Rob Harrison interviews Woody Woodmansey, the last remaining member of the Spiders From Mars, David Bowie’s backing band, and has played on what is now described as classic Bowie, that is the period 1970 to 1973, taking in such albums as The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
When I spoke to Woody he is about to go on tour with Holy Holy, co-leading it with bass player/ producer Tony Visconti.
For this tour Holy Holy play the Bowie album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust. This album, in particular, is a seminal record and a landmark album ushering in, perhaps, the glam rock era.
I talked to Woody about Bowie’s working methods and David’s legacy to the arts in general.
Hi Woody how are you?
I’m fine thanks, just rehearsing for the Capital Of Culture gig in Hull. We are playing Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, being one of Hull’s biggest export.
So that brings us to the next question. Hull, as Capital Of Culture, has brought out the fact that it produced lots of really good good music, with such bands as Throbbing Gristle, Everything But The Girl, The House Martins, The Red Guitars ( Woody interjects) and Lena Lovich, and of course The Spiders From Mars, but it’s not really high on everyone’s music radar.
Yes it has. I think there was always that thing in Hull of we do that but we don’t brag about it (laughs).
Maybe that’s it. That’s why it’s not been considered. Would you say that was a characteristic of Hull then?
Yeah. I remember reading about how much Hull had been bombed during the war. Nobody wanted to talk about it. They were very secretive and you think that way of operating lasted this long. But the people in general are very down to earth, not up themselves really.
I remember playing there in a warehouse and it was a cool vibe and the people were ok.
Yes it is. There are a lot of plays and art exhibitions on at the moment and they are all selling out, so it’s good.
How did Holy Holy come about? It was your idea wasn’t it?
Yeah, actually no,( laughs). it always seemed like my idea. I got asked to do an interview in front of a live audience at the ICA in London and I thought it was a bit highbrow for me but I had never done it, so I thought I would give it a shot, and it was great. Really good questions, good audience and the whole thing was sold out, so quite cool really.
They were doing a kind of Bowie week, this was about three years ago, and they had put a band together with guys that had got their careers together being influenced by Bowie. This was Steve Norman from Spandau Ballet and Clem Burke from Blondie, so they had put this band together and they were playing the Latitude festival. We all had a laugh and I got up and played a few numbers. it was a really good performance and they got all sorts of offers to get gigs, then Blondie were touring so it clashed a bit so they approached me. Would you like to be the drummer, playing your own material.
Oh, weird one.
Yeah it was, but I said as long as I don’t have to audition I’ll do it (laughs).
Think you have passed the audition?
I’ve passed the audition, yeah, and then it grew from there, starting in pubs mainly, and then I thought wow, that first album that Mick Ronson, David and me produced was The Man Who Sold The World but we never really got to tour that.
Bowie was moving from one manager to another at the time and there was no money to set it all up. When we finished the album we really wanted to take it out there, because it was pretty dark material and all we wanted to do was play it in front of an audience. That would be a thing to do as it had never been done.
Then I thought we have to have Tony Visconti the producer on that album playing bass.
I’ve got to see if he would be into doing it. I thought I would have to spend hours trying to talk him into doing it to be honest, but he went straightway. Wherever you’re doing it I’ll be there.
So, totally up for it?
Well he said yeah. David and and me have often spoken about it.
Tony has probably produced about twelve or thirteen Bowie albums and added we always regretted not taking that album out live.
So we got together, and it really worked in the rehearsals. We were like grinning from ear to ear. It was cool. Of course the spark was there when we recorded the album, but we felt we had to put a modern spin on it,
That’s interesting, what’s the modern spin?
Well, it was kind of, we had come out of the progressive rock period and there was all this leeway to what, shall I say, do your own ego bit, you know what I mean, throw your own drum fills in and guitar leads, just something you wanted to hear someone play on a record. on that album we did indulge in it y’know, we threw everything but the kitchen sink into that album.
Yes there’s a lot going on in that album.
Er, yeah I mean, we kind of talked about it being our progressive Sargent Pepper album, so when we approached the material again we took it back to the songs and kept the same idea, but not as busy, more streamlined so it didn’t sound dated.
Yes, I went to the gig in Liverpool and it sounded amazing, the arrangements were superb. But that’s Tony Visconti’s forte really, isn’t it.
Yeah, Tony’s exceptional on that. I mean when we put that album together we set up in the studio, as though performing live and often David had just given us the chords to work with and we would just jam through it till we had something good with those chords, and Tony was really good at saying, oh that’s good, let’s repeat that, let’s put this back in there, so we had an arrangement. Then David came back in and worked again on the lyrics and that was it, we had it.
That’s interesting, it’s a question I was going to ask you, later but I will ask you now. Bowie always said that he was a failed jazz musician but he seemed to work like a jazz musician In terms of letting the musicians play rather than dictating to them.
