THE SOUND + VISION TOUR

MARCH 4th - SEPTEMBER 29th 1990

 

Musicians:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar, Saxophone

  • Adrian Belew: Guitar

  • Erdal Kizilcay: Bass

  • Michael Hodges: Drums

  • Rick Fox: Keyboards

Repertoire:

Space Oddity | Changes | TVC15 | Rebel Rebel | Golden Years | Be My Wife | Ashes To Ashes | John, I'm Only Dancing | Queen Bitch | Starman | Fashion | Life On Mars? | Blue Jean | Let's Dance | Stay | China Girl| Ziggy Stardust | Sound And Vision | Station To Station | Alabama Song | Young Americans | Panic In Detroit | Suffragette City | Fame | "Heroes" | The Jean Genie | Gloria | Pretty Pink Rose | Modern Love | Rock'n'Roll Suicide | White Light/White Heat | Waiting For The Man

Barely six months after touring Tin Machine's hard-rock repertoire around a handful of club venues, a newly beardless David appeared at press conferences in New York and London to unveil a massive seven-month solo tour whose statistics would surpass even Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider: 106 performances in 24 countries, including his first forays into eastern Europe and South America, the latter marking the first Argentinian concert by a British artist since the Falklands War.

Uniquely, the tour had no new album to promote. The impetus came from EMI in conjunction with the Massachusetts-based label Rykodisc, who in 1989 had begun remastering and reissuing Bowie's former RCA catalogue, beginning with the lavish box set Sound + Vision. While David immersed himself in Tin Machine, Ryko had been pressing him to promote the reissue programme with a "greatest hits" tour. "It's been thrown at me for some years," he told reporters, "Both from audiences and from producers of rock shows, who've said, 'Why don't you just go all the way and do all the songs that they know? You've never done it and it'd be great'. I'd go, 'Oh, I don't want to; it's corny, no'. Then I gave in last year when Ryko said it would be great if you would help support this thing."

To quash suggestions that a greatest hits tour smacked of a sell-out, Bowie had hatched a couple of gimmicks guaranteed to generate a frisson among the faithful and mass publicity everywhere else. Firstly, it was announced that the set-list for the tour would be partially determined by the most popular titles logged in an international telephone poll. Secondly, and far more shockingly, Bowie nonchalantly declared that the price of his agreeing to the tour was that thereafter he would never perform his greatest hits again.

David Bowie - Sound + Vision Tour 1990
David Bowie - Sound + Vision Box Set - Rykodisc
David Bowie - Sound + Vision Box Set - Rykodisc

It was a master stroke of publicity. Bowie explained the reasons behind the decision: "I went away and thought, Well, I've never done it before, I'm sure by the end I'll never want to do it again, so what about if I do these songs for the last time - just do them on this tour and never do them again? That would give me a motivation for the entire tour, knowing each night that I do them, I get that much closer to never singing 'Ground Control to Major Tom...' again." Elsewhere he admitted, "I know I'll miss them desperately. They're very fine songs to work with and I love singing most of them, but I don't want to feel that I can always fall back on them." The press thrilled to the idea, and pre-tour sales were phenomenal. In Britain, two dates at the 12,000-seater Docklands Arena sold out immediately, and when a third concert was added the tickets went in eight minutes flat. Bowie's initial resolve to avoid playing open-air venues went out the window as demand escalated. Extra UK dates were added for later in the summer at Manchester's Maine Road stadium and the 65,000-capacity Milton Keynes Bowl.

The presentation of the tour took its cue from a combination of the Glass Spider and Tin Machine shows. Bowie assembled a pared-down backing group of four musicians - other than Tin Machine, his smallest live band since the early Ziggy concerts in 1972. "I've noted that there's been a great emphasis on the older bands and older artists to go out with very large contingents," he told MTV, "so I thought, okay, just do the opposite then...Stripped-down, I think is the word, so that it does become a keyboards, bass, drums, lead guitar interpretations of the songs that I've done over the years."

The only familiar face from recent times was Glass Spider veteran Erdal Kizilcay, now promoted to bass guitar. Bowie initially asked Reeves Gabrels to play lead guitar, but Gabrels declined the offer on the grounds that it would invalidate the Tin Machine project: "We were trying to make the band point," Gabrels explained later, "and if I'd done the tour, the Sales brothers would have been pissed off and it would have confused the issue a whole lot more." Instead Bowie appointed Adrian Belew, last heard on Lodger and the Stage tour, as musical director and lead guitarist. In the years since working with Bowie, Belew had pursued a solo career as well as playing with Paul Simon, Tom Tom Club, Talking Heads and Robert Fripp's resurrected King Crimson.

