David Bowie only played a handful of Brisbane shows in his lifetime, but the late icon made an indelible impression.
Bowie embarked on 14 world tours throughout his career, but only four of them came through Brisbane.
The first, at Lang Park (now known as Suncorp Stadium) in 1978, attracted up to 18,000 fans to the old stadium, even as Queensland’s conservative element slammed the show as “intolerable”.
In a 2012 blog, State Library of Queensland blogger Myles Sinnamon remembered the controversy caused by Bowie’s first visit to our sleepy city, including the harsh criticism he copped from Russ Hinze, one of the most controversial politicans of the Bjelke-Petersen era.
“These pop singers come out here to make a quick quid by disturbing our peace and tranquility,” Hinze, then the Minister for Noise Abatement, said at the time.
“The fact that he’s a Pommie as well wouldn’t help.”
The concert could supposedly be heard as far away as the top of Mt Coot-tha, and newspaper reports described the noise as “intolerable” for nearby residents in the suburbs of Paddington, Bardon, Milton, Ashgrove, Rainworth, Toowong and The Gap, who complained they couldn’t hear their television sets and were forced to shut their windows and doors.
Hinze claimed thousands of residents complained about the noise, although concert promoters said they only received eight complaints themselves.
Of course, not everyone had a problem with the noise — Sinnamon writes that some locals enjoyed it, and sat on their verandahs to take advantage of the ‘free concert’.
The show itself got mixed reviews in the local press — The Telegraph published two reviews, one of which slammed the then-novel ‘open air’ experience (“Never before have I sniffed so many armpits, been abused so frequently or been trodden on so freely,” said the reviewer, before noting that “gropers and bottom-pinchers had the time of their lives”), while music columnist Rory Gibson slammed the “vaguely disappointing” set list for excluding some of The Thin White Duke’s greatest hits.
Even before the Lang Park gig, however, Bowie had made his mark on Brisbane with an impromptu appearances at a local nightclub. According to Bowie Down Under, Bowie and his entourage rolled into a club called Top of the State the night before the concert, and eventually ended up sharing the stage with the house band.
“As I look up out of my drunken haze,” recalled local drummer Peter Maslen, who would later find fame with Boom Crash Opera, “I see David Bowie on the centre mic singing something that resembled Fame. I remember saying in my head… ‘I’m onstage, playing with David Bowie!'”
Bowie also found time to take in a drag revue that was on at the same venue, where local drag queen Holly Brown was seen proudly hanging off his arm. (“She looked like the drag queen that had swallowed every canary ever born,” fellow performer Phaedra Nunn-Smith told Bowie Down Under).
Bowie returned to Brisbane five years later, at the peak of his commercial powers, on the Serious Moonlight tour, attracting 27,000 fans to Lang Park. (Not only was the recently released Let’s Dance LP a massive hit, but two of the video clips had been shot in New South Wales, strengthening Bowie’s ties to Oz.)
Sinnamon recalled that even after five years, Brisbane officials hadn’t forgiven Bowie for the noise at the 1978 show, imposing a $50,000 bond on promoters that would have been forfeited if the noise level had exceeded 80 decibels at nearby houses.
“This time around there were residents who were hoping for another free concert, and who organised ‘Bowie Parties’, but had to turn on their record players when the concert organisers stuck to the imposed noise limitations,” Sinnamon wrote.
Despite the frosty relationship between local government and the concert promoters, Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Alderman Roy Harvey had a chance to meet Bowie at the show and described him as “a very down-to-earth guy“.
Bowie’s next two Brisbane shows would come in 1987, both at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, which was only a couple of years old at the time. This was the Glass Spider tour, which notoriously featured a 50-foot-high spider on stage and an overly elaborate storyline brought to life by actors and dancers.
A review published in the NZ Listener claimed Bowie’s “full musical power did not make it to the stadium very often”, and wished for “more from the band, more from Bowie and less of the portentous story telling”.
Brisbane-based publicist Suzanne Snape, who was working the Glass Spider concert, recently wrote that Bowie was “devastated” by the Brisbane crowd’s muted reaction.
“He came off stage confused and pacing,” Snape remembered. “He walked in circles around one of the backstage rooms, head bowed, looking at the floor, his questioning going something like this: ‘What is wrong with them? I just gave the concert of my career and it’s like they’re dead. Didn’t they like it?'”
The superstar’s manager convinced him that the Brisbane audience had simply never seen anything like the Glass Spider show before, and weren’t sure how to react. Eventually, Bowie and his manager convinced themselves — despite the frenzy at his previous Lang Park concerts — that Brisbane was more like a polite and reserved ‘Japanese audience’.
Despite comforting himself with that thought, it might be telling that, as Snape notes, Australia was left off Bowie’s seven subsequent world tours.
When Bowie did eventually return to Brisbane, it would be for the last time, as he virtually retired from the music industry after 2004’s Reality tour (and even when he did start releasing music again in 2013, he kept away from the live stage).
Returning to the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Bowie — riding high on positive reviews for the recent Heathen and Reality LPs — reportedly put on a killer show, eschewing the theatrics of the Glass Spider tour in favour of placing the emphasis on the music.
Writing for The Courier Mail, Noel Mengel gave the concert an ecstatic review, rating it above the 1983 and 1987 shows and even comparing it favourably to the 1978 show (which, despite mixed reviews at the time, had since been bestowed legendary status by those who were there).
Of course, Bowie passed away on Monday after a private struggle with cancer, so those of us who weren’t lucky enough to see him way back when will never have a chance to correct that.
Tickets are now available, however, for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, a cabaret tribute at the Brisbane Powerhouse on Saturday February 6 that was originally announced before his death to celebrate Bowie’s music as part of the MELT: A Celebration of Queer Arts and Culture 2016 program.
Following the news of Bowie’s death, the show has taken on a deeper meaning, and a second show will now be held at the same venue on the same day.
10 per cent of the proceeds from the shows, which will feature performances from the likes of Alison St Ledger, Emma Dean, Tim Steward, Jeff Lovejoy and more, will now be donated to the Australian Cancer Research Foundation. For more information, visit brisbanepowerhouse.org.
Ziggy Played Guitar, another Bowie tribute featuring an as-yet-unannounced lineup of local musicians and artists, will be held at The Foundry on Sunday 21 February, with promoters promising to “do David Bowie justice”. Proceeds from this event will also be donated to cancer charities. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page.
Finally, the New Globe Theatre will hold a David Bowie Video Tribute this Thursday 14 January. Organised by Kristian Fletcher (who’s run plenty of similar Bowie-themed events in the past), the event will include a screening of the Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars concert film and a 90-minute collection of documentary clips, performance footage and music videos. For more information, you can visit that event’s Facebook page, too.
Were you lucky enough to see Bowie in Brisbane? Share your memories below!