David Bowie‘s 1987 Glass Spider tour is widely seen as the one of the worst things he ever did, right up there with his 1967 single “The Laughing Gnome,” his 1984 cover of “God Only Knows” and his widely ignored 2000 movie Mr. Rice’s Secret. It’s become shorthand for something pretentious and over the top, a cautionary tale for what happens when an artist gets so big and famous that nobody can tell him something is a bad idea.
Watching the footage over a quarter century later, it’s easy to see what all the fuss was about – but it’s nowhere near as terrible as the legend suggests. Beyond the fact that the production seems tame by today’s standards, it was hardly the first time Bowie incorporated dancers and theatrics into his stage show. His 1974 Diamond Dogs tour was equally over the top. He also busted out mime moves on the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1972/’73, and not much else about those shows can be considered restrained.
A big part of the problem is that he was touring behind Never Let Me Down, which even Bowie later admitted was not a strong album. His previous two projects were the soundtrack to Labyrinth and Tonight. Neither of them were up to Bowie’s high standards. 1983’s Let’s Dance was obviously an enormous success, but some fans were turned off by its MTV friendly sound. The next four years were defined by a Jim Henson children’s movie, a campy duet with Mick Jagger, a Pepsi commercial with Tina Turner and a couple of subpar albums, so by the time he hit the road in 1987 the critics were ready to pounce.
He gave them a lot of criticize with the Glass Spider tour. Pepsi sponsored the whole thing (paving the way for huge money tours in the future) and some nights Bowie seemed to be sleepwalking through his hits. Guitarists Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton didn’t always mesh well together, and the giant spider hovering over the stage did look a little ridiculous. Many fans were shocked to see Frampton onstage, but it had been 11 long years since Frampton Comes Alive. Bowie and Frampton grew up together, and he was more than happy to give his old friend a high-profile gig. As you can see from this video of “China Girl” and “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie was in fine voice, and the tour isn’t quite as bad as its reputation.
Bowie realized that the Glass Spider tour was a misstep, so when it was finished he decided to do something radically different. Remembering how much fun he had working with Hunt and Tony Sales on Iggy Pop‘s albums in the late Seventies, he decided to reconnect with the duo and formed Tin Machine along with guitarist Reeves Gabrels. They cut an album and launched a club tour, playing only new material. It was the polar opposite of everything he did on the Glass Spider tour, yet many people seemed to hate it even more.