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By Bob Bahr
David Bowie is a rare kind of chameleon – the kind that adopts colors before they are even visible in the musical surroundings. He doesn't change with the times, he changes the times – or at least prophesizes them.
In 1972, Bowie's Ziggy Stardust creation was changing the way everyone looked at rock stars, the way everyone looked at glitter rock and the way we viewed androgyny. Here was a pop star assuming an alternate persona, one that was from outer space, one that was bisexual, one that was meant to crash and burn in the flames of its own fame.
Bowie undoubtedly expanded the possibilities of musical performers with the invention of Ziggy Stardust. But how does it hold up musically?
The Ziggy Stardust tour was a sensation, and its stop at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium is considered its high point. Broadcast live on the radio, the concert was widely bootlegged. This disc is a cleaned-up version of the revered broadcast bootleg, released this year by Bowie's old management company, MainMan SAAG. While Bowie is probably not thrilled with the recording's European release (it is available only as an import), Ziggy fans will be undoubtedly pleased. Mixing acoustic numbers with hard-rocking electric ones, Santa Monica '72 is a captivating snapshot of Ziggymania, and a solid album by any measure.
The occasional stumble, such as the loungy piano work of Mike Garson on "Changes" and the flat vocal harmonies of "Five Years," is balanced by the compelling drama of "The Supermen" and the urgency of "The Jean Genie" (not yet captured on tape at time of the concert). Sound problems mar an energetic, sassy "Ziggy Stardust," while "Suffragette City" crunches in a version surpassing the recorded one.
Bowie devotees will note the inclusion of Lou Reed's "Waiting for the Man," given fine treatment here, and "John, I'm Only Dancing," not released until its appearance on the greatest hits album, Changesonebowie. Newcomers may scoff at the generic British Invasion bounce of "Hang on to Yourself" – until the dark sheen of the lyrics redeems it. An acoustic take on Bowie's biggest hit at the time, "Space Oddity," does the job but loses the haunting quality of the studio version.
Before he embraced glam and ventured off on the celestial tip, Bowie was more of a singer/songwriter. It was not his most critically acclaimed period, but the evidence here – "Andy Warhol," "The Supermen," "Five Years" – proves that Bowie could hold his own with his surreal pen. And "Changes" is a rock touchstone – and the perfect theme song for the mercurial Bowie. Only the melodramatic "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" and the exorbitant, ten-minute "The Width of a Circle" wear thin. Bowie began relying more on riffs and melodies by the Ziggy era, resulting in a fatally catchy "Moonage Daydream" and a compelling "John, I'm Only Dancing."
A highlight of Santa Monica '72 is the bold, hard-rock guitar work of the late Mick Ronson. Clearly Bowie's musical soulmate at this time, Ronson provides the polished punch of Ziggy's power chords. Ronson's solos, on the other hand, wander into feedback-drenched, distorted psychedelia. Bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick "Woody" Woodmansey lay it down thick and solid, and Bowie's voice is at top form.
The production of this album is curious. While miles above the reportedly poor sound quality of the bootleg, the recording seems utterly unproduced. The beginnings of songs often roar, then the volume plummets for the bulk of the song. Surely these are human errors from 12 years ago; mistakes that could be fixed in today's studios? Also, the radio station's introductions of the concert demonstrate little microphone etiquette and are utterly superfluous. The sloppiness of the production has the stench of a quickie job. Perhaps they were trying to beat some kind of restraining order from Bowie.
The result: a pivotal concert sees the light of day, but via a patch job. Santa Monica '72 is vital for Bowie fans and conditionally necessary for the rest of us.