"I wanted the band to sound very plain and unadorned," Belew told International Musician. "I also wanted them to go from sounding like an orchestra for "Life On Mars?" to sounding like a garage band for "Panic In Detroit"." In January 1990 Bowie contributed two songs to Belew's solo album Young Lions, as a result of which he recruited Belew's keyboardist Rick Fox and drummer Michael Hodges. When asked why, for the first time since 1974, he was embarking on a solo tour without his trusty sideman Carlos Alomar, David explained: "Carlos is a wonderful guitar player with whom I'm sure I'll work again, but the fact that he is so familiar with the songs is the reason I didn't choose him for this tour. It needed the air of unfamiliarity." He also suggested that despite the show's retrospective nature he was approaching the material in a new context: "I didn't have to think myself back to rediscover what I was on about in any of those songs. I'm approaching it strictly from now."

With the predictable results of the telephone poll tweaked by some less obvious additions from David himself, the set list was whittled down to the obvious curtain-raiser "Space Oddity" followed by two or three songs per album from Hunky Dory up to Let's Dance, with the balance marginally in favour of those perennial standard-bearers Station To Station (four songs) and Ziggy Stardust (four, plus "John, I'm Only Dancing"). Curiously, the only album from this period other than Pin Ups to go entirely unrepresented was Lodger - the one featuring Adrian Belew - although the contemporaneous cover "Alabama Song" was revived. Less surprisingly, the only post-1983 oldie to make the list was "Blue Jean". Held in New York in January 1990, initial rehearsals took only two weeks. Marrying the music with Bowie's latest visual concept took rather longer.

After the Glass Spider debacle, all eyes were on the staging of Sound + Vision, and here was where the tour moved into top gear. At the January press conference Bowie told reporters that the show would be "nowhere near as ambitious as Glass Spider in size, but qualitatively, in essence, I think it's as theatrical." To MTV he explained that "I want to keep the stage as minimalist as possible, I really wanted it to have the feel of an opera or ballet stage where it was just one large dark space that could be lit in a theatrical fashion." Against this setting the Canadian designer and choreographer Edouard Lock, with whom Bowie had collaborated on 1988's ICA benefit, was entrusted with realising a spectacular new interactive concept. Central to the staging of the show was a gigantic gauze screen that would rise and fall at various times for the projection of pre-recorded video images and live relays, while the lighting phased the results through different levels of transparency. "We're using a real opera screen," explained Bowie. "It's the largest use of video ever: 40-foot by 50-foot high video images through state-of-the-art projection systems built for it." He described the final effect as "like an enormous Javanese shadow puppet show."

The concept was grounded in Bowie's ongoing fascination with the distance between the perception of stardom and the reality, and thus was conceived the idea that he would interact on stage with projected images of himself. Scenographers Luc Dussault and Lyn Lefevre worked with Edouard Lock to devise the means of computer-controlling the screen projections, which were set in motion by a signal activated on Rick Fox's keyboard at the start of each song. The pre-recorded sequences, some of which were also used in the "Fame 90" video, were directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Gus Van Sant, whose Drugstore Cowboy had wowed art-house critics the previous year. These comprised mainly black-and-white shots of Bowie playing his guitar and dancing with Louise LeCavalier, who had performed with David at the 1998 ICA gig. LeCavalier told the Montreal Gazette that she was very impressed by Bowie's "quality of movement...He can be many things when he moves - both aristocratic and funky."

However, there was to be no return to the intricate dance routines of the Glass Spider show. "What I wanted to avoid was the usual pitfalls," explained Lock. "You can amplify sound to reach large areas; the problem is that the technology hasn't extended itself to visuals. You can still go to the stadium and see a pea on stage. You can't see anything of the performer's face...I don't think people come to stadiums for the music. They can listen to records if they want that. They come to the stadium to meet the artist...I wanted to build an architecture based around the person as opposed to the set."

Accordingly, the Sound + Vision set was black and bare by comparison with its predecessors. The only architectural detail was a gold-painted frieze of cherubs and gargoyles (laughing gnomes?) along the apron stage; otherwise the rigging was supplemented only by two gargantuan cloths hung on either side of the proscenium, presenting the audience with two titanic silhouettes: on the left, the shock-haired, thrashing figure of Louise LeCavalier, and on the right, the narcissistic, posing-into-the-microphone profile of Bowie himself.

