We Spoke Of ‘Was’ And ‘When’: Tony Visconti Interviewed

Legendary producer Tony Visconti has recently been revisiting one of his classic Bowie recordings, The Man Who Sold The World, with a tour and a live album. Simon Price asks him about the Dame, Bolan, Sparks, the Manics, and more

As the title of his 2007 autobiography Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy self-effacingly acknowledges, producer and bassist Tony Visconti is chiefly associated in the public imagination with two artists: David Bowie in his pre-glam phase, his Berlin period and beyond (Visconti, we now know, was the real identity of the protagonist spotted “standing by the Wall” with his lover in a romantic tryst in ‘“Heroes”’), and Marc Bolan at the strutting, shimmering height of T. Rex’s powers.

Visconti was the unseen hand on the faders behind many of the greatest acts of the Seventies, from Sparks to Thin Lizzy, from Badfinger to Iggy Pop, and the 71-year-old’s services are continually in demand to this day, having worked in recent years with Morrissey, the Manics and Kaiser Chiefs, as well as Bowie himself on his 2013 comeback, The Next Day.

Tony Visconti’s association with Bowie began with the singer’s second studio album, David Bowie (aka Space Oddity), but the next record, The Man Who Sold The World, was a great leap forward from flimsy psychedelic folk to hard rock and progressive rock. Musicians from Visconti’s own band Hype, including future Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, were co-opted to play on the sessions with the addition of drummer Woody Woodmansey (who would also become a Spider), but the album received a staggered and delayed release across 1970 and 1971, and Bowie never toured it as such. The record never made the impact it deserved at the time, abandoned to fizzle out somewhat as Bowie moved onwards to make Hunky Dory, leaving TMWSTW as something of a lost and forgotten work.

Four decades later, Visconti has sought to rectify that situation by reuniting with Woodmansey to form another band, Tony Visconti And Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy, whose line-up also features Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory, Spandau Ballet’s Steve Norman, Tony’s daughter (with Mary Hopkin) Morgan Visconti, Mick Ronson’s daughter Lisa and niece Hannah, and a variety of guests such as Marc Almond and Spandau’s Gary Kemp.

Holy Holy have been performing that record (and other Bowie classics) in a continuing run of live shows which has now been captured on a live album, The Man Who Sold The World – Live In London, recorded at Shepherds Bush Empire last September.

I start by asking Tony about his motive for doing this…

As the line-up which originally recorded The Man Who Sold The World never got to tour it at the time, was there a nagging sense of unfinished business, all these years?

Tony Visconti: It was unfinished business for many years, until the album became well-known for its great music and experimental nature. I’d say by the Eighties it was a highly-regarded album in Bowie circles. It sold almost nothing in the month it was released, but over the years the sales have reached about a million and a half. That’s finished business, literally.

Aside from this tour, I’ve seen you onstage with T. Rextasy, and you clearly relish playing bass live. Does part of you wish you’d gone down the road of being a performer more than a producer?

TV: I have always done the occasional live gig over the years. I have never let my chops get rusty. I play some instrument in the studio almost every day. I’ve produced some shows in NYC called The TV Show. I am one of five musicians in the band and I have four singers from different styles perform songs I’ve either produced or arranged, or even just mixed. It’s a very open field to choose from, maybe 2,000 songs. The last one was in January 2015 at The City Winery. I am happy as a producer and a performer in these proportions. The studio is my comfort zone, performing live is exciting and dangerous. Full disclosure, when I set out in music many years ago my first ambition was to be a pop star.

Woody Woodmansey is on ferocious form on the live album. He sounds like he could still do a job for anybody, maybe even Bowie himself. Why hasn’t he worked more often, in recent years?

TV: I’m under the impression that Woody works as much as he wants to. He is very discriminating, though. He just told me today how he turns down offers if the music is too mundane or lacklustre. I agree, he is on fire. He was always a favourite drummer of mine, but he’s better than ever these days. I am so charged up to be locking in a groove with him now. His sense of humour is so dry and witty, he could do stand-up comedy. He cracks me up constantly during rehearsals.

Glenn Gregory does most of the vocals, but other guests include Marc Almond and Gary Kemp, all huge Bowie fans. One assumes they were all thrilled to be standing in for Bowie and Mick Ronson in any capacity, but was there much squabbling and bickering and horse-trading over who did what song?

