We talk Bowie with Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey

This weekend Bowie collaborators Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey will bring an all star lineup to Colston Hall to perform classic album ‘Ziggy Stardust’. We caught up with the last surviving Spider From Mars who has drummed also on the likes of ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Aladdin Sane’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, Woody Woodmansey.

Tell us about how the Holy Holy project first came to be?

It started about three years ago really. I got asked to do an interview in front of a live audience at the institute of contemporary arts. I’d never done anything like it but it was only a contribution to Bowie’s early albums and their contributions to the culture. I thought it might be a bit high-brow for me but I kept at it. I did it and actually had a good time. It was part of a Bowie week so they were doing films and they put a band together comprised of celebrities who got into music and started their careers through the early Bowie albums. It was quite a lineup and they were asked to do Latitude Festival, I got on with them really well and they asked me to come to the festival and drum on two songs. I went and I did ‘Ziggy’ and ‘Five Years’. It was really good, it was a massive audience and they were all singing the words. That never happened in the day we were touring with David because they probably hadn’t learnt them by then. I didn’t realise that I would be stood at the side of the stage watching the drummer play all my parts. I wanted to run up every number and just go no, no not that one. We got on really well though and he was a friend by then. By then the band had a lot more offers for touring so they offered me to come in and be the drummer in my own band. I said yeah, as long as I don’t have to audition.

How did it move forward from there then?

Well we did a few gigs and I thought it was really good. It surprised me that there was fourteen year olds up to seventy year olds filling the place each night. We were doing some pretty dark songs and they were all singing and waving their arms. It was quite surreal to see young ones there who weren’t even alive when we toured with Bowie. It was cool but then it didn’t feel quite right because we were mainly doing old numbers without a concept. Then I thought the first album that Mick Ronson, myself and Toni Visconti did with David was ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. We never got to tour that because David was moving from one manager to another and we were on seven pounds a week. We jumped straight to ‘Hunky Dory’ and even then we only did a few gigs, it wasn’t until ‘Ziggy’ that it really went. Obviously Trevor had gone and Mick had gone so I felt I couldn’t really do it without Tony Visconti because he was the bass player on that album. He immediately said yes, whenever you’re doing it, whenever, I’ll be there. He said ‘David and I have spoken over the years about how we’ve both regretted never going out on the road with that album’. He said he thought it was a dream that had gone completely. Then we brought in Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 and put a slightly contemporary edge on it. We were really proud of it. We got together and the first rehearsal sounded fucking amazing.

 

How is the response to the shows?

Well we toured America, Canada, Japan everywhere it was the same, it was just amazing. They were even singing the dark songs about the hitman that couldn’t stop killing people and they were singing it like pop songs. It just kept us going. We didn’t plan anything else. We’d done an East Coast American tour and we happened to be playing David’s birthday in New York at The High Line which was really good. David had said to Tony, why do you want to do it? And Tony said, because we never did it; David replied, ‘That’s a brilliant reason, I can’t think of a better one’. We did the live album of it at Shepherds Bush Empire and Tony wanted to play David it with a video, he did do that and he said David was grinning from ear to ear and said; ‘That’s what we would have sounded like if we went out, maybe my career would have taken a different path if we’d done that’. At The High Line, the security and staff had heard rumours that David was going to come down and sign with us. We hadn’t heard that rumour but obviously he was welcome. He didn’t turn up so Tony phoned him up halfway through the show, and said we’re onstage and we just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. We got the whole audience to sing happy birthday to him through the mobile while we played a bad karaoke. He said that was really nice and he didn’t expect it. He asked the audience what they thought of ‘Blackstar’ because it had just come out on that day and the audience went wild. He said, ‘Oh great, good luck with the tour and catch you later’. Then it was a day and a half later when we got called saying he’d just passed away. We were still on the high of speaking to him from the stage which meant a lot to all the band. Then bang he’s gone. It was a bit surreal at that time of morning.

Did that make you re-consider things?

