Talk From The Rock Room: David Bowie – ChangesNowBowie – ‘Strange, Mad Celebration’

Thursday, October 1, 2020

David Bowie – ChangesNowBowie – ‘Strange, Mad Celebration’

On August 29th, 2020 the first of this year’s Record Store Day drops was made, including a few exciting David Bowie audio releases. The subject of today’s ‘Talk from the Rock Room’ rant is the CD/LP release ChangesNowBowie, which documents an acoustic based nine song performance on BBC 1 radio. This performance was recorded in 1996 during rehearsals for Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration concert. The BBC broadcast the intimate show on the date of Bowie’s birthday the next year on January 8, 1997. A standout in the bootleg collections of many Bowie aficionados for a number of years, it is nice to have a crisp compact recording of this stand out later era Bowie performance.

The aforementioned broadcast featured some wonderful discussion with Bowie, but for this Record Store Day release just the music is included. Joining Bowie for the unique set of songs was Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals, Reeves Gabrels (from Bowie’s Tin Machine band) on guitars and Mark Plati on Keyboards and electronics. What transpired on the BBC stage was a personal, sympathetic reading of a diverse set list both accessible for the assembled crowd yet still distinctly ‘Bowie’. The ‘rock room’ is following this stellar performance like reading a novel. I assert that this set list was developed to tell a tale, though different from what was broadcast, a personal touch in the song choices can be felt in addition to a tight focus.

This era of Bowie was another of constant reinvention and experimentation. Only a month after this broadcast, Bowie would release Earthling another chapter is his constantly evolving discography. The subject of today’s talk from the rock room, the ChangesNowBowie broadcast sits in complete contrast to the ‘drums and bass’, ‘electronic’ influence felt on Earthling. The multifarious Bowie per his usual practice had his fingers in numerous sonic pies during this era. Bowie always referred to himself as a ‘synthesist’, allowing his external forces to direct his muse. His recordings and performances in 1996-1997 hold this claim as true as ever. This performance is  hot tea and a plush pillow to rest a weary head.

The BBC concert begins with ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, a stringy sparkling rendition with Bowie’s reassuring vocals typical of this era the focus. He sings as if he is letting us in on an astronomical secret. A fitting opener as the song deals with someone dealing with two sides of their character. Special note to Gail Ann Dorsey’s delicate harmony vocals and Reeves sitar like ascending notes during the central riff.

Another fine arrangement of an 1970's composition follows with ‘Aladdin Sane’ in a spacious just on the edge of acoustic construct. Again, with perfectly placed Gail Ann Dorsey vocals. Churning folk guitars allow for focus on the lyrics through the verses until Mark Plati enters for a discordant piano interlude. Dorsey and Bowie blend vocally like they are related and conclude the song with swirling and overlapping voices.

An edgy and syncopated version of the ‘Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ gets placed on the burner next. An in concert favorite over the years for Bowie, here it is played with the same gusto as previous 1970’s versions. The songs vamp is cut around the hard thump of the bass drum to which Bowie weaves around deftly. Reeves kicks on the distortion pedal following the verses and lets two molten solo spots develop, scorching the empty voids. Gold.

A rare take on ‘Shopping for Girls’, a song from Bowie’s side project ‘Tim Machine’s’ second LP Tin Machine II. Composed by Bowie and Gabrels, the track is an artist’s view about the awfulness of the child sex trade. Bowie struggled with making a ‘rock’ song about such a difficult subject but in his typical fashion he was ahead of the curve, and its addition to this unique show’s emotive set somehow makes complete sense. The song moves on a squiggly acoustic slide lick and Bowie’s matter of fact rhythmically ‘Dylanesque’ tempo. The song straddles the fence between creepy and sad and blunt reality. I suggest to you dear reader to follow along with the lyrics while having your listening session. Typically Bowie, this arrangement takes a difficult subject from a low key album and packages it so the collected BBC listeners become aware of its important existence.

An exquisite and majestic reading of ‘Lady Stardust’ is next in the set. Almost weightless in its construct, the song features the Bowie theme of ‘duality’ where the narrator is both man and woman or possibly both, or just another image distorted of oneself. One of the most beautiful songs from 1973’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, here its delectate structure is wrapped in patient and humble sonics. Bowie's vocals are perfection, with just a touch wavering lending legitimacy of his character study. For the first time in the show Bowie pushes his voice perfectly into the beyond.


The closing track from Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, ‘The Superman’ is given a detailed and rare live reading next. Bowie has stated that the song’s original central guitar lick was given to him by Jimmy Page when playing on one of Bowie’s early sessions. Like previously stated the song is placed perfectly in the construct of the set, with each track somehow contextually related, or this could just be in the mind of the 'rock room'. This version is wonderfully bounding with a slick elastic bass line and strong scrubbing acoustic guitars. After the beginning verses, a smooth organ line lays a thick coat of sound paint across the rhythm. Typically for the evening Bowie sings the shit out of this one.

‘Repetition’, a song tucked away on the flip side of Bowie’s 1979 LP Lodger follows in its new 1997 guise. If anything the song’s content is more powerful under the microscopic view of the acoustic based analysis. The song is clandestine peek through a cracked door at an abusive relationship. Slotting into the track list with a deeper important message to be discerned, the song lost a bit of its claustrophobic vibe from the studio version. But by the end the walls are closing in and the melody eats itself amongst a wash of acoustic guitar, slide work and thick mellotron brush strokes.

‘Andy Warhol’ is another rarely played track, last put on display during the 1995 Outside tour after a prior absence of twenty plus years. In stunning contrast to the bombastic Outside tour arrangement, here, Andy Warhol’ is a perfect choice as a close relative to acoustic based number from 1971's Hunk Dory . The song grooves like a campfire singalong with the thick brushstrokes of acoustic guitars. Again, Bowie's voice the centerpiece in sympatico with every musical movement.

‘Quicksand’, one of Bowie’s most enduring melodies in the ‘rock room’s humble opinion closes the BBC session. Lyrically it is also one of Bowie’s shady and philosophical musings. The song offers no hope to the listener and offers a glimpse inside a mind coming to terms with both reality and knowledge.  Following a prelude made of glistening gritty particles, Bowie’s voice enters, youth in his voice, a resignation slightly below the surface. The song is pulled like warm taffy, stretched between being swallowed into the earth and reaching its arms to the sky. While exploring themes also looked at in ‘The Superman’ this song retains a cloak and dagger hopefulness, though this theme is only felt through it's optimistic chord changes. Bowie's vocals are chilling. The middle eight contrasts the verses with layered harmonies, swelled keyboard strings and fleeting hopefulness. Thus ends this collection.

Bowie's long and extensive catalog continues to be cracked open for inspection following the specific directives left after his death. The 'rock room' knows the surface has only just been scratched as Bowie  left a wealth of music and performance behind.. Sure, this performance has been available through unofficial channels for a number of years; but it's nice to own it officially. The show contains Bowie happy, centered and loose for his big 50th. It should be lauded for its contents, in addition to its availability to a new era of Bowie fans and collectors.


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