THE STAGE TOUR
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

In February 1978, fresh from filming Just A Gigolo in Berlin, Bowie took his son Joe on a safari holiday in Kenya. Then he flew to Dallas where, on March 16th, he joined rehearsals for what was to be his biggest concert tour so far, visiting the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and, for the first time, Australia. Rehearsals had begun several days earlier under the musical direction of Carlos Alomar who, with Dennis Davis and George Murray, made up Bowie's now familiar rhythm section. The bulk of the show was to comprise material from Low and "Heroes", but as neither Robert Fripp nor Brian Eno cared for touring, David recruited four newcomers: Sean Mayes on piano, Adrian Belew on lead guitar, Roger Powell on synthesizers and, by way of innovation, Simon House on violin. Mayes, who had accompanied Bowie's Top Of The Pops performance the previous October, was a member of the band Fumble who had supported David's 1973 US tour. His posthumously published diary We Can Be Heroes provides a fascinating insight into the Stage tour and the Lodger sessions.

MARCH 29th - DECEMBER 12th 1978

Musicians:

  • David Bowie: Vocals, Keyboards

  • Carlos Alomar: Guitar

  • Adrian Belew: Guitar

  • Dennis Davis: Percussion

  • George Murray: Bass

  • Simon House: Violin

  • Sean Mayes: Piano

  • Roger Powell: Keyboards

  • Dennis Garcia: Keyboards (November 11th-14th only)

Repertoire included:

Warszawa | "Heroes" | What In The World | Be My Wife | The Jean Genie | Blackout | Sense Of Doubt | Speed Of Life | Breaking Glass | Beauty And The Beast | Fame | Five Years | Soul Love | Star | Hang On To Yourself | Ziggy Stardust | Suffragette City | Rock'n'Roll Suicide | Art Decade | Station To Station | Stay | TVC15 | Rebel Rebel | Alabama Song | Sound And Vision

Eno had recommended Roger Powell, formerly of Todd Rundgren's Utopia and fresh from working on Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell, while Simon House, who had recently been playing with Hawkwind, was an old schoolmate of David's who had neither seen nor heard from him in 15 years. Adrian Belew was a 28-year-old Kentuckian who had been discovered in a Nashville bar by Frank Zappa, with whom he was touring when he met Bowie in Berlin. "I had exactly a week between gigs," Belew told a journalist at the time. "During it, Bowie taught me thirty or forty of his songs. He works fast." Belew later recalled that his decision to work with Bowie caused some friction with Frank Zappa, who had been hoping to retain his services - when the three met in a Berlin restaurant, Zappa "was very unfriendly to David", whom he insisted on calling "Captain Tom".

Like Bowie's previous solo outing, the name of the 1978 tour is a moot point: some prefer to call it the "Low and "Heroes" tour", and others the "Isolar II" tour; the term "Stage tour" is certainly a post hoc coinage, named after the live album, but we'll favour it here in the interests of clarity and conciseness.

"I'm going out as myself this time," David said in a pre-tour interview. "No more costumes, no more masks. This time it's the real thing. Bowie Bowie." Certainly the tour was Bowie's least extravagant live show for many years, although his stage persona was as flamboyant as ever and the broad visual strokes were calculated to impress in the increasingly larger venues he was now playing. The Diamond Dogs tour had played to halls with an average capacity of 7500; for the Soul tour this had risen to 10,000, while for the Station To Station tour the mean was around 14,000 in America and 7000 in Europe. (Of course, none of these averages reveal the highs and lows: Madison Square Garden and Washington Capital Center, both visited in 1974 and 1976, held over 19,000, Bowie's biggest audiences so far. Conversely, some venues on the 1976 European tour were mere 3000-seaters.) The statistics for the new tour were broadly similar to the Station To Station outing, although the greater number of European dates meant an increase in the total audience, while a clutch of giant open-air venues on the final Pacific leg would set new attendance records: 20,000 each in Adelaide and Sydney, and 40,000 apiece in Melbourne and Auckland.

To make an impression in these arenas, David elected to develop the stark approach of the 1976 staging. The ceiling of fluorescent tubes which had formed part of the Station To Station tour's lighting rig was expanded to create enormous panels of striped light, hanging like prison bars at the back and sides of the stage, which would pulse moodily during the slow instrumental pieces and flash frantically during rock numbers like "Rebel Rebel" and "Suffragette City".

