Q&A With Woody Woodmansey, Spider From Mars



SVolkBY STEVE VOLK  Sometimes, success comes to those who live long enough. In July, 1973, Woody Woodmansey was the drummer in one of the world’s most important rock bands, Ziggy Stardust and Spiders From Mars. He’d spent a couple of years on the kit, slugging out big, muscular beats behind David Bowie, grounding an enterprise that incorporated such disparate influences and cultural touchstones as mime, kabuki, A Clockwork Orange, sci fi aliens and Beethoven’s Fifth into a melange that provided audiences with multiple climaxes both real and metaphorical. The show pushed sexual liberation forward miles when Bowie simulated fellatio on Mick Ronson’s guitar, and triggered a more religious kind of ecstasy at the show’s close, when Bowie, as bisexual space alien Ziggy Stardust reached out and touched all the kids who could push up to the front as he shouted, “Gimme your hands!”

Woody played on Bowie classics like Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, till Bowie walked up to the microphone, just before that last song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” and Ziggy-says-goodbyedelivered perhaps the greatest single piece of stage patter in the history of rock and roll. “Not only is this the last show of the tour,” he said, “but it’s the last show we’ll ever do.” Back behind his drums, Woody wasn’t quite sure what to make of this announcement. As he says in the Q&A below, Bowie made grand proclamations about he was going to do tomorrow all the time. Most of them never happened. A mercurial cat, that Bowie. Days later, though, Woodmansey learned it was true. Bowie’s days as Ziggy Stardust were over, and needed to be, and consequently he had no further need for spiders from Mars.

Woodmansey was sacked. His band mates Trevor Bolder and Mick Ronson moved on—bassist Trevor Bolder finding success in Uriah Heep, Ronson as a guitarist and producer. But Woodmansey didn’t do all that much, musically speaking, till last year, when he committed himself to a new project that has allowed him to reclaim his own legacy. Holy Holy, a band that includes Woodmansey and long-time Bowie producer Tony Visconti, is up and running, performing glam rock hits the pair had a hand in crafting, and the entirety of one particular David Bowie album, in particular, The Man Who Sold the World.

The choice of The Man Who Sold the World as the material to anchor the is perhaps unexpected, but exactly right. That record, released in 1970, has long been looked upon Bowie-philes as one of the oddest in Bowie’s canon. In some respects, it has always been a Bowie album in name only. The music was put together, largely, by his cohorts at the time, including Woodmansey on drums and Visconti on bass. In fact, they even did some shows, with Bowie on lead vocals, under the band name The Hype. An obvious precursor to the outrageous glam outfits of Ziggy, the band members all dressed as different characters. (In a clip online, Woodmansey is dressed as a cowboy.)

The album itself contains a handful of tracks that seemed to suggest the songwriting talent brewing inside the young Bowie: “After All” is pretty, and unsettling. And of course the title track was soul stirring even before Nirvana did it, breathing new life into the song.  But taken as a whole, the album is only partly recognizable as Bowie at all—a true collaboration, then, between the singer and the musicians he briefly thought about fronting as a band. It’s also one of the more underrated albums in the Bowie canon, with proto-grunge like “She Shook Me Cold” and tuneful, tasteful excursions into bluesy metal.

holy_holy_o2_tix_1000sqHoly Holy is playing a sold out show at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville on Friday, and as Woodmansey frames it, he’s “not allowed to talk about it,” but this new-old band, with Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 and Marc Almond of Soft Cell trading off lead vocal duties, seems to have won an endorsement from Bowie himself. Announcements about the band’s shows regularly appear on Bowie’s website, and Woodmansey seems to be enjoying himself tremendously. “There’s a lot of water under the bridge,” he says, and this Friday, concert goes can listen to it go rushing, roaring by.

PHAWKER: What was the impetus for performing The Man Who Sold The World beginning to end?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: I just kind of remembered that The Man Who Sold The World was the first album that Mick Ronson and myself ever played on, with David and Tony [Visconti] on bass. It was the first time we’d come down from the north of England, down to London, so it was a big deal for us, in a real studio with a real producer and a guy who could write songs, because we hadn’t really met anyone who could write good songs. It was a big deal for Mick and I. When we finished the album, we were really excited and the four of us just wanted to get out on the road. But, David was going from one manager to the other and there were no finances and no one was really wearing the hat at that point. So, we never got to play that album on the road, we did a couple of songs from it on the Ziggy tours.

PHAWKER: You guys did “Width of a Circle”?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: We always felt that the album – no as you look back and see what you’ve been through musically and how David changed, things like that. We started to see that, that album was the first where Bowie went, ‘I’m gonna do what I want to do.’

PHAWKER: Sure, he started to take shape.

