I Wanna Be Your Dog

I Wanna Be Your Dog (Iggy Pop with Bowie, live, 1977).
I Wanna Be Your Dog (Bowie with Charlie Sexton, live, 1987).

I had all these thwarted dreams of what I’d tried to do with rock ‘n roll in the early ’70s, and I was trying to do all that a bit late.

David Bowie, 1991.

Glass Spider was a supernova of a concert which saw the old version of Bowie finally explode under the weight of self-parody, only to shrink to the red dwarf of Tin Machine.

David Buckley.

The Glass Spider tour, 1987: 86 shows, six months, three continents. The spider itself, designed by Mark Ravitz, was 60 feet high and 64 feet wide, spun out of fiberglass and metal, with vacuum tubes for legs. Bowie began each concert by descending in a chair from its maw, while on the encore (“Time”) he sang from atop the structure’s head, precariously standing on a three-foot-square steel plate. When the winds were up, it was too dangerous for him to be there; after a while, Bowie began hoping each night that the winds would be up.

The summer of 1987, in Europe and the UK, was soured by winds and rain, and as it generally stayed light until 10 PM, it meant that the Spider often wouldn’t be fully lit until the concert was nearly over, while the video-projected backdrops were often hard to see (worse, many of the open-air arenas that Bowie played in Britain had strict 10:30 PM or 11 PM curfews, causing Bowie to sprint through his encores). Most concertgoers just saw an enormous, immobile, occasionally-glowing spider and, beneath it, some dozen performers running around in circles. Bowie wore bright red and gold suits in part so that those in the nosebleed seats could at least determine which speck he was. (See below, a photograph from a Manchester show in July 1987.)

The tour was plagued by technical foul-ups. The limitations of the sound system and of the headsets that Bowie and his dancers wore meant that their spoken “dialogue” often sounded like babble punctuated by the occasional burst of feedback. Bowie took to miming a pre-recorded vocal track on his opening “Glass Spider” as he was generally inaudible singing into his headset mike while in his chair. Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton groused that the dancers kept pushing them up-stage and sometimes stepped on their effects pedals—once, during a quiet song, a dancer turned on Frampton’s fuzzbox by accident. There were also a string of greater disasters—a lighting engineer fell to his death in Florence, there was a riot in Milan, Bowie was sued for sexual assault in America (a grand jury later cleared him of all charges).

And the mood backstage was raw at times. Carlos Alomar, at last fed up with being the eternally-agreeable sidekick, gave a few truculent interviews in which he emphasized his importance to Bowie’s records (undeniable, but this was never a good thing for your long-term health in Bowie’s organization), and he asked to start off the concert with an extended squalling guitar solo to show that he was Frampton’s equal: “On that tour I was tired of being the sideman. I wanted my place. Give me a bone, Jesus!” he told David Buckley years later. Alomar and the bassist Carmine Rojas formed a hard-partying, irreverent faction (much to the alleged ire of Coco Schwab), while Frampton and Erdal Kizilcay, by contrast, were reserved and often worn out, and even thought about bailing once the tour had reached America.

And Bowie? He was both tour manager and ringmaster, dancer as well as director: painstakingly mapping out choreographed dance and lighting sequences during soundchecks. He had to sing while performing like a triathlete (climbing up to a catwalk on “Scary Monsters,” being thrown around like a sack of grain by his dancers on “Fashion”). To no surprise, Bowie grew exhausted and irritable, especially once the bad reviews poured in (the NME: “unmemorable tedium,” Melody Maker: “the paucity of ideas is quite incredible,” Sounds: “frenzied schlock”), and his voice occasionally gave out as the months wore on. A member of Big Country, one of Bowie’s opening acts, recalled to Marc Spitz a time when Bowie had a “volcanic” meltdown because the hair stylist had used the wrong lacquer on his mullet. Bowie publicly dressed down Alomar, even once the genial Kizilcay.