The tour opened at La Colisée in Quebec on March 4th. During the pre-show music the gauze descended, blank and unlit, to cover the entire stage. As the music peaked, the two gigantic silhouettes on either side burst their moorings and billowed to the ground. Behind each, a bank of white light slammed up as the opening chords of "Space Oddity" rang out. A 50-foot-high projection of Bowie's face faded into view and gazed down at the stage in profile, while through the gauze a spotlight picked out the tiny figure of David himself, strumming his guitar and singing the opening lines. The giant face rotated to survey the audience and its lips articulated Major Tom's countdown. "The crowd are amazed," wrote Steve Sutherland in Melody Maker, "No one has ever seen anything like this before." As entrances go, it was ten times simpler than Glass Spider and immeasurably more effective: at once epic and intimate, its visual impact was guaranteed even from the back row of the biggest stadium. Three weeks later, beginning at the Edinburgh show on March 23rd, the drama of the opening sequence would be enhanced by a further plundering of Bowie history, as the regular pre-set music became the synthesized Clockwork Orange version of Beethoven's Ode To Joy - the same classical-futurist tape that had opened the Ziggy Stardust concerts.

David Bowie: Sound + Vision Tour 1990

The rest of the show was equally stunning. During "Rebel Rebel" Bowie picked up a video camera and filmed the crowd, whose ecstatic faces were relayed onto the projection screen, fulfilling the breakdown of the artist/spectator confrontation long ago proposed in "Andy Warhol": "put you all inside my show". For "Life On Mars?" Bowie was dwarfed by his former self as the screen played the song's original 1973 video to devastatingly emotive effect. "Let's Dance" and "China Girl" were accompanied by wild, erotic dance duets between Bowie and LeCavalier. "Fame" resurrected the vogue-dancing clip and flickering flames from the 1990 video.

Not every song was swamped by video effects: elsewhere the architecture was created by bold washes of light. "Panic In Detroit" featured rotating red police lamps. "Station To Station" saw Bowie looming over the footlights, lit eerily from beneath. For "Ziggy Stardust" he played guitar, bathed in blood-red light and relishing the chance to ham up the never-again angle; at the end of the song he would slowly disentangle himself from his guitar, put it down on the stage and walk away, head in hands. There was room, too, for innovation in the form of a vigorous rendition of David's gift to Adrian Belew, "Pretty Pink Rose", while  "Fame" segued into a disorientating recreation of the recently-released "Fame 90 House Mix". After the customary ritenuto on the line "break down and cry", "Young Americans" developed into a sprawling blues workout incorporating a selection of old standards.

At the opening handful of Canadian concerts, Bowie was briefly joined on stage by Louise LeCavalier and Donald Weikert of La La La Human Steps, who performed a body-slamming dance during "Suffragette City"; Bowie pulled Edouard Lock on stage for applause before the final encores.

Visually, then, the concerts were sensational. Bowie himself, trim in a charcoal Tin Machine-style suit and, after the short interval, foppishly remodelled as a latter-day Thin White Duke in swashbuckling lace-trimmed blouse and waistcoat, was on fine form. He played more guitar than on any tour since 1973, and added some freestyle saxophone to "TVC15". Reservations abounded, however, regarding the musical arrangements. The band produced an often weedy, thin little sound that rang hollowly around the cavernous arenas and outdoor stadiums. Adrian Belew later admitted that a four-piece band was unequal to the task: "a saxophone is vital on "Young Americans", and I always felt that you couldn't fill that role with the guitar...it would have been nice to augment a few things here and there." Belew also recalled that the backstage atmosphere was not always wonderful; he alone was permitted to join David in front of the screen for guitar duets and solos, while the rest of the band were all but concealed among the upstage flats. Belew revealed that his colleagues were "gravely disappointed" and that Rick Fox "nearly quit the tour several times", while an incident in which Erdal Kizilcay misinterpreted an ad-libbed gesture from David as an invitation to join him downstage resulted in an ugly scene.

Reviews were quick to criticise the instrumental shortcomings, although most had nothing but praise for the overall spectacle. The Times declared that Bowie's "presence was little short of majestic". Melody Maker, meanwhile, adored the visual concepts but laid into the band in no uncertain terms: "The turgid tub-thumpers are thankfully hidden behind columns, but the terminally pratty Adrian Belew, with his ghastly tie and ponytail, bounces about nauseatingly and labours under the delusion that weird guitar noises are automatically art."