TV: Absolutely no backstage squabbles. Tom Wilcox, the show’s producer, invites artists like Marc and Gary after asking us first, so all the egos are checked at the door (I’m paraphrasing Quincy Jones). We all feel very fortunate to be playing this great music.

In retrospect, The Man Who Sold The World feels like a transitional record, between Bowie’s whimsical acoustic phase and his full-on glam period. But taken in isolation, it also stands alone as an underrated hard rock record. Was there an element of righting a historical wrong, in choosing to revive it?

TV: It wasn’t so much as righting a wrong, it was bringing the album to the logical next phase, to play it out live. Even though Woody, Ronson, Bowie and I recorded it live and loud in the studio, they were fresh songs. Traditionally, a tour after an album brings more depth and nuance to the music. I have often heard artists bemoan the sentiment that they would’ve liked to have played the songs live for months before they recorded them. We are loud and live, but we are giving ourselves more freedom to explore and focus on areas not fully realised. For instance a lot of my bass playing was improvised and a little ragged in some cases. I’m correcting that naturally, having many ‘A-ha!’ moments during my private practice and at rehearsals with the band. We’re all doing that. Every member, including the guitarists James Stevenson and Paul Cuddeford, are Bowie and Ronson experts who call me out on some important details I might overlook. I love it. You know, we split up after the album was made so I forgot what I played. I read and write music, so I had to sit down and transcribe every note I played on the album, and study it like a tutorial so I could memorise it all. The members of the band are a great support team for each other, with our collective memories we keep each other honest.

In your autobiography, you suggest that David was quite often distracted and unengaged in the studio process, and had to be whipped into line somewhat. Is it fair to say that despite the songwriting officially being credited entirely to Bowie, this was actually one of the most collaborative records of his career?

TV: One of Bowie’s great attributes is that he allows his musicians to do their thing. He would often give any of us a kernel of an idea and let us ride with it to our specific abilities. He always had great ideas but he doesn’t play bass and drums, or lead guitar like Ronson did. It’s fair to say that we all collaborated and pitched in arrangement ideas, but Bowie wrote the songs, the chord changes, the melodies and the lyrics. Writing and arranging are blurred lines, it depends on so many factors whether one is arranging or writing. The last album I made with him, The Next Day, was created along the same lines as The Man Who Sold The World and I would imagine that he did the same thing on albums I didn’t produce.

The leap between the album David Bowie (aka Space Oddity) to The Man Who Sold The World was immense, as dramatic in its way as Tyrannosaurus Rex going electric as T. Rex. In both cases, did you have an influence on the artists’ decision to go in that direction?

TV: Of course I had an influence, and both David and I were influenced by the emerging hard rock and art rock records of the day. Ronson was influenced by Jeff Beck, and he told me to listen to Jack Bruce for ideas and insight, which I did. I think we all felt that the general folk rock direction of the Space Oddity album was exhausted, that hard rock had more dramatic potential and we put our heads together to make it the sound of our band.

What were your feelings about the run of albums Bowie made without you in his glam period, working with Ken Scott instead, before reuniting for Young Americans? Obviously you had plenty of other projects to keep you busy, but did you find yourself watching from the sidelines thinking “I’d have done that differently”?

TV: All I can say is I would’ve done them differently.

I want to ask about T. Rex’s Electric Warrior. Were you aware, at the time, that you were capturing a supremely confident artist in a moment of imperial form, or do such things only become apparent when looking back?

TV: I adored Marc Bolan’s chutzpah. It was so New York. By the time we made Electric Warrior we were hungry for the hits, to be regarded to be in the same league as the big boys. Marc was extremely ambitious and uncompromising at the same time, in the lyric department especially. Looking back I see the same thing I saw then – we made a great series of rock/pop albums that were both iconic and successful. Even today when I make an album with anyone I’m working with, I think to myself: ‘Is this one going to be a classic?’ Then I go about trying to make it a classic.

You tell a hilarious story in your book about Marc Bolan getting so into ‘Jeepster’ that he split his satin trousers and had to be sewn back into them in full view of everyone, with his private parts hanging out. That wasn’t the take that was eventually used, by any chance, was it?

TV: I can’t remember if it was or it wasn’t, but logically, he stopped playing so maybe that take was the last take and the one we used. We rarely recorded beyond seven takes, more often finding the master in the first three takes.

