1978 was a long time ago. In 1978, a former folkie, turned cross-dressing pop-rock belter, turned alien sex fiend, turned cocaine-cadaverous soul crooner, turned Berlin-bound, cleaned-up synth-obsessive could take to the stage of Manhattan’s enormous Madison Square Garden by playing an instrumental piece – ‘Warszawa’ – so full of sobering portent that it makes Spinal Tap’s “little children of Stone’enge” number sound positively apologetic before launching headfirst into ‘Heroes’, a song so anthemic no other artist in the world would dare place it anywhere but the encore. But this was 1978, and in 1978 David Bowie could do anything. He could invent ’80s New Romanticism – ‘Sense Of Doubt’ and ‘Beauty And The Beast’ lay out the entire, ennui-laden, art-funk blueprint for everyone from Japan to Talking Heads. He could invent mid-’90s Blur – the fabulously bored, mockney snarl of ‘Be My Wife’ would have been right at home on ‘Parklife’ – and he could, now minus the cocaine, pull back from his own ego enough to let an instrumental like ‘Speed Of Life’ take up precious Me time.
Who today would have the balls to make an album like ‘Stage’? Who would be as willing to reimagine some of their biggest hits in the way Bowie does? Massive, crowd pleasers like ‘Fame’, ‘Five Years’ and ‘Stay’ are either pitched down so hard you can hear the bones of the song creaking, or seen anew through the prism of a burgeoning avant-garde bent. At no point does Bowie simply kneel before the audience’s open fly with his songbook-sized mouth open and make it easy for them. So ‘Star’ is followed by ‘Hang On To Yourself’, which is followed by ‘Ziggy Stardust’ – featuring, naturally, a string ensemble where Mick Ronson’s brutalist guitar used to be – well, you know how much those ’70s US rock crowds loved a cello! Just as the audience is about to reach giddy satisfaction, Bowie hits them with the double whammy of ‘Art Decade’, an instrumental more suited to promoting good working conditions in a Korean lift factory and an unlistenably atonal ‘Alabama Song’. Brilliant. Modern pop types, that noise you can hear is a 27-year-old gauntlet hitting the floor.