25 Nov 2023

David Bowie: Serious Moonlight over Western Springs

From RNZ Music, 3:30 pm on 25 November 2023

David Bowie's Serious Moonlight concert at Western Springs took place almost 40 years ago, on 26 November 1983.

It still stands as one of Aotearoa's largest, most memorable music events, with a crowd of well over 80,000 and a frenzy of media coverage.

Bowie had visited the country twice before; his 1978 tour played two shows here. Then in 1982, he filmed scenes for the movie Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.

David Bowie, June 1983

The Serious Moonlight Tour took David Bowie's popularity to a new level. Photo: PHILIPPE WOJAZER

At the time, he'd been an influential, if somewhat a cult artist. But when he landed in 1983 Bowie had reached a whole new level of success. The Let's Dance album had turned him into a global superstar, and the accompanying Serious Moonlight tour was selling out stadiums around the world.

The transformation began at a press conference in March 1983 when a new look, consumer-friendly Bowie was unveiled to the world.

Music journalist Gabrielle Pike had a front row seat in London.

“The press conference announcing Let's Dance and the world tour was at Claridges Hotel, which is probably one of the most iconic hotels in London, it speaks of glamour and of riches and of luxury, and we were all gathering in the ballroom, very famous for its balls in the ‘20s and throughout the decades.

“The choice of Claridges was actually very poignant, because David Bowie looked extremely glamorous. He was wearing the light-coloured suits and the blond hair, he looked very, very handsome.”

The shows would become known as the Serious Moonlight World Tour and Bowie went on to explain what fans could expect to see.

“It will probably be elaborately simple, tasteful, yet trashy. I'll probably just cover something from each period that I've ever written in. I don't expect that much in terms of a character showing up. It'll be a good music concert, I hope.

“This, by the way, is the first concert tour I've done in five or six years. So, for me, it's more than exciting, it's kind of terrifying at the same time, that possibly can help with performance.”

At the time, the Serious Moonlight tour was the biggest and most ambitious of Bowie's career, with 98 shows in 59 cities across 15 countries.

It started in Europe, then moved on to North America and Japan before heading south for eight shows in Australia. Then on 22 November 1983. Bowie and his entourage flew into Wellington for the first of his New Zealand concerts.

Shortly before his Wellington concert, David Bowie was welcomed on to Takapuwahia Marae in Porirua where he sang a specially written song in response: Bowie's Waiata.

Tour promoter Hugh Lynn handled Bowie’s shows in New Zealand.

“I think with the Serious Moonlight tour everything was working for him internationally. The videos that came out were hot, the album was running hot. So, there was a real anticipation about him coming here.

“Plus, he'd been here before. And he'd always delivered the goods. And so, it was a big expectation.”

Bowie’s opening acts in New Zealand were The Models from Australia, and Dance Exponents, still a relatively unknown band who were then managed by Mike Chunn.

“Michael Gudinski, who ran Mushroom [records] worldwide basically... rang and said, I think I can get them on the David Bowie show at Western Springs.”

The band were suitably excited, Chunn says.

“I can still see Jordan and the boys when I told them because Gudinski was actually in Auckland when he secured the gig for them with Hugh Lynn and of course everybody wanted that gig and this band had really only just arrived, so I think Mike Gudinski must have pulled a few strings.

“They kind of almost fell over, fainted, which is a good thing, so they should have, they were stunned. I think, they thought ‘we're gonna meet David Bowie’."

The band got to hang with Bowie backstage, Chunn says.

“As I walked into the backstage area, David Bowie and Dance Exponents were all standing around in a circle talking. It was like he was just one of the mates. It was an amazing sight and I said ‘spread out guys’, and I took a photo of the six of them, five in the band and David Bowie.

“The whole atmosphere backstage was one of, sounds a bit hippy, togetherness, David Bowie had time for everybody.”

David Bowie performs on stage in Brussels, on May 20, 1983.

Cracked Actor: David Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour, 1983. Photo: AFP

"One of Bowie’s backing singers on the tour, Frank Simms, remembers the Western Springs concert vividly."