Bowie had never put on a show on the level of “Glass Spider” and he soon came to feel trapped within it. In 1974, he had ditched the Diamond Dogs concept three months into the tour, scrapping the Hunger City sets in favor of soul-inspired group performances. But now Pepsi was footing much of the bill, and everyone expected the spectacle: the giant spider, the routine where Bowie pulled his girlfriend out of the crowd on “Bang Bang,” the abseiling and kickboxing dancers.

So the “Glass Spider” tour became an extended acting-out of the conflicting impulses that had bedeviled Never Let Me Down. On one hand, the tour was meant to be an arena-based summer hot-ticket event (and the shows generally sold out—Bowie didn’t lose money on it, by any means), but Bowie also intended it to be a traveling performance-art show, an avant-garde rock and roll circus, featuring modern dances inspired by Pina Bausch: he originally wanted the Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps to be his dancers, but they were unavailable (he would work with them in 1988).

The band generally turned in solid, even inspired performances (“Heroes” in the Berlin concert in June 1987 remains one of Bowie’s most resonant moments), while the set list was fresh, with few nostalgic favorites or greatest hits on the bill. In the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie had performed only the hits off of Let’s Dance and had filled the rest of his set with classics. Even in 1978, he had leavened the Low/”Heroes” material with Ziggy Stardust songs. But “Glass Spider” featured almost all of Never Let Me Down (except, wisely, “Shining Star” and “Too Dizzy”), while its older songs were as much obscurities (“Sons of the Silent Age,” “All the Madmen,” “Big Brother”) as they were hits (“Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Fame”).*

As the tour wound down in Europe, Bowie began swapping out some of his new material for storied rockers (“Jean Genie,” “White Light/White Heat”), in part because he didn’t have to dance during the new numbers: he could just stay in one place on stage and even strap on a guitar. And soon into the American leg of the tour, he began playing the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in encores (the first set list that I found with it is, appropriately, Iggy Pop’s backyard: Pontiac, Michigan, on 12 September 1987).

It’s not that Bowie’s performances of “Wanna Be Your Dog” were revelatory—in fact, they were often dull, especially compared to the caustic performances that he and Pop had unleashed a decade before. The all-star celebrity revue performance with Charlie Sexton (filmed in Sydney for the Glass Spider video), with its almost cheery uptempo rhythms, and with Sexton and Frampton vying to out-cliche each other, is particularly grating. But reviving “White Light” and “Wanna Be Your Dog” served a purpose for Bowie: it let him revel in a fantasy that, for a moment, he was happily reduced to being in a rock band again, that the only spectacle he had to pull off was the song itself.

The tour ended in Auckland on 28 November 1987. Bowie would never attempt anything of its like again (though “Glass Spider” would be the template for a host of succeeding tours, from Paula Abdul‘s abseiling dancers to U2’s PopMart and 360 tours). It had been a long, hard purging of illusions. Bowie would never again attempt to so fully reconcile his avant-garde theatrical side with the hard business of filling arenas. He had been ridiculed for it, the process had nearly broken him, and now he was done. Bowie the global pop icon died on the same night that he torched the spider in a New Zealand field.

Still, there were a few moments during 1987 when Bowie stumbled upon his future. At a party to celebrate the end of the tour, a depressed-looking Bowie saw Hunt Sales across the room and embraced him like a lost brother. And before he left for the last leg in Australia, his publicist Sara handed him a cassette. It was a few demos by her husband, who Bowie had befriended during the tour. Bowie was bemused: he had thought that Reeves Gabrels was a painter. He put the tape in his coat pocket and soon forgot about it. Six months later, back home in Switzerland, Bowie came across the tape and figured it was worth a listen…

*In rehearsals, Bowie tried out “Scream Like a Baby” (Frampton again taking part of the vocals), “Because You’re Young,” and “Joe the Lion.”

The version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” linked above was filmed by David Mallet in Sydney on 6 November 1987, and released as part of the Glass Spider concert video.

Photos (top to bottom): unknown show/photog. (let me know);  pommieken (Manchester,UK, 14 or 15 July 1987); Wikipedia (Nürburgring, Germany, 7 June 1987);  Turistadeguerra (Madison Square Garden, NYC, 1 or 2 September 1987).

