David Bowie’s teutonic peak?
A lot of different things can happen to an album over 40 years and all of them have happened to David Bowie’s Stage since it came out in September 1978. It was: embraced by fans, sent to #5 in the charts and certified Gold in the UK (#44 in the U.S.), castigated by critics, deleted from the catalog, reissued on CD, reissued on CD with a bonus track, reissued on CD with a different track order and more bonus tracks, and finally remastered and released as part of a box set (in both track orders) and individually on CD and as a triple vinyl package. Most recently, it has even been given competition from within via Welcome To The Blackout, a complete concert from the same tour first made available for Record Store Day 2018 and now on sale and streaming everywhere.
Somewhat lost in all of those permutations is that original “2 Record Set” so lovingly prepared for release by Bowie and producer Tony Visconti from three shows on Bowie’s Isolar II tour. Perhaps to avoid a repeat of Visconti’s experience making Live & Dangerous with Thin Lizzy, which required extensive “sweetening” in the studio, Visconti made soundboard recordings in several venues along the way, drawing final selections from concerts in Providence, Philadelphia and Boston. The songs were then polished to a high gloss in the mixing stage and assembled in a running order that relied mostly on chronology rather than stage-show verisimilitude.
Several of the points above were precisely why critics objected to the album, wishing for a rawer experience closer to what they might have witnessed in the concert hall, with audience noise, a little banter from Bowie and looser performances. Anyone who has heard one or more Isolar II bootlegs from, say, Gothenburg, Sweden, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or the London show that became Blackout, can understand that perspective. Thinking along those lines might even lead to the conclusion that Stage is a “problem record” that needs to be fixed, hence all the monkeying around with track orders and song selections.
However, if you look at that first release of Stage in the context of Bowie’s 70’s canon, as I did when I finally tracked down a copy in the early 80’s, you could easily come to another conclusion. If you believe that Bowie’s RCA run from The Man Who Sold The World to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) is one of the greatest achievements since the invention of the gramophone, Stage begins to appear inevitable, as the only live album Bowie could have released at that time, at his Teutonic peak. In fact, one could even argue that Stage is more of a piece with the “Berlin Trilogy” than Lodger, which supposedly completes it.
For one thing, the performances, like those on Low and “Heroes”, are seamless, with the killer rhythm section of Carlos Alomar (guitar), George Murray (bass), and Dennis Davis (drums) playing as one and new additions Adrian Belew (guitar), Simon House (violin), Roger Powell (keyboards), and Sean Mayes (piano) seemingly capable of anything Bowie and Eno dished out, not to mention steamrolling through a candy-coated set of Ziggy-era classics. One of my favorite stories from the period comes after Bowie had poached Belew from Frank Zappa’s band. He and Eno gave him the set list to learn but never told him all the different parts Robert Fripp had layered to create the guitar part on “Heroes”. This was their idea of a joke but Belew had the last laugh. He never asked for any help, figuring out how to translate it for the stage by himself and nailing it every night.
Bowie’s vocals are almost inhumanly perfect, the best of his career to that point, but somehow still infused with feeling. Listening to those bootlegs reveals this was not the case every night on every song. While there is certainly a frisson from hearing an unintended huskiness intrude in Bowie’s voice or when he decides to scat a little during “Breaking Glass” (as he did in Copenhagen), that was not aligned with the character Bowie and Visconti chose to enshrine on Stage. Nor was the sweat worked up on stage during performances of “Stay,” which is one of the most welcome extra songs added to some of the reissues that have been released through the years.
The obvious care taken in relation to the listening experience puts the lie to accusation that Stage was a tour quickie designed to make some easy cash and meet some contractual obligations to RCA, with whom Bowie was reportedly unsatisfied. The only part of the package which could be seen as rushed is the cover. It’s a picture of Bowie, so of course it looks good, but it’s also just one picture, used three times. The inner gatefold, where a picture of the whole band on stage would have looked amazing, is basically wasted space. But there could be an argument that the package design is of a piece with the hermetic nature of the product as a whole.
When seen as an intentional project, rather than one driven by market forces or a problem in need of fixing, Stage is an effective subversion of the tropes of the “double-live,” with their jam sessions, cover songs and sometimes tiresome chatter from the band and audience. It’s likely Bowie saw such clichés as quite shaggy by 1978, and if the man who created Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke is known for anything, it’s for making his own way down the road not taken.