David Bowie’s 1983 show at Western Springs.
David Bowie’s 1983 show at Western Springs.

Pop CultureNovember 26, 2023

Let’s Dance: Remembering David Bowie’s 1983 show at Western Springs

David Bowie’s 1983 show at Western Springs.
David Bowie’s 1983 show at Western Springs.

It’s been four whole decades since David Bowie ‘broke New Zealand’ with his Auckland concert. What was it like to be there?

It might have been 40 years ago to the day, but my dad still remembers the exact Danish spirits he was drinking before David Bowie’s concert at Western Springs (“Aalborg aquavit”). Single and in his early 30s, he’d invited about eight mates to preload at his rental at 83 Old Mill Road, a stone’s throw from the entrance to the stadium. One woman brought Afghani hash. “I was as high as a kite,” he tells me, brimming with nostalgia. “We wandered along the road and went into the concert and I was really high. But I remember the concert really well. It was just spectacular.”

At the same gig – a year before she got together with my dad – was my mum, in her late 20s and attending with her then-boyfriend. “I have an image of [Bowie] standing on the stage with fantastic lights, looking quite alien,” she says. “It was a weird scene in the middle of Auckland at that time, just this megastar standing there. It was quite surreal, almost like he’d landed from another planet.”

David Bowie’s Western Springs concert is still the largest NZ show of all time. (Photo: Shelley Watson/Getty)

November 26, 1983: the Western Springs show was one of the final stops of David Bowie’s seven-month Serious Moonlight tour, promoting his Let’s Dance album. The odds that both my parents would separately attend this one concert aren’t as slim as they might seem, given an estimated 80,000 fans showed up – around 10% of Auckland’s population at the time, according to a quick google and some back-of-the-envelope maths.

In January 1984, Billboard magazine declared it “the single biggest concert ever in the Southern Hemisphere,” and it remains the largest New Zealand gig of all time. If you’re an Aucklander, there’s a decent chance that if you weren’t there, your parents or grandparents were. 

The early 1980s were a pivotal time in Bowie’s career. With the critically beloved Berlin trilogy in his rearview mirror and high on the artistic and commercial success of Scary Monsters (1980), Bowie was poised to become a household name. According to writer Justin E. H. Smith, 1983 marks Bowie’s shift from avant garde cultural powerhouse to mainstream sellout: he calls ‘Let’s Dance’ (the song) “irredeemably dorky” and “indistinguishable from a television advertisement”; arguing that Bowie’s career in the 80s charts the broader social decline into greed and creative stagnation. (My dad’s view: “Let’s Dance is the greatest of the David Bowie albums.”)

In 1995, Bowie called it “an excellent album in a certain genre”, but acknowledged that he fell off creatively shortly after, describing 1984-1987 as his “Phil Collins years” (derogatory). This much, at least, is not in dispute: Let’s Dance tipped Bowie into superstardom, and remains his bestseller. 

By November 1983, Bowie had long retired the wild, cocaine-fuelled lifestyle associated with his Thin White Duke period, hitting our shores clear-eyed and relatively sober. “Bowie, surprisingly, was a very ordinary guy,” promoter Hugh Lynn said years later. “I say that in a good way. There was no ‘get me drugs, get me chicks, get me parties’ … He was past that. He wanted a four-wheel-drive to go exploring in.” 

Throngs of people in Western Springs stadium. (Video still, Getty)

This wholesome posture pervaded the New Zealand leg of his tour. Interviewed on Radio with Pictures, a bleach-blond, tanned Bowie dressed in immaculate 80s normcore made polite, self-deprecating chit chat with interviewer Brent Hansen; the only evidence of vice being the cigarette he dragged on the entire time (“I only sort of fart about with instruments,” Bowie demurred. “I’m not a great musician by any means.”) He visited Takapūwāhia Marae in Porirua – an experience he felt “terribly honoured” by and described as “one of the most hospitable” of his life – before playing at Athletic Park in Wellington.

Then there was the Auckland show. There were “throngs of people trying to get in,” Mum remembers: she thinks she may have jumped the fence (“I remember ripping my jeans”) that was eventually pushed over entirely as thousands of attendees streamed into the already heaving stadium. Inside, Bowie played an impeccable selection of songs from 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’ on, plucked largely from his highly innovative Berlin and post-Berlin period (1977-80). The crowd was in raptures.

Meanwhile, my dad soaked up the vibes solo. “Once we went in, we separated,” Dad says of his friends. “Some went down to the mosh pit, and I stayed up on the bank so I could see the whole thing. There were people on blankets and little camp chairs and stuff, but I just sat on the grass – I kind of lay back on the grass.” (High as a kite, remember.) When the opening guitar riff of ‘China Girl’ sounded out across the stadium, “you couldn’t hear,” he tells me. “The crowd just erupted.”

The crowd up on the banks. (Video still, Getty)

My parents’ lives both changed pretty drastically after the Serious Moonlight show. My mum’s boyfriend was out, my dad was in, and four years later, I was born. Gone were the days of watching superstars noodle away at Western Springs with carefree abandon.

These days, Mum very occasionally sees her ex from the Bowie show, and Dad’s fallen out of touch with the mates who pregamed at his Old Mill Road rental: the woman who brought the hash now lives in Coromandel; many of the others, Dad says, would be dead. But Western Springs in the early 80s were some of the best years of his life, and the Bowie concert in ‘83 was the jewel in the crown. “I can still see the stage, I can still see him, blonde hair, and the band – the whole thing.” At this point, he breaks into a rumbling baritone: “If you should fall into my arms, and tremble like a flo-o-o-o-WER! You know that one? Wonderful.”

Talking to me about Bowie got Dad reminiscing, and he tells me he found himself scrolling through YouTube later, watching archival footage of the iconic rockstar performing “Heroes”. “When I listen to it again and watch him, I just think, ‘Man am I glad I saw and listened to this guy,’ you know? This guy was part of my life.

“There’s been nobody like him since.”

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