Milton Keynes performances by David Bowie in 1983 are recalled

Dariusz Bowie

Tens of thousands of fans flocked to a repurposed clay pit in the Buckinghamshire countryside this weekend forty years ago to watch David Bowie perform three nights. The BBC heard from concertgoers who saw the performances up close and from behind the stage.

They arrived in their thousands from all over the country, and in order to meet the demand, additional train services and coaches were set up.

Over 150,000 people flocked to the National Bowl in Milton Keynes that hot weekend in July 1983 as part of a tour that saw Bowie perform his first live shows in England in five years.

I was one of them. I traveled by coach from Cornwall when I was 15 years old, along with a school friend. I was unaware at the time that we would soon see the artist rise to the status of a global superstar.

In addition to die-hard Bowie fans, ska and reggae fans, new romantics, punks, and even a contingent of Hell's Angels, from memory, had come to see support act The Beat. It felt like half the country was there because Bowie's new persona seemed to be appealing to everyone.

Following the success of the Let's Dance album and its hit singles, including the album's title track, there was a huge demand for tickets, and the three additional dates, from July 1 to 3, had to be added to the end of the European leg of his Serious Moonlight tour.

According to official photographer Denis O'Regan, the nine-month tour "snowballed," eventually consisting of 99 dates in more than 60 cities worldwide, including a number of sizable open-air concerts.

Denis O'Regan and David Bowie
David Bowie and Denis O'Regan were pictured together while on tour in Singapore.

The photographer claimed that after witnessing Bowie perform at the renowned Hammersmith Odeon concert a decade prior, the evening before the singer said goodbye to his Ziggy Stardust persona, he was inspired to collaborate with him.

That job, he claimed, "really changed my entire life.".

"I decided I wanted to go on tour with David Bowie, I also wanted to go on tour with the Rolling Stones because they were the biggest band and I wanted to go on tour with Queen because they were fantastic, and I ended up touring with them all.

"I presented David with a business plan to write a book about the tour, which he thought was great. ".

He explained that contrary to what he initially believed, the artist actually kept him at a distance and was protective of his reputation.

He was a very, very friendly man who wanted to easily engage in what I was doing and wanted me to record every moment. ".

His photographs capture the artist's evolution "from the inside out," he claimed; "it was an amazing time to be with him. ".

David Bowie
Bowie, who passed away in 2016, was known for his dramatic image changes over the course of a career that saw him achieve five UK number one singles both as a solo artist and in collaboration.
David Bowie
The Milton Keynes concerts gave thousands more British fans a chance to see Bowie, who had already performed in arenas in London and Birmingham earlier in the tour.

As the tour went on, the photographer claimed he had to think of new ways to photograph the celebrity "to hold David's interest.".

"It had to be very special if it was a shot of the live performance," he said.

In Milton Keynes, the audience rises up in front of you rather than dissipating over the horizon, giving the performance an epic appearance. ".

The pictures that resulted were published in the American publications Newsweek and Time, and he claimed that they "of course gave this impression of David being an enormous star playing to huge crowds so that really had quite an effect.".

The tour took on a different level of importance and developed into a huge thing as the rest of the world, especially America where David wasn't as well-known, witnessed everything that was happening. ".

David Bowie
"Way beyond what I ever expected," O'Regan said of his access to Bowie at leisure or backstage.

The day after finishing his A level exams, an 18-year-old named Chris Wilson traveled to Norfolk with friends for the first of the three dates.

We had posters of Bowie stuck in the back window because we were so excited; the day is still etched in his memory, he said.

"Oh my god, he was in top form and looked fantastic. He was gleaming and golden, and the set-up was beautiful.   .

We'd waited so long to see him, so I just remember it being utterly euphoric.

His genius was that even in such a large crowd, you could tell he was singing directly to you and was fixing his eyes on you. ".

David Bowie

Dr. Joan Keating, a student at Manchester University at the time, recalled celebrating her birthday by attending the concert with friends.

I created a strapless dress out of yellow broderie anglaise and wore it with white lace gloves that were elbow-length, she claimed.

"I recall that Bowie was very far from the area that we were in, but I remember feeling like a 20-year-old textiles student exactly where I was supposed to be—grown up, glam, and in my element.

"The music is still in my body. " .

David Bowie with Mick Jagger
Bowie with Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger in New York. In 1985, Bowie and Jagger's song Dancing In The Streets reached number one in the UK.

Attending the concert with London-based school friends at the age of 16 felt like a "big expedition" to Nick De Marco.

Although there were tens of thousands of people ahead of us, he said, "it was all very exciting because we were all young kids and didn't really think about getting to the front.".

"But it is incredible when you see the pictures of the scale of that gig, and you just feel like, god, I was there somewhere. ".

He, like many of us, recalled the sluggish train ride back to London, arriving at Euston in the early hours.

We all ended up sleeping on the concourse because there was no way we could get home. Mr. De Marco, who is now a lawyer, said there were hundreds of people doing the same thing.

"It seemed like there had been an earthquake or some other kind of tremor. ".

Sam Rosser, 15, from Staffordshire, who traveled for the gig, claimed she occasionally felt "slightly hysterical.".

"That day is something I will never, ever forget. I'm incredibly grateful to have had that experience. He is sorely missed. ".

David Bowie
The Let's Dance album propelled Bowie to an even greater level of commercial success after he had a solo UK number one single in 1980 with Ashes To Ashes.

Dave Willis, then 17 years old and residing in Woking, Surrey, recalls calling in sick to his employers so that he and a friend could attend the concert.

As provincial boys who frequently attended civic halls and recreation centers to see bands, he said, "the idea of going to this great big bowl to see Bowie, and The Beat, was just great.

"We arrived, descended the front, and then had to remain there because it was so hot. As a result, we spent the entire day in the sun without anything to drink.

"I recall everything just being brilliant; each act was spot-on, and he came on and just completely floored everyone. ".

David Bowie

O'Regan now runs a gallery in Hammersmith, west London, where he displays and sells limited edition prints in addition to his published photography books. He recalls his time with Bowie with great affection.

Once I got the photos developed [as used to happen with rolls of camera film], we would have a slide show on the tour, and I really used to enjoy that, he said.

"David and I used to go out together quite frequently because I used to love having him all to myself.

It exceeded my expectations in a big way. I was aware of my luck at the time. ".

The five-book, signed and numbered print, and limited-edition vinyl Ricochet: David Bowie 1983 deluxe box set by Denis O'Regan will soon be sold separately in unboxed collections.

O'Regan is currently working on a new book that will include all of the photographs he has taken of Bowie over the course of the past 20 years. O'Regan is the most prolific Bowie photographer.

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