26 Responses to I Wanna Be Your Dog

  1. Roger L says:

    And may I just say that one reason why I like listening to the ROIOs of the Glass Spider tour is that motley collection of old and new, hits and obscure. With his increasing list of catalog titles, Bowie could begin to really mix and match to great effect in his live sets. I appreciate how he tried to open it up here and keep things, tech problems aside, unpredictable.


  2. david says:

    Funny listening to Bowies version of I wanna be your dog-it really is a gateway song for the Tin Machine era, and the gusto of his vocals sound like he gives a toss again.

    If that photo from Manchester is the first night, then I was there being bustled and crushed at the front-my program was in tatters by the end of the set.

  3. tebepaul says:

    It says something for my disillusionment with Bowie by 1987 that I didn’t go and see him on the Glass Spider Tour when it reached Berlin where I was living at the time. Tickets were pretty expensive too, if I remember rightly.

    Friends who went really enjoyed the show, however. Not sure how resonant the rendition of ‘Heroes’ would have been, as many West Berliners found the Wall references in the song a bit melodramatic, but the performance would have had a frisson to it as the show took place in front of the Reichstag building which was right next to the Wall.

    There’s some nice footage of them putting the stage together on YouTube, which gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the enterprise. Note the absence of basic modern safety concerns for the construction workers…

  4. MC says:

    I remember the “Time Will Crawl” video promising the tour would be a great, edgy experience; the big dancer cruising Bowie even implied the return of Queer Bowie, Bowie the glam theatre artist. So it was a big disappointment when the show proved a largely, incoherent experience. Still, it was my first time seeing him live, and we got in very close so we were able to make out what the dancers were doing even if it didn’t make very much sense. Also, the band pulled off a scorching Jean Genie. (It was the Montreal show, which I think is regarded as another highlight of the tour.)

    I’ve never heard this version of I Wanna Be Your Dog until this very minute, and yea, it’s Tin Machine in utero. There’s a clear link there. I still think DB’s transition to TM is one of the most heartening comebacks any veteran artist has managed, but as they say, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Great writeup. 🙂

  5. diamond dog says:

    I saw Bowie at the manchester gig first night , I was lucky in the stands and had a good view. The lighting was lost as was described above and I remember the show only came alive when the sun went down. I have lots of shows filmed by audiance members and it was a revelation when an indoor show from sydney was circulated as at last you could see what a spectacle it was. At the time I thought it a fantastic show with a fans setlist , some real obscure material along with the usual hits and album plugging. The new stuff fitted well in the show and it was nice to hear the only live outing of sons of the silent age etc. I’ve never been a fan of dancing so to be brutal it was lost on me and the ridiculous encore of time when bowie emerged atop the spider just made me fear for his life the less said about the costumes the better. Flawed but quite spectacular despite what the music papers said I think it was for fans , let’s face it he was unlikely to get good reviews from them.

  6. Pierce says:

    I recall this being the highlight of the concert, when it was just the band on stage rocking out without any additional superfluous paraphenalia. Great summary of an interesting phase that I look upon with great sentimentality and fondness, despite it’s flaws.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I saw four GS shows in Sydney and two of these were the ones filmed for the concert film. It was an adventure as I was only 18, to go to another city and see Bowie for the first time since 83. However despite quite enjoying the shows I knew that it wasn’t a great show as it could be and quite a bit of it just didn’t work. For three of the shows I was right up the front and even there the dancing etc didn’t make much sense.

    As an aside the people making the film planted about a dozen ‘hip’ Bowie fans dressed up in ‘spider gear’ so that they’d make the front row look good. I was up there with them and they were pathetic because they weren’t Bowie fans and just looked bored after a while. My new found friends and I were pissed off about it and one of them actually recognized the promoter earlier and gave him a dressing down for it!

    Still this tour is when I met Bowie – a total thrill and also due to the fact that the security guys wanted to lay the girls I was with they snuck us backstage after one of the shows and we went into the dressing room and onto the stage. So, good memories despite the flawed show.

  8. Jeremy says:

    By the way:

    The all-star celebrity revue performance with Charlie Sexton (filmed in Melbourne for the Glass Spider video)

    It was Syndey, not Melbourne – sorry to be pedantic! 🙂

    • col1234 says:

      no, thanks for the correction! sorry for the Australian confusion.

      had you mentioned you’d met DB before? That’s fantastic.

