Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
David Live

The most succinct review of David Bowie’s unspeakably mediocre live LP, 1974’s David Live, came from the mouth of Bowie’s long-time frenemy Mick Jagger. “If I got the kind of reviews that he got for that album,” quipped Bowie’s future “Dancin’ in the Streets” partner, “I would honestly never record again. Never.”

Recorded during Bowie’s 1974 Diamond Dogs Tour at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby Philadelphia, David Live demonstrated just how much Bowie owed to guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson, who Bowie coldly dismissed (along with the other Spiders from Mars) as he reinvented himself as plastic soul man. Bowie would later say cattily, “There’s only so much you can do with that kind of band. I wanted no more to do with that loud thing. Hurt my ears.” No mention on his part how much David Live hurts mine.

The Diamond Dogs Tour was big on gimmickry but short on quality music. Amongst the massive stage props was a bridge that could be raised and lowered by remote control, and at a Montreal show the bridge collapsed Spinal Tap fashion, with Bowie–a confirmed acrophobic–on it. A dire omen perhaps–or proof that even inanimate objects saw fit to register a protest against Bowie’s insipid new sound.

David Live wilts in comparison to Live Santa Monica ‘72 and the July 1973 Hammersmith Odeon performance released in tandem with the 1983 film Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. The latter was recorded only a year and a half before the pair of Tower Theater performances documented on David Live, but the contrast is sharp. Bowie and the Spiders delivered an electrifying show, kicking things off with a punk-speed “Hang on to Yourself” and a bone-crushing “Ziggy Stardust” before closing the show with a transcendental version of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.”

In so far as the extraordinary Santa Monica and Hammersmith Odeon performances beefed up the thin sound of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, they serve a critical purpose and are must-owns for Bowie fans. The same cannot be said of David Live, whose only apparent function is to prove just how much Bowie needed Ronno. Album fans argue that David Live captures Bowie’s between-worlds transformation from Glam Alien to Thin White Duke, but it’s an utter failure of an album–not a single track comes close to, much less transcends, its studio counterpart. And this despite a cast of crack musicians that included soldier of fortune Earl Slick, pianist extraordinaire Mike Garson, and saxophonist David “I’ll Whore Myself Out to Anyone” Sanborn.

David Live’s soggy renditions of “Moonage Daydream,” “Watch That Man,” “Panic in Detroit,” “Cracked Actor,” and ”All the Young Dudes” manage to simultaneously disgrace their originals and sully the dignity of Philly Soul, and even “Rebel Rebel,” on which Bowie more or less plays it straight, lacks the frenetic energy of the Diamond Dogs version. And despite Mike Garson’s attempt to reproduce what will stand forever as the greatest piano solo in the history of 20th Century pop music, “Aladdin Sane” is a flaccid farce. And the horns and desultory guitar work on “Suffragette City” make sufferers of us all.

David Live belongs alongside such august turds as the Rolling Stones’ Got Live if You Want It, Bob Dylan’s Live at Budokan, and Lou Reed’s Live: Take No Prisoners. And unlike David Live, the latter two LPs at least offer inadvertent comedic value. I turn ‘em on whenever I need a laugh.

The music on David Live is as emaciated as the Bowie on the cover. Bowie himself would later say of his skeletal self, “My god, it looks like I’ve just stepped out of the grave.” The same can be said of the album itself. David Live has no pulse whatsoever, and Bowie had no Mick Ronson around to perform artificial respiration.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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