while having a holiday in Australia," said Bowie later. The couple became engaged and rumours of an imminent marriage persisted until, three years later, they quietly parted. Another three years passed before Bowie spoke of the relationship, recalling Melissa as "such a wonderful, lovely, vibrant girl...I guess it became one of those older men, younger girl situations where I had the joy of taking her around the world and showing her things. But it became obvious to me that it just wasn't going to work out as a relationship - and for that she would thank me one of these days. So I broke off the engagement."
The second by-product of the Glass Spider tour was another relationship, this time a creative one. In November 1987 Bowie was given a cassette by Sarah Gabrels, a PA on the tour. It was a tape of guitar demos by her husband Reeves, and within a matter of days it had set Bowie in a new direction - one which he would later acknowledge as the path to his salvation as an artist.