David Bowie
Live Santa Monica ‘72

Live albums tend to be hit-or-miss affairs. At best they feature a world-conquering performance and at worse a throwaway mainly released to fulfill a contract. But for diehard fans of an artist, it’s a chance to hear another side of the story. Such is the case of the latest David Bowie release, Live Santa Monica ‘72.

In 1972 Bowie debuted his alter ego Ziggy Stardust and his backing band, the Spiders from Mars. And in June of that year he released his commercial breakthrough, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. After a successful U.K. tour, Bowie brought the tour to the United States. On October 20, 1972 the tour reached Santa Monica for the tenth and second to last U.S. date. That show was broadcast live by now-defunct L.A. station KMET and was almost instantly bootlegged. For hardcore Bowie fans it became legendary as being superior to the official live document of the tour, Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture Soundtrack, and having a copy of the show was considered a mark of true fandom. Now 35 years later the entire concert finally gets an official release.

Live Santa Monica ‘72 shows the band in prime form. The Spiders from Mars—featuring Mick Ronson on guitar and vocals, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mick Woodmansey on drums and new recruit Mike Garson on piano—play with an energy and ferocity that seems unimaginable from the man who brought the world “Modern Love.” What becomes apparent from the first notes of “Hang On To Yourself” is that this isn’t a band just going through the motions and killing time until the flight back home. There’s a feeling that Bowie and the Spiders had something to prove. For whatever respect Ronson receives as a guitarist it seems not nearly enough. He leaves it all on the stage. His highlight is the 10-minute workout on “The Width of A Circle,” where he goes from a bluesy boogie style to Hendrix inspired pyrotechnics and then stops on a dime to bring it down for the extended coda.

Looking at the set list it seems like it was ripped from a Bowie fan’s dream journal. Pulling not only from Ziggy Stardust but also Hunky Dory, The Man Who Sold The World, Space Oddity and the then upcoming Aladdin Sane. Bowie manages to hit almost every area of his young career. But it’s funny to look back and see that Bowie isn’t quite DAVID BOWIE yet. He doesn’t address the crowd until after six songs into the set. And aside from a tossed-off imitation of Andy Warhol to introduce the song of the same name, the banter is rather light. And he’s not quite Ziggy either. While the assumption is that Ziggy was a total emersion for Bowie, he introduces “Moonage Daydream” as “This is a song that Ziggy wrote.”

The performances on Live Santa Monica ‘72 more than live up to the legend. Songs that became classic rock staples seem brand new. The acoustic “Space Oddity” is goosebump inducing, from Ronson’s background vocals and calming recitation of the countdown to Bowie yearning cries to Ground Control. And the swagger of “Suffragette City” comes exploding through the speakers. As a live document even the less-than-perfect moments have a charm. The weirdly high in the mix off-key background vocals on “Five Years,” the overly restrained performance of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For yhe Man” and the fact that Garson may or may not be playing piano during the concert just add the realness of live music. After 76 minutes of Bowie’s past, there’s no denying that for his fans—or just fans of live music in general—Live Santa Monica ‘72 is essential.
Dorian S. Ham