Forty-five years since the release of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World, two of the collaborators who played on the seminal LP, producer and bassist TONY VISCONTI and drummer, MICK ‘WOODY’ WOODMANSEY, are touring the album for the first time with Bowie’s blessing. Richard Lewis speaks to the two Spiders From Mars about their first encounters with Bowie, contributing to the album and the politics behind why it never toured on release.
Following the music hall whimsy of his 1967 eponymous debut LP, and the acoustic/hippy stylings of 1969’s Space Oddity, by early 1970 David Bowie decided a radical re-think was in order. Hailed by fans and critics as the true opening of his career, The Man Who Sold The World sold slowly on release but firmly established Bowie as a critical favourite. Ranging from expansive opening cut The Width Of A Circle to the swaggering Black Country Rock and chilling anti-Vietnam War character study Running Gun Blues, the LP was proof positive of the singer’s colossal musical ambition.
Occupying an unusual place among Bowie’s 26 albums, TMWSTW is the nearest to hard rock/proto-heavy metal he ever came, inadvertently creating the form soon to be christened glam rock. Despite the sonic impact of the tracks – which were custom built so as to sound better live – due to management wrangles and record company indifference, the album was never toured. Forty-five years on from the record’s release, two of the players who created the LP – producer/bassist TONY VISCONTI and drummer MICK ‘WOODY’ WOODMANSEY – are currently touring the album, playing the LP in its entirety, following a highly successful run of shows last year.
Establishing many of the songwriting tropes Bowie would continue to explore throughout his career, the disc introduced key collaborators: guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson and aforementioned sticksman Woody. The pair’s muscular playing was to be supplemented by bassist Trevor Bolder the following year to create legendary backing band The Spiders From Mars.
TMWSTW was the second album to be helmed by Tony Visconti following Space Oddity, and the New York-born producer is Bowie’s longest serving creative partner, having worked behind the recording console for much of Bowie’s work through the 70s, as well as on 2013’s triumphant return The Next Day. “You lot thought he retired, I didn’t!” Tony jokes.
“The Space Oddity album was edging towards a rock album but only managed to get as far as folk rock,” Visconti explains of what Bowie was aiming for with TMWSTW. “We wanted to do something more powerful next. We looked for a great guitarist and it didn’t take long to find one in the form of Mick Ronson. After jamming with Mick a couple of times we asked him to join us. He was a big influence on us. For a start we’d never played so loud in our lives. He got me to listen to [Cream bassist] Jack Bruce and he said I should learn to play bass that way.”
Acquainted with Mick Ronson through Hull-based prog rock band The Rats, Woody Woodmansey was recommended to Bowie by the guitarist. Woody recalls that: “Mick went down to London and about two or three months later I got a call from David who said, ‘Mick says you’re a great drummer; I want you to come down and live with us in Beckenham in Haddon Hall and be in the band’.” Woody’s memories of first meeting the singer are vivid. “I knocked on the door and this long-haired, thin guy opened the door, wearing a rainbow T-shirt, bright red trousers, blue shoes with red stars on them, covered in bangles. I was completely in denims and thought, ‘Well, this doesn’t match!’ We just sat for a couple of hours going through what he’d been doing and talking music, playing the stuff he’d released. I could hear the potential.”
“David wrote the songs; Mick, Woody and I wrote our own parts,” Tony explains. “We were the arrangers of the music although David had a lot to say too: after all, those were his babies. Nowadays everyone who plays their own parts gets a songwriting credit, but that wasn’t the custom back then.” “David would have the idea for the song,” Woody recalls, “give Tony and Mick the chords, and sometimes there would be a few linking bits missing so they’d figure out what was the best way of putting two parts together. Then we got together in the studio and we jammed til we found a good feel.”
“There was always pressure to write a hit single and predictably the label wanted ‘Space Oddity 2’,” Visconti recalls of the period. “I’m afraid we weren’t very commercial-minded then. We wanted to make a great album; we wanted respect from our peers. We were idealists.”
A definite switch from the pastoral prog folk of Space Oddity, TMWSTW won praise for its harder edge. Hailed by Melody Maker as “a heavy rock album par excellence… on many of the tracks Bowie and his men beat Sabbath at their own game”, Tony and Woody think the description remains accurate. “Absolutely, this was the precursor to Ziggy. We forged a style and it grew to a rock phenomenon,” Tony states. “It was definitely a hard rock album,” Woody agrees. “We’d been doing progressive rock stuff, Mick and I, so we were really still in that vein. We took what were really folk songs when David gave us them, and we rocked them up.”
With the LP scoring acclaim, the logical step was to head out on tour, but unfortunately this wasn’t to be the case. “When we finished it we were really excited about going out on the road cos we thought this is gonna be really good, but because of the managerial situation there was no money at that time,” Woody explains. The band had a falling out over Bowie’s new manager, Tony DeFries (who was fired in 1975 for his creative accounting), “who in essence said he only cared about David and David didn’t need a band,” recalls Tony of the period. “Until deals had been done, we didn’t have any money so we couldn’t go out on the road,” continues Woody. “Tony’s production thing was taking off with T-Rex and he had a big decision to make whether to stay in the band, and because we weren’t playing live he went down the production route. Mick and I had left at that point, cos we couldn’t play live. We missed being out on stage, basically; we went back up to Hull and put a band together.”
While initial sales were slow, TMWSTW quickly accrued a devoted following, then took off after a live performance of Starman on Top Of The Pops in July 1972. “Unfortunately, at the time the management situation didn’t help the album, and the cover didn’t help the album,” recalls Woody. Indeed, the LP sleeve of Bowie in a man’s dress from exclusive men’s outfitters Mr. Fish caused such a furore the cover of the US edition was switched for a cartoon. “I think that worked against us a bit,” laughs Woody. “I couldn’t imagine two headbangers going ‘check out this album, mate!’”
Urged on by a desire to play the LP live in its entirety, Woodmansey and Visconti sought each other out to put together a band to tour TMWSTW in 2014. Though Bowie didn’t join them for the tour, he gave his blessing for them to go ahead with it. The semi-Spiders From Mars are fronted by Glenn Gregory of 80s synth pop group Heaven 17, and several dates on the tour – including the Liverpool date at the O2 Academy on 18th June – also feature Marc Almond of Soft Cell. “I met Glenn through a Dutch composer, Stephen Emmer, who came up with a cool concept called International Blue where he wrote quasi-Sinatra, Scott Walker-type songs and got Glenn to be one of three baritones to sing them,” Tony explains. “We got on like a house on fire and I always kept him in mind for a future project. Marc is a dear friend from a long time ago; his voice is just magic,” Tony states. “I’m so pleased that, years later, this great album can now be performed live with two of the original musicians.” We couldn’t agree more.