It’s one of the great what-ifs of music, but how do you think Marc would have fared if he’d lived on into the Eighties and carried on making music? Could he have adapted?

“I think, for various reasons, he lost his way from the mid-Seventies to his death, but he was showing signs of coming back strong in his last album. I’m sure he would’ve made some great records had he lived. We were friendly again just before he died so it’s possible we would’ve teamed up again. But make no mistake, Marc Bolan would never adapt. When he was on form he’d innovate and make others copy him, as they do until this day.

You also worked on my favourite Sparks album, Indiscreet, in which they ventured into pre-rock styles such as Charleston, waltz, big band and chamber music, which was a bold departure.

TV: It is one of my favourite albums too. We were extremely pleased with the way that album turned out. A couple of other members of the band weren’t too sure, though.

You produced three tracks on Manic Street Preachers’ Lifeblood album, including the last one and perhaps the best, ‘Cardiff Afterlife’. What are your memories of that?

TV: They are a lovely bunch of musicians. I think that was a tentative period of their career and they were finding it hard to come up with material they were happy with. And sometimes the chemistry is not quite right, so they resumed recording with their long time producer.

A slightly obscure one, but you produced Marsha Hunt’s cover of Dr John’s ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’, and to me, hers is the definitive version of that song. How did you get such a titanic sound out of 1969-era equipment?

TV: I think she did a great job with the vocals, but you’re messing with one of my gods, Dr. John. His version is sheer voodoo. I got a great band together for Marsha and we studied the recording. I love it when a female covers a song by a male. From her very nature she will make it different and give a fresh read. We recorded it at the great Trident studio live, even the English horn player was sitting among us. It was filmed by a crew hired by Track Records so Marsha and the gang were dancing as they recorded in dim gelatin filtered lights, shaking it up so much one of the lights fell on the head of the English horn player. I mixed it sleazy too, that’s what I mainly loved about Dr John’s version. As for the equipment, all that stuff we had in ’69 is still around today, except for the multi-track tape machines, they are a rare sighting.

You’re often underestimated as an ‘art’ producer, perhaps because you were so effective as a ‘pop’ producer. For example, many assume that the sound of Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy was mainly Brian Eno’s work, even though you crucially introduced them to the Harmonizer (which, you told them, “fucks with the fabric of time”). In reality, how much of the experimental aspect of those records was down to you?

TV: I have to say it was an equal three-way deal. David and Brian met up a week or two before I joined the team but he only stayed on the project for the first two weeks, then David and I finished the album by ourselves. I can “experiment” with the best of them! That’s what drove me to want to become a producer. Anyone can set up microphones and all the other gear, but early experimenters like Les Paul and George Martin, even Spike Jones, they were my heroes.

How much did it bother you when the innovative ‘gated’ drum reverb you created for Dennis Davis on Low went on to become the trademark cliche of so many big Eighties mainstream records?

TV: The gated drum sound belongs to Hugh Padgham and his work with Phil Collins. My sound was made with the Eventide Harmonizer. Nothing stays a secret very long in audio. People figure it out once they hear it. But really, it’s how you use an effect that counts.

Which of Bowie’s many guitarists – Mick Ronson, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp – do you rate most highly?

TV: That’s impossible to say and I’m not being diplomatic. They’re all great musicians. Robert Fripp told the best jokes.

When artists come to you nowadays, whether it’s Morrissey or Kaiser Chiefs or Semi-Precious Weapons, do they have a pre-conceived idea of what a Tony Visconti record is going to sound like?

TV: They probably do. I inevitably have to talk about some of their favourite records I’ve produced, and they want those sounds. But I think my best strength is that I’m their best friend and a good coach in the studio. I get great performances out of the artists I work with.

Keeping the existence of David Bowie’s surprise comeback album The Next Day a secret, especially in the digital age, was an incredible achievement. What was the nearest you came to accidentally letting the cat out of the bag?

TV: Oh no, not me, I never lost control…

Do you plan to recreate any other classic albums, or is this Man Who Sold The World project a one-off?

TV: This is probably it. I’d like to tour the world with this album. That would take a long time (and a lot of planning). I’d love to do more work with Woody, though. I’m living in the now and now is very exciting.

Tony Visconti And Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy play the Birmingham O2 Academy on Mon 29 and London O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on Tue 30. The album, The Man Who Sold The World – Live In London, is out now on Manicsquat records

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