“I remember just watching the people on the hill and the population, it looked like everyone was there at a picnic.

“Everyone was like coming there as though it was a family affair. And it was so wonderful, young people, old people, babies…I do remember that.”

Simms too recalls Bowie being very un-starlike.

“Most every other rock star we met on the road were very isolated, very attitudinal, very nose up in the air. David would never, never, never.

“He was like one of the guys, he would go out with the crew, go for a drink, a beer after the show with the crew guys.

“Never an attitude, never needed to. I used to tell people you know why? He knows he's the star, he doesn't have to worry about somebody upstaging him, because he is the star.”

 Gabrielle Pike was in Australia covering Duran Duran’s tour when she was invited to fly to New Zealand for Bowie's Western Springs concert.

“I mean, obviously, as soon as Bowie started, that was it, you know, everybody was up, everybody was screaming, everybody was dancing, everybody was singing. They all sang along to the songs because by then, they were so well known. Everybody just got totally engrossed and engaged and immersed in this amazing David Bowie show.”

Lenny Pickett, sax player on the tour, also remembers the show well.

“I remember distinctly the Western Springs concert because of the environment, because of the natural venue, because of the huge number of people that were there. And it sticks in my mind certainly more than most performances, because it was of the natural beauty of the place. And the extremely unusual quality of having this very ancient geography, along with our faux ancient set, was a striking juxtaposition of art and reality.”

Geeling Ching was living in Sydney when she landed a leading role in the ‘China Girl’ video, the second single off Bowie’s Let's Dance album.

She was then invited to join him on the European leg of the Serious Moonlight tour.

“The guys in the band were so nice, Carmine [bass player Rojas] he was just so fabulous, so immediately accepting. Earl [Slick] was very funny. He just kind of looked at me as if I was a groupie. But he was really, really sweet to me.”

She stayed with the tour for four weeks, she says.

“I left the tour and said goodbye to everyone. And it was really sad, because, gosh, I was having a lot of fun.

“I just had the best time everyone was really, really kind to me. I just have the most wonderful memories of that tour.”

Later that year she encountered band members Carmine Rojas and Carlos Alomar outside the Regent Hotel in Auckland, who invite her to the show.

“They said ‘girlfriend you've got to come', and all that sort of thing and I said I've already bought tickets and they said ‘no, no, no, no, you've got to come backstage’.

“So, the next thing I get a phone call in my apartment; ‘Hi it's Coco [Bowie’s long time PA Coco Schwab]. I've got you a couple of backstage passes.’”

Ching remembers Bowie singing ‘China Girl’ that night.

“When they played my song, I cried. ‘China Girl’ live on stage and David singing and I'm thinking wow, that's my song.”

After Western Springs, there were just three more shows in Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong before the tour finally came to an end.

Bowie returned to Western Springs one last time for the finale of 1987’s Glass Spider tour, then 17 years later his Reality tour played a one-off concert at Wellington's Westpac trust stadium on Valentine's Day 2004.

It was Bowie’s last world tour, a blocked artery cut short a concert in Germany, and all remaining dates were cancelled.

His last live performance was New York 2006. Then, after a long hiatus, he released two more albums before his death in January 2016.

Bowie’s six shows in New Zealand are still vividly remembered by those who were there. But it’s his 1983 Western Springs concert, when Bowie was at the very peak of his international fame, that stands out as one of the country's most iconic performances.

Hugh Lynn says the timing was perfect.

“The act was on a roll, it was happening and building overseas. And it's like a wave that was coming towards us, and we picked it up. And so, it was one of those times where everybody believed in the idea, they wanted him to be here, they wanted it to work, and it did.”

More about David Bowie from RNZ:

  • Bowie's Waiata - before the Wellington concert, David Bowie was welcomed on to Takapuwahia Marae in Porirua where he sang a specially written song in response. This is the story of that day.
  • David Bowie: The Odyssey of a Changeling - George Kay presents a 6-part overview of Bowie's music ranging from the 1980's up to 2004.

This documentary was produced for RNZ Music by Sam Coley, Birmingham City University

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