David Bowie’s drummer recalls his time with ‘Ziggy Stardust’, Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder and now pays tribute, with longtime Bowie associate Tony Visconti, in Holy Holy, touring in 2019
The last surviving member of The Spiders from Mars, drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey strives to keep the spirit of David Bowie’s early music alive with his supergroup Holy Holy. Also featuring bassist / frequent Bowie producer Tony Visconti and Heaven 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory, Holy Holy rises above being a typical ‘tribute band’ by not attempting to replicate the music perfectly. Rather, they strive to extend Bowie’s approach to performing, giving the players creative space as they bring the essence of the songs back into the live setting.
Woodmansey discovered drums at age five and began playing in bands at 15. One of those early bands was The Rats, which included guitarist Mick Ronson. When Ronson moved to London and started working with Bowie, he brought Woodmansey into the group as well. That first incarnation featured Visconti on bass and was known as ‘David Bowie and Hype,’ with Trevor Bolder taking over that instrument when they were rechristened The Spiders from Mars.
After his time with Bowie, Woodmansey formed U-Boat, which released one album, and went on to work with such artists as Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Art Garfunkel, Paul McCartney, and Edgar Winter. In 2007, he released the album Future Primitive recorded with his sons Nick and Dan under the name 3-D. In late 2016, he published a fascinating memoir, Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie.
PKM recently talked with Woody Woodmansey.
PKM: When you and Tony Visconti started Holy Holy, it was to perform the album The Man Who Sold the World live, as you didn’t tour when the album originally came out. How did you feel about that back then?
Woody Woodmansey: It was a real low point, because Mick Ronson and myself had been in a band for years together. We were very much live musicians; we loved playing live. That was the first album we did with David. Tony was playing bass and producing. It was David’s first real step into rock music from folk music, and some of it was very dark. It seemed even darker at the time. So, we were really excited because we’d just finished an album in a London studio and we thought, ‘Good, we’ve got to get out and see what audiences think of this,’ and it just never happened. He was moving from one management company to another, and there were hardly any finances around at the time. So, we didn’t have enough money to even get decent equipment together to be able to tour, and we never did it.
“She Shook Me Cold” from The Man Who Sold The World album, Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, Woody Woodmansey on drums, 1970:
PKM: Had you been intending to tour? Had you done any preparation before realizing it wouldn’t happen?
Woody Woodmansey: We hadn’t rehearsed or anything. It just didn’t come up. We wondered if we were going to tour. In the end, we did have a few gigs, but we weren’t doing the album; we were doing other stuff. Mick would play bass sometimes and I’d take my kit and David would play acoustic. We actually had one at Leeds University and on the way to the gig, David was going up separately with some equipment. We saw a signpost and it said, ‘Hull / Leeds.’ We were from Hull and just said to the driver, ‘Can you take us to Hull?’ [laughs] So, David ended up doing it acoustically on his own! We left him at that point, and once he’d got the management thing sorted out, he phoned us back up and said, ‘Look, will you come back? I’m going to be doing another album and I really like working with you.’ So, we agreed.
PKM: Were there any songs you were particularly disappointed about not getting to play live?
Woody Woodmansey: Yeah, there’s tracks like ‘She Shook Me Cold,’ which was really dirty and bluesy and heavy. ‘Running Gun Blues’ and ‘The Saviour Machine,’ just because there were a lot of tricky musical parts in it. We’d basically written that album by jamming. We just set up in the studio like a live band and David would say, ‘OK, next one…’ and he’d give Mick and Tony the chords and he’d say, ‘OK, this is a bit of an intro, this is a verse, this is the chorus, and then there’s this bit and I don’t know where this bit goes.’ So, we’d basically jam and use whatever felt good.
Tony was really good at going, ‘OK, that bit is really good; let’s repeat that, and then let’s go back to that other bit.’ And we didn’t know what the melody was and there were no lyrics. Sometimes, we’d ask if he had any lyrics and he’d say no, but with ‘The Supermen,’ he said, ‘Oh, it’s called ‘The Cyclops,’ so we kind of worked out a backing track that fit the Cyclops and then when he came to do the vocals, it was like, ‘I thought you said it was called The Cyclops!’ and he went, ‘Oh, no, I changed it.’
PKM: As a musician, what do you feel you got out of your experience working with Bowie?
Woody Woodmansey: I’d come up basically through the blues with my first band. So, I’d learned to play the blues properly. And then I learned top-10-type things like Small Faces and then went to the progressive side of music, to Cream and Zeppelin and Hendrix. I got quite technically-minded on playing drums, but I still had the “playing like Charlie Watts on an early Stones” thing. I could still do that, but I hadn’t done that for a bit. When we did Man Who Sold the World, both Mick and I were still in the progressive rock thing. We were thinking progressive rock when we did that album.