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yeah, when I first joined him, he was kind of a folk guitarist but dabbled in a bit of musicals. You know, he hadn’t really touched on the rock thing and that’s really where we came in. That’s all we’d been doing, we weren’t folk fans or pop fans or anything really. I looked at his progression and you could hear that the guy could write. When he played us a song in his lounge, it was like he had great presence. You know, this is all kind of in the first few days.

PHAWKER: Legend has it that he wasn’t as involved in sort of hands on, in creating the sounds of The Man Who Sold The World as he was on subsequent records. You were there for so many of those early records, what’s your recollection along those lines?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Well, David had just gotten married to Angie at that time. He was a little bit preoccupied, really. He basically gave us the songs and he kind of would say – he knew what kind of musicians we were and he was kind of like just do your thing. So, we would go in the studio: Mick, Tony, and myself. We would jam over the chords. Sometimes, there wasn’t really a song, apart from a title and a concept of what it was about. David was involved as far as the songs, but he was never what we call a jamming musician, which was probably not a bad thing. Whereas most musicians and such can get up and just play along with anybody, if they grab the chords, especially if it’s a blues thing. Bowie wasn’t that, you know, he was kind of more detached and a good thing.

PHAWKER: Well, he seemed to – his music from that period – ’71, ’72, ’73 moving on from The Man Who Sold The World seems like kind of a reaction to that hippie jam band aesthetic, like let’s keep it tight, short, three and a half minutes. He gives Mick room to go on “Moonage Daydream” and a few other songs like that. But for the most part, it’s much more concise pop songs rather than musicians jamming.

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I mean, you know, a lot of the concepts were coming through in the latest stuff but they more accessible. You didn’t have to really listen to it three or four times to get an idea of what the song was about. Whereas that’s how it was with Man Who Sold The World, with this new stuff it was immediate. We’d been listening to Stephen Stills and John Lennon. Crazy Horse was a big – we really liked Neil Young and Crazy Horse. We all were going through, I guess, musical education, naturally as musicians. It’s where that “less is more” viewpoint came from.

PHAWKER: I recently saw that David Bowie: Five Years documentary on Showtime and they had wonderful archival footage of you guys playing from that period, which, as far as I’m aware, had never been seen before. It certainly felt that way. The raucous atmosphere, Mick Ronson’s incredible guitar work. I don’t think anyone has equaled David on stage as a partner to the same degree in subsequent bands as Mick did in that band. He was amazing.david-bowie

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yeah, that’s true. That’s totally true. It is something that Bowie wanted at that particular point and it was needed in the music. I guess (Spiders From Mars bassist) Trevor Bolder and I, our position was, we had kind of gone through and played every lick that you can and every drum fill that you think fits. We had gone through that period and realized, “okay, that’s not really the way to go.” So when you hear a Bowie song, first time on the acoustic guitar, you going through how do I find the groove for this? How do I find the beat that doesn’t get in the way of the lyrics? We had kind of started to realize that the voice and lyrics were important. But we still wanted it to rock, we didn’t want this lame thing because we knew we had to take it out on the road. Sometimes it was a challenge, when he had a lighter number, how do we play this so it fits a rock set? A lot of Mick’s parts he would take from Trevor’s bass parts. He’d be playing chords when we were putting some things together and then he would just say to Trevor, “What are you playing there in that bit?” He would either harmonize or take the idea of it and put it onto a lead part. So there was a lot of bouncing between each other.

PHAWKER: The other song I wanted to ask you about specifically is the title track of The Man Who Sold The World. I’m just sort of curious did you know that song was special at the time, and do you remember the first time you heard Nirvana play it, which gave that new life?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yeah, I do. Again, it was – I think what he really started to develop at that point was that amazing ability he’s got to write about something that he knows what it’s about. But you might never ever know what it’s about from his viewpoint. But he does it in a way where you, at the end of the song, you’re convinced that you know what it’s about. Do you know what I mean? He leaves enough out – he does enough artistically for you to then to explain the meaning in your own head when you’re listening. We all did that. We would talk amongst ourselves and go, “Well, I think it’s about life on Mars. And their watching millions, there’s a family and their watching the idiots on Earth beat each other up.” One of the other guys in the band would go, “No, I thought it was about this… it’s this…” “The Man Who Sold The World,” that was a track that really did that. It gave you pictures, it gave you a story that was communicating to you and meant something to you. I think a lot of artists see that he’s really got that, he had that down.

PHAWKER: The stuff that’s more felt than understood, people bring their own particular meanings to it. But everybody walks away feeling the same sorts of emotion.