Yeah, he was exceptionally good at that, I think in all the albums that I did, he only told me to do one drum part, he said no, I don’t want that, I want this. I thought ok and I tried it and he was spot on. Y’know he was totally right, so I couldn’t really argue, but usually it was left to you.
He would play the songs a couple of times to you, then you had to work really quickly because he either got bored, or was keen to get with it, so you knew you were only going to get no more than three takes, usually it was a second take like Starman, or Jean Genie, that was the first take, Life On Mars I think we only did three, it was pretty much working bang bang. He wanted that freshness you know, we thought he was a bit stupid when he first started doing that.
Oh that’s interesting (laughs)
You know what I mean, we were in this London studio where the Beatles and Queen had been and you think you are going to do lots of takes, until you get this perfection on every instrument, that was our way of thinking, you do one take then another one, and then you say oh let’s go and have a listen, and you say oh I know how it goes now, it does that, and we’d be talking as a band the Spiders and then we would say ok let’s do another one, and
he would say, no,that’s the one. Y’know that’s the only time we played it right, and he would say no, that’s what I want.
That’s great. They do say the true sign of an artist is knowing when the work is finished.
Yeah, exactly, he did know that, all the time, which was quite amazing and we realised then he wasn’t stupid (laughs).
It’s hard to work like that, so you know you have to get it right pretty quick, so there is a lot of pressure but what matters in the end is what product you get.
To my mind music lost a bit when technology came in as it didn’t matter if you didn’t get that take, you could chop out a bit and paste it on, it lost that freshness, that creativity you get as a band because when it starts to happen you need to capture that and you’ve got something. It’s kind of mystical y’know, it’s more than the notes you’re playing, the words that your singing, it’s everybody’s communication going into a blend to create the song. It’s all about the song.
That’s like the Beatles thing, it’s all about the song and Bowie followed on in that vein but these songs have lasted. Let’s look at Ziggy the album you are doing now. It was produced about forty two years ago but still stands up today as a seminal seventies record.
Yeah that’s right. We never thought that when we were recording it.
How long did it take to record?
It took us about a week to record. That’s quite fast really which is unbelievable, yeah, (laughs). I’m not sure if that was the way we operated or or whether there was a budget. I never heard about that we might have been under pressure and we didn’t know about it.
So you had just done Hunky Dory and then you banged into Ziggy Stardust. Was that Tony Defries?
Yeah that was Defries. He wanted another in the can. We probably squeezed about six years work into three years, what with the recording and touring.
But that happened in those days you were on a bit of a treadmill.
Yeah, but by that time we were pretty good.
What was your first impression of Bowie? There is a Mick Ronson quote, Mick Ronson being the guitarist from the Spiders from Mars. Is that he appeared to be a person who was not messing around. Would that be your opinion of him?
When I went to London to see him, I had a lot of boxes that I needed to tick. Can he sing, can he write songs, all that stuff y’know, because basically I was a rocker and I was heavily into the progressive scene at the time. So my heroes where people like Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers, Bowie came across as a bit of a folky really, the only thing I had heard was Space Oddity, which I thought was folky, so we met and had a chat, and then he played me Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, and that was it really. You were in.
Finally, do you think living together at Haddon Hall contributed to the closeness of the group, almost, shall we say, creating a sort of cult situation as Bowie seemed to be interested in all things esoteric like magic and outsider art, so you would say he had more in common with artists like Captain Beefheart or Sun Ra, not just musicians, but educators too.
Yeah, definitely, because it was a very arty atmosphere all the time, so Bowie educated us in a way,. Some things were easy to adapt than others, But he wanted us on the same page for the music and putting the shows together, so we knew what was going to happen and how we could contribute you know. You couldn’t stand behind Ziggy Stardust as a blues band from say Beverley in Yorkshire, y’know what I mean. You had to play your part as The Spiders From Mars. That was important when we were putting this show together. There is a thousand or more bands out there doing tributes and any good musician can play the right note, but what was the spirit of i,t what was the message of this song, what was the feel of it, so we concentrate more on the atmosphere.
That’s like the conversation we had just before about the being in the studio trying to find that intangible moment, capture the butterfly I suppose, that sense of otherness that I suppose Bowie represents.
For me he was a master songwriter and image maker. He didn’t write about the normal for one thing and he gave you enough in the songs to point you in a direction that you could go in or to take those lyrics whatever, and create your own song with it, almost create your own what it’s about. I’ve met so many people who go Life On Mars is all about this and I just say yes, good good, and it was completely their own story and he was the best at that.
He would use different mediums to embellish the songs when we would play the songs live to put the songs across. It was never done to be glamorous or anything like that, but he did want to brighten the world up and brighten up the business and I think he did that. In many ways he was very much a renaissance man inspiring, lots of others from fans to musicians.
Holy Holy featuring Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti, with an all star line-up play The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust in its entirety.
The band perform in Liverpool at the Philharmonic on April 13.