Complaining that David Bowie’s shows are overly theatrical is a bit like complaining that Bob Dylan’s voice is too raspy: that’s sort of the point. That being said, even Sir Stardust can turn over-the-top into silly, and Exhibit A is his 1978 live album, Stage, released on CD for the second time by EMI, in connection with a reissue of 1974’s David Live. The album features tracks from several of Bowie’s mid-‘70s LPs (Young Americans, Station to Station, Low, and Heroes) in addition to some Ziggy Stardust material. It’s a solid, though not spectacular, mix of songs. But even the best of them are generally ruined by synthetic production and disco-fied instrumentation that in 1978 must have proved too hard to resist.
The album has undergone some notable changes since it last appeared as a Rykodisc release in 1992. The mostly chronological ordering of that version has been shuffled on this EMI reissue (life is random), and we get two extra tracks as well, a mixed blessing. “Stay,” from 1976’s Station to Station, was probably a revelation for the poppers-addled audience, but today it sounds more like the theme song for an overheated ‘70s cops show, all chipper brushwork on the symbols and sleazy funk bass lines. The other addition, “Be My Wife” from 1977’s Low, clearly loves its dramatic tom-toms and disco beats, but it represents one of the few cases on the album when it works to let Bowie be his crazy Bowie self. A piercing, Zeppelin-like guitar riff gives the song an honest urgency that’s absent on most of these tracks, and the performer basks in its glow, incanting the spookiest marriage-proposal tune in memory.
The energy of that guitar line is all the more noticeable because so much of the album is dominated by plastic orchestration, string-and-synth saccharine that even Bowie can’t pull off. Whereas David Live benefited from the axe-work of Earl Slick (itself a step down from the inspired studio playing of Mick Ronson on Ziggy Stardust), Stage’s Carlos Alomar and Adrian Belew tend to get stuck on zippy funk tricks that provide only a mirage of support for their frontman’s best songs.
At his best, Bowie sounds like he’s concurrently defining the zeitgeist and heralding its grand exit; he produces nostalgia for a 1970s of his own design. Nowhere is this truer than on “Heroes,” his glorious and tragic anthem. However, the Stage version is a mere glossy image of itself, with slick production, cluttered effects and a boppy bass line that’s borderline heretical.
In the end, the generic title of the record is apt. This set functions less on substance than archetype. Stage sounds more like a theatrical reenactment of “over-the-top ‘70s rock show” than the genuinely bizarre Bowie we know and love.