But I Digress #2: Cracked Actor (1974/2017)

tumblr_p6eg1drDFW1s7n9hno2_1280After having paid a fortune and put enormous effort into creating what amounted to a far-ahead-of-its-time touring rock show-cum-broadway musical, Bowie — now immersed in more funk, R&B, early disco, and other predominately African-American forms of music, an evolution from the black (and white) blues foundations of the early rock music from his youth — decided to scrap much of the existing set, props, and theatrics. Halfway through the tour, he reverted the show back to a relatively straightforward musical revue show. His management must have loved that.

The revised show, which featured mostly new singers and musicians, now included numbers and styles that should show up later in the following year’s official album release, Young Americans. As mentioned in our previous entry, the bulk of Young Americans was recorded during a late-summer break in the Diamond Dogs tour —and his excitement over the direction and strength of the new material he had recorded for it influenced significant changes to even the earlier material still being performed. Nearly every song on the second leg boasted a noticeably-altered arrangement.

That said, the decision to change horses in mid-stream probably wasn’t a purely artistic one. Bowie was likely also influenced heavily in his decisions by the high and increasing costs of lugging that remarkable set and its ephemera around, particularly without having yet seen any royalties from David Live at the time. Numerous are the recording acts that embark on big, lavish tours which end up getting scaled back significantly before the run is over; Bowie was just one of the first to understand the cost and folly of touring elaborate musical-theatre or opera-level productions around versus the (then) far lower cost of a “rock concert” ticket.

david-bowie-cracked-actor-documentary-1974-dvd-60684Unmentioned last time was that while all of this was going on, the first — and in some senses most important —  of documentaries on Bowie was being filmed by a young Alan Yentob, covering both the ongoing Diamond Dogs and Bowie’s own deteriorating mental and physical state, owing to his growing cocaine addition (accelerated, no doubt, by its easy availability in Los Angeles, where the tour was stationed for a seven-night run). The documentary was called “Cracked Actor” in part because of Bowie’s odd demeanour, and remains a vital look at him in the throes of addiction (as well as featuring rare footage of the actual Diamond Dogs tour set, and some of the performances).

R-4027570-1359407690-1485.jpegSee our entry for David Live for details on the personnel changes and other details, but the revamped tour went back out on the road in September of 1974, and as mentioned a high-quality soundboard bootleg recording from the 5th of September (roughly the middle of the LA run) originally known as Strange Fascination, was released as a 2CD set in 1990. A different bootleg, known as Bowie 1974, is said to be from the same night — or at least one of the nights from that week-long run — but is claimed to be an audience recording rather than the soundboard.

7b804a4b02f6a68e5bf43a8c0a57be05The original unedited recording was repressed under other titles, notably Glass Asylum and The Duke of LA. A later edit/remaster of the Strange Fascination source tape became the bootleg A Portrait in Flesh, released in 1998 (though with an original “copyright” of 1983, which remains unexplained). Besides the sound being remastered, Flesh differs from Strange Fascination in a few notable ways. The first was that Portrait trims down the overlong 10-minute (!!) intro of ambient cityscape and wild animal noises, as well as the “outro” of the original concert, which ended with the voice of the promoter on the PA advising that “David Bowie has left the building,” both of which can be heard on Strange.

UnknownFinally, this well-traveled soundboard tape made its way into the hands of Tony Visconti for an all-new mix job in 2016. Rebranded after both the song and the title of the documentary, the newly-official Cracked Actor album first appeared as a Record Store Day exclusive release in 2017 (following Bowie’s tragic death), and has since been released separately. Both the film and this album are highly recommended; the former documents Bowie in the worst excesses of his American influence (and cocaine), while the latter captures the hugely-revamped tour, featuring a band and singer-songwriter who were utterly on fire. To put it mildly, it paints quite a different picture than David Live. Together, the two live albums bear witness to Bowie’s latest evolution as an artist, struggling to paint his way out of a corner, and (just a couple of months later!) totally in thrall to his ingenius solution.

