A tribute to Bowie delivered with a touch of class

Michael King performing David Bowie's songs in his hit tribute show
Michael King performing David Bowie's songs in his hit tribute show

On November 14, 1969, a skinny musician, basking in the glow of his first ever hit single in five years of trying, came to play a gig in Kirkcaldy.

A crowd of only around 100 turned up to the 1,000 capacity Adam Smith Hall for the 22-year-old’s show, most of whom would only be familiar with his song ‘Space Oddity’ which had peaked at number five in the UK charts the previous month.

Starman: The David Bowie Story is coming to Rothes Halls

Starman: The David Bowie Story is coming to Rothes Halls

Performing songs from his first two albums, he was nearing the end of a short, seven-date tour of Scotland which was his first as a solo artist in his own right since he’d decided on a change of name – from Davy Jones to David Bowie.

He had played a few sporadic gigs in London that year and in October was the support act on Humble Pie’s tour, but, on November 7, he set off on his first ever headline tour north of the border taking in Perth, Auchinleck, Kilmarnock, Dunfermline, Kilmarnock, Edinburgh and Dundee....where he completely flopped.

“They hated me,” he later remembered. “They threw lit cigarettes at me!”

The Kirkcaldy gig saw Bowie billed as ‘The Human Oddity’ and played with Junior’s Eyes as his backing band, the same group who played on his then-current second album ‘David Bowie’ (this was confusingly the same title as his 1967 debut LP).

The FFP advert for David Bowie's Kirkcaldy gig in November 1969

The FFP advert for David Bowie's Kirkcaldy gig in November 1969

Having played only in R n’ B bands up to that point, his audience were completely unready for his acoustic-based folk rock – his horrible bubble perm probably did him no favours either.

“They couldn’t abide me. The whole spitting, cigarette-flicking abuse thing by audiences started long before the punks of 1977 in my own frame of reference,” he said.

Of course, the unsure acoustic troubadour would go on to global stardom and sure of a warmer welcome to Fife than Bowie got in ‘69 is Michael King of the show ‘Starman: The David Bowie Story’ which is coming to Rothes Halls this month.

A huge fan of Bowie, Michael is a veteran of 20 years in theatre but says he previously shied away from any sort of tribute.

David Bowie's last ever appearance in Scotland - November 2003 at the SECC (Pic by Rob McDougall)

David Bowie's last ever appearance in Scotland - November 2003 at the SECC (Pic by Rob McDougall)

“I don’t see the point in doing that, certainly when they’re still touring. If you wanted see a David Bowie show you’d go and see the real thing.

“When he was alive, although I was in the business, I tried to stay away from Bowie and sit on the outside looking in. But when he died I was fortunate that I was able to pay tribute in my own way.

“I’m a fan and I think this is something that other fans will enjoy. That’s why I’m doing it. I’ve done lots of shows over the past 20 years but this one is really personal for me and I’m very passionate about it.

“Hopefully that comes through in the show and performance.”

The production has received rave reviews and although it only started last year following David Bowie’s sad death, it has grown in popularity at a remarkable rate and has seen Michael and his band of musicians play at the O2 in London and Echo Arena in Liverpool.

He says it’s more than just a normal tribute.

“When David passed away I went to see one or two tribute shows and I thought I can do better than that.

“After 20 years you tend to pick up some of the best musicians that are available and I thought that as a unit we could certainly do something to celebrate David Bowie’s music as opposed to going out there and just trying to be David which is not what I’m doing in my celebration to him.

“So it’s a combination of my love of the music, my love of performing and going out and hoping that people think it’s done in the right way, tastefully. That’s what I’m trying to do.

“I’m not one to blow my own trumpet but I feel the show’s success is not just down to me, it’s me and the musicians and the way the show is put together.

“It is something different. It’s not just a guy in a costume and a wig with a stripe down his face – there’s more to it than that.”

Over two hours the show encompasses Bowie’s music from all across his career, with costume changes and the use of video screens.

“We give a bit of an explanation of the different eras of Bowie’s career,” Michael said.

“It’s a Bowie ride of remembrance, happiness and having a good time. It puts a smile on people’s faces and with certain songs I’ve seen people with tears in their eyes. It’s a Bowie show in a Bowie style and hopefully people will go a way with a sense of that’s how it might have been.”

As a Bowie fan first, performer second, Michael says he was lucky enough to see him live so knows what a Bowie show involved.

“I went to see Bowie quite a few times. I remember queueing overnight at Maine Road in Manchester just so I could get down the front for a show during the Glass Spider tour in 1987.

“I saw him a lot and there was only one David, there’ll never be another like him, but if we can give an essence of what it was like then that’s great. I mean, how do you copy a genius?

“We have video footage, great lighting and all the songs you’d want to hear. We play all the hits but there’s a few surprises too, and also we tell the story really. It does have a start, middle and a finish.”

Having decided to put the show together, Michael and his musicians (“our two guitarists are Bowie freaks too”) then began to work on the songs.

“You have to careful with the songs. There are some that blend in nicely and there are others where you think I’ll come back to that and try it later.

“When we looked at Life On Mars for example, it’s just unbelievable how it was orchestrated by (Bowie guitarist) Mick Ronson, so we had to try and get close to that.

“We don’t use any click tracks - it’s 100 per cent live – and if we can embrace the original as a unit then that’s the best way to do it.

“We try and use the same guitars as Bowie did, put the same effects on the vocals, use the same effects on the keys – even the same guitar pedals!

“We’ve done our research and hopefully that comes through in the end.”

Michael promises a few obscurities for the more hardcore Bowie fans alongside all the hits.

There’s some of my favourites like This Is Not America, Loving The Alien and Fantastic Voyage along with a couple of b-sides and acoustic numbers.

“We’re trying to do it the right way with a bit of class but basically it’s me going out and performing the music I listen to when I’m in the car!”

Starman: The David Bowie Story is at Rothes Halls on August 31. For tickets go to www.onfife.com or call 01592 611101.