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.

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