      • Jeremy says:

        I mentioned it in the NLMD song post. It was luck actually. I was looking for some markets near the Sydney Entertainment centre and I noticed that at the back of the building you could get quite close to the back stage door. A bunch of girls were waiting there so I went up and spoke to them. They knew all about the back stage going ons and told me that Bowie was coming in for a sound check. So I waited around and sure enough he arrived. I also met most of the band including Carlos. I still have Bowie’s autograph. He chatted with us for a while and was very friendly.

  9. Brendan O'Lear says:

    This was when I realised that my own journey with Bowie had come to an end. I happened to be in the UK, staying with my sister, at the time of the Manchester concert. She lived close enough to hear it from her living room. We barely opened the window to listen.

    Sad to say goodbye to Carlos Alomar, the most important and undervalued of all Bowie’s collaborators in my opinion. Without Alomar, Bowie would still have stood out as a major figure in the history of pop/rock music, but Alomar, at least to me, was the key support that allowed Bowie to go to places nobody else has been within the pop/rock genre. And on that note, I’ll go off to listen to Nassau 76 for the thousandth time…

  10. Frankie says:

    I could say “Arf!” but I wanna say “Barf!” Iggy does the song better.

  11. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I heard the live version of IWBYD yesterday and wasn’t horrified: it’s a solid rendition of a song that was more of an arena anthem than maybe Iggy thought at the time.

    What on earth was UP with Bowie’s guitar? Why is it so damn small?

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, it’s a ridiculously small guitar. It’s a Steinberger? (the “headless” guitar popular in the ’80s). If so, it’s yet another preview of the Tin Machine years, as Gabrels played a similar type on the first LP at least.

  12. Sean says:

    Been wanting to comment for a long time now, so before the page turns I should get one in. Lifetime fan, saw the GS tour at Giants Stadium. At the time I didn’t think it made much sense, and I still don’t. But I’ve got to go against the grain and say the show was terrifically entertaining. And I like the set, the dancers, even Bowie’s clothes and hair. And he was in great voice. He planned a spectacle and delivered one.

    And since it’s still somewhat on-topic, I have to stand up for the Never Let Me Down album. No, it’s not one of his best, but as his attempt at a big mainstream rock record I think it works. Time Will Crawl and the title track are favorites of mine to this day, and even the more throwaway tracks on side 2 are catchy. I don’t know anyone who will say a kind word for it now, which kind of pains me. The record really isn’t that bad.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      I feel the exact same way. I’ve already said this time and time again, but of all the albums Bowie made in the 15-year span between Scary Monsters and Outside (both being in my personal Top 5), Never Let Me Down is the one I’d put on purely for the pleasure of it. As much as Let’s Dance has some great singles on it, it’s got some rather faceless “blah” moments on it (Shake It, anyone?), and for the most part Tonight doesn’t really hold together. The two Tin Machine records admittedly rock out a bit harder, and they definitely show signs of gradual artistic rehabilitation, but there’s nothing on those records that quite matches up to Time Will Crawl, Zeroes, Glass Spider and the title track.

      BTW, something I forgot to mention with regard to the song Zeroes

      Does anyone remember that late ’80s/early ’90s hard-rock outfit Enuff Z’Nuff, from Chicago? They had a kind of Beatles/Cheap Trick psychedelic pop sensibility grafted onto a post-Van Halen hard-rock framework, with maybe even a bit of a new wave/Costello influence in there, too. (And in that, they were kind of forerunners of a short-lived early ’90s trend that also included the likes of Jellyfish and – at least to an extent – Lenny Kravitz.) When I recently started seriously getting into Bowie and made it my mission to collect the entire back catalogue, I picked up a copy of Never Let Me Down, heard Zeroes again and thought to myself, “Well, I’ll be damned if this isn’t the greatest song that Enuff Z’Nuff never wrote!” (And this song came out two whole years before Enuff Z’Nuff’s debut! Ha, ha, ha…) So you see, even on an off day, Bowie has an instinct for future musical developments and trends! 😀

