College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 17

bowie stage

17. David Bowie, Stage

Though it is undoubtedly neck and neck with the concept album, there may be no more characteristic remnant of nineteen-seventies rock than the double-live record. In some wise circles, it is referred to as the Foghat Principle, dictating that the fourth album is when it comes into play. David Bowie was well past his fourth album in 1978, but Stage was also his second double-live effort, following 1974’s David Live. Stage arrived after an atypically long gap in Bowie releases, albeit one that was still best measured in months rather than years. In the span of 1975 to 1977, Bowie released four studio albums, including both Low and “Heroes” in 1977 alone. He was in the midst of an especially prosperous time creatively, and Stage offers a striking document of that time.

The album was pulled from shows for Bowie’s Isolar II world tour that ran through most of 1978, specifically taken from recordings of late spring concerts in Philadelphia, Providence, and Boston. There’s not a lot of reinvention to be found on the assembled tracks, although “Fame” sounds even slinkier than it does on the studio recording, a fairly remarkable feat. For the most part, the only real goal seems to be documenting the sharp, powerful band Bowie had pulled together at this time, including the wizardly Adrian Belew on guitar. If there are revelations to be had from listening to these four sides, it’s the grinding toughness of many of Bowie’s less familiar songs of the era. The hits get their dutiful run throughs, but it’s tracks such as “Beauty and the Beast” and album opener “Hang Onto Yourself” that fully command the record. It’s tempting to speculate that the ever-restless artist was a little bored with anything that smacked of his previous artistic era, the soulful Thin White Duke of the mid-seventies. It when the band could roar instead of insinuate that he is most engaged.

There could also be an explanation to be extrapolated from the detail that the Isolar II tour represented the first time in many years that Bowie was onstage without a haze of drugs. According to his various biographers, Bowie has largely kicked his habits and was operating largely without artificially dulling or boosting his senses. An artist who often had an uneasy relationship with his audience, no matter how devoted they were, Bowie here sounds engaged in the process of delivering a show. Most live albums are dragged down by a deadening distance from the event depicted. They’re an echo of an experience. Stage doesn’t sidestep that problem, not entirely. But it does provide a portrait of an artist that is more vital than most similar efforts. There’s a strong sense across the album of Bowie finding his way back to himself, part of the constant trial and error of his career in the seventies. Few others shared their process the way he did, and it’s always fascinating.

The seemingly indefatigable Bowie must have reached some sort of saturation point on this tour. After fairly constant touring for most of the seventies, Bowie shut down the road show for several years after this. Though he remained fairly prolific as a studio artist, he wouldn’t stage another major tour until 1983’s Serious Moonlight outings. Accordingly, though live albums were considered a fairly normal, even routine part of the release schedule for artists of his generation, Bowie wouldn’t release another newly recording live effort until 1992’s hideous Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby. Charitably, the motivation for that choice could be partially attributed to a belief that he got it as right as he could on Stage.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone

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