When it came to Hunky Dory, we realized he was writing differently. You could no longer do a drum fill that went right across his voice. You couldn’t do a screaming guitar solo where the main hook of the song was. The songs were more streamlined, and they had more definite sections. When he brought us songs, they were completed. He usually only played them twice to us before we recorded them. You would still be going, ‘What’s the last part of the song; how does it end? What’s the middle bit? How many bars?’ And then he would go to [producer] Ken Scott, ‘Is it rolling?’ which meant the studio light was on, that you were recording. He would count it in and start and you had to know what you were doing, usually in about 10 minutes. I’d listened to things that were similar or had a similar approach, like Neil Young was very straight ahead and I liked the grooves that he picked up, I liked the beats and things.
[Bowie] was an expert in giving you enough in a song lyrically and emotionally to almost write your own story. That’s how I always saw him as a writer. He never finished the picture, really. You had to finish it. And so, he got you involved in it, and that’s the mark of a fantastic songwriter to me, a great artist does that.
So, it was calling those kinds of influences to then put on David’s music. You had to find a drum beat that fit and helped bring it to life and give it some meaning and that didn’t stand out as just a good drummer. That wasn’t really the message; the message was the song always. You had 10 minutes to get that together, but it worked. David was incredible at knowing when he’d got what he wanted. We never passed three times through a song. We went to three, but we never went to four. ‘Starman’ was the first time we’d played it. ‘Jean Genie’ was one take, just the first time through.
A lot of them were like second take, or third take. We never did four versions. We would go, ‘OK, let’s do it again,’ in the early days, when we first started recording with him, and he’d have a listen and say, ‘No, no, that’s it.’ And we’d say, ‘What? That’s the first time we played it!’ And he’d go, ‘Yeah, that‘s what I want.’ And we were like, ‘Oh my God, has he lost the plot?’ He’d put his 12 string on and do a vocal, and the whole thing would just work; he was right. Everything was right. A song kind of takes on its own identity at that point. He wanted the freshness. He didn’t want you to think about it, he didn’t want you to work something out, technical or anything. The point was to get the song and get the song across. So, the minute you’d done that, that was it.
PKM: How did you maintain that freshness once you did start touring and performing the songs night after night?
Woody Woodmansey: You tend to treat every concert as a new time; it’s a new audience. Maybe each night you play it slightly different. Not that anyone would notice it, but you’re approaching it as a new time when you’re playing. You know the parts, you know that beat, but you might put little bits in so, to you, it’s completely new.
PKM: Bowie went in to repeatedly re-invent himself, in terms of both music and image. Did you have any sense that would happen?
Woody Woodmansey: There were two things really going on. We’d talk about what was coming next, and he talked a little bit about doing soul-y and funky things. That really was never the Spiders’ type of thing. So, it didn’t really mean a lot. He was genuinely into lots of different kinds of music, whereas I guess we weren’t really into that. When we went out to clubs after a show, we’d go where the good dance music was and he’d spend the rest of the night dancing. He liked that kind of music. I guess it would be obvious that he would go in other directions, if we had really looked properly.
PKM: After your time with Bowie, you actually did an additional Spiders from Mars album. Could you comment on that?
Woody Woodmansey: That was really Trevor [Bolder] and I wanting to play together, and we said, ‘OK, so we need a singer and a guitarist who are good.’ A friend of ours knew Pete McDonald and Dev Black, who were in different bands. We liked what they were doing, so we just kind of got together and started writing. We went out and did a few gigs. But at that time, it was very hard to feel comfortable writing when you’d just played on what you thought were 3 or 4 albums’ worth of incredible songs. It was very hard to take a step out of that completely because we were still so close to it. It was a tough job to do that. We probably stepped too far in other directions that might not have been right, just to try to get away from it.
PKM: Holy Holy are touring again in early 2019. Do you have anything new planned for these shows?
Woody Woodmansey: This is the first time we’re doing both The Man Who Sold the World as a complete album and Ziggy as a complete album in one show, with a few others thrown in. We’ve picked a few others that we haven’t played before. When I put this together, it was very much trying to really put what David’s viewpoint was on doing shows and getting the music across. It was always the spirit of the song, what it was supposed to feel like. That’s how you put it across. Like on ‘Jean Genie,’ there’s a wrong bass note on the recording of it. Trevor said, ‘I’ve made a mistake,’ and David said, ‘Let me listen to it,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I like it!’ And Trevor said, ‘What am I supposed to do live? Play a wrong note?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I promise not to laugh at you.’
We’d gone for the spirit of the songs and the message of the songs, how he intended them, or at least how we took them. He was an expert in giving you enough in a song lyrically and emotionally to almost write your own story. That’s how I always saw him as a writer. He never finished the picture, really. You had to finish it. And so, he got you involved in it, and that’s the mark of a fantastic songwriter to me, a great artist does that. He was never boring. You had to say, ‘Ok, it’s creating an effect on me but I don’t know why half the time.’”