Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti`s Holy Holy are currently on a UK tour performing David Bowie classics from 1969-1973 including The Man Who Sold The World and Ziggy Stardust albums in full.
Mick Burgess recently caught up with Woody Woodmansey to discuss his career with David Bowie as well as giving an insight into the forthcoming Holy Holy tour.
Are you looking forward to getting started on your tour?
Yes, definitely. Being on tour again over the last two years reminded me just how good the songs were. When you play them all in a two-hour set it`s amazing. It`s hard to pick a favourite.
On 12th February you`re in Newcastle. You must have played there a fair few times?
I`ve played there many times and it`s always a great show. It`s a great Rock `n`Roll audience and a great Rock `n`Roll city. You`ve just got to get it right when you play there that`s all.
On the last tour you played Bowie`s The Man Who Sold The World in its entirety. What do you have planned for this tour?
We stopped doing The Man Who Sold The World after that tour and we went on to Ziggy Stardust, some of Hunky Dory and some of Aladdin Sane. We missed playing The Man Who Sold The World and hadn`t played it in about a year so we decided we`d put that back into the show. We also will be doing Ziggy as a whole album too so we`re doing both of those albums in full. We`ll then put in a few songs from Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane too. It`s good for us and I hope it`s good for the audience too.
Do you feel that the songs from that era are neglected a little and need to be played on stage again?
I think Bowie was really prolific through those early years and there was a lot of variety in that music. He seemed to be able to write on anything whether a guitar or a piano. He could write a song if you gave him an elastic band. It`s good to be keeping the legacy of what he did alive. We`ve played in America, Japan and Europe and the audiences were getting younger and younger. It`s funny as we were getting teenagers coming up to us with albums to sign and we thought they were for their Mum`s or something but they were telling us they were their favourite albums which is amazing. We made those albums long before they were even born.
You`ll be joined by Tony Visconti, bassist and Bowie producer and Glen Gregory. Who else is out on the road with you?
We have Bob Geldof`s guitarist Paul Cuddeford and also on guitar we James Stevenson who has been in Generation X, The Cult and The Alarm and both are really big fans of Mick Ronson and the whole Bowie catalogue from that period. It helped them get into music. Being fans and musicians, you get a great combination.
Glen Gregory from Heaven 17 has the unenviable task of singing Bowie`s vocals. Why did you feel that Glenn was the man for the job?
We were trying out a few other people and we got a few who were trying to be David which just didn`t feel right. I asked Tony and he suggested Glen and said he`d kill it. He`d just worked with him on an album. We arranged a rehearsal and we did one tune and it was totally fantastic. I don`t know how he does it but he manages to capture the spirit and the whole feel of the songs but it`s still Glen Gregory not David Bowie. It shows the strength of the songs that you don`t have to copy David. I think it`d be a bit sad if we got someone in the copied David. Glen works is great and we`re really happy how it`s worked out.
Did you ever consider someone like Pete Murphy from Bauhaus
He did a really good job on Ziggy and hit it note for note but I think Glen is the right man for us.
There must be one or two of the songs from the album that you hadn`t played live in years, if ever. Did you have to re-learn some of the songs before you could play them together as a band?
There were some I hadn`t played since the `70`s so I did have to go in and relearn how to play them. We concentrated more on getting to the spirit of the music than getting it note for note, not that we go around playing bum notes but it`s the whole atmosphere and communication of it that`s the important thing. The audience isn`t stupid and they know when somebody means it. You can`t bluff your way through, you`ve got to be good. Since David passed there`s been lots of tributes done and well, blowing my own trumpet, we`re the best.
When you originally recorded The Man Who Sold The World, was this the first time you and Tony Visconti had worked together?
That was not only the first time I`d worked with Tony but also the first time I`d been in a major studio. I`d been in little studios up in Hull so it was exciting for lots of different reasons. The first time in a real studio, the first time working with a real producer as Tony had worked with The Moody Blues and The Move so I knew that he knew what he was talking about.
How did a lad from Hull end up in Bowie`s band?
Jumping from band to band really from my first band at school to the best band in part of Yorkshire and then meeting Mick Ronson. He`d watched me play at a festival and we got together and I joined a band called The Rats with him and then the drummer that I`d replaced in The Rats went to London and joined a band called Junior`s Eyes. At that time David was trying to move from being a Folk guitarist to do Rock `n` Roll and it wasn’t working out so the drummer said he knew a guitarist called Mick Ronson. So, Mick went down and a couple of months later David called me and said that Mick had told him that I was a great drummer and that I`d really fit in. So, it was Mick`s recommendation that got me into Bowie`s band.
Having Tony, David Bowie and Mick Ronson in the same band must have been an incredible experience for you. How was it playing together?
