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David Mallet
David Bowie

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
English PCM Stereo
Not Closed-captioned

Runtime: 105 min.
Price: $39.98
Release Date: 7/31/2007

• Gallery
• 2-CD Complete Montreal Concert
• Booklet

Search Titles:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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David Bowie: Glass Spider (Special Edition) (1987)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 24, 2007)

20 years after the fact, David Bowie’s 1987 “Glass Spider” tour remains something of a punchline within the industry. The show long ago became noted for its excess, as it many felt it offered flash over substance. Bowie must be glad U2 staged their much-ridiculed “PopMart” tour in 1997, for at least it took some of the pressure off of him.

Although most regard it as common fact that “Glass Spider” and “PopMart” sucked, please allow a dissenting opinion. I won’t provide a defense of “PopMart” in this space – that’ll have to wait for its DVD release, if that ever happens – but suffice it to say I thought the critics totally missed the point.

As for “Glass Spider”, I can’t quibble too much with some of the arguments against it. At worst, the show seemed overblown and silly. The stage was fairly nonsensical, and the goofy dancers openly detracted from the experience much of the time. Even the artist himself appears less than enchanted with the program now.

But still, it’s Bowie. On his weakest night, he still tops 99 percent of all other performers. In my ever-so-humble opinion, no one can touch Bowie on stage; he’s the one against whom all others are measured. When he’s off-kilter, he’s still interesting, but when he’s on, it doesn’t get any better.

Despite the lame trappings of the stage and the dancers, Bowie remained on during much of “Glass Spider”, and that factor alone made it work. Admittedly, I have more than a little sentimental attachment to the show, so I can’t state that I’m terribly objective toward it. I was a Bowie fan before I saw “Glass Spider” in 1987, but I liked the show so much that it set me down the path to super-fandom. I took in four of those concerts and have subsequently seen Bowie live on an additional 68 occasions, with another four to come soon.

”Glass Spider” simply opened my interest in Bowie to a new degree. Over the next couple of years I got more and more interested in his music. By 1989, Bowie was clearly my absolute favorite musician. That spot had changed periodically during the prior years. It went from the Beatles to the Stones to the Kinks to Springsteen. However, once the honor landed on Bowie, he never let it go; 20 years later, Bowie remains The Man.

Would this have occurred had I not seen “Glass Spider”? Perhaps, but it still seems clear that the concert had a strong impact on me. As such, I’ll always maintain a fond spot in my heart toward it.

But does that mean it’ll entertain anyone today? Actually, yeah, it does. I hadn’t watched the Glass Spider video in a few years, and honestly, I feared I might not think much of it anymore. I knew I’d still like much of the music, but I thought I’d lose patience with the sillier aspects.

While the show remains moderately incoherent, Bowie’s magnetism still is strong enough to carry the day. The man’s a total marvel as he effortlessly takes control of the stage. Few singers seem as “at home” up there. Bowie looks like he was born under the spotlights, and his presence easily makes up for the absurdity of the staging.

Clearly a “concept” piece, in its recorded incarnation, Spider makes little sense. That happens for a couple of reasons. For one, the performance came from the end of the tour. Very early on, Bowie dropped a few numbers that made its “rock stars vs. reality” theme more explicit. Some elements of that remained, but they failed to appear coherent. Granted, they probably never were very understandable, but they omission of those numbers obscured the point even more.

In addition, the video incarnation of Spider cut a few songs from the original November 1987 concert. We lost “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, “All the Madmen”, “Big Brother”, “’87 and Cry”, “Beat of Your Drum”, and “Time Will Crawl”. The last two weren’t missed terribly. “Beat” is a pretty weak tune, and while I like “Crawl”, the number stood alone in the show, so it could be excised without much notice or harm.

