If there was a moment in time that David Bowie switched from a popular cult figure or marginal commercial star into a renowned superstar, it might have been this day in 1983. We’re not kidding…in fact we’re as serious as the moonlight, since it was this day 40 years back Bowie began his “Serious Moonlight” world tour to promote his newly released Let’s Dance album. Between the multi-million selling album and the tour, it launched Bowie into the musical stratosphere.
It’s worth remembering that up until that time, Bowie was well-known but not a real major superstar artist. Particularly in North America. Before 1983, for example, he’d only had one U.S. #1 song (“Fame”) and one more top 10 hit (“Golden Years”) and most of his albums, like the vaunted Ziggy Stardust, struggled to sell enough to go gold. Others like Heroes and Pin-ups failed to even achieve that. Of course, Let’s Dance changed all that and by year’s end he was rivaling The Police, ZZ Top and Huey Lewis & the News as the hottest artist on radio.
If the album sent Bowie’s star rising by concentrating on good, hummable songs and less artsy experimenting than much of his older work, the tour built on that. Instead of huge theatrical experiences and weird costumes and make-up, the Serious Moonlight tour had him looking neat and “normal” and concentrating on just the music. He says his look, with neatly-coiffed blonde hair and wearing big but neat, pastel-toned suits was a “parody” of the New Romantic movement that was big at the time. Others figured he was making a deliberate attempt to blend in with new, popular British acts like ABC and Spandau Ballet, but whatever the reality, the fans seemed to approve.
He opened up the tour in Belgium, at the 8000 seat Vorst Forest National arena in Brussels. After 15 countries, over two-and-a-half million fans in 96 shows, he’d wrap it up on Dec. 8th in Hong Kong. The Belgium stadium was in line with what he had originally envisioned for the tour – largely mid-sized indoor venues of no more than 10 000 fans. However, as the album’s popularity soared through the spring and summer, demand to see him exploded, and he began adding extra dates and finding larger, often outdoor venues to accommodate. Soon he’d be playing outdoor stadiums in front of over 50 000 in places like Milton Keynes, England and Edmonton, Canada. Eventually, every show he played would sell out including four nights in Philadelphia, back to back nights at the CNE football stadium in Toronto, three nights at Wembley Arena in London and even smaller cities like Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he drew 25 000 to a minor league baseball field.
He had a talented backing band of nine or ten with him, including longtime friend and collaborator Carlos Alomar on guitar, drummer Tony Thompson (of Chic, and soon after, Power Station) and guitarist Earl Slick who’d worked on Bowie’s Young Americans as well as John Lennon’s Double Fantasy. Slick was a last-minute addition to the ensemble, replacing Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan who’d worked on the record with Bowie. Vaughan showed up for rehearsals, but showed up high and looking for a long, drug-fueled tour which was the last thing Bowie needed after kicking his drug habit not long before. Helping the tour along were various star opening acts, including the Go-gos in Anaheim, the Tubes in Oakland, The Beat in London and Peter Gabriel in western Canada.
The highlight of the tour, and an unexpected one, was the largest crowd of the whole summer. Bowie headlined the US Festival in California, on May 30, and played in front of 300 000 or more people. It’s rumored Steve Wozniak paid Bowie a million dollars plus all expenses to get him to take time out from his European shows (he’d been in France right before it) to play the huge event.
Most of Bowie’s shows began with his 1979 song “Look Back in Anger” , rolled through 21 or so songs including old hits like “Rebel, Rebel” and “Cat People” before finishing with “TVC15” off Station to Station, and then saw him do a four-song encore of “Star”, “Stay” “Jean Genie” and “Modern Love.” On the final show, he played “Imagine” as a tribute to John Lennon, who’d been killed exactly three years earlier. A DVD of one of his Vancouver shows was released in 2006.
Although Bowie would go on to have an even bigger, and more extravagantly staged tour four years later – the “Glass Spider” tour – critics didn’t care for it and it didn’t help the Never Let Me Down do anything much at the cash register. Showing that sometimes, it is all about the music.