Tag Archives: Bowie

The Man Who Sold The World: He wasn’t there again today

Blog #2 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]

HAD A WORD with Woody Woodmansey about this. He’s the geezer played drums. Woody was  a Spider From Mars, for heaven’s sake—the last survivor now, since bassman Trevor Bolder followed mighty Mick Ronson into the rock’n’roll hereafter a few years back.

Hang on, I’m flashing forward.

I told Woody this record shook me cold as a kid. That first sweep of backwards reverb on Ronno’s guitar at the very start of The Width of a Circle was… I dunno. It sounded like a leering chorus of demons inside the airlock of some secret pocket of purgatory that squeezed shut behind you. Down, down, down went that ominous riff in the left ear. A cellar, dark and grim. Smell the burning pit of fear.

There’d be no light at the end of this tunnel. Just Satan in leather chaps and All The Madmen tootling recorders. Mandolin-trilling inmates intoning “oh by jingo” in some echoing dungeon of waltzing children. Lunatic war vets with Running Gun Blues. That man on the stair who wasn’t there. And finally, one last circle of Hell where timpani pounded and fallen Supermen gnashed their teeth.

Woody gave a rattling laugh. He explained the lay of the land in his chewy Yorkshire brogue. He and Ronno, his mate from Hull, had only just met this swishy Londoner. This was their first big studio session. The producer, New Yorker named Visconti, played a mean bass. “Everything was  really cool,” Woody said. Even if this singer was a little light on, well, singing.

TMWSTW original
1970 bloke-in-dress  cover, now reclassified not shocking

“He did have lyrics written but a lot of the time we wouldn’t know what they were. We’d just get the subject matter so we’d kind of know what it was about but we didn’t really rehearse it as a band with vocals on it. He would give us the chords and say, ‘This is kind of about a machine that’s ruling the world that goes wrong,’ or whatever it was. ‘Does God really exist?’, you know. It wasn’t really the kind of boy-meets-girl stuff that was in the charts of the time. In fact I don’t think he’s ever written a normal boy-meets-girl song.” Wheeze. Splutter. Cough.

“A lot of it was really dark, so we had to get to that place. We’d take the chords and sit in the studio. Just jam until something clicked; until we had a good feeling, a good atmosphere created.”

Woody, Ronno and Visconti were all into sci-fi and prog/ blues so they dug the heavy concepts. The fact that the singer wasn’t there much—newlywed, he was—clearly meant they got to sculpt the atmos a little more thick than a cross-dressing mime who’d recently enjoyed a smash hit about a fey spaceman who loved his wife very much might have directed on his own.

Ronno’s the engine, of course. Jeff Beck was his hero but as Elton John has jealously noted, his gifts for arrangement were Stravinsky-esque. He had Visconti “play like Jack Bruce”, then mixed him to pummelling pitch. Black Country Rock, Saviour Machine and She Shook Me Cold are sheer axe monstery. Woody’s a bleeding octopus with bells on. Sinewy power-trio grunt for frightening children. That 50-something bloke from the newfangled Moog lab must have seemed like a blow-in from Doctor Who, but those demons grabbed and milked him good, too.

the man who sold the world
Post-Ziggy ’72 reissue. Ample darkness pictured.

Visconti tells a slightly different story in the book. Claims Dave was there in rehearsals, strumming away on his 12-string in the Haddon Hall wine cellar with egg cartons glued to walls and amps on 10. And yeah, I’ve heard pre-studio Peel sessions where some of these songs are more or less intact. But 45 years later, Woody and Visconti felt enough ownership of this record to take it out on tour, with Ronson’s daughters singing back-ups. They made it as far as Japan. Woody asked me to put feelers out for Australia. Alas, nobody felt back.

Lying here on the couch with the magnificently remastered artefact, it’s the vacuum at the heart of this strange, noir-metal universe that sucks me in. “Although I wasn’t there,” the singer hisses like a double-tracked ghost on the title track: a consciousness searching for form and land between these scaffolds of chords he’d scribbled earlier and left to virtual strangers while he went to bed to dream up the next one.

The next one. Hard to believe it’d all be Hunky Dory in the blink of a mismatched eyeball. Ah, there’s that light after all. Now get me out of here.

Space Oddity: This time it’s personal

Blog #1 about the new Bowie box set, Five Years [1969-1973]

THE POSTMAN delivered about seven kilograms of highly concentrated personal backstory this week. Poor guy got drenched for his trouble. I’d barely lowered the needle in my cosy basement vinyl bunker when the cold front sliced through.

This rain hit the glass with perfect timing, blurring the here and now to insignificance.  As I lay on the couch, watching the garden bounce and the droplets dance sideways, it occurred to me the record spitting at my shoulder had always existed in its own bubble.

As it was: reissued post Ziggy in ’72

As far as I knew this anxious, wistful ’60s comedown had only ever mattered to me and two or three friends who had ventured beyond the obvious charms of the title song into the psych-folk darkness within. Their secret insights drifted back like voices in my head as the less-travelled tracks rumbled.

Larry had his theories about Cygnet Committee—or maybe that was me. I know I tried to verbalise them in an English poetry class: the sheeplike demise of the hippie dream, gleaned from several bitter angles. Like the counter culture, I failed—according to a less empathetic friend. Cruel but fair, his critique hurts less now that I know where our respective lifetimes of enquiry have led.

Years later, Larry reminded me I’d written out the heartsick lyrics to Letter To Hermione and posted them to an ex-girlfriend. If you can call a girl I kissed once, rang up twice and never much liked a girlfriend. I don’t remember doing that. But it sounds like me. Without that desolate sigh of a melody though? Without those silk sheets of 12-stringed chords? What was I thinking.

We had a bash at God Knows I’m Good on acoustic guitars. A nice old lady shoplifter gets caught. Unlike the street-shouting  cacophony of Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed, this had chords we knew and words we could sing. So we did, in the back of his kombi parked on the Black Mountain Peninsula on a Saturday night when the freest thing in the world was to stay up late away from home and maybe smoke a cigarette.

It was Colin (he loaned me the record, I taped it crackling and skipping on a rose-tinted translucent cassette) who understood Memories of A Free Festival. Its soporific glow of communal ecstasy wasn’t for us. No, it was about “how things used to be,” Col surmised with a finger raised. He was right. Paradise has to be lost, like a dream, before the truth can be sung.

DavidBowiePhilips
As it ever shall be: reinstated original cover of ’69

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud was the jewel of side two. I worked out the crestfallen chord cycle—D major, major 7th, 7th, 6th; G minor, A—but the story remained a conundrum. Like a dark Tolkien fragment with the ending opaque. I wonder if we twigged back then that that immense orchestra was telling us as much as the words.

The one I rediscovered during the storm was An Occasional Dream, with its lonely canons and trills of recorders and flutes: a song of youthful elation cloaked in the melancholy of past tense. “The ‘other’ Letter to Hermione,” is how Tony Visconti describes it.

It was a letter to me, too. The whole album was. A letter from one young man to another, each teetering from innocence to disillusionment. A letter he’ll read again and again, to feel the timeless comfort of a shared thought.

Yeah, I had to peek at Visconti’s notes in the accompanying book (mmm, hardback), even though I promised myself I’d keep attention wholly on the remastered goodness of the 180 gram vinyl (mmm, heavy). I did resist the temptation to pore over the artwork to the next nine records in the box. One at a time is good fishing, as my dad used to say.

The Man Who Sold the World is next. I wonder whose voices will fill my head this time. I hope it rains today.