However, the other four omissions came at a higher price. “Monsters” and “Madmen” showed up between “Fashion” and “Never Let Me Down”, while “Brother” and “Cry” matched together between “Never Let Me Down” and “’Heroes’”. They fit into more of the conceptual part of the show and left a hole when they were cut. They also happened to all work really well live. I believe these edits occurred to ensure the concert would fit onto a standard videotape back in the Eighties, but I still intensely dislike them. Actually, that argument makes little sense. The program runs only 105 minutes, which left some time on a two-hour tape for at least two or three of these songs; I see no reason why all six got the boot.

Nonetheless, even without those tunes, I continue to enjoy Spider. Probably the concert’s greatest weakness stemmed from its high reliance on numbers from Never Let Me Down, Bowie’s then-current – and much-reviled – album. The omission of “Cry”, “Beat” and “Crawl” reduces the amount of Down heard on the DVD, but its presence remained moderately heavy. We still got four tracks from the record: “Glass Spider”, “Day-In, Day-Out”, “Bang Bang”, and “Never Let Me Down”. Given that other peers like the Stones and McCartney usually perform only a handful of new tracks during their shows, the level at which Bowie emphasized Never Let Me Down in 1987 seems remarkable.

Amazingly, as originally conceived, the concert included a whopping 10 tracks from the album; the preliminary show omitted only “Too Dizzy”, a number Bowie hates so much that he insisted it be left off of a Nineties reissue of the album! Considering that the original conception left off “Rebel Rebel” and “Young Americans” – two tunes Bowie openly disdains – the preliminary concert included only a handful of the man’s big numbers. Say what you want about Bowie’s Eighties output, but anyone who planned to go into stadiums – the ultimate lowest-common-denominator setting – with such an obscure setlist deserves some credit.

Given the dodgy quality of so much of Never Let Me Down, the lighter balance of tunes found on this DVD probably achieves a superior balance. This doesn’t mean that I endorse the program’s editing; it simply reflects that Bowie went overboard with tracks from that album during the actual show. Still, I prefer to see him take some chances rather than play it safe with just the tried-and-true oldies.

Actually, the 1987 strongly favored material from that decade. Although Bowie created most of his better-regarded tunes in the Seventies, the show included 15 tracks from the Eighties. In addition to the seven Never Let Me Down numbers, we got the single “Absolute Beginners” from 1986, “Loving the Alien” and “Blue Jean” from 1984’s Tonight, “Let’s Dance”, “China Girl” and “Modern Love” from 1983’s smash hit Let’s Dance, and “Fashion” and the title tune from 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

That left little room for older material. Notably, Bowie ejected staples like “Space Oddity”, “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust”. Indeed, he played nothing from 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, his break-through release. The show’s oldest track was “All the Madmen” from 1970’s underrated The Man Who Sold the World. Fellow obscurity “Big Brother” and hit “Rebel Rebel” came from 1974’s Diamond Dogs, while “Sons of the Silent Age” emanated from 1977’s ”Heroes”, as did that album’s title track.

After this we found a few oldies, most that were hits. “The Jean Genie” and “Time” came from 1973’s Aladdin Sane, while we got both “Fame” and the title track off of 1975’s Young Americans. Absolutely nothing appeared from 1969’s Space Oddity, 1971’s Hunky Dory, 1972’s Ziggy, 1977’s Low, and 1979’s Lodger. Bowie offered a career-spanning show in 1983 on the Serious Moonlight tour; during that outing, he played songs from every album except The Man Who Sold the World. Obviously, he cared less for such a broad overview in 1987.

During that tour, Bowie also tossed out some cover renditions. He played the Velvet Underground’s “White Light, White Heat” billions of times over the years; honestly, I think he’s performed it more frequently than any of his own tunes. It appears here – as it did sporadically throughout the tour – and is joined by another cover of a track from one of his influences: Iggy and the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”.

Again, while one can quibble with the staging and execution of the 1987 tour, one must give Bowie credit for going out on a limb in regard to his song choices. He’d do so again in 1995 when he went out with Nine Inch Nails as his opening act. Though the shows were generally good, Bowie got his head handed to him. The crowds mainly included NIN fans who weren’t in the mood for that tour’s mix of new material and obscure oldies. With nary a hit in sight, Bowie faced some of the least enthusiastic reactions ever.