Cracked Actor starts off with the aforementioned highly-abridged soundscape that runs for a minute and three-quarters before kicking off with “1984,” which immediately highlights the differences of the two live albums overall: Bowie’s vocal isn’t quite as prominent in the mix this time, but it is still distinct and far more joyful; the backing vocals are the actual live ones, and (as befits the almost all-new backup singers) quite different and more soulful; the guitars are significantly more prominent (and funkier); the drums are nowhere near as muddy; there’s more percussion, and David Sanborn’s sax is more of a team player this time around, though still a prominently-featured element. It’s kind of weird to be able to pick out Vandross singing Bowie lines from Bowie’s back catalogue, and Luther and Ava actually do blend very well.

On “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie sticks to the arrangement heard on David Live, but the main difference is that every element is blended better; we can still hear the drums, and Mike Garson’s keyboards, but neither are as dominant as they were on Live. This moves straight into “Moonage Daydream,” where Cherry stands out more, and Garson and Sanborn aren’t harshly separated to left and right channels the way they were on Live.

The “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” gives Bowie and his backup singers roughly equal volume, and for what it’s worth this time around we get a much better vocal performance from David. You can very much hear the sound of “Young Americans” being re-created in places, and the crowd can be heard in its enthusiasm — it’s very obvious they knew they were watching something special. Garson runs off with the end of the suite and masterfully lands his segue straight into the jazzy style and start of “Changes,” which plays up the alternate jazz and rock-anthem styles. Bowie changes the lyric to “these children that you put chains on,” a better choice than copping out for “spit” rather than the original “shit” he used in Philly. This song in particular has been reworked to be fully cognizant of its live-performance trappings, and exemplifies the revamped tone of the tour — from faux-musical “live movie” to ensemble rock-n-roll show with elements of jazz, cabaret, and even salsa rhythms deployed strategically.

From there we go to “Suffragette City,” which continues the rave-up vibe with some new improved call-and-response stuff, but a strangely-flat “climax” on the “wham bam thank you ma’am” section. Next up is of course “Aladdin Sane,” which again gets a more energetic and Latin-flavoured touch which famously throws in a snatch of the song “On Broadway,” because it becomes obvious in the playing live that it’s the same song — only this one has an Insane Mike Garson Finale™, which then jumps into an a cappella intro and a quick “good evening!” before starting a starkly cabaret-style buildup to the big chorus of “All the Young Dudes,” and indeed this might be the best of Bowie’s many attempts to recapture Mott’s glory in taking this “throwaway song” all the way to the top. It doesn’t quite work, but then none of Bowie’s versions do.

The brief guitar solo on “Cracked Actor” (the song) also really shows off the different feel new kid Carlos Alomar has brought to the party, compared to Earl Slick on the previous leg of the tour. While the set list for Cracked Actor and David Live are identical for the first half of the two albums, the difference sonically is tremendous, not least of which is due to the fact that Actor is, in fact, a completely live record — instead of the hybrid we got (by necessity) from David Live.

Foreshadowing his residence in Europe years later, Bowie employs a faux-Italian (maybe?) cabaret accent to set up the new and slower version of ”Rock n Roll with Me,” an accent he had flirted briefly with a couple of songs earlier. Once the song gets going proper, he abandons the affectation and the rest of the number is done in the new “white soul” style of the forthcoming album, singing around the beats in a manner not dissimilar to what Van Morrison was doing at the time. Bowie had a wide listening list and your humble narrator has little doubt that he was paying at least some attention to the king of Irish soul.

So on to CD2, and this is where we finally get to the “Soul Tour” portion of the rebranded “Diamond/Philly Dogs” tour, courtesy two songs: a cover of Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper’s “Knock on Wood” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” an “original” that shows Bowie had not lost his skills as an adept forger. Here, it appears as a previously-unheard new song and direct tribute to Al Green and the other soul singers Bowie must have studied ahead of recording Young Americans. The latter song was originally planned to be on the album, but got cut until the 1991 Ryko reissue added it back in — as a bonus track.

