In 1970 David Bowie was in a betwixt and between stage in his career. Public fascination with the Apollo 11 moon landing the year before had sent his song Space Oddity into the top five in the UK charts but its parent album, like so many of his other releases in the 1960s, had stalled at take-off.
Retreating to Haddon Hall, a sprawling Edwardian mansion in Beckenham, Greater London, with his new wife Angie, he set out in search of a new sound, recruiting a band that comprised two Yorkshiremen, Mick Ronson and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey, on guitar and drums respectively, and US-born Tony Visconti on bass and production.
The record that emerged, The Man Who Sold The World, was not a hit either at the time but its hard rock leanings were to form the template for glam rock and Bowie’s altogether more successful follow-ups, Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
Forty-five years on Woodmansey, now aged 64, and Visconti, now 71, finally have the chance to do something they were unable to do when The Man Who Sold The World was first released. This month they embark on a national tour, playing the album in its entirety, with a band that includes various Bowie acolytes including Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 and Steve Norman from Spandau Ballet. Marc Almond will also appear as a guest vocalist at their show at the O2 Academy Leeds.
Driffield-born Woodmansey says the origins of the project date back 18 months to a successful live interview and question and answer session on the impact of Bowie’s music that he did at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London after which an all-star band was formed to play at Latitude Festival.
Woodmansey was invited to guest on two songs but, standing on the side of the stage, he found himself a little envious of Blondie drummer Clem Burke playing all his old parts. “Every other number I was going, ‘Oh no, not that one. No, no, I want to do that one,’” he remembers. “I really wanted to get up on stage and throw Clem off the drum kit but he’d turned into a friend by then so I couldn’t do that.”
However a flood of requests for more gigs allowed Woodmansey to resume his old role full-time. Having regained an appetite for touring Bowie’s material he asked Tony Visconti if he’d be interested in performing The Man Who Sold The World as they’d never had the opportunity to do it before.
“Bowie was really going from one management company to another at the time and he didn’t have a record company and we were living on about £7 a week,” Woodmansey recalls of that fateful period in 1970. “There was no money to even put a tour together, get the right equipment, hire a crew, so we never got to do it, but at the end of the album the four of us – Bowie included – were really keen on going out live with it but it never happened.
“We did do a couple [of songs] on the Ziggy tours from that album but most of it we didn’t do. Over the years I guess it sold more when Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust went but nobody had ever really seen it.”
Though Visconti was busy with production work when Woodmansey approached him, he said yes straight away, admitting it was one of his “biggest regrets” that he’d not been able to play that album live.
Woodmansey, who’d known Ronson from the 60s music scene in Hull, says he’d known little about Bowie when he was invited to join his band. “I’d seen one flyer with his head on it with curly hair, I didn’t notice any music that he’d released. I just thought he was a folkie and I was not a folk fan particularly. Mick Ronson and I had come up through the hard rock, progressive rock, Hendrix and Jeff Beck and the blues so it was a long way apart.”
His first impressions of the singer, however, were that “this guy really means it”.
“I hadn’t really come across somebody that was professional – before that we were semi-professional, when we were in Yorkshire we still worked and just played nights and weekends – but this guy was living and breathing being a rock’n’roll star. He even sat cross-legged and ate his breakfast dressed to the nines.”
He remembers when he knocked on Bowie’s door, he answered it clothed in “a rainbow T-short, bright red corduroy trousers, bangles on and some slip on shoes that he’d obviously dyed blue and put red stars on each one”. Compared to Woodmansey’s long hair and denim attire it was “bit of a culture shock”.
“I thought maybe everybody dressed like that in London but it turned out they didn’t,” he laughs. “Then he played me some of the stuff he’d done, some of it I really liked, some of it I hated – he’d gone into a lot of different genres, some of that didn’t do anything for me – but I could hear the guy could write and then we just started putting things together and it was like, ‘OK, this is good’. You could tell that he was a good frontman.”
Woodmansey remembers Haddon Hall, where the band all lived, as “post-hippie”.
“It was like an open plan, commune-type place but it had a modern edge on it. There would be Vogue magazines, which you probably didn’t get in a hippie commune, and arty magazines and films and you’d have Marc Bolan walking through one day and Arthur Brown, lots of different artists would drop in for a chat.
“Bowie would be writing in one room with his guitar and he’d have a piano in another room and then he’d shout, ‘Woody, I’ve just finished one, come and have a listen.’ You got to hear the songs first off, which was nice.”
It seems the band would come up with the arrangements before Bowie added melody and lyrics.
“It was a big deal for Mick and I because we’d never been in a big professional London studio doing an album, so that was a first for us,” Woodmansey says. “Tony had done T.Rex before that so we knew we had a good producer and David had just got married to Angie so he was otherwise occupied a lot of the time – he was lovey-dovey in another part of the studio, shall we say? He would give us the chords and tell us the concept of the song, sometimes a few lyrics and sometimes no lyric then it was like, ‘OK, put it together’.
“As a three-piece we just jammed and got a feel for what can we do with this. Obviously when you’re getting the basic song on an acoustic guitar it sounds like a folk song then it like how can we turn this into a rock song? Then at the end David came in and did his vocals on top of what we’d already done so I guess it pulled in the influences that we’d been into before joining David – the progressive rock, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, a bit of Led Zeppelin – that started to come out as we were jamming.”
Woodmansey admits The Man Who Sold The World is a “pretty dark” album. “From a mental institution to a machine that’s ruling the world and is going to blow it up to a sniper who’s popping people off in the city. It wasn’t boy meets girl – which we weren’t really into anyway, I don’t think Bowie ever wrote on like that. It was always a bit twisted.”
The UK version of the album famously carried a photograph of Bowie wearing a dress. Forty years on, Woodmansey admits is may have hampered the record’s chances commercially. His initial reaction was, he says, “stunned”.
“I remember looking at my history lessons and thinking I guess it’s a bit like Renaissance man, that was how I answered it for myself. The fact that he said it’s a man’s dress didn’t really...I don’t know any men who’ve got dresses,” he laughs. “It probably at the time worked against the album. I could never imagine a guy with a Led Zeppelin and a Jethro Tull and a King Crimson album under his [arm] and that one because his mates would go, ‘What have you got there?’ He would have to go, ‘Oh, nothing’ so I think that worked against us until later on.”
Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti’s Holy Holy play at O2 Academy Leeds on June 21 and The Welly in Hull on June 22. For details visit http://www.woodywoodmansey.co.uk/