Audience fervor wasn’t a problem in the go-go Eighties, though. Even without the hits, crowds seemed to embrace the Glass Spider show. As I already mentioned, I definitely enjoyed it very much, and though it pales in comparison with some of Bowie’s better tours, it remains a sentimental favorite. For all its faults, Glass Spider still presents high-quality Bowie, and that’s good enough for me.

The DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio D+ (Dolby) D (DTS)/ Bonus B

David Bowie Glass Spider appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though this wasn’t a stellar visual experience, it looked about as good as I could expect from a 20-year-old videotaped concert.

For the most part, sharpness looked pretty good, though the source material created concerns. Many objects featured a distinct glow around them. Some of this seemed to result from the lighting, but it appeared a little severe to discount totally based on that factor; moderate haloes could be seen at times. As shot, the show had an overblown look to it that has always been there; for better or for worse, that’s the way this show looks.

At least the image managed reasonably solid delineation, as most shots appeared fairly clear and concise. No problems with shimmering or jaggies occurred, and source issues were absent. Video artifacting was minimal at worst, and the transfer usually kept things clean and smooth.

As for the colors, they were adequate. The overblown look to things meant that the hues could be a bit flat, but they showed acceptable definition. Though I’d have liked for them to be brighter and richer, they were decent and never too problematic. Blacks also seemed a little flat but weren’t bad, and low-light situations offered passable clarity. Make no mistake: this wasn’t a great visual presentation. But when I considered its age and origins, I thought it was at least good enough for a “B-“.

In terms of audio, Glass Spider featured both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks. Though I expected them to be very similar, they showed some notable differences. I’ll discuss the Dolby mix first and then relate the changes for the DTS track.

As one expects of a concert presentation, the soundfield maintained a fairly heavy forward bias. Vocals stayed pretty firmly anchored in the center, while the instruments… well, the instruments lacked great stereo delineation. Honestly, I couldn’t detect any distinct localization of the various elements, as I couldn’t pick out instruments in particular spots. Instead, all of those elements spread across the front in a nondescript way.

It turned out there was a good reason for the lack of stereo imaging: the mix largely omitted information that would’ve come from the right. This meant that at times, we essentially lost aspects of the mix. Take a listen to the dueling guitar solos of “The Jean Genie”, for instance. We hear Carlos Alomar loud and clear, but when Peter Frampton came to the fore, we could barely make out his solos. Similar distractions occurred elsewhere, such as at the start of “China Girl”.

Even when we did hear Frampton, he remained buried in the mix. Listen to the solo in “Let’s Dance”, for example. While Frampton wailed away, Alomar’s rhythm work remained much more prominent in the mix. And it wasn’t just Frampton who got screwed. Go to the start of “Time” and notice how faint the piano intro sounds. The entire mix was totally off-balance. What happened here? I don’t know, but it made this DVD severely flawed.

Surround usage mainly restricted itself to general reverberation. They added some general crowd noise but not much else beyond that. The back speakers neither added to nor detracted from the experience.

Audio quality seemed good. Vocals sounded reasonably distinct and accurate for the most part. This was a stadium concert, so one has to expect a distant quality to the some of the singing, and the disc replicated that well without becoming too detached. Instruments appeared fairly clear and well defined. Bass response seemed particularly solid. Carmine Rojas’ bass guitar playing fared particularly well, as those elements were deep and rich but still natural. The low-end spectrum impressed me, as it avoided excessive boominess or heaviness. While I liked the quality of the audio much of the time, the issues with the stereo imaging left this one as a “D+” track, and that might be generous.

As for the DTS mix, it sounded a lot like the Dolby audio except in one area: bass response. While the Dolby version offered pretty good low-end, the DTS one skimped on that element. I wouldn’t call it devoid of bass material, but it failed to add provide much depth. That meant I knocked down my grade to a “D” for the DTS audio. It had all the same problems with the soundfield, as did the nondescript PCM stereo track.