“Knock on Wood,” which was introduced in Philly for David Live as a “silly” song, really showcases how much Bowie at this point wanted to be a white soul singer. Although he came to execute the concept very successfully, the idea of literally The Palest, Most Fey UK White Guy wanting to remake himself as an RnB singer is still an amusing one.

In some ways, Bowie’s embrace of American funk and soul styles was clearly intended as an homage to the blues and RnB sounds he grew up with that also propelled the creation of rock-n-roll, but in other ways he was just borrowing another genre of music to get him over a creative hump as he had even in his earliest days — the fact that songs from black artists were topping the charts again certainly played a role as well. His version of “Knock” on David Live is rather stilted (hindered even further by the overdubbing that was needed on the horns) and sounds like an “easy” song for him to do halfway through the show, an on-stage “break” from his own, more difficult work. He obviously liked the song enough to sing it during the entire tour, but as with many of his other cover versions, it didn’t quite click.

Somewhere between Philly and LA, Bowie had added another new song to the lineup in “It’s Gonna Be Me,” which continued the voyage into R&B and was also rather undemanding (apart from a few falsetto notes). At over seven minutes, it’s far too long and probably brought the energy he had built up with the playlist thus far way down (though Bowie, as ever, had a plan for bringing the crowd back). Even on Cracked Actor, the number comes off like an indulgent side-trip deep into his latest obsession, a “look, I can write soul songs too!” moment.

As mentioned, it was recorded for, but not ultimately included on, Young Americans. Today, the song (at least the studio version) might easily slot into a “baby-making music“ playlist right alongside Al Green, Barry White, and Marvin Gaye (among others). As Chris O’Leary has noted, it’s no accident that Bowie was the first white solo artist ever invited on to seminal “black dance show” Soul Train.

Digression within the digression: I remember seeing Bowie on that “Soul Train” appearance; even though I was only a youngster, I had become enamoured of the show as an alternate/black-planet version of “American Bandstand,” which aired on ABC directly before it. Like Bowie, I was a lily-white white kid, and at that point I was living in the southern US, where “separate but equal” was still only in the process of fading away, so it made (in the environment I lived in) perfect sense for black people to have their own dance show.

Even back then, I preferred the music, the costumes, the hair, and the vastly-better dancers on “Soul Train” over the less-enthusiastic crowd on the 70s version of “Bandstand,” and I like to think Bowie did too. Even as a kid, I recognised the analogy of deadpan white-church hymn singing compared to the full-throated African-American gospel singing I had already witnessed in my young life,now being expressed through dance on my TV.

Bowie of course had loved prominent blues, R&B, and rock-n-roll black performers long before now, and worked with black musicians and vocalists prior to Young Americans, but perhaps seeing the huge black population of the US with his own eyes, getting involved with a black girlfriend (Cherry), and discovering shows like “Soul Train” on his tours of the US clearly grew his interest in current R&B and soul music during this period. In another stroke of fortuitous timing, his growing interest in African-American culture was mirroring my own (just as his embrace of androgyny had landed just as I was exploring my own budding sexuality).

Some might say Bowie’s attempt at inventing of “white soul” was just cultural appropriation that served little purpose beyond helping him reinvent himself, and any genuine interest he had in the culture and music that begat the styles coming to prominence in the mid–70s was no more of a factor than the idea that it simply be an inspiration for a direction that would get him out from under Ziggy’s shadow, even as he was rapidly succumbing to every future “rock star” cliche. I think it was a bit less cynical and a bit more organic than that, but as with the other side, I can’t prove it conclusively. Anyway, back to the show.

Regular programming for a Bowie concert resumed from here until almost the very end with a selection of fan-loved songs, the arrangements had altered on most of them, and they were definitely taking on a more soulful flair — more fully using the band and new vocalists. This final act of sure-fire hits started off with “Space Oddity,” and here Visconti left the wireless mic Bowie was using sounding like an inferior wireless mic, whereas on Live he tried valiantly (and mostly succeeded) in repairing the deficiencies of the gimmick. Bowie in turn delivers a more sonorous performance than he had in Philly, though given how much fun he appeared to be having during the rest of the how, I suspect it was him taking the piss out of his big hit.