I was still going through the am I good enough, do I have what it takes, phase. I just tried to play my best and luckily it worked out. We hit it off as people and we always had a good laugh which is important. David said he`d never worked with a unit that was as good as we were. It really was fantastic to play in that band.
As far as the song writing goes, there is one story that says the music was written by all of you with Bowie adding some parts in later although he is credited as the sole song writer. Is this how you recall it?
On The Man Who Sold The World, David had just got married to Angie so he was preoccupied so he`d just gives us chords and basic ideas about what the songs were about and then we`d arrange them and Tony was really good at that. So, we`d do a backing track and Tony would go and grab David to write a song with it.
Did you feel put out that you didn`t get credited for the songs you helped to write?
You could put it that way. We definitely contributed to the songs but technically it comes down to who wrote the melody and the lyrics and that was always David so the basic songs were always his. It changed on Hunky Dory as after he`d been to America he came back and he`d write a complete song, lyrics, chord sequences, melody the lot. He`d play the ideas to us acoustically or on the piano and you could hear enough to know he`d written a great song. We`d rehearse a little bit but he`d usually write in the studio and we`d go right, let’s do it and bang, you were in recording them.
Since working with Bowie, Tony has become one of the most influential producers in music working with T-Rex, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, The Stranglers, The Sparks and Kaiser Chiefs. That`s such a hugely diverse range of artists. Were his studio skills evident when you worked together?
Being a musician, he knew everything that was going on. He just had a really fantastic musical ear even when it came to percussion. I`d never played timpani and African percussion and he encouraged me to try different things and he expanded my musical knowledge. Mick had never done string arrangements before and Tony showed him how to do those.
Tony left after The Man Who Sold The World. How did that change the dynamics of the band?
It was understandable at the time because David was going from one manager to another and there was little finance and we couldn`t afford to go on the road. He`d already made a name for himself as a producer and it didn`t look like we`d be doing much for quite a while so he said he just wanted to go down the production route and I don`t blame him.
Trevor Bolder came in and you worked together on the next three Bowie albums. How did Trevor`s style differ from Tony`s?
Trevor had come from the Blues, the same as we had and he`d also studied Earth Wind and Fire and Funk things so you got the usual connection between bass and drums but with this added melody. A lot of times Mick Ronson would say how much he loved the bass melody and he`d take that and incorporate it into his guitar playing so a lot of the guitar melodies came initially from Trevor`s bass.
You left Bowie`s band by the time of Pin Up in 1973. Why did you leave at that point?
It wasn`t my choice really, I was sacked. There were a few arguments on the last tour mainly about financials. I also think the whole Ziggy character that David had created was really starting to take over. It started off as four guys having a laugh but it changed and when you spoke to David you`d get some strange answers. I think Ziggy more than Bowie took over the band and you couldn`t talk football with Ziggy Stardust. I honestly think if he hadn`t killed Ziggy off, it would’ve killed him.
Did you reconcile later on?
I wasn`t too happy when I got sacked but I met him in 1979 and we sat in a studio and we went for a meal and we went through what we should have said at the time and what we shouldn`t have said. He then said that those years with the Spiders were his rocket ride from obscurity to a star. He said that he never really acknowledged me and thanked me for that. He said he`d never get that again, it was a special period. It was really nice of him to say that. He said if I ever needed to get in touch to drop him a line. It might take a while but he`d get back to me. I never really got in touch until a day or two before he died. We had a few e-mails and things but didn`t really meet up. I know before Trevor died, he rang Trevor up and had a good chat so I`m pleased we reconnected with David again before he passed away.
What are your memories of David Bowie as a friend and as a musician?
I was just privileged really that we all managed to meet up. The chemistry between us all was great and he was a good leader and had good ideas and was willing to take risks. He shook the music industry up. He thought it should be bright, entertaining and controversial. He thought we might fall on our backsides doing it but at least we were doing something we believed in. We didn`t realise at the time that 40 years later they`d be playing those songs on Radio 2.
Do you feel these tours are a way of keeping his legacy alive and also that of Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder who are also sadly gone now?
That is exactly how I look at this tour and I do hope it keeps the music and their memories alive.
Have you considered writing any original material together with the current touring band?
No, not really. This is more a case of doing this for the fans and keeping that great music alive because it deserves it. You really realise when you do a two hour show just how good the music is and I think the audience really appreciates that.
When the UK tour finishes in Cambridge on 24th February, is that it or will you be heading to Europe?
There`s talk of America and maybe Australia too. None of us have been to Australia so that`d be a great place to tour.
What plans do you have once the tour is over?
I have a couple of things that I can`t talk about at the moment and I still do some session work. I`ve recently done stuff for Rita Ora`s new album. I`m also looking to do some original music with another unit and I`m in the process of putting that together so we`ll see what happens there.
Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti`s Holy Holy will be performing the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle on 12th February.
Words: Mick Burgess Photo: Christian Thomas