INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo APRIL 2017 - by Mark Paytress
As 1970 dawned, David Bowie was British rock's rank outsider. Three years later he'd transformed himself into the most flamboyant star of them all...
Woody Woodmansey, the heartbeat of The Spiders From Mars, relives the rollercoaster rie to the top, and the human cost that came with it...
On an unremarkable day in March 1970, Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey took the train down to London from his family home in the Yorkshire market town of Driffield. On the recommendation of his friend Mick Ronson, the long-haired drummer dressed in T-shirt and denims was making his way to Beckenham, Kent, a leafy suburb on the outskirts of south-east London. He'd just turned down a promotion at Vertex, his hometown spectacles factory, in order to pursue his musical ambition. And yet, as a fan of earthier prog rock, he had doubts about the man he was heading down to meet.
"I turned up and knocked on the door of this big gothic-looking house," Woody remembers today. "David answered. He wore this rainbow T-shirt, red corduroy trousers, a silver belt, bangles and blue shoes with red stars." The stars looked as if they'd been hand-painted. "I was impressed," Woody says. "But it was like two worlds colliding."
Haddon Hall, a grand Victorian villa that had been occupied by David Bowie and an assortment of pals since the previous autumn, would become Woody's home, on and off, for the next eighteen months. As he arrived, over his curly-haired host's shoulder he could see the massive hallway and a Gone With The Wind-style staircase that curved into a galleried first floor. Everything was bare floorboards and very little furniture. Number 7, the ground-floor room Bowie shared with his new wife Angie, was, Woody soon discovered, the spiritual heartbeat of Haddon Hall. With pink walls, silver ceiling and antique table and chairs painted red with gold inlays, it was, he says, "all very arty", the communal set-up leading the nineteen-year-old drummer to suspect he'd landed in "a throwover from the hippy thing."
Ronson, Woody's bandmate in The Rats - "the coolest band in Yorkshire" - had recently teamed up with Bowie and had suggested Woodmansey as a suitable candidate to round out a line-up that also featured producer Tony Visconti on bass. Woody had heard Bowie's autumn 1969 hit, Space Oddity, but dismissed it as "lightweight and poppy", its singer another here today, gone tomorrow merchant. "All Mick had told me was, 'He can write and he can sing'," he recalls. First impressions did little to help the situation, Bowie spinning a few of his earlier records to little avail. "It was all a bit folky and twinkly for me," continues Woody.
Then Bowie picked up his twelve-string guitar and sang Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud, the B-side to Space Oddity. Musically, the song - whose lyrics rippled with alienation - was probably Bowie at his twinkliest, but Woody was already somewhere else. "I heard this great ability to communicate, in a unique and very English voice, and I was instantly involved in the story of the song," he says. For now, it was all Woody needed as proof that he had not been engaged on a fool's errand.
Woody quickly discovered more about Bowie's world, and his close circle. Angie introduced herself by announcing that she was a lesbian. "I knew what a lesbian was," Woody noted in his recent memoir, Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie, "but I'd never spoken to one." In the pseudo-communal set-up, Bowie's mother Peggy would sometimes visit for Sunday lunch with David's half-brother Terry. "I don't think Terry had any filters," Woody says. "Someone once asked him what he'd been doing and he said, I've been wanking."
One of a clutch of new songs Woody heard Bowie play during those early days at Haddon Hall was All The Madmen. "That was a bit weird," he says, "because you knew it was about his brother." Woody soon realised that most of Bowie's songwriting came "from an odd standpoint". As a lyricist, his was a sense of unease, perhaps even fatalism, that chimed with a wider cultural shift.
"The '60s were going to change the world. Then came all the drugs and people dying," he says of the period that saw the loss of key founders of the so-called 27 Club, Jimi, Janis and Brian Jones. Musically speaking, experimentation had also turned to indulgence. "I liked all that progressive stuff," Woody admits, "but it had gone up its arse a bit. We'd chat about what would be next." No one, not even that all-creative sage from Flat 7, seemed to know. "I could see where Bowie wanted to get to, and that it wasn't a small thing," Woody adds. "He just didn't know how to. All he knew was that he wanted to record an album with a rock band."
