David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour represented an obsession with excess, a factor that epitomised the 1980s in a nutshell. On reflection, the pivot toward style over substance, a time when exceedingly extravagant stage shows were formed, no amount of glitzy lights or pyrotechnics could ever match the tenacity of The Starman’s talent.
Usually, when artists put together wildly over the top stage shows, the dream is that the plans will enhance a live performance, turning to it toward the realm of theatrical. However, it’s safe to say that the industry has moved on leaps and bounds since Bowie’s Glass Spider tour in 1987. More often than not, exorbitant resources for stage shows are put together in a bid to make up for the lack of talent on display from an artistic standpoint. However, the eye-sore that Bowie presented his fans with back in ’87 would only distract from his majestic powers.
The frightful set for the tour featured a giant spider that measured 60 feet high and 64 feet wide. If that wasn’t enough madness, planted inside of the spider were vacuum tube legs that were crammed with 20,000 colour-changing lights.
Bowie recruited set designer Mark Ravitz, who he’d worked with previously, but nothing on this scale – and it showed. To give you further insight into just how mammoth the whole operation was, look no further than the 360-tonne weight, which required 43 trucks to move from stadium to stadium.
Putting on a show at a venue this size will always lead to a smattering of issues across the tour, no matter what the stage design is, but there was no getting away from the Glass Spider tour being a logistical nightmare. Despite it being the most expensive and grandiose set in history, the reality remained that it still looked somewhat cheap and tacky.
Every night, Bowie would wake from the middle of the ghastly spider in an office chair to deliver a monologue from ‘Glass Spider’, when the 100,000 people in attendance would undoubtedly rather hear pretty much anything else from his vast canon of hits. Bowie was joined on stage by a dozen dancers and even more instrumentalists, which gave the show strong a rigid feel.
When Bowie performed under the blanket of a midnight sky, things usually went swimmingly. However, licensing issues in the UK meant that he was forced to take to the stage while the sun was still burning down and making the vast lights display redundant. For this reason alone, many dates were a complete mess, especially his show at Ireland’s Slane Park and Manchester’s Maine Road. Fan footage from the latter paints a pitiful picture of a show billed as the ‘future of live music’.
“The biggest mistake that was made on that tour was opening in the daylight. The whole reason for the entire damn show was lost,” Bowie admitted to Smart Magazine in 1990.
Each of the three sets cost a reported $10 million to manufacture and, astonishingly, wouldn’t even fit inside the indoor arenas that Bowie played intermittently throughout the run. The issues led The Thin White Duke to create a miniature version for his show at Madison Square Garden.
It wasn’t just the set that was expensive. It cost a reported $1million a week to maintain a staff of 150 people to build the three sets as the tour moved around the world, with Bowie diving into his pocket to put $10million into the tour costs.
The tour was a mistake. Bowie, it would appear, was just too ambitious for his own good. He believed he’d be able to make something as imposing as the music he had created, but the Glass Spider was a reality check. Even The Starman couldn’t change the weather or make a 60-foot spider not look like a monstrous eyesore.