David Bowie and Adrian Belew performing on The Sound + Vision Tour 1990
David Bowie: Sound + Vision Tour 1990
David Bowie: Sound + Vision Tour 1990

It was customary for Bowie to shuffle his set-lists and drop a few numbers as a show developed, but seldom had there been such a drastic cull as on the Sound + Vision tour. In March Bowie was forced to truncate the set at his last two London gigs due to strain on his throat. His voice continued to suffer on the lengthy American leg, and during the summer a whole clutch of songs was struck off the playlist. Sadly but predictably, most of the casualties were among the more obscure and enticing numbers - those selected by Bowie rather than by the telephone poll. "Queen Bitch" was relegated to a mid-song break in "Fashion", and then dropped altogether. "Be My Wife", "Golden Years", "TVC15", "John, I'm Only Dancing", "Alabama Song" and even "Rock'n'Roll Suicide" bit the dust, while "Starman" was only ever performed at a handful of gigs. The extended "Young Americans" soul-jam was scrapped in favour of a mid-song jump into "Suffragette City" after a piece of outrageous mummery in which Bowie really did "break down and cry", collapsing to the stage for anything up to two minutes (David's future collaborator Moby, who saw the show at Giants Stadium, later described this routine as "the coolest thing I've ever seen a musician do on stage", prompting Bowie to recall that "I just stayed there...just seeing how far I could take it"). But as Radio 1's live transmission of the superb Milton Keynes show on August 5th bore witness, there was still plenty to enjoy - including a new segue from "The Jean Genie" into Van Morrison's "Gloria". This had its origins in the Cleveland show of June 20th, when Bono had joined Bowie on stage to duet on the number. A wide array of other covers would be incorporated into "The Jean Genie" during the tour, including several that had a wider significance for Bowie, among then "Tonight", "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "Try Some, Buy Some".

In Brussels on April 21st David unexpectedly embarked on the opening lines of "Amsterdam" during the band introductions, but rapidly ground to a halt when it became clear he'd forgotten the words. Other unscheduled appearances during the tour were made by the old standard "You And I And George" and the West Side Story number "Maria". The Tokyo concert on May 16th, which fell before the reshuffle and included many of the tour's rarer items, was broadcast on Japanese television. Also captured for TV were the Lisbon gig of September 14th and the tour's final night, before a 100,000-strong crowd in Buenos Aires on September 29th. Reports circulated that an official video shot in Paris was scheduled for a September 1991 release, but this never emerged.

The Sound + Vision tour may not have been the greatest musical showcase of Bowie's live career but, as its name suggested, the sound was only one half of the equation. As a piece of son et lumiere the show was stunning, and at their best the ravishing visuals bristled with emotive power, as the always rapturous response to "Life On Mars?" bore witness. And what of the much-vaunted pledge that this was the last ever outing for Bowie's back catalogue? "I have the same freedom as all of us - that is, to change my mind!" he laughed in 1999. He explained that what he'd really meant was that he would never again systematically tour his greatest hits and, give or take Glastonbury 2000, he remained true to his word. For the record, his first transgression of the pledge came in 1992 when he sang "Heroes" at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, and over the ensuing years the majority of the Sound + Vision songs gradually reappeared in his repertoire, alongside altogether more obscure and exciting revivals. Nonetheless, 1990 would prove the end of the road for four of Bowie's most famous numbers: he never again performed "TVC15", "Young Americans", "John, I'm Only Dancing" or "Rock'n'Roll Suicide".

Thirteen years later,when promoting Reality and its accompanying world tour, Bowie told more than one interviewer that the main reason for Sound + Vision's most talked-about gimmick had been a lack of self-confidence in his new material: "It was such turmoil for me at that point," he admitted in 2003. "I didn't know if my songs were any good. I'd spread myself very thin and I didn't want to be intimidated by my own catalogue, so I thought I would really have to begin again. For myself, I would have to start anew, build a new catalogue and see where it takes me. What will I be like as a writer? Let's do it and find out. And as the nineties progressed I felt my writing was getting stronger and stronger...I now feel very confident about touring and putting new songs against old songs. I don't feel intimidated, it's as simple as that."

Following hard on the heels of the sense of closure afforded by the Sound + Vision tour, Bowie's personal life coincidentally took a major turn. During the tour his engagement to Melissa Hurley had come to an end, and at a dinner party on October 14th, only a fortnight after the last show, he was introduced to his future wife.

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