Cultural despair, as well as a haunted chill blown in from Haddon Hall, deepened the muscular rock of The Man Who Sold The World, recorded during April and May 1970. Having dug deep into his psyche for the raw material, Bowie was happy to let his new instrumentalists loose in the studio. "He'd throw us the chords and we'd jam it through," says Woody. "When it started to feel like a song, David would come in, adjusting bits to fit the lyrics."
Bowie's vaguely hands-off attitude was, say some, down to an excess of newlywed bliss. But he was also extricating himself from manager Ken Pitt, his mentor since 1967, who'd been nurturing Bowie as a culturally sophisticated artiste. Rocked by the recent death of his protective, Pitt-trusting father, Bowie wanted to feel the freedoms seized by the new rock culture. Handwritten on a Haddon Hall wall was the slogan: "Not conformity but radical". Scrawled next to the word "conformity", Woody recalls, was Pitt's name.
For all its questing complexity, Bowie's first unsupervised venture into subversion was stillborn. The album's release was stalled by problems at Philips/Mercury, while gigs were restricted to the occasional low-key acoustic set, often with Woody playing nothing more than bongos. "We didn't feel we were going anywhere," he admits, adding that something else hadn't quite sat right with the band during the recording of the album. "That voice at the end of Black Country Rock. We thought, Why are you doing a Marc Bolan impersonation? It sounded a bit desperate."
On their way to a Bowie gig in Leeds that summer, Woody and Mick saw a sign to Hull and, disillusioned with their frontman, they followed it. There, they called up ex-Rats vocalist Benny Marshall and regrouped as Ronno. Unable to offer them a better option, Bowie kept up intermittent contact. Then, in late May/early June 1971, he rang them. "He told us he'd got new management, had been writing a lot and wanted us back to do another album," Woody says. "Ronno was treading water, so Mick and I said, 'Let's go back.'" Rookie Ronno bassist Trevor Bolder went with them.
"David was completely different," says Woody. "It was like chalk and cheese. There was a certainty about him, both within himself and with his writing. America pulled him out of his Britishness. It was the missing link."
Earlier in the year, Bowie had visited the States to promote The Man Who Sold The World. He caught The Velvet Underground in New York, albeit without Lou Reed, declared that rock "should be tarted up [and] made into a parody of itself " and returned home raving about the first two Stooges albums. His songwriting, already spurred by a lucrative new publishing deal signed with Chrysalis in October 1970, grew sharper and cast its net wider still.
"While singers like Paul Rodgers or Robert Plant sang in a very definite genre, Bowie was never like that," Woody says. "I know it sounds a bit weird but he genuinely liked all music. The foundation was always the songs." Changes, one of several written on the upright piano at Haddon Hall, revealed a more conversational style indicative of a new willingness to engage with an audience. "We'd all been listening to Neil Young and John Lennon's solo album," says Woody, "which were more straightforward but still had a lot of character. David wasn't a pianist. He plonked! But the songs certainly became more direct. He'd learned not to waffle."
This piano-led material formed the basis of Hunky Dory, recorded over the summer. "It wasn't a rock set but a collection of great songs," says Woody, singling out Life On Mars?. "That's when I thought, There's more to this guy than we'd imagined." Woody adopted a 'John Bonham goes classical' approach for the piece. "But I did wonder whether we'd gone too far down that road."
