I did not normally buy the Birmingham Evening Mail. But that day I needed to check the property pages , bought it at lunchtime, and sat down to read it with a sandwich. Tucked away, in a small box advert at the back, amidst hundreds of mundane adverts , the reverse block copy read ‘David Bowie, Que Club, Birmingham August 1st £15’. I rang the telephone number.
“Is this the real David Bowie and not a tribute?” I asked.
The Que club is in an Old Methodist Hall, magnificent Victorian building opposite the Law Courts in central Birmingham. It held 800 for the night. Walking up to it was a strange feeling. Obviously there were no crowds, but there were no promotional posters, no signs that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen. But it was.
The Earthling Tour was an oddity. It came at around the commercial, and celebrity, nadir, of Bowie’s career. Brit Pop was in full swing, Blur, Massive Attack , Primal Scream, Pulp, Shed Seven and Daft Punk all played the venue, there was a lot going on. Bowie was definitely not where it was at. But his decision to play small venues was an artistic masterstroke. Die hard fans only were present which meant he could play what he wanted to. This was the real David Bowie at the time, not a commercial projection.
I had a standing ticket and opted for around 12 feet back from the stage, which had an extended platform at the front, in the middle. Close enough to see the man , far enough back to see the whole band on the small stage, and get the PA, rather than monitor, sound. It was a fabulous venue.
The band comprised ;Reeves Gabrels – guitar, backing vocals, Gail Ann Dorsey – bass guitar, vocals, keyboards, Zack Alford – drums, percussion, Mike Garson – keyboards, backing vocals.
I can only describe the atmosphere as surreal. No-one could quite believe that they were there in a club venue watching a global superstar. At 8pm on the dot, David sauntered on stage alone, white shirt, acoustic guitar in hand to open with “Quicksand”. It could have been in your front room. The Victorians, and Methodists, knew a thing or two about acoustics. A century on those skills reaped dividends. Never have I heard him sounding better, every stroke of the strings crystal clear.
It was no vintage crowd -pleasing set. Earthling predominated, Gabrels dictated a Euro drum and bass sound as per the album which he co-produced. Those tracks were tremendous. Perversely, what fascinated was the other material which he chose to include.
“The Man Who Sold the World” featured Dorsey’s bass and backing vocals, stripped back, bare and haunting. Bowie teasingly introduced the following track as being inspired by a John Lee Hooker blues riff which he played himself, slowly morphing into “Jean Genie”. Magic.
“Fashion” seemed perfectly at home with its bass rhythm, and sharper than ever before Savage, not celebratory. “Fame”, twenty years on assumed a weight not immediately apparent upon its release. In 1975, as a teenager, I was not overly concerned with the angst that drugs, hookers, and loads of money apparently caused rock stars. Twenty- three years on the song had been transformed into a melancholic reflection on his career, and the raft of popular celebrities who met a premature demise. Just four weeks later Lady Diana died.
“Fame, (fame) what you like is in the limo
Fame, (fame) what you get is no tomorrow”
“Stay” has long been a favourite of mine. Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar did not let me down. To hear it stretched out, and funked out, in a club setting was as close to heaven as it is possible to get this side of the grass. Gail Ann Dorsey is no hired hand. Not only did she have a featured role in “The Man Who Sold The World” earlier, she also duetted with David on “Under Pressure” and sang an encore number, “ Oh Superman”, solo. My only disappointment was that the imperious Mike Garson spent his time on keyboards hammering out block chord accompaniment, with no opportunity for his piano dexterity available in the set whose highlight was “Halo Spaceboy”, a terrific epilogue to “Space oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes” ( not performed on the night) delivered as a sonic barrage which could have sunk an alien spaceship fleet.
The ‘encore”, a mini set in its own right, was over half an hour long. “White Light/ White Heat” has featured in his set, on and off, for thirty years. Seeing him perform it for fun, just because he could was a rare treat. Inevitably it varied in pace and mood but climaxed in a rousing, thrilling, “Look Back in Anger”. And he was gone.
Since his Earls Court shows, I had acquired tickets for both the Serious Moonlight and Sound & Vision tours which I had subsequently been unable to attend. I am so pleased that the last live performance I saw was with him up close, relaxed, playing what pleased him, a solo star, but very much part of a band. What a man. What a star. What a night.
The Set List
The Man Who Sold the World
The Jean Genie
I’m Afraid of Americans
Battle for Britain (The Letter)
Seven Years in Tibet
Looking for Satellites
The Hearts Filthy Lesson
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
Dead Man Walking
Strangers When We Meet
White Light/White Heat
Look Back in Anger