  13. Frankie says:

    Considering why I’m blabbering on so negatively – despite the obvious reasons that everyone always gripes about for this period, I think one main issue for me generally for this Bowie phase is the age factor in myself. I was 24 in ’87 and although I grew up loving Bowie at 14, his mugging Glass Spider mullet seemed to be appealing for a much younger audience more easily enamoured by it than I could ever muster when pushing 25. It was like watching a 40-year-old man going through his teeny-bopper phase once again, and I didn’t feel part of his image equation… and that was one of the problems with Marc Bolan too, always mugging for the “kids” so much so that it made me puke. But I guess that’s what aging rock stars have to do to survive, its part of their job resume to kidify, they gotta keep on dancing the night away…. But if the music doesn’t cut it, you’ve only left with bubble gum on your blue suede shoes….

    Anyways, looking forward to the your take on TM. At least with TM (not Transcendental Meditation) there’s more of an adult-oriented Kenneth Branagh look and more insane guitar histronics and less of that middle-aged puppy love and vapid pap that my aging self found so lax.

  14. Rufus Oculus says:

    I was at one of the Manchester gigs (can’t remember which one) and remember it as a miserable affair. Couldn’t make out was going on and got soaking wet. Had bought a ticket for my girlfriend who broke up with me straight after and told me she had decided she wanted to finish with me ages before but wanted to see Bowie first. Charming

  15. I neever saw this concert live (A. I wasn’t yet “into” Bowie and B. I doubt my parents oulwd have let me go, since I was only about nine years old), but I imagine if I had seen it in those conditions I’d have hated it. That said, watching the concert video “up front,” I think Bowie gets way too much stick for its pretentions and not enough credit for its…pretentions. If it had been done inside, at smaller, reliable venues, I think people would have called it a welcome return to form. It certainly didn’t look like he “didn’t care,” which is the criticism of this era I hear most frequently (even from Bowie himself).

    I reiterate my earlier statement that sometimes Coco Schwab sounds like an angel and sometimes she sounds like a downright pill.

  16. Diamond Duke says:

    BTW, referring to that bit about Bowie’s “volcanic” meltdown over the wrong kind of hair lacquer…I hate to be pedantic, but I think that was from Christopher Sandford’s bio, not Spitz’s.

  17. 87Fan says:

    I’m not sure that “Joe the Lion” was ever rehearsed for this tour. He mentioned wanting to play it in interviews but that’s as far as it ever went as far as I can tell (he also mentioned playing “Space Oddity” but that never happened either). Is there a source for this information? I ask because I’ve done considerable work for NLMD & the GST on Wikipedia and so if there’s more info out there, I want to see it 🙂

  18. 87Fan says:

    Would you believe that Richard Cottle & Erdal Kizilcay are reforming as “The Glass Spider Band” in tribute to the Glass Spider Tour? Details here: http://glassspiderband.com/

  19. rob thomas says:

    I was at the Manchester gig. As the crowd surged and pushed and struggled, a young girl was dragged to the ground. “It’s not fuckin’ Spandau Ballet now, love!” cried a grizzled scally git, as he stepped over her. Not a great time.
    I also recall the supporting Terence Trent d’Arby stopping songs to break up fights. Love you, my home town Manchester…

  20. rob thomas says:

    p.s. It speaks volumes about this period of DB’s career that the pic from the Manchester gig features a guy in what’s surely a Genesis t-shirt. (Sigh).

  21. Bowie performed “I Want to Be Your Dog” at the second Chapel Hill Glass Spider show (Sept. 7, 1987), saying he hadn’t performed it in a decade; he taught the band the chords during the encore. Might have been a fake–the Wikipedia page says he performed it in Europe–but it certainly looked real.

  22. I saw the 2nd Toronto show. The audience clearly wasn’t terribly interested in the dancing and the more obscure songs- they were there for the hits. It got to the point that as Bowie introduced the band, Carlos Alomar stepped forward and threw a towel at the audience. Bowie laughed and said, “Don’t throw in the towel!”

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