On September 25, 1971, Bowie made a rare live appearance at Aylesbury Friars. He started the show with Fill Your Heart and Buzz The Fuzz, two covers of songs by comic US songwriter Biff Rose. After an intense version of Jacques Brel's Amsterdam, he was back to his giggly, between-song self. "I thought it would be nice to bring the boys on... before we go to America in a few months," Bowie said, before previewing songs from Hunky Dory. Towards the end of the set, Ronson launched into The Velvet Underground-inspired guitar intro that unleashes Queen Bitch. The earnest show warmly appreciated by a crowd seated on the floor now rocked hard as Bowie's character seemed to grow with each song. Climactic covers of Chuck Berry's Round And Round [sic] and the Velvets' Waiting For The Man had the crowd hand-clapping and on its feet.
"Bowie realised that the best way to communicate would be with a rock show,"Woody explains. So too had Marc Bolan. A mate from mid-'60s Mod days, the hippy throwback had recently reinvented himself as an Electric Warrior. Now fronting the four-piece T.Rex, Bolan revitalised the singles chart, sparkled for the cameras and ignited a new era of 'Glitter Rock'. Bowie's "It could have been me" refrain from Queen Bitch would have sounded especially bittersweet that autumn, not least because the man behind T.Rex's sound was Tony Visconti whose production work had seen him fly the Bowie coop.
"There was a strong affinity between Bowie and Bolan," says Woody. "Bowie admired what Marc had done but it wasn't right for him. It was too pop, too one-dimensional. But we definitely took something from it." Bowie had to have been fired up by Bolan's transformation. It was another indication that the hands of destiny were now working in his favour. Behind the scenes, manager Tony Defries, now giving Bowie his undivided attention, had recently secured a hefty new three album deal with RCA. There was just one last change to make.
Several times during our conversation, Woody speaks of Bowie having "everything he needed, but not necessarily in the right order or place". Queen Bitch, for instance, a scorching Velvet Underground homage, was, says Woody, "the first big step towards Ziggy. But when Mick and I went back to Yorkshire, Bowie said, 'You can have that one'."
The great Bowie giveaway continued when Moonage Daydream and Hang Onto Yourself, both inspired by his US trip, appeared on a May 1971 single credited to The Arnold Corns. The 'group' was Bowie's Warhol-inspired venture into star-making, the frontman one Rudi Valentino, alias Freddie Burretti, a fashion designer who, says Woody, resembled "a living Michelangelo statue".
"Bowie was gonna write and produce. Freddie was gonna be the rock star. There was one flaw. He couldn't sing a fucking note," says Woody. "So when Arnold Corns didn't work, he was like, 'I'd better do it my fucking self then.' That's when you saw this change."
It took a whole summer for the penny to drop, but when it did, the whole band would feel it. "In a word, dynamics," says Woody. "By the time we did [The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars], we'd all learnt what was needed. The songs felt like they belonged to the same band. And we were hungry. We wanted to make a rock album we could take out on tour."
The band, no longer Ronno but not yet The Spiders, came into their own. "When we went into Trident to begin Ziggy, we spoke about the sound of the instruments," Woody recalls. "I told [co-producer] Ken Scott, You made the drums sound like fucking Yorkshire puddings on Hunky Dory." The new material and upbeat mood in the Bowie camp demanded a brighter, more open sound. Woody's drums were tuned higher. There was little need to dampen the skins.
Seven of Ziggy's eleven songs were taped during a whirlwind week beginning November 8, 1971. The last in the batch was Five Years. Woody: "David said, 'It's going to be the first track on the album and I want it to start with a drum beat.' I knew the song was about the end of the world, so I tried to figure out a beat that would mean something. I thought, If it's the end of the world I'm not gonna hit a cymbal or play a drum roll. So it starts like Hunky Dory, and by the time the band comes in, it's Ziggy."
Woody's restrained, unfussy intro, sets up both song and album and symbolises what he calls "the less is more" philosophy that underpinned Ziggy's making. He even learnt to utilise Bowie's cut-and-paste creativity too, borrowing (and accelerating) drum patterns from Hendrix's I Don't Live Today for Star and King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man for Ziggy Stardust. Trevor Bolder, a "solid and powerful bass player", drew on his early days as a trumpet player, which had given him a melodic sensibility that's clearly apparent on Moonage Daydream. "Mick would take a lot of ideas from Trevor's playing," Woody says.