David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978

Despite Bowie's promise of "no more costumes", the Stage tour in fact saw a new wardrobe unrivalled in variety since the days of Ziggy Stardust. The outfits were designed by Natasha Kornilof, who had worked with Bowie in the days of Lindsay Kemp's Pierrot In Turquoise and again on his 1972 Rainbow Theatre concerts and The 1980 Floor Show. "We had torn bits out of magazines and we did small drawings and we had lots of ideas," recalled Kornilof. The resulting new-look Bowie, resplendent in a succession of tight shirts, snakeskin jackets, matelot hats and ballooning pleated trousers which fleetingly became known in fashion circles as "Bowie pants", offered a softer, more approachable image than any he had presented since the days of "Space Oddity". The band, meanwhile, were given unusually free rein in their choice of attire: after flirting with the idea of going on stage in a spacesuit, Adrian Belew settled for a succession of Hawaiian shirts and casual slacks; George Murray alternated between a black and white kimono and a cowboy outfit (the silhouette of the latter can be seen on the cover of Stage); Simon House plumped for leather jackets and jeans; and Sean Mayes and Carlos Alomar experimented in the latest punk styles.

The show opened in San Diego on March 29th. After a pre-show tape compiled from tracks by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and The Rutles, the concert began to the funereal atmospherics of "Warszawa", which remained the opening number throughout the tour. With the only movement coming from Carlos Alomar's conductor's baton, "Warszawa" presented a bravely static tableau which was, in its way, just as theatrical as Bowie's past curtain-raisers: the show then gathered momentum with the second number, "Heroes". As well as the Berlin material, a smattering of mid-1970s numbers and the later addition "Alabama Song", the big surprise of the Stage tour was the revival of seven songs from the Ziggy Stardust album, rearranged for Bowie's new, synthesizer-heavy futurist sound. David sprung the idea on the band halfway through rehearsals, arriving one day to announce, "Let's do the whole of the Ziggy album, that'll surprise them!" Sean Mayes records that the final Ziggy selection was made "only after learning the whole lot."

The Ziggy songs were usually played en bloc immediately after the ten-minute interval, causing a minor sensation during the tour's early dates. The idea of the famous "Ziggy Stardust" riff rendered on violin might sound unlikely, but the critical response was warm. "As he went through such provocative, new-age rock tunes as "Five Years", "Suffragette City" and "Rock'n'Roll Suicide", it was easy to see how deep Bowie's impact on rock has been," wrote Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times. "The first great rock star to emerge in the 70s, Bowie didn't turn out the most hits, write the largest batch of noteworthy songs or necessarily draw the biggest crowds, but he shook the rock'n'roll epicentre more than any other single figure in that period...he remains a towering figure in rock, one whose side steps are more interesting than most lesser artists' biggest leaps forward." Others agreed. "A superb live show," said the New York Times, "and the enthusiasm at the end of Monday night's concert...was a genuine attestation of excellence." Variety noted that "Bowie is uncanny in his ability to pick musicians," describing Adrian Belew's guitar as "a riveting and pivotal force."

David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978 stage assembly
David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978
David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978

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David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978
David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978

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David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978
David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978

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David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978
David Bowie - Stage Tour 1978

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After the opening night, the band played an impromptu set in the bar of their San Diego hotel. Despite the party atmosphere that prevailed throughout the tour, relations within the band were not without their tensions; Alomar and Belew later admitted to a certain mutual friction, while Bowie himself was moving through a fragile stage in his post-addiction recovery, often unwell and prone to drinking bouts. Several of the band, including Mayes in his diary, recall Bowie as a friendly but often distant figure on the tour, sometimes unapproachable even by his colleagues due to the protective ministrations of Coco Schwab.

The ninth concert, in Dallas on April 10th, was filmed for a six-song US television broadcast entitled David Bowie On Stage. The shows in Philadelphia, Providence and Boston were recorded for the live album Stage, and at around the same time "Rock'n'Roll Suicide" was dropped from the set to be replaced by "Alabama Song".

The two Detroit concerts in late April were marked by riotous crowds, causing David to stop in the middle of "Ziggy Stardust" on the first night to berate the over-zealous bouncers, and necessitating an unscheduled break in "Beauty And The Beast" on the second while the stage was cleared of a mountain of flowers, frisbees, scarves, toilet rolls and other projectiles (earlier the same night David had altered the words of "The Jean Genie" to "smiles like a toilet roll" as yet another one sailed past his head). In Toronto David was reunited with Lindsay Kemp, who was in town performing Salome. In Boston police officers removed two girls who had interpreted Bowie's injunction to "let yourself go" as a cue to strip topless during "The Jean Genie". At the same gig someone had smuggled in a pair of giant beach balls which were inflated and bounced around the audience during the concert. When they reached the stage David gamely punched them back into the crowd, doubtless making a mental note: the same idea would be incorporated into 1983's Serious Moonlight shows.

