Review Summary: Cocaine's a hell of a drug...
I find David Bowie to be a very hit or miss musician. Opposite the spectrum of Ziggy, Station, and Low you have "The Laughing Gnome," Pin Ups, Tin Machine… and this.
This album's gotten good reviews on Amazon and a few other sites, but I find it pretty awful. It might just be the worst 15 bucks I've ever spent on an album, and that's coming from someone who bought the deluxe edition of St. Anger. Even members of the band have trashed the performance on David Live as stilted and uncomfortable sounding. Apparently, there was some kind of mutiny in Bowie's band backstage and the tension really shows. There were also a lot of technical difficulties, and the backing vocals had to be redone in a studio; the overall mix is thin and distorted sounding, despite producer Tony Visconti's best efforts.
The record is ruined not by the production however, but by David himself. His vocals are strained sounding, and his arrangements obsessive and overwrought. Once straightforward rock songs like "Jean Genie" and "Rebel Rebel" are bogged down by ornate keyboard playing, vocal harmonies, and horn arrangements. Songs like "Suffragette City" and "Moonage Daydream" run minutes beyond their studio versions, not due to added or extended sections but unbearably slow tempos. "All The Young Dudes" barely resembles its original form, and not for the better. Earl Slick's guitar playing is downright wimpy compared to Mick Ronson's, and the most unwelcome presence of all is saxophone player David Sanborn, who ruins each track with his proto-Kenny G noodling. I will concede that Sanborn is a talented player, just out-of-place on this record. In fact, everyone involved in this record was very talented- Michael Kamen, Herbie Flowers, Mike Garson, Bowie himself- just remember that the finest ingredients don't always make for a good meal. Execution is everything.
The overall problem with David Live is that it found Bowie at an awkward transition between his glam rock and plastic soul periods. His soul persona was very embryonic, but Ziggy wasn't quite dead yet either, leaving Bowie stuck in the middle and playing an contrived blend of both genres. His "all-white diet" of cocaine and milk certainly didn't help either. Of his gaunt appearance on the cover, David had this to say: My God, it looks like I’ve just stepped out of the grave. That’s actually how I felt. That record should have been called 'David Bowie Is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory'".
Indeed, these were dark times for Bowie. He thought England needed a fascist dictatorship, witches were out to get his semen, and that Jimmy Page had brought poltergeists into his home. His antics on the Diamond Dogs tour are rather ludicrous in hindsight, and actually forced him into bankruptcy. Most shows (including the one recorded on this album) would begin with David singing in a massive, diamond-encrusted hand which gradually opened to reveal him sitting in a Lotus Position. "Space Oddity" was sung from a giant cherry picker, and "Sweet Thing" was sung atop a mock drawbridge which descended as the song progressed. Other songs incorporated mime, and props such as boxing gloves, Noh masks, and a human skull, ala Hamlet.
If you are a Bowie fan, please do not get this record. It's a glimpse into a very tragic period of his life, and not in a good way like Station To Station or Low. If you're looking for "David Live," you won't find it here.