Ronson, who'd returned to music lessons while back in Hull, was now very much Bowie's right-hand man. "David encouraged him to work on arrangements for Hunky Dory," Woody says, "and he'd come up with the string part for Life On Mars?." Ronson had a freer rein over Ziggy, scoring strings (notably for Five Years and Rock'n'Roll Suicide), taking Moonage Daydream into the stratosphere with that ever-swelling solo, and driving everything with sharp, spiky guitar playing throughout.
Not audible at the sessions was any hint of Ziggy being a concept LP, the album's loose narrative centering on an alien being who dons the guise of a rock star, descending to earth with a message of hope as the apocalypse looms. "That all came later," Woody says. "Otherwise, why wouldn't Life On Mars? have been included?" There's more tangible evidence. A provisional track-listing, put together by mid-December, included Jacques Brel and Chuck Berry covers, yet was still missing key concept cut Rock'n'Roll Suicide as well as definitive Spiders rocker Suffragette City. Both were added in January 1972. Woody: "Then RCA asked, 'Where's the single?' So we went back in and banged out Starman. Now if that hadn't been on the album, where's the concept? Everything was created as we went along, just as the clothes were."
With the exception of those final three tracks, Bowie recorded Ziggy Stardust with long, '40s-style Veronica Lake locks. But as the album came together, Woody noticed that Bowie was presenting himself differently. "You felt he started to become an artist in the studio. He was taking it on."
Bowie also encouraged his soon-to-be-christened Spiders From Mars to rise to the occasion, taking them to see Alice Cooper at the Rainbow ("He walked out"), the ballet and the theatre. "He was educating us," Woody says. One afternoon, the band ventured out to the fabric department at Liberty. "Angie was pulling material off the racks and Bowie's going, 'What about this?' I'd think, Are you making curtains? Then a designer came along and said, 'I see pastel colours for the band.' I thought, Fucking hell, where are we going with this?" His manliness affronted, Mick Ronson quit. "I had to talk him into coming back," says Woody, who ended up with the pink costume.
When Bowie returned to Aylesbury Friars on January 29, 1972, the affable longhair from the September show was a man transformed. Dazzling in a quilted jumpsuit and shiny red wrestling boots, his hair spiked and carrot-red, Bowie and his similarly attired Spiders debuted the Ziggy Stardust show. Included in the set was a version of the old Cream hit, I Feel Free - its title reflecting the sense of liberation coursing through the band.
"You had to play your part," Woody says. "You had to walk on stage as if you were from another planet and believe it." Even at the Toby Jug in Tolworth, where the Ziggy tour proper began on February 10. "Especially there. It would look even more over the top in a pub. I remember thinking, Will the audience go, 'Who the fuck do you think you are' and laugh us off-stage?"
On July 6, 1972, Bowie and the Spiders promoted Starman on Top Of The Pops. "That was the big one," says Woody. "We'd arrived." The single went Top 10 while the album, released three weeks earlier, hit Number 5 and kept on selling. By the time they played two extravagantly theatrical, wildly acclaimed shows at London'sRainbow in mid-August, the billing had become "David Bowie Is Ziggy Stardust". In September, the band hit the States for three months. "We travelled together, ate together before gigs, partied together, recorded songs for Aladdin Sane together," saysWoody. "It was Ziggy And The Spiders on tour as a real band. Yes, you were aware that David was a leader, but you need a leader whether you're David Bowie or Free."
In Woody's memoir, the tone changes in June 1972 when he writes: "Bowie fucked off to New York for a weekend to see Elvis Presley perform." But, he says, it was the second US tour during February and March 1973 when battle commenced. In fact, there were two theatres of conflict: Bowie versus the band, and Bowie versus 'Ziggy Stardust'.
