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I bought Stage on holiday for cheap after not going to see Bowie perform live back home, as with Bowie I love half his stuff and the other half, well, not. Back at the hotel room in the evening before offing out, I slipped it from the plastic case, allowing the digipak to unfold and very nice it was too. Within liner notes from Tony Visconti enthused about Stage and Bowie's live shows, giving some personal insight into their working and how this re-release of Stage returned the music to the original running order (previously it was separated into one CD of more conventional songs and another of less conventional instrumentals).
I slipped the first CD into the walkman, feeling a little uncertain as to Visconti's enthusiasm and
One of 'those' more unusual instrumentals begins - the track he opened the concerts with. Warszawa, originally appearing on Low, begins, sounding every bit as good as on Low, if not better. I began to smile, enjoying the music. Visconti was right about one thing, on Stage Bowie managed to bring together his best band to date, as Bowie, unfortunately, doesn't always seem to play with the greatest musicians - I don't mean they're bad but not extraordinary, and immediately this isn't clear, as Warszawa is a piece requiring little genius but then it segues effortless into "Heroes" and of course "Heroes" requires a lot of skill (if you've ever heard a rendition of it by an average guitarist it's pretty awful - on the original album Bowie and Eno had to ring up Robert Fripp and draft him in to play guitar because no one else could). Here the great Adrian Belew steps into Fripp's shoes and does so effortlessly. If anything on Stage, Belew makes the difference. Bowie is in fine form vocally, as evident from "Heroes" but Belew's presence throughout the album is absolutely pivotal, he gives the music a potency that Bowie's other guitarist can't quite provide.
The first CD of Stage, with the exception of Fame, consists entirely of tracks from Low and Heroes. We're treated to the syncopated funkiness of What in the World and downright disturbing lyrics of Breaking Glass, both of which are played with a solid grace, especially Belew's energetic, nigh psychotic guitar work but it has some superb, near sublime moments. The always fun (I always think of it like some strange art-pop cockney knees up - I assume you, it makes sense) Be my Wife is one of the absolute highlights of the album, regardless of CD. From the playful east-end piano introduction to Bowie's kinda-matter-of-fact vocals are all spot on, but it is Belew's guitar work that undercuts everything with its phenomenal presence, hitting every right note possible, his trademark strident aural assault running throughout the song. It's near to perfection, almost demonically good fun. More fun than should be legal for a song only running just over two and a half minutes. It's a masterpiece of song writing and execution. It gels as does Blackout, being one of the more overlooked songs on "Heroes", but here it takes pride of place, being as hysterical as always, but preformed with clarity. Bowie's vocals are fantastic, through his singing you can feel the desperation of the character, down at heels, he sings about. It's an absolute powerhouse.
But of course, coming from Low and "Heroes" means we're treated to some of those strange instrumentals. Sense of Doubt roars ominously, rumbling low and predatory, whilst keyboards and synths layer texture upon texture and leaves you feeling menaced and uncertain - but in a good way, of course. Speed of Life is as good fun here as it is when you play Low. Perhaps a little aged at times, the synth part, replacing some of the original guitar may seem a bit cheesy but it seems almost to be mocking itself. But who cares anyway? Speed of Life is such a good natured instrumental, so foot-tapingly, head noddingly entertainment that I find it impossible to keep still listening to it, I'm awash with movement and it can't help but bring a smile to my face.
Like Sense of Doubt mixed with a little of Blackout and a hint of Broken Glass, Beauty and the Beast is as gloriously strident on Stage as is the original. From the simple piano intro, the climbing, growing, insane Belewness of the guitar to the serrated vocals, Beauty and the Beast always seems more beast than beauty. Bowie and Belew shine. Bowie always could do strident and desperate vocals like no one else and here is no exception. Whilst Belew causes glorious six string chaos.
The First CD ends with Fame. A song I never could get into whatsoever. Though it should be catchy, with its funkiness and all, I never could get into it, but I find this version breaks the mould. Somehow it works, something shines through that doesn't with any other version, it shows that put great musicians together they can make fun what normally doesn't quite fit.
If anything the second CD emphasises this to an even greater extent. I've been keen on Bowie's album prior to Low but apart from Art Decade, another gloriously progressive, genre bending instrumental, it's all Pre-Low Bowie track, with five songs from Ziggy Stardust, an album I can take or leave. But if anything the second CD eclipses the first.
