As it turned out, 1973 became something of an annus mirabilis for me as far as concert going at the De Mont was concerned. A month after the Quo show, there was a lackluster performance (yes, I was a critic even then) by Focus, who thought we all needed to hear three or four extended versions of “Hocus Pocus” before the end of the evening. But then there followed three shows that I can remember like they were yesterday. Two of them remain, to this day, the benchmarks by which I measure all other shows.
I think my Mum stood in line at the De Mont box office to get the David Bowie tickets, as I would have been in school when they went on sale. I remember they sold out immediately, and I couldn’t believe my luck that I was actually going to see one of my idols.
Ever the showman, Bowie knew how to wind up an audience before he even set foot on stage. There was no warm-up act, and the 8 o’clock start time came and went. By 8:15, the crowd was getting very restless, and by 8:30 you could positively feel the tension. I was with my friend Mal West, sitting in the stalls somewhere under the balcony, when the houselights finally went off; the band broke into “Hang on to Yourself” and a mad charge for the stage took place. The chairs in the stalls that had been in orderly rows just seconds before went flying, and people just started scrambling for the best vantage points.
Instinctively, Mal and I ran down the center aisle and got to about row G or so when the crush of people got so thick we couldn’t move any further forward. All the chairs in front of us had been destroyed or kicked to the side of the hall by then, but we found a couple that were still intact and stood on them for the entire show. We figured that no jobsworth would come anywhere near us and tell us to sit down after that little melee.
To the best of my recollection, that was the last time the De Mont put seats in the stalls during the 70s for anything they deemed to be a rock concert.
What followed was close to two hours of rock and roll perfection. The costume changes, the mime routines, the sheer power of the music–everything deliberately calculated to overwhelm the senses. Toward the end, during “The Jean Genie,” Bowie and Mick Ronson even simulated sex on stage, and though my 13-year-old mind didn’t know exactly was going on, I had a pretty good idea.
I was gobsmacked by it all. It was just about the coolest bloody thing I ever saw or ever will see again.
Afterwards, we went to the backstage door. There were only a handful of people there, so we stuck around for a while to see if we could get an autograph. But all we got was a fleeting glimpse of Mr. Bowie being hurriedly escorted into a waiting Rolls Royce. I remember thinking at the time that it wouldn’t have killed him to spend five minutes with his fans. But this was at the height of Ziggy mania, so I am sure that there were plenty of crazies out there that he wanted to avoid.
After Bowie, there was the infamous Hawkwind show that Steve Hill talked about: two hours of sonic assault with cool backdrop projections and enough strobe lighting to send you into a seizure. Nothing could have been more different from Bowie, yet it was just as stunning in its own way, enough to bring me back to see them three or four more times in the next few years.
But as long as I live, the show I will never forget was Genesis on October 18. Again, I remember Jimmy Sands talking me into going even though neither of us had heard of the band. A couple of days before the show, though, I heard “Battle of Epping Forest,” probably on Sounds of the Seventies, and I knew there and then we were in for a remarkable experience. Because of that, we bought tickets for the balcony rather than the stalls–this was going to be a show that would require our undivided attention.
Within seconds of Tony Banks’ eerie mellotron introduction to “Watcher of the Skies,” I was spellbound, despite the best efforts of a fellow audience member who thought it would be a good idea to try and break the mood by throwing a toilet roll, football-hooligan style, into the crowd below. (At a Genesis concert? Really?) And when Peter Gabriel arrived on stage, bat wings strapped to his head and his luminous eye makeup piercing through the dim, black-lit stage, I was on the edge of my seat wondering where this journey was going to take me.
For the next ninety minutes, it took me to another world, inhabited by Britannia, lawnmowers, murderous old men, Victorian explorers and modern-day London gangsters. And just when I thought the show couldn’t get any better, Gabriel told a silly story about worms writhing on wet grass and the 12-string introduction to “Supper’s Ready” began.
Seeing and hearing that piece of music unfold for the first time was overwhelming, visually and musically. Out front there was Gabriel, transforming himself into a flower (“A flower?”) then Magog with that ridiculous box contraption on his head before the final quick change out of his black catsuit into a silver lamé suit during a blinding magnesium flash. Behind him, the song twisted and turned through pastoral melodies and singsong silliness before arriving at the heavy “Apocalypse in 9/8” crescendo and ending with its transcendent coda. Never, before or since, have my loves for literature, music, theater, mythology and spirituality been synthesized like this into one sublime moment in time.
I would go on to see Genesis five more times–twice more at the De Mont in 1977 (January 21) and 1980 (April 15)–but the 1973 show will always remain as probably the greatest musical highlight of my life.
It’s a cliché, I know, but you really did have to be there.
Postscript: Following David Bowie’s untimely death on January 11, 2016, the Leicester Mercury republished its contemporary review of Bowie’s 1973 concert along with a fan’s recollection of the evening, both of which corroborate my own memories of the show.
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