"On the early tours, he'd put the Ziggy make-up and outfits on, we'd do the show, then back in the limo afterwards it'd be a gang again. Now when Ziggy walked offstage, he was still Ziggy Stardust, with his own limo and hotel. It was no longer David Bowie. He'd snub you or give you a dirty look, and you'd think, Was it something I said?"
During the tour, Woody heard that the new supporting musicians were being paid double, and in pianist Mike Garson's case, ten times as much as his £50 a week. Bowie had not long told the band they were all going to be millionaires. "We realised we were being taken for a ride and wanted to protect our careers," says Woody. Word was put out and CBS offered them £100,000 for first refusal on a Spiders From Mars deal.
Tony Defries got wind of the situation and called a meeting. "That didn't go well," says Woody, who'd recently converted to Scientology ("It gave me a better sense of self-worth," he says). "You're just a fucking backing band," Bowie barked. "I could have made it with anybody." Woody hit back: "If I wanted to back somebody, I would have picked someone who can fucking sing. There wasn't an ounce of truth in it. But when the manager's just said he'd rather pay the road crew more than you, you wanna hit back, even if it was like throwing potatoes at bombers." Within days, the rhythm section got a raise to £500 a week with an end-of-tour bonus. "Everything went more or less back to normal," says Woody.
Then, on July 3, 1973, the show rolled in to London's Hammersmith Odeon for the second of two nights. The furore around the gig was such that a cavalcade of Rolls-Royces lined the front of the venue, their owners - Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr and Elton John among them - keen to catch what had become a must-see show. "It was the last gig of the tour," saysWoody, "so we pulled out all the stops." Especially Bowie. With D.A. Pennebaker's film cameras capturing the moment, Ziggy dropped his bombshell: "This is the last show that we'll ever do!" he declared before one final blast of Rock'n'Roll Suicide. The audience gasped. Unaware of Bowie's intentions prior to the show, the band looked bemused. Woody hurled a drumstick and stormed off. "I'm thankful I didn't know," he says now, "because it was a great show and it's on film for ever."
Four days later, and ninety minutes after his wedding ceremony was over, Woody took a call from Defries. "I'd assumed it was to apologise that he and David weren't at the wedding. Instead, he said, 'You won't be going to France to record Pin Ups.' I said, Why not? 'Because you said you didn't want to be in the band.' It went on like that. It was like talking to a fruitcake." Woody makes no bones about his reaction. "It knocked the shit out of me."
A rapprochement between Bowie and Woody took a while. In the end it came during one of the Low sessions at Château d'Herouville, the pair speaking openly and apologetically about the past. It was only then that Woody fully understood the role that cocaine had played in Bowie's transformation into Ziggy a few years earlier. Meanwhile, Bowie himself admitted he'd kept his drug intake hidden.
Today, following the passing of Mick Ronson (April 29, 1993) and Trevor Bolder (May 21, 2013), Woody Woodmansey is the last Spider standing. Our conversation at Mojo HQ takes place after the drummer's return to Trident Studios in Soho where he filmed an interview that will introduce a nationwide screening of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture, taking place at UK cinemas on March 7. While the film holds bittersweet memories for the sixty-five-year-old, he has come to terms with the past. With Tony Visconti, he now fronts Holy Holy, a supergroup, of sorts, that performs Bowie's 1969-73 work. On March 25, he takes the band to Hull to perform Ziggy Stardust in its entirety, prior to a run of further shows.
"It's The Rise And Fall And Resurrection," he laughs, adding that he'd not change a thing. "The adventure is the adventure, and it's the good, the bad and the ugly. I've gained an understanding of what a good song is. It's one of the most powerful things in the world.
"People say that Bowie wasn't quite human," he concludes. "He wasn't really. I once heard him say that writing good songs is like searching for God. He came from a spiritual place. He was one of the best."
