Tony Visconti on playing David Bowie’s glam album
Tony Visconti can still remember his one and only visit to Glasgow, more than 40 years ago, as a keen young bassist on tour with a band called The Hype. “It was really cold,” he recalls, “and we found a boarding house with three beds for seven of us, so we doubled up and someone slept on the floor. It must have been about minus five in the room and we would feed shillings into this three-bar electric fire which would last for ten minutes and only emanate heat for about two feet. So we slept in our stage clothes, overcoats, hats, scarves, socks and boots, all of us.”
One of his intimates on that frigid visit was the group’s singer David Bowie, the artist with whom Visconti has been most readily associated ever since. The pair met and became friends in the late 1960s, with Visconti going on to produce many of his classic albums, including Space Oddity, Scary Monsters, Young Americans, the hugely influential Berlin trilogy of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger and his audacious 2013 comeback, The Next Day.
Another musician he was snuggling up to on that perishing night in Glasgow was guitarist Mick Ronson, at that point a new and crucial addition to Bowie’s artistic armoury, who acted as a lightning rod in the creation of Bowie’s next album, The Man Who Sold The World.
Its heavy glam rock sound could hardly have been more of a contrast to his previous outing, the folky Space Oddity. Though it suffered initially poor sales, it is widely recognised as the prototype for the Ziggy Stardust sound a couple of years later, with which Bowie finally hit paydirt. In the interim, Bowie took time out from working with a band to make Hunky Dory, so there was never the opportunity to play The Man Who Sold The World live, though covers of the title track by Lulu and, later, Nirvana kept up its profile.
The album has always been one of Visconti’s favourites, and now he has teamed up with original Spiders from Mars drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey and his band Holy Holy to give the album a long deserved live workout – including a return trip to Glasgow. “Given that I can’t work with Mick Ronson [who died in 1993] and David Bowie is certainly not interested in looking at the past, I see this as a new reading of an older album because it’s not going to sound the same. I’m going to jam my heart out on these live performances.”
One glaring difference will come in the form of surrogate singer Glenn Gregory, best known as the frontman of 1980s synth trio Heaven 17. “He’s a real powerful singer and I think it would take someone with an exceptional pair of lungs to sing this,” says Visconti, noting that they have lowered the key of the songs to accommodate Gregory’s range. He will be joined onstage by Gregory’s contemporary, Spandau Ballet guitarist and saxophonist Steve Norman – “If Woody approves of him, then I have to go with him, because Woody approved of Mick Ronson,” says Visconti – and, paying their own loving tribute, Ronson’s sister Maggi, daughter Lisa and niece Hannah will provide the backing vocals.
Visconti and Woodmansey will also discuss the making and significance of the album at a separate Q&A event the night before the Glasgow show. Visconti has fond memories of the time. In 1970, he was living with Bowie in the dilapidated wing of an Edwardian mansion in Beckenham, Kent. They cleared out the wine cellar, jammed as loudly as possible and experimented with tape speed and phasing, microphones and acoustics – “using the men’s room as a reverb chamber,” recalls Visconti.
“For the first time, we were recording the environment as well as the music,” he says. “I truly believe that we were way ahead of our time. This was the album where we said, ‘forget about the charts for the moment, let’s see how far out we can get’, because the music David and I loved was by Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, The Fugs, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.”
Where previously Bowie had crafted songs in their entirety before recording, here he went with the moment, writing lyrics on the hoof – a practise he continues to this day.
“We just decided to take a risk and that risk came in the form of being introduced to Mick Ronson. David has an unusual knack of writing unexpected chord changes and beautiful melodies that jump, but we didn’t have that lead Eric Clapton guy until we were introduced to Mick, and that changed everything. A few days later he was an equal member of the set-up and teaching me how to play bass. He said, ‘you gotta listen to Jack Bruce, that’s where I’m at’. So he played me some Cream records and I got it, I took control over the lead bass playing on that album. It was so much fun to be liberated from just playing the thumping low beat. There are a couple of duels on that album, Mick and I just flying around like a pair of eagles. It’s probably one of my best moments as a bass player.
“When [late Spiders from Mars bassist] Trevor Bolder was playing my bass parts from The Man Who Sold The World, you could hear that we were writing the future Spiders from Mars sound, and when they did songs from that album it sounded just like a Ziggy song. Some of those bass parts I wrote off the top of my head. They were improvised at the time but now they are kind of standard. I think people expect to hear them the way I originally played them, which is a bit of a problem for me. But that’s why I want to do it [play the album live]. I always want to challenge myself. This way I’ll never grow old.”
Now 70, Visconti has never stopped working as a producer, nor playing bass. He blazed a trail with T.Rex and Thin Lizzy in the 1970s and, in more recent years, has been sought out by Morrissey, Manic Street Preachers and Kaiser Chiefs. But Bowie is still the main man, and the pair resumed their working relationship when Visconti got the long-distance summons to return to New York to work on the demos which would become The Next Day.
“I honestly could not wipe the smile off my face after that,” he says. “We have a common musical vocabulary and we’re friends, I’ve known him over 40 years. We’re relaxed when we work together, not to the point where we’re going to just rehash something, but that attitude that we’re old friends when we come together actually opens up the door to new possibilities.
“Morrissey is a completely different kettle of fish when I work with him. He’s a smart guy and he makes a certain kind of record, but he’s not quite so open to experimentation. No one I know is as open to experimentation as David.”
• Tony Visconti and Holy Holy play The Man Who Sold The World at ABC, Glasgow, 20 September. Visconti and Woody Woodmansey discuss the making of the album at CCA, Glasgow, 19 September.