Well we thought, do we pull out of the tour in respect? Then Tony said that David worked right up until the end. He would come in and work and then when he couldn’t do anymore, go home, rest and come back the next day. He said he worked right until he passed. It reminded me of the Ziggy tours, he wasn’t particularly a healthy specimen. He would catch flu quite often and you’d think, god he can’t sing we’ll have to pull the show. He would say, ‘no I’m doing it’. He never pulled one show, and he would pull it off, the audience wouldn’t know and then afterwards he would collapse. So we said let’s take his attitude, the show must go on. So we continued the whole tour and it was amazing. It was different after he’d gone. You had the first twelve rows with tissues and crying. We said that this is not a fucking memorial it’s a celebration. By the end we had the whole place up. We had about twenty thousand saying they were so glad we did it. It obviously threw the grief of losing him.

 

Did anything shock you about those shows?

It was interesting because we did meet and greets after every night. I guess it hit then. We never really met audiences back in the day, you just jumped in a limousine, went back to the hotel and that was it. To actually hear the stories, I realised he’d become a part of the family. It was like peoples little brother had just died. It wasn’t just an artist that they’d happened to be into, it was a real part of their life. There was two brothers who’d been to Vietnam and they said the only album they took was Ziggy Stardust and he said without that album they wouldn’t have came back. There was so many stories like that. Hull is the city of culture this year and that used to be our hunting ground. They needed a centre point event and said we were their biggest export so offered it to us. I thought their biggest export was fish fingers and peas. We did it though. We never played the whole Ziggy album with David so it was again a nice chance to do it. Hull was the first time it’s ever been played in sequence as the album. It’s not only celebrating Bowie’s legacy but Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder as well in their home city. Every gig we’ve done has been amazing. We could probably leave and the crowd would sing the album on their own.

It must be more than nostalgic for you, how does it physically feel being up onstage?

It was different at the start. I’d look up from the drums and expect Bowie, Mick and Trevor to be stood there. When we started it we said there was thousands of tribute bands out there that are tributes playing this material. To be honest any decent musician can play the notes, but it was always in Bowie’s shoes, it was the spirit of the songs and the spirit of the show. It was the atmosphere and the way you put it across, that was more important than it sounding nice and pretty. We put the set together with that attitude, we play it like when we played it with David. It’s different as well. It still stands up playing it live and you still get off on it It makes you realise how many incredible songs he wrote. We do part of ‘Hunky Dory’ and part of ‘Aladdin Sane’ after the Ziggy set. It brought it back for me how bloody talented he was.

 

Can you name a track that you got a kick out of most?

Playing ‘Life On Mars’ live was the turning point for us in the studio when we finished that one. I remember him finishing writing it in the lounge and I’d be walking past, I heard ‘Micky Mouse has grown up a cow’, coming out, and I was like okay that’s weird. Then the weekend we were in there with Rick Wakeman on piano and we’d finished recording it. We got called in once it was mixed and the four of us sat there, when you hear it in a high quality studio on massive speakers it just blew us away. I guess it showed that he had more strings to his bow back then. You think, that’s not a one off accidental song. This guy really knows what he’s going. So we opened up the album with ‘Five Years’ and that one was great. Emotionally he was one of the masters. He was the best at giving a story that wasn’t a complete story. He didn’t paint the whole picture for you, he gave enough to point you in a direction and then you created the rest of the song and what it was about. For me that’s a great writer. It’s like painters who stand in front of their painting and explain the reason why they did black in a certain place, it’s like why did you fucking paint it if you’re going to explain it all to me? That doesn’t make any fucking sense to me that. If you have to explain it then you didn’t do a good job. Bowie was the best at doing that. He could grab you, hook you and you stayed until the end. You thought you knew what he was singing about but when you asked him, he didn’t even know. That was amazing to do so many songs like that with him.

He continued to do that up until ‘Blackstar’…

Yeah. I always admired the fact that he would step into a new area, learn it and get the best musicians he could that knew that particular area. Like with The Spiders, we could rock anything out. Then when he went funk he got the best funk guys. It was the same with the jazz guys as well. He could get what he wanted. I admired the fact that he didn’t stay in one genre. I’m pretty bloody sure he could have had eighty hits. It always felt like anytime he wanted to write a hit he could do it, he just chose not to play that game a lot of the time unless he fancied doing it.

