Synapse SUMMER 1979 - by Franc Gavin


This is an album of our times. That is to say, it should never have been made. It is an attempt to reaffirm, and reaffirmations are necessary, quite rightly so, but David Bowie's relationship both with past and present on this LP is convictionless, almost non-existent. It appeared that with the incursion of "Heroes" David Bowie was through with the "Concept of Bowie" and ready to concentrate on the far more varied and fascinating conceptualisations that went onto making of his new and less theatrically inclined direction. To hell with that.

But then it has long ago been ascertained that most live albums are bullshit and the only thing that keeps Stage from being labelled as such is its prize-winning mediocrity. Some records are so bad that they are a joy to hate. It is sheer pleasure to listen to them over and over again, if only to remind yourself just what true unadulterated disgust is. This two-disc live set is so cautious, plays it so safe so much of the time, that criticising it brings neither the filthy pleasure derived from kicking up great piles of manure on some freshly-seeded lawn, nor the delight of squinting nobly as we sense the presence of the unseen angel behind the thunderheads. It is never that extreme.

The first side of Stage is devoted to a Low treatment of some Ziggy Stardust material. Roger Powell's synthesizer works icily on Soul Love and ironically, with more effect during this sizeable chunk of old-audience placation than at any other time. And perhaps this is the rub, the crucial flaw in the album. On such traditional rock-oriented pieces, Powell does his level best to add a unique coloration.

But when it comes down to the more contemporary work, the work that is something other than Bowie earning enough for his next Porsche, banal things begin insinuating themselves upon the overall form and content. When Bowie recorded Low and "Heroes" he was in Berlin, immersed in modern composition and meta-musik, but most important of all he was working under the tutelage of Brian Eno. And who should the best swordsman in all France fear?

Only the worst swordsman in all France. And if Roger Powell could be nominally termed the best synthesizer player in rock, Eno would certainly be the worst. Which makes him better than the best.

Eno allows room for accidents, hopes for them, is constantly aware that limitations can be traversed and liabilities turned into unexpected assets. Powell conversely, is a musician's musician, a precise perfectionist whose playing, try as it might, never really breaks out of the boundaries of the diatonic scale because, unlike Eno, he never approaches musical problems in a non-musical, environmental way. And that is what Low and "Heroes" have been - albums of environment - albums that are a distinct product of the environment in which they were created, giving off an eerie inner light in the delightful distorted refractions of whatever environment they were reproduced in, albeit with tone-arm or radio-dial. But the non-musical essence of those two most recent works is somehow lost in the translation to a live program.

The interaction between Powell's synthesizer and Bowie on Chamberlain never quite gels into the monolithic force-field of mood that made Warsawza the six-minute tour of northern Europe in the winter of 1938 - orchestral sweeps of electronic keyboards breaking and gathering as ominously as clouds of impending war. Instead, the mix-down captures only the delicate flute-like sounds of a duet that smacks of pace-running redeemed at the very end only by a short but interesting reply from Simon House's electric violin.

What made Speed Of Life so punchy in the original was that Bowie-Eno cross-current - the sloppy synthetic downstrides on the last upswing of every guitar phrase that sounded like a transistor radio turned to an AM rock station fusing together with a melting PBX board in the middle of a thermonuclear firestorm. Gone. Completely gone. Replaced by a Neet. Kleen-Kut replica that has lost all seriousness simply because it takes itself so seriously. Powell's playing is so perfect, so non-abrasive, so profunct that all dynamic tension has simply disappeared.

The rest of this misbegotten hunk of contractual-fulfilment petty much follows suit. Bowie plods crooningly through "Heroes", a song where the density and urgency are of utmost importance in conveying that vulnerability. There are but few redemptions - a perhaps better version of Breaking Glass. That is given a third dimension it had previously lacked. But this is an album of sporadic moments that arrive and fade quickly, never underscoring, rarely reiterating. They barely survive because the album never transcends being, as has some of Bowie's best, most recent work; as does all superlative music of any kind. It merely lies in wait, ultimately missing its chance, undershooting its target.

As a result it reveals the worst possible sides of a performer whose wretched excess has been too-long discussed, a performer who two years ago had said that he was going to make a concerted effort to escape the self-defeating confines of his own cult of personality. From the cover (Troy Donahue mug-shots plastered throughout in various grainy texture) to the flyer in the jacket pocket, exhorting the purchaser to join the David Bowie fan-club, that entire resolution is negated.

Finally it is an album of which the only end results are questions. Such as: could it have been done better? Most assuredly, had it not been done with such obvious lack of care - a notable trait of most live LPs. Could Brian Eno have done it better than Powell? Perhaps - but the killing factor is that David Bowie just sounds as though he doesn't want to be there at all. He is trying with the greatest of Siamese-Cat nonchalance to straddle the past, present and possible future of his music, failing at various levels in all departments as he diffidently bespeaks his ability to please all of the people all of the time. Is it an album that should have been made? Probably not.