I previously reviewed an import DVD of Glass Spider. I thought it was decent but assumed that this official release would prove more satisfying. In terms of visuals, it was. This 2007 DVD offered definite improvements in terms of picture quality, as it seemed tighter across the board.

However, the old DVD boasted superior audio. Unfortunately, I don’t have the import disc anymore, so I couldn’t directly compare the two. Based on my comments in the earlier review, though, it was obvious that the import presented better stereo imaging. I thought the two were pretty similar in terms of audio quality but the import spread out the music in a more satisfying manner. Since this one botched that side of things and nearly omitted info that would have come from the right side, this didn’t surprise me.

What does this mean? Each version offered half of a good DVD. While the 2007 edition looked better, the audio was much worse. This meant that the import offered the superior release. I’d rather have flawed but watchable audio along with good sound instead of decent picture accompanied by severely compromised audio.

In terms of extras, almost nothing appears on the DVD itself. All we find is a Gallery that presents 29 photos. Most of these show parts of the concert, but we also get some publicity images and a few backstage peeks. It’s a nice little collection.

For this Special Edition version of Glass Spider, a big bonus comes via a 2-CD concert. Recorded in at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on August 30, 1987, this gives us a complete “Glass Spider” show. That means 25 songs instead of the 21 found on the DVD. (The Australian show included two songs not played in Montreal: “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “White Light, White Heat”.) It’s the only way we can hear the six songs dropped from the DVD, which makes it valuable.

As an audio presentation, “Glass Spider” loses something compared to its visual incarnation. For all its silly, dated elements, the concert still boasts many impressive stage sequences. Without those the show becomes a bit less appealing. Oh, it offers some good music; it’s not all flash and no substance. However, it’s not as impressive when we omit the visuals from the occasion.

Nonetheless, most fans will be happy to find an audio representation of a full “Glass Spider” show. I admit I’m a little torn about the inclusion of these CDs, but that’s for my own selfish reasons. This same Montreal concert was broadcast as a King Biscuit presentation back in 1987. The folks at KB sent it to radio stations as a four CD set, and back in 1989, I managed to buy one of these promotional releases for the still kingly sum of about $380. It’s been my rarest, most valuable CD possession ever since then, but I assume it’ll take a major hit in collectibility now that any dope can buy the same full concert for $40 or less. But that’s just the bitterness talking! Objectively, it’s cool that the full show can be found so easily.

The package also includes a four-page booklet. It offers a couple photos and some basic information but doesn’t add much to the set.

One disappointment: the omission of any bonus video material. After 20 years, it’d be nice to see the six songs cut from the main presentation. I don’t expect them to be restored to the concert itself, but at least give them to us in a supplements area. Maybe we’ll have to wait for the show’s 40th anniversary to see those numbers.

To be sure, the concert depicted on Glass Spider maintains a positive spot in my heart. The show helped initiate me into the wonders of David Bowie, and for that I remain eternally grateful. However, the tour in question also inspires a lot of derision from a variety of folks. It doesn’t merit all of this criticism, but some of it hits the mark.

Still, flawed Bowie is better than the best offered by most folks, so I still find a lot to like about Glass Spider. As for the DVD, picture quality seems relatively good given the source material, while the extras benefit mainly from the inclusion of a full concert spread onto two CDs. Unfortunately, the DVD bungles the audio; it essentially drops the information from the right side of the spectrum and simply spread the left half’s material across the front speakers. It doesn’t work well, and it leaves this as a severely flawed DVD.

Note that in addition to this package, you can buy Glass Spider in a basic DVD edition as well. It’s the same disc I reviewed here; the set simply drops the two CDs. It retails for about $12 less. I would avoid it like the plague – at least unless/until the Powers That Be correct the audio on the DVD. The bonus CDs are really the only reason I can encourage anyone to buy this set. It messes up the audio to such a significant degree that it renders the DVD portion essentially useless unless you don’t care about an appropriate mix. For fans, this set is worth the $40 just to get the CDs, but the DVD is too messed up to deserve your attention.

To rate this film, visit the original review of DAVID BOWIE: GLASS SPIDER

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main