There’s that iconic scene in Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, when Bowie, before introducing ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, announces to the crowd that this show will live long in the memory; not only is it show the last in the current tour, it’s the last show the band will ever play. There’s a shocked cawing from the Hammersmith audience, a moment of febrile tension. The band start the song, the opening notes seemingly a little shaky, but they soldier on, admirably building the song up to its expected crescendo.
The story goes that not only were the audience learning of the breakup of the Spiders From Mars, but the actual Spiders were, at that very moment on stage in front of thousands of punters, being handed their P45s. I put it to Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey that couldn’t be possibly be true. “No, it’s true. In fact they edited out where I threw a drumstick at him, and it whizzed past his head. I couldn’t see it on the film, and I did look a few times.”
As the song ends Bowie takes the applause and the spotlights, Woody, exhausted looking, clambers off his throne, and with a quick look to the front of the stage, disappears. This was the last time Woody was to play with Bowie – but not play the music of Bowie. For now, together with ex-bandmate Tony Visconti, the pair are hitting the road to play to realise a 45 year old dream, playing The Man Who Sold The World – the record they and Mick Ronson recorded with Bowie in 1970 – in its entirety, along with highlights from the rest of Woody’s tenure on the skins in The Spiders: ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Life on Mars’, ‘Changes’. The hits.
Born in Yorkshire in 1951, Mick Woodmansey still retains that northern drawl. There’s no dourness in him, but rather a jovial need to impart his stories. It would be easy, you think, you harbour a lifetime of bitterness at such an brutal sacking, but Woody’s over it. He’s moved on. He enjoyed himself, and if there’s any regrets, never getting to tour The Man Who Sold The World seems to be the chief one.
“We never did it live, because David was between managers at the time. So there was no money to get it together. We were living on about £7 a week. So we couldn’t go on the road.” Mick Ronson is no longer with us of course, having died of cancer at the age of 46 in 1993, but Visconti and Woody have a assembled an array of musicians to perform the music, including Ronson’s daughter Lisa and niece Hannah Berridge Ronson, along with Rod Melvin, who once played in Kilburn and the Highroads and James Stevenson, who played with Generation x back in the day, among others. It’s an eclectic bunch.
“Some of them got into music because of those early Bowie albums. They’re great musicians, but they’re fans, so they put their heart and soul into it. We were playing and I closed my eyes and it was like Mick Ronson was there, it’s Mick’s sound and Mick’s passion.” Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory will take on lead vocal duties. It seems an odd choice, you might think. Maybe Brett Anderson, or Peter Murphy or one of those artists who’ve tried their whole careers to actually BE Bowie would seem appropriate. But that could descend into mere karaoke.
“It works, because he’s just being Glenn Gregory. He doesn’t try to Bowie.” Says Woody. “We did it last September and the audience went mental. I hadn’t seen audiences react like that since ’73, to be honest, and I’ve been to a lot of gigs and played a lot of gigs. And it was all age groups as well, 16 year olds with all the Bowie albums to sign and 66 year olds with the albums to sign. It was great.”
Woody speaks highly of Ronson, a player who we both think doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. “Mick was a great guitarist. He was always like that. Even when we were in semi pro bands in Hull, he put the time in. He wanted it to be as good as it could get.” Ronson clearly held Woodmansey in high regard too, recommending him to Bowie when he needed a new drummer. One day Bowie phoned, inviting Woody down to London to join the group. Before he knew it, he was moving in with Bowie and Angie to Haddon Hall, a ramshackle pile in Kent which was, according to Visconti, haunted. Visconti himself lived there briefly in ’69, and has recalled the sexual shenanigans of David and Angie, who were constantly bring conquests back to the house. These shenanigans were overheard, of course, vicarious. Ordinary band members were never invited to join in, which one imagines suited them down to the ground.
When the entertainment abated, the band soundproofed the basement and began work on the songs that became The Man Who Sold The World. Woody and Visconti can claim some ownership over the tunes on the record, despite the publishing listing Bowie as sole author. The tunes were given structure by the band, jamming from sketches Bowie had, and Bowie would then scribble some lyrics and put together a melody. The album was a melting pot of ideas and influences, from the Hendrix inspired guitar noodles of ‘She Shook Me Cold’, to the folk revivalist ‘After All’, a song that harked back to recent, hippy, Bowie. Sexual misadventure (‘Width of The Circle’) and Nietzschean imagery (‘The Supermen’, featuring Woody’s booming toms) were the order of the day. It must have a wild ride for a lad from Hull, barely out of his teens.
“Coming from Yorkshire, we were musician-musicians. We didn’t dress up. Meeting David it was like, this guy dresses up! Even for breakfast! When I first met him he had a rainbow t-shirt on, hair down his back, bangles on, red corduroy trousers. Shoes with red stars painted on them. I thought, bloomin ‘eck, he’s more dressed up than my girlfriend. But we chatted for a few hours and he played stuff, and we thought this guy can write, and he means it. Mick and I had never really met anyone that determined. He was assuming he’d made it already. That was something we were still going for. We were wondering what you need to make it, what’s the missing ingredient. We thought you’d do it, and someone would tell you you’d made it. We’d got it the wrong way round.”