Wednesday, 28 February 2018
An Evening With Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti
On Friday evening just gone I was lucky enough to have been given a ticket to see two men who, together but in their slightly different ways, played a major role in defining that decade of explosive creativity and unsurpassed musical innovation that was the 1970s.
Tony Visconti and Mick "Woody" Woodmansey worked with David Bowie on some of his earliest albums, the former as producer and (pre-Ziggy) bassist, as well as also producing much of his later material of course, the latter as drummer with The Spiders From Mars (and, alongside Visconti, with its predecessor The Hype). As I commented in my review of Woodmansey's book Spider From Mars: My Life With Bowie, this early but thoroughly essential period of Bowie's long career was the closest, Tin Machine excepted, that Bowie's stage identity ever came to being submerged within that of a band. Whilst Bowie delivered a catalogue of ground-breaking and definitive material post-Spiders, such was the impression that this particular band made on the music of its time that it deserves to be considered in its own right, as a stand-alone chapter in the universal rock'n'roll story.
THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD
Held at the producer's own Visconti Studio on the grounds of Kingston University in South-West London (or Surrey for the traditionalists), this ninety-minute event focussed on two aspects of the work in which both men have collaborated, the album The Man Who Sold The World - released in the US towards the end of 1970 and in the UK in April 1971 - and the supergroup Holy Holy in which they both perform Bowie's music to impressively large audiences today. Visconti of course has been involved in more than just his work with Bowie, having produced material for T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Morrissey, U2 - but even amongst that esteemed company his association with Bowie stands aloof.
I ventured into the studio while most of the audience were still enjoying a beer or a glass of wine in the foyer (I'd brought my car, alas) and was chuffed to discover that I had been allocated a seat directly behind the front row. Before me was an unelaborate black settee and a large screen, a little to the right of which I could faintly see Visconti and Woodmansey, amid a small gathering of their closest, through a tinted window. Although predominantly (and reassuringly) the larger number amongst the audience were from roughly my own age group, it was noticeable that there was a not insignificant sprinkling of younger people too.
And then, when the time arrived, they came on, settling down on the settee as Leah, the young lady who facilitated the event, took up her place on an adjacent chair and ensured that the microphones were in position for the ensuing presentation. Leah introduced a slightly unusual adaptation of Memory Of A Free Festival which featured some intriguingly assertive instrumentation which didn't appear on the version that eventually made it onto Space Oddity.
Probably the longest part of the evening took us on a fascinating voyage through the various stages and processes which went into the production of this iconic album, which in places was so diagnostic and analytical that it left me feeling that I had never actually listened to it, despite my having heard it so many thousands of times. It is a mark of quality in any art medium that hitherto undiscovered nuances suggest themselves with every new visitation, no matter how broadly familiar one is with the overall work.
In its time The Man Who Sold The World represented an interesting foray into the realm of hard rock after the relatively folksy and ever-so-slightly psychedelic approach of its predecessor. By his own account this was very much in Woodmansey's comfort zone, and yet Bowie returned to his softer, folkish approach for his next work Hunky Dory, before drawing upon both influences for the band's concept album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, which very successfully fused the two. Perhaps surprisingly, Bowie and the band never toured The Man Who Sold The World. In retrospect it would have been interesting to know how it, and they, would have been received had they done so.
The second part of the presentation was concerned with Holy Holy, the supergroup which dedicates itself to keeping the early work alive and which, alongside Visconti and Woodmansey, is fronted by Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 and has featured such names as Marc Almond (Soft Cell), Gary Kemp and Steve Norman (Spandau Ballet), Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Clem Burke (Blondie).
Having seen Holy Holy live, playing before packed houses, I know not just how relevant, but how important, their work is. Performing the classics from Bowie's early-seventies albums (and pretty much every track on every album is a classic), this impressive array of seasoned and dedicated musicians, in the midst of them two men who were seminal in the creation of those classics, ensure the music and the spirit that it invoked will never be allowed to die even though the man who was at the centre of it all sadly has.
Interestingly, and significantly, the common misconception that Holy Holy was formed in the aftermath of and as a reaction to Bowie's untimely passing is precisely that. Not only was the group launched some time before that unhappy day, but the man himself actually saw them perform, albeit via video, and was impressed by what he saw and heard. During the last days of his life he is known to have reflected upon how things might have turned out had the Spiders remained together. He certainly wasn't the only one.
Putting the music to one side for a moment, if such a thing were possible given their unique role and place in the history of rock music, Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey are an enjoyable, natural double act which is very easy to watch and to become immersed in. Visconti is modest, occasionally self-deprecating - and funny. Woodmansey is very Yorkshire, seldom modest - and hilarious. Between them they create an atmosphere and an ambience which I am sure would be enjoyed even by an audience which had no knowledge of their immense contribution to music.
THANKS FOR THE MUSIC
After the talk I joined a very long queue, autobiographies of both men in hand, for a book signing. It was well worth the wait just to shake the hands of and exchange a few words with both, to thank them for the memories and for the work which they continue to do. They were both kind enough to sign not only their own books, but also a copy of my own novel The Best Year Of Our Lives, which of course has a 1970s theme and references Bowie and his music quite frequently. They even agreed to pose for a photo with me with their books, between which I, admittedly quite cheekily, inserted my own - as if there was any equivalence!
Well, if you don't ask…