Thursday 23 May 2019

In Pictures: Photographer Denis O'Regan had a ringside seat on David Bowie's 'Serious Moonlight' tour of 1983

Photographer Denis O'Regan had a ringside seat on David Bowie's 'Serious Moonlight' tour of 1983, and captures the star at the peak of his powers in the first book to be sanctioned by the Bowie estate since his death in 2016

David Bowie in Edmonton, Canada on the 1983 tour. Photo: Denis O'Regan
David Bowie in Edmonton, Canada on the 1983 tour. Photo: Denis O'Regan
Prancing in the street: Bowie outside guitarist Earl Slick's house in LA
Intimate portrait: Bowie on the Let's Dance your on 1983. Photo: Denis O'Regan
Denis O'Regan with Bowie
John Meagher

John Meagher

If David Bowie was a critical darling in the 1970s - and, in hindsight, few artists had such an extraordinarily fruitful and creative decade - he was determined to be a globally recognised pop star in the 1980s.

The Let's Dance album, released in April 1983 and produced by a commercially minded Nile Rodgers, was an unashamed attempt to dominate the charts, and its accompanying tour, Serious Moonlight, was a star-making, multi-continent extravagance that took in 96 shows.

Denis O'Regan was present for everyone of those concerts. As Bowie's official photographer on the tour, he had unlimited access on and off stage - and his remarkable photographs from 35 years ago offer a glimpse of an artist at the peak of his powers.

But it's not the numerous on-stage photos of Bowie that O'Regan is most proud of - it's capturing his subject when the crowds are away and the lights are off that resonates with him most. And in Ricochet - his handsome coffee table book on the Serious Moonlight tour - the photographer's snaps of a relaxed, everyman Bowie will likely thrill fans most, too.

Denis O'Regan with Bowie
Denis O'Regan with Bowie

O'Regan had a ringside seat as Bowie's popularity grew and grew over that nine months on the road. "At the beginning of the tour, David was playing 10,000-seat arenas," he says, "but the audiences grew hugely every month. He did three Milton Keynes venues that became famous - 65,000 per night and he did three of them. The pics that I shot there were featured in Time and Newsweek in America and I think they got people in America excited for him."

The book is the first artefact to be officially sanctioned by the Bowie estate since his death in January 2016 and O'Regan worked closely with the singer towards the end of his life. "I knew he was working on his legacy," he says, "but I didn't realise how little time he had left."

One of the most acclaimed rock photographers of his generation, O'Regan has shot every artist worth shooting - but his work with Bowie takes a special place in his heart, partly because he first saw him in concert at a highly impressionable age.

And what a show. It was in 1972, and the penultimate night of Bowie's legendary series of Ziggy Stardust shows at the Hammersmith Odeon and the then 19-year-old was completely smitten. "It was theatre, mime and rock - and it had a huge impression."

O'Regan had first been to the fabled venue at just nine years of age. He had pestered his mother to take him to see his favourite bands - The Beatles, who were supported on the night by a Jimmy Page-featuring Yardbirds.

"I was crazy about music," he says, noting that he had seen some seminal Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper shows towards the end of the 1960s, but Bowie's was the show that made him want to be a rock photographer. "But I had no contacts in the area - and although I wanted to go to art college, my parents wouldn't let me."

Intimate portrait: Bowie on the Let's Dance your on 1983. Photo: Denis O'Regan
Intimate portrait: Bowie on the Let's Dance your on 1983. Photo: Denis O'Regan

His mother and father grew up in the village of Doneraile, near Mallow, Co Cork, and they eloped to London together. O'Regan was acutely aware of being of Irish extraction at a time - in the 1960s and 1970s - where being Irish was a distinct disadvantage. "My father remembers the No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish signs," he says. "There was a lot of anti-Irish feeling - we were the Arab terrorists of the time. My bags would always be last to come off the carousel [at airports] and I remember going away with a friend of mine called Kelly and we were interviewed by the anti-terrorism police. But that's the way it was - we didn't moan and wail about it."

A couple of years after seeing Ziggy in Hammersmith, O'Regan was working at a newsagents opposite the fabled Olympic Studios, when he learnt that Bowie would be there later that day to record what would become the Diamond Dogs album. He ran home to get his camera and managed to nab some striking photos. Bowie quipped to him that he should work for the NME.

And he did. A couple of years later, during which he worked in the decidedly unglamorous world of insurance in the City, he attended a Damned show in the fledgling months of punk. There was scant lighting and he asked a photographer if he could borrow his flash gun. The snapper turned out to be Chalkie Davies, who - while younger than O'Regan - was already becoming famous for his rock photographs. "He said he didn't like photographing this type of music and suggested I send in pictures to the NME."

Davies had already been on the road with Bowie and the photographer happened to live with Phil Lynott in London at the time. "And it was through him that I met Philip," O'Regan says. "We talked a lot and he said they would soon be going on a tour to Scandinavia I asked him if I could come along and take pictures."

It turned out to be a life-changing experience. O'Regan loved being on the road and he says the Thin Lizzy frontman had a huge interest in his photographs. "Sometimes I'd show him some arty stuff I'd done and he'd say to me" - and here O'Regan tries a Dublin accent - "'You're here to photograph me, forget this fucking space [in the photos]'."

O'Regan fostered a strong bond with Lynott and says he was as wonderful a man as he was a rock icon. "He had incredible charisma," he says. "And Thin Lizzy were so good - they really should have been so much bigger."

But being offered to go on the road with Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour trumped everything. O'Regan had become so enamoured by his music in his early 20s that he had interrailed around Europe with his "£5 camera" in order to photograph him in concert every night. Now, he was getting an opportunity to spend sustained time with his hero - nine months in all - and he was determined to make sure that he captured both David Bowie, the theatrical pop star, and David Jones, the man who liked to escape fame every now and again.

It turned out that Bowie was keen for O'Regan to capture tour life both on and off stage. "I thought he - or someone else - would restrict me, but early on he told me to photograph everything. And I did.

He would accompany Bowie on two other tours - 1987's Glass Spider and 1990's ­Sound+­Vision. The former tour included a show at Slane Castle - Bowie's first ever concert in Ireland. O'Regan was already a veteran of the venue having photographed Thin Lizzy there in 1981, the Rolling Stones in 1982 and Queen - who he also accompanied on a world tour - in 1986. "It's one of the best venues in the world," he says. "The setting is incredible, with the river near the backstage, the sight of the castle right next to the stage and the way the field slopes up into a natural amphitheatre."

O'Regan's CV also includes that of official photographer at Live Aid. "It was an incredible day - mainly because few people thought it would be possible to get so many big-name acts on the same stage on the same day - but a lot of it passed me by. I was shooting backstage and missed a lot of the performances, including Queen's."

He still goes on the road - most recently with the veteran Swedish group, Europe - but the marathon tours of the past are not for him any more. "I want to spend time with my son, who's 12, and I don't like to be away as much. I've had some great experiences, though, and thanks to people like David Bowie, there's a photographic record there that lives on."

'Ricochet: David Bowie 1983: An Intimate Portrait' (Penguin) is out now

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top