Wednesday 13 December 2017

When Major Tom landed in Ireland

It was the week Major Tom came back to earth, as one critic put it. After nearly a decade away, David Bowie's surprise release of a new single, 'Where Are We Now?', on his 66th birthday, with album The Next Day to follow, felt like a passionate kiss from an old flame.

Both the atmospheric song and arty video see Bowie reflect on the city in which he recorded some of his best work – Berlin. The so-called "Berlin trilogy" of albums he recorded in the German capital the late 1970s – Low, "Heroes" and Lodger – would inspire U2 to follow Bowie's lead and decamp there when it came to writing and recording Achtung Baby in the early 1990s.

Bowie's famously fruitful collaboration with Brian Eno on those records also led Bono and Co to beat a path to Eno's door, with equally spectacular results.

But let's forget Berlin and look back on the shows Bowie has played in Bono's backyard through the years.

Bowie's first ever gig in Ireland was also his worst. For those who had been weaned on the glamorama of Ziggy Stardust in the 1970s, it had been a long wait to see their hero perform on an Irish stage – when he finally brought the Glass Spider tour to Slane Castle in July 1987, Bowie was in a creative trough and the show was a big let-down. This was partly because the elaborately mounted stage design and razzle-dazzle light show was conceived as an indoor gig in the dark . . . rather than in a field in Meath in the sun.

However, Bowie's second coming three years later for the Sound & Vision greatest hits tour in The Point in August 1990 had his Irish devotees singing hallelujah. The gig was such a success it was filmed and officially released as a live tour DVD – a coup for the fledgling docklands venue which had not long opened its doors.

A year later, Bowie famously returned to the Fair City and holed up in The Factory in Ringsend for a week of rehearsals with his neo-heavy metal group Tin Machine to prepare for their world tour. Incredibly, Bowie chose the Baggot Inn – the scuzzy basement dive that was Dublin's answer to New York's CBGBs – as the venue to play two warm-up shows on August 16 and 19, 1991. As one review succinctly put it, there were "no oldies, no encores, no apologies".

Not that the lucky few squeezed into the tiny bar were complaining. The buzz generated around the city from these exclusive gigs made Dublin feel, for two nights only, like the centre of the rock 'n' roll world.

Four years later in November 1995, Bowie was back in The Point touring his record Outside – a concept album of sorts that saw him reunite with Brian Eno. This was my first time seeing the great man in the flesh. Alas, the bulk of the set was taken up with new material – and I just couldn't get into Outside. (The consolation came in the form of a blistering support set from another bona fide pop icon – Morrissey.)

Never mind: Bowie returned in 1997 with a whole new sound. Inspired by the esoteric beats and asymmetrical rhythms of drum 'n' bass, Bowie's Earthling album was undeniably of the moment. Checking himself into Bono and The Edge's Clarence Hotel, Bowie rehearsed for the Earthling tour in The Factory, where he played another legendary secret gig to a few hundred punters one May night (the show was put on by hip dance promoters Quadrophonic and tickets, which were sold at The Kitchen nightclub, cost only £10).

This time Bowie played for three hours – the gig didn't finish until 2am – and saw him delve into his storied songbook, re-interpreting hits like 'Fashion' as a drum 'n' bass stomp.

Then in October 1999, Bowie played yet another small club show in the capital – this time a corporate gig sponsored by Guinness, for competition winners, in HQ (now The Academy) on Middle Abbey St. With the crowd tooled up on free stout, there was a raucous party atmosphere in the air, and Bowie reached back into his back catalogue with 'Life On Mars?', 'Drive-In Saturday' and 'Changes'.

Bowie's last Irish gig was in November 2003, when he returned to The Point to tour the album Reality. Once again, the show, which was sprinkled with old fan favourites, was released as an official live DVD, cementing the singer's love affair with the city and Irish audiences.

By now, Bowie's musical director and touring guitarist was none other than Irishman Gerry Leonard, formerly of Dublin band Hinterland. A headline appearance at the Oxegen Festival in 2004 was shelved after Bowie suffered a heart attack on stage in Europe, a scare that saw the singer retreat from the public eye . . . until last Tuesday, that is.

Welcome back, Major Tom.

The Next Day is out soon.

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