Woody Woodmansey: 'We approached it from the idea of what would rock'n'roll sound like in the future'
- Henry Northmore
- 13 December 2018
The Spiders From Mars drummer teams up with producer Tony Visconti and Heaven 17's Glenn Gregory for Holy Holy, a tribute to David Bowie
There will never be another David Bowie. His impact on music, art and fashion helped shape modern pop culture. A chameleon who changed and transformed before our eyes. His death in 2016 was a shock but Bowie projected dignity and class to the end, releasing his final album Blackstar just two days before he passed from liver cancer, leaving behind a body of work that will resonate through the decades.
As a member of the Spiders From Mars drummer Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey played with Bowie through one of the most creative periods of his career. In 2014 Woodmansey teamed up with frequent collaborator Tony Visconti (who produced 14 of Bowie's albums) on bass for Holy Holy a celebration of Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. The current lineup also features Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17) on vocals, James Stevenson (The Cult / The Alarm) on guitar and Visconti's daughter Jessica Lee Morgan on vocals, sax and guitar as they head out on tour performing The Man Who Sold the World (1970), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) and a selection of hits from the era.
Now in his late 60s sadly Woodmansey is the last surviving member of the Spiders From Mars but is overflowing with stories about his life and working alongside a rock icon.
How did Holy Holy first get together?
I was asked to take part in a David Bowie event at the ICA on the Mall [in London]. They had put together a band with Clem Burke [Blondie] on drums, Bob Geldof and various other people, all good players. I'd never met any of them but we got on really well and they said 'why don't you come on and do two songs?' I thought that would be fun so I did my two – 'Five Years' and 'Ziggy Stardust' --and I was amazed at the audience response.
We got so many requests to do more but Blondie were touring again so Clem couldn't do it so they asked me 'do you want to be the drummer in your own band?' 'Yeah as long as I don't have to audition!'
How did Tony Visconti get involved?
I didn't want it to be a tribute band, it didn't feel right and I remember that we hadn't ever done The Man Who Sold the World live, which was the first album I did with David, Mick Ronson on guitar and Tony Visconti on bass and as producer. So I contact Tony, but he's a really busy producer so I thought he might not be into it so I was prepared to spend a couple of hours twisting his arm but as soon as I asked him he said 'yeah wherever you're doing it Woody I'll be there.' He said 'I've done 12 albums [at the time] with David and every time we've done an album we always talk about the Man Who Sold the World and how we both regretted never doing it live. So it's always been on my bucket list.'
The Man Who Sold the World was the first big Bowie step into rock'n'roll and I think he did an amazing job of making that transition, which he does every time he makes a musical change. We then streamlined it more for Hunky Dory and Ziggy. We definitely approached it from the idea of what would rock'n'roll sound like in the future. Without losing the roots of rock'n'roll but projecting forwards to make it sound streamlined and more space age, which is probably why it still sounds like it could have been made last week.
We actually did a live album at Shepard's Bush Empire [in 2015] and Tony played it to David and he said he was just grinning from ear to ear. It was enough of an acknowledgment from he man himself.
And how did Glenn Gregory get involved?
As soon as I had Tony on board he said 'have you got a vocalist?' we did but I wasn't sure he could handle the Man Who Sold the World. And Tony said 'get Glen Gregory. I've just finished an album with him called International Blue and he'll kill it.' So we rang Glenn up got him into a studio in London and by the end of the first track we all just cracked up laughing because it sounded so powerful and good.
Where did the name Holy Holy come from?
It was a single released just prior to Mick Ronson and myself joining David and it kinda bummed out. It was not such an obvious name we didn't want to call ourselves the Jean Genies or Starmen so Holy Holy worked. Plus we're not very holy.
How did you first start working with Bowie?
The drummer I had replaced [in a local band in Yorkshire] went down to London and they were doing demos for David and the guitarist wasn't working out so drummer John Cambridge said 'I know this guitarist where I come from called Mick Ronson.' Mick went down then about three months later David phoned me and said 'Mick thinks you're really good and would fit in with us, I want you to come down to this place called Hatton Hall. You won't need to worry about food or rent and we're going to do an album. Are you interested?' and I'd just had a really good job offer so it was decision time so I said 'I'll call you back on Monday' and by Monday I had made the decision and headed down to London.
What were your first impressions of Bowie?
I did have my own Yorkshire man list in my head: can he sing? Does he look good? Is he intelligent? Can he write? Can he perform? He played me a lot of his earlier stuff which was very folky and I'm not a folk fan, then he picked his guitar up and played and I was like 'shit, good voice'. We talked about music and what we both liked and he was intelligent, or at least as intelligent as I was, and he really looked the part and I could tell even though he hadn't figured out what the hell he was gonna do, the potential was there, he wasn't going to give up.
Can you sum up what it was like working with someone like Bowie?
He would say anything, do anything, wear anything that fitted the message he was trying to put across. It wasn't just a musician or a writer's viewpoint he took us to the theatre and showed us lighting; took us to the ballet and showed us choreography so we were all on the same page when it came to putting the show together. The man was a bit of a genius.
Holy Holy featuring Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti tour the UK in Feb 2019.