While not meaning to harp on the point, a great comparison between Cracked Actor and David Live (and likewise the Philly and LA versions of the show) would be to play the two versions of “Diamond Dogs.” The Live version sounds positively dead by comparison: slower, more stiff and bloodlessly executed; all marks duly hit, but suffering from inexplicably underwater-sounding background vocals (perhaps a glimpse into why the other background vocals and horns had to be re-dubbed later?).

The LA version is far more lively, involves more (proper-sounding) background vocals, ups the tempo, and is much more a living beast that sounds way better to listen to — and that sentiment goes for the two records generally. To be fair, the elaborate staging and prop movement used in the first leg may have played a role in the way the songs were performed, and the jettisoning of most of those elements may have dovetailed with Bowie’s desire for livelier arrangements. It’s also fair to say that his new and retained band members were clearly making this more fun for Bowie by the time LA rolled around, and he in turn was audibly having more fun with it, despite the fact that the audience seems more enraptured on Live than the muted response heard on Actor.

On the latter album, “Diamond Dogs” is introduced with the taped “Future Legend” intro, while Bowie dropped “Panic in Detroit” (which followed “Dogs” in Philly), instead going straight into “Big Brother.” The different arrangement gives Sanborn on sax a better chance to wail, and the song ends with a taped version of the “bruh” record skip when then serves as a transition to Mike Garson’s intro to “Time.” I do believe there is exactly enough time between the departure of the lead vocal in “Brother” to the point where he has to be onstage to kick off the lyric to “Time” for Bowie to have a quick cigarette, as was his wont for decades. He certainly offers a more relaxed vocal on this version, though there’s no longer a short-and-bomkers Garson break as there was on the David Live version. Alomar infuses more of his own guitar style into the piece, adding to the less-formal feel of the thing.

A short accented vocal intro from Bowie gets added to the cabaret-styled verse for “Jean Genie,” which like the Philly version busts out the rock stuff only for the choruses. Having already oddly declared “this ain’t rock-n-roll … this is genocide” at the start of “Diamond Dogs,” (…oops…) the actual “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” opens with a simple, gentle piano intro before delivering the building, intensifying and emotional rock anthem Bowie was always so good at, this time in a bit of a different arrangement than was used in Philly, but just as effective (despite the dropped “wonderful” chorus). As with Philly, the regular show ended there, but instead of “Panic,” Bowie encored by introducing the band, and then finished the night with his latest effort, the distinctly post-Spiders but pre-disco version of “John I’m Only Dancing,” now known as “John, I’m only Dancing (Again).” You can really detect the hand (and voice) of a young Luther Vandross in the arrangement.

“John” had been released back in September of ’72 as a non-album single following his success with “Starman,” and it reached #12 in the charts in the UK (it wasn‘t released in the US due to Bowie’s famous “I’m gay and always have been” interview). That notorious talk was retracted by Bowie in the early 80s, once conservatism regained power in the UK and US. As O’Leary notes, history shows that while it is almost certain that Bowie had a number of homosexual and pansexual experiences early in life, nearly all of his notable long-term relationships (Iggy aside) were with women, despite obvious associations with the gay community well before fame came calling. His “coming out” has often been derided as a cheap publicity stunt, and perhaps that’s all it was — but it meant the world to actual gay people, and he had the street cred (thanks to pals like Freddie Buretti) to carry it off.

Sensing a sea change in gay liberation and acceptance, he sided with the underdogs, a calculated risk that earned him as many fans (or more) than it may have lost him — and a lot of teenagers (of both sexes) who were fans of his started having to ask themselves some tough questions about masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and where exactly they fell on this recently-invented spectrum. Since he was obviously married to Angie at the time, a lot of fans came to the conclusion that he was actually bisexual (and that’s probably correct, at least in that time frame) — which again created what we might now call a safe space to identify that way, dress like him, act like him. I doubt he had given much thought to the impact he was already having on young people around the globe when it came to blurring the lines of sexuality — but for some, his charm, flamboyancy, and talent combined to transcend some deep societal assumptions, and put everything their young minds thought they knew back into question.


