David Bowie: Serious Moonlight

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: David Bowie: Serious Moonlight (1983)
Studio Line: Pioneer

Taped live during the 1983 Serious Moonlight Tour that shattered box office records in every city, David Bowie gives one of the most dramatic and charismatic live performances of his career. The Serious Moonlight Tour has been called the most important rock event in the history of the music genre, and his Vancouver show was designed specifically to ensure that the live excitement was captured on tape. Includes: Let's Dance, China Girl, Heroes, Rebel Rebel, Young Americans, Space Oddity, Golden Years.

Director: David Mallet
Cast: David Bowie
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Stereo; subtitles none; single sided - single layered; 20 chapters; rated NR; 87 min.; $24.98; street date 3/2/99.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/B-/F

kay, I'm not even going to feign any sort of objectivity as far as the quality of this program goes. I'm about as serious a devotee of Bowie as they come; over the last fifteen years, I've seen him live 50 times and I've amassed a collection of CDs, records and videos that includes nearly 200 different items. I think I can be objective about Bowie, but not about the Serious Moonlight video, simply because it's the program that really got me interested in his work.

Back in 1983, Bowie embarked on his Serious Moonlight Tour (hereafter referred to as SMT) in support of the then-current and extremely popular "Let's Dance" album (the title of the tour was taken from a line in that album's title song). This was his first trek in five years, and it did smashingly well.

Also back in 1983, I was 16 and I had just started to attend rock concerts over the previous year or so. I never much cared for Bowie, but I got a bit caught up in the hype; it sounded like an interesting show, so I decided to go. At the time, I thought it was a decent performance, but nothing mind-blowing.

During the summer of 1984, the concert video - taken from an HBO broadcast - came out and I picked up a copy. Boy, did I like that tape! I watched it repeatedly and really liked what I heard and saw. I soon developed an interest in Bowie's work and the rest, as they say, is history. For the past decade or so, Bowie has definitively been The Man to me, and that attitude doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.

As such, you can probably understand why it may be difficult for me to critique the SMT video objectively. Had I not gotten that tape, would I still have come to embrace Bowie's music? Probably, but who knows? As it stands, I feel I owe the program a debt of gratitude because it started me on a musical course that has meant so much to me over the last fifteen years.

Among die-hard Bowie fans, very little warm regard for his work during the 1980s exists. This was his period of greatest financial success with hits like "China Girl" and "Blue Jean," but most Bowie fans see it as the era in which he produced his weakest material. Truth to tell, they're right. Bowie's three mid-'80s albums - "Let's Dance," "Tonight," and "Never Let Me Down" - include some of his lesser songs and they marked a period in which Bowie clearly got caught up in the business of being a "pop star"; he has often acknowledged that in his remarks that indicate he now feels he had really lost his way during that time.

I feel that "Let's Dance" and its successors inspire much too much knee-jerk negativity from the serious Bowie-philes. No, none of those albums would accompany me to the proverbial desert island, but in truth, they simply aren't that bad. Many of the songs are fairly insubstantial fluff, but that's really only in comparison to Bowie's other work; compared to the vast majority of the music popular at the time, these albums come across in a much better light.

Also, it should not be forgotten just how many converts Bowie's 1980s popular success brought to the table. Like the experiences Prince and Springsteen had with "Purple Rain" and "Born in the USA," respectively, a ton of new folks jumped on their trains. Most of them got off at the first station, but some people - people who might never otherwise have developed any interest in those artists - stuck around and continue to ride those trains. "Let's Dance" and the SMT may have brought me on board, but more substantial work like "Scary Monsters" and "Earthling" has kept me there.

As such, the SMT video serves as a pretty nice primer of the Bowie songbook. Although the DVD's sleeve touts itself as Bowie's "first full-length concert on DVD," that's not even close to being true. No unedited Bowie concert has ever been available on video. 1987's "Glass Spider Tour" video and the 1983 release of "Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture" (from a 1973 concert) both featured shows from which some songs had been removed. In fact, the only way a complete Bowie show has been semi-readily available on video was if you obtained a copy of 1997's "Bowie Birthday Bash" pay-per-view special.

The only Bowie concert video that came out prior to the March, 1999 release of SMT was the "Ziggy" program. Not only does the SMT DVD not include Bowie's first "full length concert on DVD," but the "Ziggy" DVD came closer to featuring the entire show; of the 19 songs performed, only two - "Round and Round" and "The Jean Genie" don't appear on the DVD. (Allegedly they were taken from the film because Jeff Beck - who guests on those two songs - objected to their inclusion because in retrospect, he didn't like the pants he wore that night!)

The SMT video includes a substantial portion of that concert - 20 songs in all - but five songs are omitted from this September, 1983 performance in Vancouver: "TVC 15", "Stay", "The Jean Genie", "Star," and "Modern Love." Plus, the version of "Station to Station" included here mainly lacks the song's intro; when we first hear it, the band's already been playing for about three minutes. For the record, it should be noted that contrary to popular belief, this DVD does NOT feature the same concert as the oft-broadcast radio show from the SMT; that performance came from a Montreal stop two months prior to this occasion.

