Due to the stylistic leaps that David Bowie made throughout his career, it’s inevitable that some periods of his career appeal to individuals more than others. My girlfriend loves his late 70s art-rock period, one of my closest friends will argue that Bowie’s single greatest artistic statement was 1995’s 1.Outside, another will argue that his creative peak was Station to Station, while for an entire generation Bowie will forever be The Goblin King from Labyrinth and there’s even a certain Backseat Mafia writer who will not accept that anyone has ever recorded a greater album than Aladdin Sane.
Everyone has a personal preference in regards to which phase of Bowie’s career they regard as the best. Personally, my favourite Bowie era is that during which he was backed by the band that would become known as The Spiders from Mars. From 1971’s Hunky Dory, via 1972’s game-changing The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, before concluding with 1973’s Aladdin Sane, Bowie was backed by drummer Woody Woodmansey, guitar player and arrangement genius Mick Ronson, and Mick and Woody’s mate Trevor Bolder on bass. By the Pin Ups cover album, Woodmansey had been shown the door and my favourite ‘version’ of Bowie was coming to an end.
As great a studio band as The Spiders from Mars were (and there’s a whole three albums which demonstrate that), Bowie always maintained that the only way to really appreciate what they were truly capable of was to experience them on the live stage. While the Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture live album was recorded in 1973 and released in 1983 to much acclaim, a far more representative and energetic recording was the Live Santa Monica ’72 bootleg, which was recorded during a decadent tour which was funded by money borrowed from the RCA record label, in order for them to convince the American public that Bowie was unquestionably A Big Deal.
Originally recorded for an American radio station, the lack of sonic polish on Live Santa Monica ’72 is actually its great strength as the band snarls and roars through a set of their finest numbers. Bowie fluffs the odd line, Bolder and Woodmansey fire on all cylinders and Ronson’s guitar work is nothing short of blistering. Oh, and keyboard player for hire Mike Garson is in there somewhere, his playing being overwhelmed by the power of one of the finest live rock bands that ever existed. With the minimum of extraneous rubbish, Live Santa Monica ’72 is a document of primal rock and roll in its natural environment, as Bowie and The Spiders nail definitive live versions of some of the greatest rock songs ever written. From the distorted thrill of “Hang on to Yourself”, a breathtaking version of “Ziggy Stardust”, via a feather-spitting “Queen Bitch”, and then on to a muscular cover of “Waiting for the Man” and a set-closing double punch of “The Jean Genie” and “Suffragette City” (which was topped by the encore of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”, Live Santa Monica ’72 is a hell of a live rock album. There’s moments of lightness and fragility to, such as a glorious version of “My Death” and a head-turning run through “Life on Mars”. Just about every Ziggy-era Bowie tune you’d want to hear is performed, with the strange exception of “Starman”, the song which had acted as the springboard to success for the Ziggy character.
Live Santa Monica ’72 is not only a celebration of Bowie and The Spiders from Mars as a live act, but of Bowie himself as a rock star. Sure, as his career progressed he would further redefine what a rock star was, but this recording captures him in the first flush of sustained success, as he embraces and comes to terms what it was to be adored by millions and to achieve a level of success that he’d been reaching for for the best part of a decade. This is as honest and unpolished a document of Bowie’s commanding stage presence as you’re ever likely to hear and it celebrates a period of his career during which he wasn’t trying too hard to out-think himself, or the rest of the music industry.
As great as Bowie is throughout Live Santa Monica ’72, it also serves as the definitive document of Mick Ronson the guitar icon. As valuable as he was in the studio, it’s accepted that on the live stage, Ronno was the only person that Bowie had to ‘share’ the on-stage limelight with at any point in his career. As big a star as Bowie was, the Ziggy character would not have been a success without the Chief Spider, and Bowie would never find a creative foil as utterly vital to him as Ronno was.
Live Santa Monica ’72 was finally given a legitimate archive release back in 2008, and is now easy to locate and purchase. Yes, the radio host announcements that frame the performance and the variable quality of sound certainly betray its origions as a bootleg, but as a document of David Bowie and The Spider from Mars doing what they did best, it’s both thrilling and invaluable and a reminder that while Bowie would indeed go on to record with better musicians, he never had a better band behind him than The Spiders from Mars.