 

Is it weird looking back at the magnitude of what you achieved with Bowie and The Spiders?

Yes it still is. You can obviously see and hear the effect of it in other artists right up until the present time. At the time it was just another song we were doing. David gave us a freehand to play what we wanted but he educated us all to be on the same page though. You couldn’t just be a drummer from a blues band in Yorkshire and sit behind Ziggy Stardust and make it work. You had to adapt and adopt the whole thing. He didn’t have a lot of patience in the studio, he got bored really quickly. So we only ever played a song three times at the most. We learnt as a band to get it quick. We felt proud of what we’d just done but you don’t really know until you go out in front of audiences. It wasn’t until ‘Starman’ came out that it rocketed from there, excuse the pun. It went mental after that though and everything changed. You know when Lorry drivers are in the car park behind a gig putting makeup on in their cabs, you think holy shit, what have we started. One of Bowie’s concepts was to brighten the business up and make it interesting. It was a bit dull back then. So to put a show together that was theatrical and colourful was exciting. At the same time you still wondered whether it would work or not because nobody else was doing it.

I guess you just gained a trust for Bowie as time went on?

I remember first going down to London from Yorkshire and all I knew was that it was a folk guitarist with curly hair. He had sung a song around the same time of the moon landing called ‘Space Oddity’. It was a folky song and as a band none of us were into that because it didn’t have a Les Paul guitar on it didn’t have loud drums on it. When I first met him I spent a few hours checking him out, can he sing? Does he look good? Is he intelligent? Can he write? He played me some of the old stuff and I didn’t like that. Then he played me one called ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, and by the end of that I was like, ‘holy shit he can sing’. I’d grown up with all the rock singers at the time like Paul Rodgers, Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, so a very English sounding voice I couldn’t see working. Until he sang that song and I really got it. I was talking to him and he wasn’t stupid which was a relief. He played me films of him doing mime and I was like what the hell has this got to do with it? That did not compute and then he would pull it out in the middle of a show and use that ability to do something that fitted the song. For him it was all about creating more effect during the song. It was all to create more impact on an audience to give them a better time. He was genius at that. He never faltered.

 

We’re looking forward to The Bristol show shortly…

Yeah Colston Hall, we did that during an old tour. It will be good going back there because we all remembered that one. We did about a 187 gigs in a row so they tend to blur and only certain ones stand out. It will be nice getting back there after all this time. It will be great doing Ziggy Stardust as that evokes so many great memories. Those tours worldwide were living the dream. I found out what it was like on the road playing to massive audiences and doing four encores. We ate the best food and stayed at the best hotels. It was hard work but we partied well. I just have fantastic memories of achieving that dream. It will be nice coming full circle back to Colston.

How was your relationship with David on a personal level?

At the end of the Ziggy period we weren’t particularly on good terms due to financial things that hadn’t been sorted out. It took until the end of the seventies to sit in a studio with him and I had a meal with him where we chatted through everything. I hadn’t realised how much the drugs had come in on the later tours we did. We never saw it and he said he was very discrete about it. That joined the dots up around some of the weird mood swings. It got very hard to communicate about certain things. We were able to go through all that to a point where he said, ‘Anytime you need to get hold of me for anything then persevere and I will get back to you’. We shared a couple of emails over the years and I saw him in Dublin on his last tour. He got us the Royal Box so we sat in there and that was fantastic. By the end it was a good relationship and we’d sorted out any animosity that was there.

Lastly, do you remember the Hammersmith show where Bowie famously killed off Ziggy Stardust?

He said it we’d got pretty used to him doing things on the spur of the moment to create effect. We didn’t know if he meant it or whether he was packing his career in and was it the end of that? Had he had enough of it? It was probably a few days later that we realised that was the end of the Ziggy thing. When I look back, my perception of it was that he didn’t really have a choice If he hadn’t of killed Ziggy at that point it would have killed him.

Tickets for the show are available here

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