What does it sound like?:
In 1977, David Bowie kept himself occupied by celebrating his thirtieth birthday, releasing Low and “Heroes”, co-writing and producing Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust For Life, playing keyboards for him on tour, providing a voice over for Peter And The Wolf and ending the year duetting with Bing Crosby on a TV Christmas special. In 1978, he took it easy by embarking on a world tour called Isolar II.
Bowie could call on his finest rhythm section: Carlos Alomar guitar, George Murray bass and Dennis Davis drums. He recruited pianist Sean Mayes who used to be in a rock band called Fumble that supported Ziggy in 1972. Roger Powell, in the Eno synthesiser and treatments role, was a member of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia. Simon House was borrowed from Hawkwind to play electric violin. Lead guitar was provided by Adrian Belew, an Eno spot at a Frank Zappa gig.
The stage set consisted of an austere white fluorescent cage, capable of glowing and flashing. Spotlights would be trained onto the audience. The shadows cast gave the impression the musicians were sinister and imposing. The show was split into two halves by a brief interval. Part one was overwhelmingly material from Low and “Heroes”. During the break, Bowie donned a snakeskin coat. Part two began with six or seven songs from Ziggy Stardust and concluded with half of Stationtostation.
This was the tour that yielded Stage, recorded towards the end of the US leg. Welcome To The Blackout captures two nights at Earls Court two months later. Consequently, it is impossible to avoid an exercise in compare and contrast and the why bother question. The Stage remix from last year’s Bowie box, shares almost the same tracklist and sequence and is a fair comparison. Welcome additionally features Sound And Vision, the only time they played it on the tour, and the encore, Rebel Rebel.
The first things that hits you, after the opening instrumental Warzarsa, is the mixing. Tony Visconti’s upper register hearing must be shot. Stage is very bottom heavy, to the benefit of Murray, notably on Breaking Glass, but no-one else. David Richards’s mix for Welcome is far superior, sharper, more rounded and highlights the guitars and electric violin much better. It helps enormously that both guitarists are on such scorching form at Earls Court, especially for Jean Genie and Stay, two tracks not included on the original 1978 release of Stage. In fact, it seems as though there is twice as much guitar throughout Welcome. Welcome’s Stay is so spectacular it arguably surpasses the studio version. Dennis Davis’s drumming is simply awesome in both settings. Oddly, the Ziggy tracks don’t suit this band. The jagged, splintered shards of rock styling are stunning but don’t fit Hang Onto Yourself. Poor Woody had to make do with overturned bins for floor toms and tin plates for cymbals. Davis’s kit is far superior and, therefore, feels almost too good.
Sean Mayes recalls that the band deliberately slowed down when recording Stage. Overall, Stage does capture more of the menace in the Berlin songs but the band seem tense, as though the added pressure of recording a live album was transmitted through their fingers. However, tracks like TVC15, Be My Wife and Beauty And The Beast are better at a controlled, stately pace. Earls Court were the final nights before a four month break and the move to Oceana. Consequently, Welcome To The Blackout has a more relaxed end-of-term feel, Bowie and the band enjoying a greater freedom and energy. That energy boosts the likes of Blackout, Speed Of Life and Stationtostation. Two months down the road, Bowie’s voice is suffering, at least for part one. During the break, he must have indulged in a magic potion as he is more authoritative for part two.
The cover for Welcome To The Blackout is a little injudicious. Yes, Bowie’s hand is touching the microphone but, at first glance, it does look like a Nazi salute, evoking bad memories from 1976. Surely, there is a better photo somewhere.
It’s easy to understand why The Earls Court recordings haven’t been issued until now. Stage was already in the can and has received considerable investment, including a 2005 reissue, sorting out the woeful sequencing of 1978, and an expansion and remastering last year. Plus, Bowie’s voice, the star of the show, is less strong. Nevertheless, on balance, Welcome To The Blackout is an essential purchase for any self-respecting Bowiephile, especially those in love with this rhythm section and Adrian Belew’s axemanship.
What does it all *mean*?
Record Store Day has its uses. This was initially an RSD vinyl special and is now getting the all format treatment at a reasonable price.
Goes well with…
Weighing pros and cons. In the end, you pays your money and you makes your choice.
Might suit people who like…
A love of Bowie and dirty, filthy guitar. This is really a product for the established fan.
Every night of Isolar II was recorded. The last night, in Japan 12th December 1978, was filmed and broadcast on Japanese TV. Earls Court may be the best nights of a very long tour.