David Bowie had originally planned to record the tour’s two closing shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden, but the venue demanded a fee and royalty payments so the idea was abandoned.
Instead, Bowie enlisted Tony Visconti to record four earlier concerts in the tour.
For the recording at the Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia, the New Boston Garden Arena in Boston and Civic Center in Providence, we used a mobile studio belonging to RCA, David’s label. It operated from a huge truck and I found myself in the capable hands of their best engineers as my assistants. My plan was to record the performances very carefully, as if it were a studio album. I supervised the microphone placements including those placed over the audience. I had to make sure that the band was close mic’d for maximum separation between their sounds to ensure more control during mixing. I wanted the audience to sound big and real and I wanted the natural reverb in the concert halls to enhance the sound of the record. I used four microphones for the audience, not the more common two that are usually placed left and right in the house. Quadraphonic recording was still viable in the late 1970s and I wanted to cover the possibility; years later my Surround Sound mix recreated the spatial feeling of being in the audience.
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy
Fans adore bootlegs and cherish any perceived ‘mistakes’ as very vibey things; Stage is 100 per cent live. There wasn’t time during the tight touring schedule to fix anything. The performances were selected from the four nights. It’s almost impossible to perceive the different sound of each venue. When the mixes were finished I tracked David and the band down in Munich on 20 May and played them the album. They were thrilled.
The only ‘cheating’ I am guilty of was cutting into the middle of ‘Station To Station’ with a section from another night and city. The beginning and end are from Boston but the middle is from Providence. The possibility of making such edits was planned from the time I set up the sound for the first show. After I made an initial band set up, complete with equalization, dynamic processing and track assignment, I instructed the crew never to change anything on the console from show to show, and to always to use the same exact microphones. After each show a big X was made across the console in white tape, with a written warning that anyone who touched it would be, at the very least, castrated. Enormous credit goes to drummer Dennis Davis for consistently playing the same tempo from night to night, making such an edit possible. Top honours go to David for delivering some his best ever live vocals.
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy
Tony Visconti mixed the Stage recordings in May 1978 at his Good Earth Studios in London. He made the decision to mostly omit audience noise during the performances, keeping it mainly between the songs. This, he said, was in part because audience members occasionally disrupted the instrumental songs from Low and “Heroes”.
The audience, I must admit, got a bit raucous during these performances and that was too distracting (check out the “boo” at the beginning of ‘Sense Of Doubt’) – this type of realism didn’t work (not that there was a lot, but it was distracting enough to mar the recording). I just used the audience tracks in the intros and endings to prove that they were there, but cut them completely during the bulk of the recording. The sound was so pristine that we were accused of substituting studio recordings for these. I can assure you that they were totally live and very difficult to play, deserving clean sound unfettered from jeers.
Prior to Bowie’s show at Munich’s Olympiahalle on 20 May 1978, Visconti played him and the band the final mixes at a hired studio.
Although this album was recorded in America and mixed in London, David and the band finally heard the finished product in a studio hired for one evening in Munich, Germany – they really were still on tour! They loved it and jumped out of their seats when they heard the descending notes on ‘Fame’ (we were playing it back very, very loud). David loved it just as I’d mixed it and didn’t want to change a single thing. I suggested that maybe the ambient instrumentals could be edited shorter, but he insisted they remain on the album in their entirety.
In the original live shows, Bowie had held back the earlier songs for the second half. In 1980, NME journalist Angus MacKinnon interviewed Bowie, accusing him of “very consciously trying to recover your old audience again – a move that seemed to cancel out the validity of the newer material. Altogether I was naive enough to think it was a bit of a cheap trick.”
I think it was rather to do with two ideas that I felt strongly. One was that I actually wanted to play [the] Ziggy album from top to bottom, from bottom to top, one to nine, because I suddenly found it again an enjoyable piece of music to listen to, having not done it for quite a few years on stage. So there was pure personal enjoyment value in there. On the other hand, I’m only too willing to admit to the number of people who come to see me to hear a lot of those old songs and without any hesitation I’m quite willing to play them. I will also play the things I’m doing currently. But I have absolutely no qualms about playing older things of mine that people like.
NME, 13 September 1980