Over the course of the last 50 years Tony Visconti has played an integral role in several of the most important records in the history of British rock and pop.
But even for the 72-year-old New Yorker, the two awards he recently received from the Music Producers Guild – for Outstanding Contribution to UK Music and for his work on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar – marked something special.
“The Blackstar award was of course a crowning glory because it’s the last thing I did with David Bowie over a period of 47 years and it happens to be, in my opinion, just about our best album we’ve done together – that and Scary Monsters and maybe ‘Heroes’, so it’s right up there,” he says.
“To be celebrated by my British peers that’s a great honour because this is the country where I learned how to do everything.”
A year on from Bowie’s death, listening to Blackstar is for many an emotional experience. None more so, it seems, than for the man who at his side for more than four decades. Visconti explains: “I listen to it all the time – and I listen to other records because I’m involved in re-releasing the catalogue, not all of it but some of the bits I worked on – and it always chokes me up and it’s something I just have to work through. I can’t disembody his voice from the person I knew and loved, so yes, I’m still at quite an emotional stage.”
When Bowie’s death from liver cancer was announced to a shocked world, on January 10, 2016, Visconti was touring as bass player with Holy Holy, the band he founded former Spider From Mars ‘Woody’ Woodmansey to perform songs from the early part of Bowie’s canon. He readily admits that being around “ten great friends” helped him to cope with the tragic news. “They were all stunned and shocked, especially Woody who was a friend of David’s, but it did help. By the time the tour was over I didn’t realise how much of a protection they were for me because grief really hit hard when I left the tour and I was on my own with maybe just close friends. I think it was a delayed reaction, but yes, my bandmates did help me a lot.”
After Bowie passed away, Visconti says the shows Holy Holy were playing “had a different nature”. “We were facing an audience and some of them were crying during the songs,” he says. “When you’re on stage looking at that it’s very hard to keep a happy face. I don’t think any of us on stage broke out in tears but we felt responsible, we just had to keep the energy up. By the end of any show we endeavoured to whip the audience into a state of ecstasy, which we managed to every time. So by the end of the show everyone was happy and it was a proper respect to David. But of course the entire construct of the show changed. Even when Woody and I addressed the audience it was in a different way.”
At their new British dates – which include shows in Sheffield and UK City of Culture, Hull, former home of Woodmansey and fellow Spiders From Mars Mick Ronson and Trevor Boulder – Holy Holy will be performing Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars in its entirety. The record originally came out during a pause in relations between the singer and Visconti, who was then busy working on a stream of hits by Marc Bolan’s T.Rex as well as folk albums by Tom Paxton and Ralph McTell. Given the chance, the producer admits, he would have “loved” to have produced Ziggy. “I would have done it a little differently but it is a great album that everyone loves. [But] as a producer I have a compulsive desire to fix everything I hear,” he says.
Visconti recognises that Bowie’s songwriting had by 1972 moved up a level. “Certainly David had by this time learned how to write a single and his skills were very sharpened. Before Ziggy he was doing kind of art rock, doing big chord changes and songs without any classical format, but by the time he did Ziggy he certainly had the verse-chorus-middle eight all worked out and he was starting to develop it into a fine art.”
As a band, Visconti thinks they worked so well “because they had years of playing together before we met them. They were all in a band called The Rats, which was basically a blues rock band, and they all knew each other so they had their brotherhood going. And being down in London as young men I think it really helped that they were like three Yorkshiremen together in their own private little club.”
In his autobiography, Bowie, Bolan and The Brooklyn Boy, Visconti says he has a low boredom threshold. Today he admits that’s what spurred him on to work with such a diverse selection of artists, from Gentle Giant to Morrissey to Kaiser Chiefs. “I have an eclectic taste in music too. In my leisure time I listen to mainly classical music and jazz and I’ve got quite sophisticated tastes but all that applies to every production I make. David Bowie’s music is very sophisticated too and he listened to the same stuff I listened to. We had the same composers in common, the same avant garde rock groups in common and we were very keen fans of jazz when we were teenagers so I would say that David Bowie had a low threshold of boredom too and we always mixed it up and changed the game. Every time we made an album we tried not to repeat ourselves.
“But in my own career I loved, especially back in the Seventies, from a rock album to a pop album then I would do a progressive rock album, like with Gentle Giant, or a folk album – I loved British folk music, I worked with Bert Jansch and Ralph McTell, and those were very calming albums. I would always put one of those in between a rock album just so I would keep my sanity and keep my boredom intact.”
When choosing who to work with, Visconti says: “The thing that you need to have is great material, so I don’t gravitate towards jam artists, artists that like to play for a long time on the same chord or the same rhythm, that doesn’t impress me at all. I like people who can write really great songs and if they can’t write great songs the other thing I love is a great voice, a unique voice, like Marc Bolan, Morrissey, David Bowie, Mary Hopkin, Elaine Paige – all these people I worked with have that one thing in common: they sound like themselves big time. They do sound like one-offs, icons. In the case of Mary and Elaine Paige they didn’t write but if you matched them together with a great song we had hit records.”
Holy Holy play at Hull City Hall on March 25 and 26 and at The Foundry in Sheffield on April 14. For further details visit www.holyholy.co.uk or www.facebook.com/holyholybowie
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