THE RISE OF THE SPIDERS #1
THE PROG FREAK-OUT: The Man Who Sold The World - While David Bowie enjoyed a 'honeymoon at home' with his new wife, Angie,whom he'd married on March 20, 1970, the three-piece of bassist and producer Tony Visconti, guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Woody Woodmansey began routining the material that would appear on his third album. Bowie presented them with the songs and chord structures which the three-piece would then thrash out in the rehearsal space they'd built in Haddon Hall's old wine cellar. Moving away from the whimsy of his self-titled 1969 set, the band developed a heavier sound which is immediately evident on the eight-minute opener, The Width Of A Circle. Ronson absorbed the art of arranging from Visconti,while the latter introduced Woodmansey to exotic percussion instruments, including the gourd-based guiro which he employed to fine effect on the introduction to the title track. Indeed, self-confessed hard rock fan Woody found subtle ways to punctuate the more dramatic material such as After All, Bowie's rumination on mortality. On the Nietzsche-inspired romp of The Supermen, however, he played the song "almost like Thor with his war hammer." Despite the creation of an impressive, new progressive sound, Mercury struggled to find a radio-friendly track to spearhead the album campaign. All The Madmen was considered and promos pressed, but the single release was shelved. The knock-on effect was an album that didn't chart on either side of the Atlantic.
THE RISE OF THE SPIDERS #2
THE MAJOR STATEMENT: Hunky Dory - If The Man Who Sold The World chimed with 1970's heavier music climate, then Hunky Dory represented a distinct about-face. Gone is the neo-metallic brawn of the previous effort, replaced by Bowie's desire to shine as a serious songwriter. To suggest that failure had forced him to decide to just be himself is perhaps stretching the point; Hunky Dory is still an album where a clear synthesis of external ideas can be heard. However, the album's first track, Changes, is evidence that he no longer viewed mere rock bands as the competition. Equally, while that song chronicled the shifts in his own life (fatherhood included), Bowie remained hungry for success, so tracks such as Queen Bitch and Oh! You Pretty Things (initially off-loaded to Herman's Hermits' Pete Noone) seemed designed as crowd-pleasers. Just as significant, however, is the continued development of the band's musical approach. With Trevor Bolder and Ken Scott replacing the departed Tony Visconti on bass and as producer respectively, Ronson collaborating further with Bowie on the arrangements and Woodmansey perfecting his controlled approach, the album benefits from a genuine unity of sound. And this despite Bowie's insistence that no more than two or three takes be laid down of any one tune in order to maintain the spontaneity. The obvious quality on offer - and the album's perennial appeal - aside, Hunky Dory stalled at Number 44 in the UK album charts upon release in December 1971.
THE RISE OF THE SPIDERS #3
THE CONSECRATION: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars - Hindsight allows us to view the directness of Ziggy Stardust as a response to the commercial impasse of its more considered predecessor, but in reality much of the material for the former had already been recorded prior to the release of Hunky Dory. Having written a lion's share of the songs that would appear on Ziggy, Bowie enjoyed a two-week holiday in Cyprus with Angie, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder in the late summer of '71, before returning to the UK to begin work on the album. As usual, the material was presented to the band along with the album title and a loose narrative. Ronson, Woodmansey and Bolder returned to the wine cellar to start fine-tuning the material. With Ken Scott again at the helm, the band headed back to Trident Studios in November for what proved to be a set of intense sessions. Deliberately designed as a rock album, the material set for inclusion was revised and Starman added as a last-minute single [see main piece]. When the album was finally completed, the band - now rechristened The Spiders From Mars - felt they'd captured what Woody refers to as "something special". But, he wondered, "Was it too weird?" He need not have worried. On release, the album hit the UK Top 5. Its impact also propelled Hunky Dory back into the charts, allowing it to peak at Number 3 in the summer of '73. After three years of hard graft The Spiders, it seemed, were truly on a roll. But while they would contribute to his next album, Aladdin Sane, Bowie it seemed had other ideas...