Exactly forty years ago today, on Friday 29 June 1973, music fans in Leeds were treated to one of the strangest couplings of performer and venue in rock and roll history as Ziggy Stardust touched down for two shows in the unlikely setting of the Rollarena, a roller skating hall on Kirkstall Road, Burley, Leeds. Hammersmith, and David Bowie’s last ever show as the Starman, was to follow only four days later. I was there, and it only took me another thirty-nine years to weave Bowie into A Matter of Life and Death.
The gig I’d been so eagerly awaiting on my home turf had been scheduled for earlier in the tour at Leeds University but was cancelled at short notice, apparently because the stage was too small. This led to an emergency announcement on Yorkshire TV to alert gig goers who by then, no doubt, were fully made up, be-sequined and ready for action. I know I was.
The ‘small stage’ excuse was somewhat suspicious as bands including The Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had graced the same venue over the previous two years but possibly the real reason lay in the rumour that the band were smashed out of their minds at their hotel just outside of Leeds – the Post House at Bramhope as I recall. The staff were said to have witnessed considerable debauchery among the entourage that night, but then they were probably more used to having the stars of local TV productions such as Les Dawson, Barry Cryer and John Cleese as guests. A quick look at Bowie’s tour itinerary that June lists cancelled shows at Portsmouth and Coventry as well which may give a clue as to the level of ‘tour fatigue’ going down.
The re-scheduled gig, when it arrived nearly four weeks later at the end of the month, was a never to be forgotten experience. I managed to sneak a cassette player in and recorded segments of the show (I can only imagine I was saving the battery by recording some rather than all of the gig). The sound quality made Live at Max’s Kansas City sound like Sergeant Pepper when I played it back, but play it back many times I did.
The Spiders came on to the Walter Carlos’ version of Beethoven’s Ninth from the film Clockwork Orange, and went straight into ‘Hang On To Yourself’. The crowd, even without skates, moved like tigers on Vaseline and never stopped until the end of the encore – White Light, White Heat (or maybe that was the last one on my old tape).
The only problem with the whole Ziggy at the Rollarena experience was the subsequent Pennebaker film, which was fantastic but over time began to inform the memory so that recollections of Leeds fall into line. What I’d give for that crackly audiocassette tape now.
Bowie is now the watchword for any artist who goes through unforced changes in a quest for fresh creativity. I referenced this myself in A Matter of Life and Death (below). All these years later, it’s still one of the most memorable gigs I’ve ever attended.
Wham, bam, thank you Ma’am.
Extract, A Matter of Life and Death
In Smudger’s studio, a gigantic eighteen-stone tub of lard going by the name of Malcolm Storm sipped his diet Coke as he gave his mystery client the benefit of his advice.
‘You need to broaden your range, Dazza, is what I think. I mean the stuff is flying out, and we’re charging what we like for it, but believe me, interest has a habit of coming and going in waves. You’ve got to be a bit more David Bowie – kill off Ziggy while he’s on the top, and become the Thin White Duke instead.’
‘He did “Aladdin Sane”, “Diamond Dogs” and “Young Americans” between Ziggy and the Thin White Duke,’ replied Smudger, not exactly warming to his agent’s metaphor.
‘See, exactly my point. Ch-ch-ch changes!’
‘Can we drop the Bowie thing, Malcolm? I’m not finding it helpful.’
‘Yeah, OK, but the point is, and let me reiterate, you have to move into different phases, evolve your canon if you want to call it that. Otherwise you’ll end up repeating the same style of work forever like Lowry or someone. Sixty years of bloody matchstick men, and that isn’t commercial, I can tell you. Look at Hirst, look at Emin – no sooner done a theme then, bang, off to something else before anyone can work out if it’s any good or not.’
‘I do have a broad range of work,’ protested Smudger. ‘And it’s very varied in terms of the media I use. And it is good.’
‘Yes, well, that’s true, but you’ve been banging on about the same subjects too much is my view. Take AMOLAD – a great laugh, I know, but it’s time to be worldlier, more global. Take on governments, regimes and tyrants. Go international – that’s where the big money is.’
‘I don’t do that much stuff on AMOLAD,’ said Smudger by way of defence.
‘Try asking them that!’ why they get up your nose so much anyway’
‘I just think everything they do is crass. Life isn’t a reality TV programme and everybody doesn’t have to be famous. I can’t stand that kind of shit.’
‘Whatever. All I’m saying is that while you’re in the box seat you should be planning your next move; call the shots. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to react.’
Smudger, feeling like he’d just been told off by his infant school teacher for wearing the wrong colour shoes to assembly, reluctantly recognised that there was a salient point being made.
‘I’ll think about it,’ he said.