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 and a flood of requests for more gigs followed. 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, 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.”
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. 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 remembers when he knocked on Bowie’s door, he answered it clothed in “a rainbow T-shirt, 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. 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 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’s 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.”
• Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti’s Holy Holy play at O2 Academy Leeds on June 21. www.woodywoodmansey.co.uk