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yes, exactly that. But that really is a true artist to me. It’s not boy meets girl, girl loses boy. And it could be that. It’s not that common, ordinary thing. And I think that’s a secret of its longevity really. When we did the UK tour, I looked out. There were 16 year olds and 60 year olds in the same venue, doing the same things with their hands and singing all the words. It was like – I never saw this album as a sing-along album for one thing because some of it was quite dark. But they were singing it along with beams on their faces. And I was like, “This is really weird.” We’d do a meet and greet after words and whole families were there. Three kids, mom and dad and they were all major fans. The 17 year olds were clutching the albums going, “These are our favorite albums.” It was surreal. Mom and dad were going, “we brought them up right!”

tonywoodyPHAWKER: I had three year old twin boys and it’s very exciting to me that there doesn’t have to be that separation between me and them, like me and my parents in cultural terms.

WOODY WOODMANSEY: I remember my youngest son came to me. He was into music, indie stuff. He came one day and he said, “I’ve got this album, Dad, you’ve got to listen to it.” I went, “Who is it?” “It’s bluesy, it’s rocky and it’s amazing.” And I went, “What’re they called?” He said, “Led Zeppelin.” I told him I was into them when I was 16.

PHAWKER: Were you aware, or to what degree were you aware that, during the Ziggy era, when you were all dressed up and doing the glam thing, that this was the stuff of cultural revolution. The sexual revolution, the identity around being gay or bisexual was shifting because of what you were doing, did you have a sense of that?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yeah, I guess so. We had Andy Warhol’s entourage from The Factory on tour. Most of them were bisexual or transsexual. That for us was, I guess we went through a cultural change personally, each one of us because we hadn’t grown up with that around us. You kind of observed it. Then, at the same time, you walk into one of the gigs in America and you’ve got 2,000 people all dressed like you — 2,000 Ziggys. And you were like, “Whoa, didn’t see that.” You go out the back and there’s some truck drivers who’ve all pulled up, in their cabs putting on make-up. They’re truck drivers. They’re putting make-up on. And they put it on badly at first, I guess, the same as we did. They’d come up to you and go, “Man, we’d just been at the gig and that was amazing.” And you’re like, “Whoa,” that stops you in your tracks a bit, you know. So yeah, we were aware of it.

PHAWKER: I’ve heard different versions surrounding the final show, is it true that you guys didn’t know that he’d be making that, “this is our last show,” announcement?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yeah, we didn’t know, we didn’t know. It didn’t hit you as a final thing, the same as it did the audience, because we were used to him doing things on a whim and we were used to him just coming out with – you know what I mean? Sometimes, he’d go, “We’re gonna do this tomorrow,” and you’d be going, “Oh God, no.” Then tomorrow came and it never got mentioned again. We got pretty used to that, so when he announced that, the first thought was, “Is this just a publicity stunt?” You know, a complete withdrawal, which would take some guts to do as well. It was only, probably, about a week later where it was finally something and we discussed it.

He was going through a hard time as well, he was really – nobody really wanted to see David Bowie. They wanted to see Ziggy and that meant doing interviews and meeting people as Ziggy WoodyW-HH_Hull_ChrisYoud-946x1024Stardust. So he kept it on. When we were first touring, we would go on with all the outfits and the whole show. Then you come off and you take it off. Or you jump in the limo, get back to the hotel, get changed. And we were a normal band, kind of partying and going out to clubs, dancing. We would chat and it was normal.

When the Ziggy thing got to its peak, you couldn’t really have a normal discussion with him anymore. Ziggy never paid the cab fare, Ziggy didn’t carry money. So it was quite strange. And that started a lot of the financial situations with the management that didn’t fit right with us. We didn’t find out a lot of this until a lot later on. Like a few years later, we find out that at the time when we wanted more money, they actually didn’t have more money.

PHAWKER: Looking back, you can understand why he needed to cut loose and get out of Ziggy?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Yeah, totally. He wouldn’t have survived it, he would not have survived it at all as an artist.

PHAWKER: So have you heard from him at all in relation to the current touring you guys are doing? Because I’ve seen the dates have been promoted on his website, so there must be some sense of approval from him. Not that he could stop you or would necessarily want to, I just mean have you heard anything from him about all this?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: Nothing that I can announce. But yes we have, though it’s not anything I can talk about. Sorry!

PHAWKER: When was the last time you talked to him?

WOODY WOODMANSEY: In the 80’s, doing an album in Europe. I was on tour out there and Tony was producing it. I gave Tony a ring, and he said, “I’m in the studio with David. David says come down.” So I just went down and hung out for a day really. I saw him in Dublin, actually, on the last tour we did. I just missed having a conversation with him there because he had to shoot off, so we were messing about and we missed him. But his management said, “Do you want to come to the show?” And I was with Def Leppard at that time, we were on the road with another band. So he got us tickets to the Royal box, so he came out and he just looked up and kind of gave us a nod that was it you know. A lot of water has gone under the bridge.