(One other correction of popular belief: although Stevie Ray Vaughn played on the "Let's Dance" album and indeed rehearsed with the band to go on the SMT , he never made it to the stage for any public performances. SRV bailed on the SMT before it actually hit the road and was quickly replaced by "Station to Station" tour veteran Earl Slick. Recordings of SRV's rehearsals are pretty readily available as bootlegs, but no actual tour dates include his work.)

The SMT video also includes editing in the form of quick cuts between songs. By that I mean that almost any form of stage banter or between song pauses are gone; it pretty much just jumps from tune to tune without the usual respite. I don't mind this as much as I miss the omitted songs, but I'd rather have seen the concert progress at a natural rate.

As far as the performance itself goes, it's not one of Bowie's best, but it remains very effective and entertaining. I believe that Bowie is bar none the greatest live performer ever. I've seen many different acts, and while a lot of them are good, no one can touch Bowie. The man simply looks more at home on stage than anyone else, and he acts like the master of that particular domain. People ask me how I can remain entertained by him after attending 50 shows; the answer is that Bowie always find fascinating and compelling ways to make each show unique. His incredibly high level of stage charisma clearly shines through on the SMT video. Bowie knows exactly how to combine theatricality and personality to make his shows the best that they can be.

Ironically, although many disparage the SMT video because of its "Let's Dance"-era origins, little of that album pops up during the show. Of the 21 songs included on the DVD, only three of them ("Let's Dance," "China Girl," and "Cat People") are from that much reviled album. The remainder of the program includes fifty percent older hits such as "Fame," "Rebel Rebel," and "Space Oddity" and fifty percent more obscure fan favorites like "What in the World," "Scary Monsters," and "Cracked Actor."

Yes, I continue to really miss "Stay" and "TVC 15," both of which worked incredibly well in their SMT incarnations, but I find that this video provides a pretty good balance between the obvious hits and the less known tracks. It definitely helps that many of these versions form what I consider to be the definitive renditions of these songs. "Life of Mars?", "What In the World," "Fame," "Young Americans," "Ashes to Ashes," "White Light, White Heat" - these are just a few of the songs that I think sound better here than they ever did before or since. And I think I am actually being objective about that; enough songs can be found in better versions elsewhere ("Look Back in Anger," "Station to Station," "space Oddity") that I don't think it's just my clear affection for this program that influences my view. Plain and simple, Bowie had a solid band on the 1983 tour and they produced some truly fantastic versions of some great songs.

Objectively or subjectively, I really think that the SMT video provides the best video document of Bowie's stage prowess that is commercially available. This DVD release marks the first time it's been in print for quite some time. While the videotape wasn't hard to find, the ancient laserdisc was. It was already out of print when I bought my copy in 1991! Not that it was worth a substantial search; as much as I love the program itself, the SMT laserdisc was lousy. It offered a very soft picture and audio that sounded like it had been taken from a stereo - not hi-fi, but just STEREO VHS - tape.

The DVD:

When I heard that Pioneer Artists was going to reissue the "SMT" video on DVD, I cautiously got my hopes up that it would finally reproduce this fantastic program in the style that it deserves. So how does it fare? Better, but not terrifically.

The DVD maintains a pretty soft picture that's not much sharper than that of the LD. It's definitely an improvement, as side-by-side comparisons indicated, but it's just not much of an improvement; if I hadn't flipped between the two, I doubt I would have noticed any difference at all. I'm starting to suspect that the softness and haziness of the image is due to the source material. After all, this IS a nearly sixteen year old HBO broadcast we're talking about here. Still, I also suspect that the picture could have been improved with a little work. Anyway, it's not especially good-looking, but it sufficiently transmits the images.

Surprisingly, the DVD of SMT boasts a real Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. I was shocked when I saw the 5.1 indicators light up on both my receiver and DVD player, but sure enough, it's a digital surround mix. It's also a pretty decent mix; it's not as good as something like the Janet Jackson "Velvet Rope Live" DVD, but it works fairly well.

Nonetheless, I prefer to listen to this DVD with the surrounds turned off; the music sounds better as a regular stereo mix. How does it compare to the old LD version? It definitely sounds much better. The new version boasts a strong bottom end, whereas the old one had literally no bass response at all. To better evaluate the quality of the sound, I compared this version of "Life on Mars?" with the one from my official CD copy of the Montreal radio show. While the latter seems a bit crisper and better differentiates between the various instruments, the difference in quality is not terribly significant; the SMT DVD may not boast CD quality sound, but it comes pretty close. I'm much more satisfied with the audio on this version of the SMT video.

As far as extras go, well, there ain't none. That's not surprising for a concert DVD, though it would have been nice to at least get song lyrics on the disc. Of course, the ultimate dream for me would have been to have the deleted songs reinserted (or at least added on to the end), but that didn't happen.

Overall I'm fairly pleased with the SMT DVD. After all these years, I continue to find it tremendously entertaining and compelling. While the DVD didn't provide as strong a picture as I'd hoped, it's definitely watchable, and the greatly improved sound mix helps quite a bit. This program should appeal to both die-hard Bowie fans such as myself or anyone who wants a bit of a Bowie primer. This DVD comes highly recommended.

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