No, the second CD DOES eclipse the first. Opening with Five Years, it's clearly of the Ziggy era but unlike so much of Bowie's early work it's not anaemic. When I first listened to it I suddenly had hopes for the second CD that I didn't expect to have. It's a solid intro, with some pretty solid drumming. But nothing compared to what follows with Soul Love and then, better still, Star. What makes them so much better than the originals? I can't say for sure, but they're certainly more solid, they have substance somehow. OK, Bowie's vocals are great and but I can't help but think Belew's solos absolutely capture it. On Soul Love his solo is Belew like yet unusually restrained and controlled and it sets shivers going across my scalp, it's gorgeous in its simplicity and somehow sets up the rest of the track, elevating what's good to what's really good. Likewise with Star, Belew is an absolute star, though never obtrusive, though the whole song is great, from the insistent piano introduction to well, everything. Again it's just such remarkably entertaining. Suddenly bringing everything up-tempo, everyone shines. Again there's some great drumming, and Bowie absolutely sings his head off, keeping tight control of everything. He could so easily be overpowered by the musicians around himself but somehow he soars above them all.
The same is true of Hang on to Yourself. I almost think its more rock and roll than rock, and it is genuine rollicking fun, perhaps nothing especially new or original, but again Bowie's vocals are spot on and Belew is restrained but brilliant. The drumming powers the music along. Listening you feel like everyone on stage is enjoying themselves and it just shines through into the music, as it does with Star and Soul Love, they're so completely operating as a unit that you can't imagine anything falling out of place (and in fact for his next album Bowie used the exact same band, taking them into the studio and creating the much underrated Lodger, but I digress )
Ziggy Stardust is just that - instantly recognisable, and always a track from his early work that I enjoyed and always epitomises his music from the period. You can hear the cheers in the background when he starts playing it. It's Ziggy Stardust, you know, enough said. OK, admittedly Belew is again great, even though you'd barely notice it as his creativity often rustles under the surface a little, but then here isn't that right? Bowie's vocals are surely the point on this song? Well, I think so.
One wonders if Bowie was listening to The Doors or was a Brecht/Weill fan when considering playing Alabama Song. It's certainly a curious rendition; bits of it are strangely disjointed and other parts entirely svelte. But I think this is meant to be this way. The chorus, being svelte and flowing more elegantly than the intervening verses, always seems the easier to listen to. Nevertheless it all somehow works, even though sometimes it sounds like Bowie has a frog in his throat when he's singing. Sometimes I skip it, sometimes not, depending on how I feel.
Swish-swish Station to Station once again I never really could get into Station to Station, the song (and admittedly not really the album) but here they really, really, really - and I mean really - pull it off. An absolute out-of-the-bag stone cold (insert cliché of your choice) brilliant piece of playing. From the synthesised train in the opening to the dum-dum-dum keyboards lighting the way into the body of the song, Station to Station is a joy. But here, let's face, Belew is the genius, his down and dirty psychotic guitar introduction (someone once said it was like lasers being flashed into your eyes) is just stunning and he continues being stunning all the way through, and maybe that's why it works. So much of the music in Station to Station is regimented, precise and clear and so it opens up spaces for Belew to just let go. Nevertheless, even when he swaps psychosis for clarity, the song still is just plain magisterial, almost a little regal. It just somehow stands up as a colossus.
And then Stay ooooh, Stay. Stay just becomes a fantastic rock track: solid, though never heavy; full bodied and just downright dirty. Belew again gets top marks and lets go, the bass drives the proceeding along superbly and Bowie, well, his voice captures exactly the right tone: deep and somehow commanding. It's great stuff. First class music. Excellent entertainment. It's everything you could ever want.
Finally, we finish on another bonus track and TVC15 is probably a good way to say goodbye (on the album anyway). Despite the rather disturbing subject manner (Bowie's girlfriend getting sucked into his TV) it is of course great fun, the piano similar in playfulness to Be my Wife. Fast and fun.
Yep, Stage is just one fine live album. Most artists, bands, etc. seem to be either so superior live, or so plain dreadful, that it's inexplicable but here Bowie is inexplicably good. As I say, the band is great, but everything just gels. For all the moments of personal invention all round (but spotlights especially on Bowie and Belew) they never detract from the whole. You never feel that anyone is showing off or trying to take over. Maybe that's why it's so good. Anyway, it's convinced me that next time Bowie's in town, maybe I should just look him up after all.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
3 What In The World
4 Be My Wife
6 Sense Of Doubt
7 Speed Of Life
8 Breaking Glass
9 Beauty And The Beast
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Five Years
2 Soul Love
4 Hang On To Yourself
5 Ziggy Stardust
6 Art Decade
7 Alabama Song
8 Station To Station
10 TVC 15