The American leg ended at Madison Square Garden and, as ever, David Bowie in New York was a major event: Andy Warhol noted in his diary that "only two tickets came for the Bowie concert and everyone wanted to go." Among those in the audience at the Garden (where, just as in 1974, the presence of the Ringling Brothers Circus made for a surreal atmosphere backstage) were Robert Fripp, Earl Slick, Brian Eno, Dustin Hoffman and members of Talking Heads. Also present was a 14-year-old boy called Sterling Campbell, who had been invited along by his new neighbour Dennis Davis. "I told him I play drums and he invited me to the show," Campbell recalled. "That show was my first introduction to David's music and to the brilliance of Dennis Davis. And I knew what I wanted to do with my life!" Campbell soon became Davis's student, and many years later was to take over as Bowie's principal drummer.

The end of the US tour was celebrated with parties at two of New York's hippest venues, Hurrah's and Studio 54. Thereafter the show moved to Europe, opening in Frankfurt on May 14th after a short break in which Bowie had flown to Paris to overdub some dialogue for Just A Gigolo. In Berlin (where, before the show, Alan Yentob interviewed him for Arena), David broke off in the middle of "Station To Station" to remonstrate in German with an over-zealous bouncer who was manhandling a fan, earning him massive respect from the local press. In Munich Tony Visconti caught up with the tour and played the freshly mixed Stage album to Bowie and some of the band (others, like Sean Mayes, had to wait until Vienna two days later, when Carlos Alomar played them a cassette of it). "They loved it and jumped out of their seats," Visconti later recalled - although Adrian Belew contradicts this, telling David Buckley that he "hated" the LP with its "thin and awful" sound. The Marseilles gig on May 27th was interrupted by a powercut - just after "Blackout", appropriately - and a female fan took advantage of the darkness to jump on stage and kiss David. "I didn't know where she came from and I didn't have time to ask her name," he later joked. There was an enforced interval of over an hour before the performance could continue, this time without the neon lighting rig. In the interim the band had been driven back to their hotel to protect them from the crowd.

On May 30th the band recorded a special mini-concert in Bremen before a 150-strong studio audience for Musikladen Extra, a popular German television show produced by Radio Bremen. Sean Mayes wrote that "our only problem was adjusting to such a small and self-possessed audience. One girl, who was close enough to reach out and touch David's leg, sat with her back to the stage for the entire performance. Eat your hearts out Bowie fanatics!" The show was broadcast on August 4th, and has since been repeated by MTV and other music stations.

Like all Bowie's major tours, the 1978 shows were heavily bootlegged. Four tracks from one such recording, "Soul Love", "The Jean Genie", "Fame" and "Heroes", taped in Gothenburg on June 4th, were later included on a semi-legal 1993 Japanese compilation album called David Bowie Best Selection.

Having travelled through Germany, Austria, France and Scandinavia, the tour arrived in Britain. On June 13th, the day before the first UK concert, David attended an Iggy Pop gig at The Music Machine in Camden. Also in attendance was Johnny Rotten, and the three met for drinks after the show; Iggy joined the Bowie entourage for the next week. At Newcastle City Hall, a venue on Bowie's 1973 tour, the backstage visitors included Trevor Bolder and David's former bodyguard Stuey George. The UK tour ended with three shows at the 18,000-seater Earls Court Arena. The disaster of 1973 was happily not repeated, and the concerts were a triumph. On the last night, which was recorded by RCA, "Sound And Vision" was dredged from the rehearsal repertoire and added as a final encore on the spur of the moment. Together with "Be My Wife" from the same concert, this recording later appeared on RarestOneBowie.

