Back in 1974, David Bowie was having a banner year. His album Diamond Dogs had become his highest charting album in America, peaking at number five. (Trivia question: Which two Bowie albums charted higher, and what was their peak position? E-mail me with your answer.) He had successfully retired his "Ziggy Stardust" persona the previous year, and was in the process of becoming the Thin White Duke.
That in-between time of metamorphosis was captured on Bowie's first live album, David Live - which seems to have been recorded not long after Bowie scrapped a lavish production of a tour in place of a starker, harsher stage presence. If only this album had been better, it would have been a great portrait of the artist in flux - here, it pictures an artist in trouble.
Recorded in Philadelphia, Bowie was still musically in
Diamond Dogs mode - more often than not, he chose to perform
music that was more introspective and less pop-oriented. While he
still tipped his hat to some of the hits that had helped shape his
career, sometimes his song selection seems to be questionable. (I
reviewed an old copy of the album; I'm aware that when Rykodisc
re-released this album a few years ago, two bonus tracks were
Admittedly, Bowie does pull some surprises out of his hat on David Live. He is able to inject a whole new attitude into "Suffragette City" and "All The Young Dudes," songs which I normally am barely able to stand on the radio. The same can't be said for "Changes," a song which gains no new ground with this live version - then again, it doesn't make the song any worse.
Early on, Bowie seems to eschew the more uptempo songs with more meat on the bone musically. And if this album is an accurate portrait of how these concerts actually went down almost 24 years ago, one wondered why Bowie would structure songs that would almost drive his audience to the point of suicide. Sure, "Rebel Rebel" following "1984" is a step in the right direction, but Bowie sounds like he wants to get through this number as quickly as possible - it's definitely missing something. "Sweet Thing" is a definite snorer - no joke, as I fell asleep in the aisles of the Pierce Archive in the middle of this song on one of my listens to the album.
But Bowie shows just how good he can be on the third side of David Live. Starting with "When You Rock 'N' Roll With Me," Bowie kicks it into overdrive, and actually sounds interested in the music he's singing. His selection of Eddie Floyd's "Knock On Wood" is a fun, interesting choice, and the includion of "Diamond Dogs" makes me more interested in checking out this album.
Unfortunately, Bowie either chooses not to keep the intensity level high or he wasn't able to maintain it himself. Whatever the case, David Live finishes on down notes. "Big Brother" (off Diamond Dogs) is not a great follow-up selection, while both "Jean Genie" and "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" pale in comparison to their studio versions.
So what went wrong with this album? First, keep in mind that the live album is the most difficult thing for any artist to create (I don't think anyone ever masters live albums). So, when taken in perspective, Bowie is in good company. But I think it's more than just the difficulty of creating the live album that is at fault here. Though he was finally enjoying success in America, Bowie was going through a period of career turmoil that would reuslt in the Thin White Duke persona coming forward. Perhaps the ideal time to record a live album was not at this time, especially when introducing a different live show than you originally started with.
David Live was another American success for Bowie, but as time has passed, the cracks in the musical wall have become that much more evident. This album will probably still please Bowie fans in some fashion, but I don't think it's a must-have album for even the diehard Bowie fan.
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