Spiders from Mars’ drummer Woody Woodmansey talks about David Bowie and what life was like in his band as he returns to Hull

Woody with Tony Visconti, who produced many of David Bowie's albums.
Woody with Tony Visconti, who produced many of David Bowie's albums.
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David Bowie may never have performed in Hull with his celebrated Spiders From Mars but in January songs from their period together will at last be performed in the city by a supergroup led by the band’s drummer Woody Woodmansey and Bowie’s long-time producer Tony Visconti.

“We could never get a date at Hull City Hall, which is where we would’ve done it, that fitted into the schedule of the tour,” Woodmansey says. “It’s a bit hard to go from Glasgow to Hull and back to Aberdeen or something. It was something that all of us wanted to do, to go and play your hometown. We always played away, I’m afraid.”

Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey is returning to Hull next month to play with Holy Holy.

Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey is returning to Hull next month to play with Holy Holy.

Bowie himself had links to Yorkshire. His father, Haywood ‘John’ Jones, hailed from Doncaster and during his childhood Bowie is reported to have made trips up to Leeds to visit his aunt Roma and cousins.

“When we had a night out he got into the Yorkshire kind of humour,” Woodmansey remembers. “He was one of the few that got it and could be Yorkshire. You wouldn’t think that when you first met him, he was very south London, but he had that Yorkshire side that would come out, which meant we all got on. If you’ve got a good sense of humour between a band you can get through a lot of rubbish and a lot of bad times and good times.”

The drummer feels his bond with New Yorker Visconti has deepened since Bowie’s death, from liver cancer, in January 2016. “I guess for both of us it somehow consolidated what we’d done with David, and Tony in the latter years I think he did 12 albums with him and he’s still doing remixes now for some of the stuff that’s getting released,” he says. “[Bowie’s death] was strange because it was not something that anybody thought was on the cards, that he was going to depart this life. I think when you’re not prepared it takes a lot more coming to terms with it.”

Woodmansey first met Bowie at Haddon Hall, the bohemian set-up in Beckenham where Bowie was living in the late 1960s. He says of that time: “I think when you’re doing things as a band and you’re creating and we were all living together, that becomes the norm, no matter how strange that might be to outsiders. You’re all living in one big house, you’re eating, sleeping, watching films, having a laugh, having a party, rehearsing bits and pieces, listening to Bowie write his songs in the bedroom or the lounge. That’s probably quite freaky to somebody looking in, especially some of the people that used to come through the house on a daily basis, but to us it became normal.

“It was only after he died that we talked a lot about the old days and you appreciate more what we did. David would play a song, you’d maybe only hear it twice and then he might say, ‘It needs this kind of a beat on it’ or ‘it needs to stop there, just before the chorus’ and then everybody got on the same page and you just played, then David would be the one to say, ‘That’s it, that’s the one’. You don’t stand around and go, ‘There’s a chemistry’, it’s just something that you do and it worked. And if it hadn’t have worked with a member they wouldn’t have been around long.”

As they progressed, Woodmansey says Visconti understood how Bowie liked to work. “He was never really predictable; you never knew what he was going to sing like or you never knew what else was going to go on the track.

“It’s been good playing with Tony, and you also appreciate the quality of the songs. There are still good songs and good artists around now but for some reason his quality of writing really hits you. When you’re doing a whole set and you think one person wrote these songs, you admire it more. You appreciate his work ethic as well. When they said, ‘You haven’t got a single’ he’d grab his guitar and on Sunday night he’d ring up and say, ‘I’ve finished it’. A day and a half later he’s written one and you’d go, ‘How the hell did he do that?’”

Woodmansey was born and raised in Driffield. His father had been in the Army while his mother worked as a nurse. To his mother’s disapproval, he quit school before his O-levels and worked in a spectacle factory while playing drums in local R’n’B bands The Mutations and The Roadrunners. “I guess I found something I wanted to do and I had a talent for, it took a bit of work, I must admit, but it was there,” he says. ”

The next step was Mick Ronson’s band The Rats. Though the band didn’t last long, Ronson would remember Woodmansey and later recommended him to Bowie after he’d moved south and Bowie’s then band The Hype were in need of a drummer after another fellow Yorkshireman, John Cambridge, left.

Woodmansey says it took him “a whole weekend” to ponder Bowie’s offer as by then he had settled down with his girlfriend – and later wife – June. “Also you don’t really know if you’ve got what it takes,” he says. “You’ve been watching all the top artists and you’re thinking, ‘I hope I’m as good as them, but if I don’t go for it I’ll never know’. It’s just hold your nose and jump.”

The leap of faith proved transformational. Over the course of four years Bowie and his band would produce the classic albums The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane.

Bowie’s decision to break up the Spiders, announced at a gig at the Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973, shocked Woodmansey, but later the drummer and singer would renew their friendship, and remained in touch until the end of Bowie’s life.

To mark The Man Who Sold The World’s 50th anniversary, Woodmansey and Visconti’s band Holy Holy will perform the album in full in Hull. The drummer believes Bowie’s music could well be played in another 50 years’ time. “I think some will definitely stand the test of time,” he says. “When you’re talking about good music created since the war, it’s like The Beatles will always be around, and the same with the Stones and Led Zeppelin and The Who.

“I think rock ’n’ roll will always be around in some form and anyone that’s into music from a serious viewpoint has to acknowledge that’s good stuff, it’s a good yardstick to follow, so yes, I do see some of it being played continually. The good ones just have a quality that never fades, and I think he did quite a lot of those.”

Holy Holy perform at Hull Bonus Arena on January 18. www.holyholy.co.uk