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The Story of David Bowie’s Eye-Popping ‘Glass Spider’ Tour

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David Bowie has often been a performer ahead of his time – in his music, his image and his live performances. His 1987 Glass Spider tour was the biggest live spectacle of his career, an undertaking so massive that despite its success, Bowie would never attempt to repeat it.

The tour was in support of the Never Let Me Down album, which was intended as a return to rock for Bowie after exploring mainstream pop on previous releases. He conceptualized a big, bold, innovative experiment in blending an arena rock show with theatrical elements, groundbreaking staging and choreography.

“It’s written and structured with various thematic devices,” Bowie said at the time. “If this works the way I hope it does, then the next step for me will be to write a piece specifically for arenas and stadiums, which is almost like taking a musical on the road that has one narrative form all the way through, with a cast of characters, and is written for epic theater. I’m testing the waters with this tour.”

Bowie assembled a massive team that included five dancers (under the direction of choreographer Toni Basil, famous for her one-off hit “Mickey”), saxophone, trumpet, congas and violin. He tapped Peter Frampton – who had just launched a semi-successful comeback after several years of retirement – to play guitar on both the album and tour.

The entire ensemble rehearsed for 12 hours a day in New York before kicking off the tour overseas. The set list included the bulk of the new album, as well as a number of lesser-known songs from Bowie’s catalog. The massive stage set consisted of a giant spider with vacuum tube legs that were lit from the inside, and Bowie would emerge from the spider’s head for the show’s dramatic encore.

The tour was financially the most successful of Bowie’s career to that time, but both it and the album it supported were met with a mixed critical reception. Though Bowie would later state that he felt the tour paved the way for many elements that became important in subsequent live productions from other acts, he found the rigors of the show so exhausting that he chose to scale down his future road shows.

The tour was documented in a popular home-video release, Glass Spider, a year later in 1988, and then released on DVD in 2007.

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