The critics were delighted, remarking on the contrast with the controversy that had attended Bowie's last London concerts. The Financial Times found a "confident, happy Bowie, finished with excess and quite content to sing through his songbook to his very faithful fans" in an atmosphere "more exciting than for Bob Dylan a fortnight earlier". The Times reported that "Predictably, the audience went wild. Less predictable was the warmth, even affection Bowie showed for them. A change for him, for us and, one might add, for the better." The Evening News called him "a totally controlled performer," adding that "It would be foolish to dismiss him solely as a rock star. He is an interesting painter, an innovative lighting expert, an actor and an artist." The Earls Court shows were filmed by David Hemmings, but although extracts were previewed on The London Weekend Show the film went unreleased, apparently because Bowie's opinion of the result tallied pretty much with his opinion of Just A Gigolo. "Dave came down to Spain to see my cut," said Hemmings later. "He decided at the end of the day that he didn't want to release it." Another factor may have been Bowie's reluctance to see profits from the film go to RCA, with whom he had a serious spat at around this time. In 2001 Bowie recalled of the film that "I simply didn't like the way it had been shot. Now, of course, it looks pretty good, and I would suspect that it would make it out some time in the future." The Earls Court film would prove to be Bowie's last collaboration with David Hemmings who, after scoring a considerable acting comeback in movies like Gladiator and Last Orders, sadly died in December 2003.

On July 2nd, the day after the final Earls Court show, the band convened at Tony Visconti's Good Earth Studio to record "Alabama Song". There followed an interval of four months, during which David took the band to Montreux to begin work on Lodger. Stage, meanwhile, was released on September 25th.

After a week's rehearsal in Sydney, the Pacific leg opened at Adelaide's Oval Cricket Ground on November 11th. Not only was it Bowie's first Australian concert, it was also the first open-air gig of the tour and, indeed, David's first ever large-scale outdoor concert. The repertoire remained almost identical to the previous leg of the tour, although "Speed Of Life" had now been dropped. For the first two dates of the Australian tour, local keyboardist Dennis Garcia deputised for Roger Powell, who was working on a delayed project with Utopia.

At the 40,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground on November 18th the audience was soaked by torrential rain, but the band played on. Sean Maye's account paints a graphic picture of the mayhem: "the bedraggled fans had a punk look with their ruined hair and streaky make-up. But the mood was fantastic - when you're soaked you don't give a damn! David loved the rain but the shiny black stage was like wet ice, and once he slipped and nearly went arse-over-tit into the front row...David wiped the soles of his shoes between numbers. Simon dried his violin bow every now and then...During the encores, a few fireworks went off and one or two rockets soared up onto the canopy."

From Australia the tour moved to New Zealand, where the 41,000-strong crowd at Auckland's Western Springs broke the country's previous attendance records. Next the band flew north for Bowie's first Japanese concerts since 1973. The opening gig in Osaka was broadcast on Japanese FM radio, while the final show of the entire tour, at Tokyo's NHK Hall on December 12th, was filmed for The Young Music Show. Japanese translations of the songs titles and lyrics were flashed across the screen in the edited broadcast, during which Dennis Davis, who had already donned warpaint and taken to bashing two giant gongs during the Japanese gigs until David confiscated them, can be seen wearing a gorilla mask for a couple of numbers.

After the gig, RCA hosted a 1920s-themed "Gigolo Party" to mark the end of the tour and the forthcoming release of Just A Gigolo. David stayed in Japan, spending Christmas in Kyoto with Coco Schwab. As early as October 1977 he had told the NME that he intended to spend time there: "I want something very serene around me for a few months to see if that produces anything," he said, adding enigmatically that "It is also important to my private life that I go to Kyoto."

Although perhaps not as exciting as some of Bowie's previous live outings, the 1978 tour was a huge commercial and critical success. The cool reception of some historians and the comparatively sterile listening experience of the heavily mixed Stage album have conspired to enshrine the tour in the collective imagination as a bit of a bore, but this is a little unfair. By incorporating the synthesizer instrumentals from the Berlin albums between the big hits, the show may not have replicated the visceral excitement of past glories (David himself later admitted that the live rendition of "Warszawa" was "a bit yawn-making"), but the band was one of the most proficient he had ever assembled: "each musician is full of dazzling musical personality," said Tony Visconti later, and it only takes a couple of minutes in the company of Stage to confirm that opinion. More than any other Bowie tour of the 1970s, it was a critically feted sell-out wherever it went. And, as ever, it was hugely influential. Within a matter of months Top Of The Pops would be swamped by synthesizer acts whose chilly glares and neon-lit, dry-ice-billowing, jumpsuit-wearing visuals were directly descended from the Stage tour.

David Bowie Ticket for Adelaide's Oval Cricket Ground November 11th 1978
David Bowie live on stage - Stage Tour 1978