Bowie invented crowdsurfing?!

Casual revelations aside, “John” had originally been recorded with the Spiders From Mars (complete with Bowie’s first proper “music film” by Mick Rock to promote the single), and was widely interpreted as a song about a gay man reassuring his partner that the female he was dancing with was no threat. There was a guest violinist on the track, and according to Nick Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, handclaps were done by the Spiders and some members of The Faces who happened to have arrived at the studio. A second version (referred to as the “Sax” version) was recorded in early 1973 for possible inclusion on Aladdin Sane, and actually rocked better in my opinion. It of course dispensed with violin in favour of saxophone, courtesy Ken Fordham (not Bowie himself, oddly).

For some reason, the single from ’72 was reissued in ’73 with the “Sax” version being the only difference, and again ended up being a non-LP track when Bowie opted to leave it off the album (it would have been the final track). The “Sax” version turned up on some copies of the original ChangesOneBowie, but most have the ’72 original. The ’73 take finally found a home on two later hits compilations and (of course) the 30th Anniversary version of Aladdin Sane. The version created during the Young Americans sessions (from where the Cracked Actor version comes to us) also did not make the actual cut of the resulting album. A 1979 remix of the discarded 1972 Spiders version was issued as a single, and later included as a bonus cut on the 1990 Ziggy remaster, and the Young Americans “Soul” version was later rightfully added to Young Americans for its 1991 and 2007 reissues.

While Cracked Actor was not officially released by Bowie himself, it now counts as an official Bowie live album, having been issued on Parlophone in 2017. It is an invaluable “companion album” to David Live, and really shows Bowie becoming a far more commanding singer; much more willing to play with the material to make it work better in a live setting, and use a greater range of tone and style to infuse more variety into the performances. With apologies to Trevor, the word we want here to distinguish this album is bolder.

The version of Bowie we hear on David Live is of someone focusing on telling a story or creating a mood while also singing, much like a Broadway performer; the Bowie we get on Cracked Actor is a singer making sure his songs are killing the audience with pleasure. It’s a huge difference that goes well beyond the various musical alterations. Though it only came out recently, Cracked Actor is a portrait in time of 1974 and America as seen through Bowie’s eyes, and an invaluable way to contrast and compare the two legs of the Diamond Dogs tour (not to mention where Bowie’s head was at before and after recording Young Americans). Thanks in large part to Tony Visconti, both albums — the incompetently-recorded “pro” concerts and the soundboard bootleg — emerge as must-have historical documents of a particularly busy year of ch-ch-ch-changes (ooh, I’m gonna lose points for that).

About chasinvictoria

Writer/Editor, Comic Performer, Doctor Who fan, radio DJ, Punk/New Wave/Ska fiend, podcaster, audio editor, film buff, actor, producer, leftie (literally and figuratively), comedian, blogger, teacher, smartarse, and motormouth. Not necessarily in that order.

3 responses to “But I Digress #2: Cracked Actor (1974/2017)

  1. In your penetrating analysis [I also prefer “Cracked Actor”] you omitted the elephant in the room of “David Live:” the surreptitious [in theory] recording of the earlier Philadelphia show was noticed by the band. All of that extra miking went beyond the call of simple live performance. Mainman was going to record the show for an album release but only paid the band scale for a recording session. Needless to say, the band staged a wildcat strike and Bowie had to cross their palms with silver from his own pocket for the concert to even take place, much less be fantastic. Needless to say, the duplicity of the management move served as a supreme buzzkill for “David Live.” And Visconti’s head was not in the best of places for his part in mixing it either. Hence his 2nd pass at that one in recent years.

  2. Pingback: But I Digress #3: I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74) | The Chasbah

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