Ahead of Holy Holy bringing David Bowie’s immortal Ziggy Stardust album to life, Getintothis’ Banjo catches up with Woody Woodmansey to talk about working with Bowie and keeping his legacy alive.
Holy Holy are a long, long way from being a tribute act. Comprised of the mighty Woody Woodmansey on drums, Tony Visconti on bass, Glen Gregory taking over vocal duties and James Stevenson on guitar, they are more accurately described as a Supergroup. Woodmansey was, of course, David Bowie’s drummer through his rise and peak, playing on Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust itself, amongst others, while Visconti produced many of Bowie’s finest albums. Glen Gregory of course is best known as frontman for Heaven 17, and Stevenson has played for The Cult, The Alarm and Scott Walker.
So when the opportunity came to speak to Woody Woodmansey about his latest project, it was more than we at Getintothis could resist. After all, how many chances do you get to speak to a legend?
Woodmansey has a gruff Northern charm that all the years of international travel has failed to dent. He is chatty and down to earth, it is only when he starts referring to Bowie and producer Visconti casually by their forenames that you realise that you are talking with rock royalty. His tales of forging a sound and identity with Bowie, and of the unique vision that he passed on to his band, are incredible to listen to. He also laughs a lot, a laugh that tells of a life well lived.
Getintothis: So, what can we expect when Holy Holy play Ziggy Stardust at the Phil?
WW: “Well, we started Holy Holy about three years ago, and when we played with David during the Ziggy tours and the Aladdin Sane tours, it was always a case of you play all the notes in the right order, that’s taken for granted, but on top of that it’s the spirit of the show, you know, it’s the communication that’s intended with those songs. So we concentrated on that – not that we’re going to play a bum note [laughs], but the senior thing is getting the atmosphere of the song, and the spirit of it across, and that’s what people can expect. There are thousands of tribute acts and singers out there, especially now since David passed away, but I haven’t seen many that have captured that [laughs]”
Getintothis: Which means that Glen Greggory has got some pretty big shoes to fill.
WW: “Yeah, he’s amazing. When we started, Tony [Visconti] had just done an album with him in America, and so when we put the band together, I rang Tony up and asked whether he’d be interested in doing it he said “Yes, but we gotta get Glen Gregory, he’s amazing”. And in three years, we’ve done two American tours, a Canadian tour, a Japanese tour and two English tours, we haven’t had one bad comment about his vocals. Which is quite hard to achieve because, as you said he’s filling some big shoes. But he does it as Glen Gregory and he pulls it off. He really understands the music and the songs and I think the fans get that, they get that he knows what he’s doing.“
Getintothis: Well he probably grew up with those albums in the same way that a lot of people have. How does it feel taking these classic songs back on the road these days?
WW: “Well we kind of got in full in the face really. We were on tour in America playing The Man Who Sold The World, and – unplanned – we were playing the High Line in New York on David’s birthday and when we got there the staff said ‘we’ve heard a rumour that David is going to come down and sing with you’. And we said ‘well we haven’t heard that rumour, but we hope he does! [laughs]. And then during the show Tony Visconti phoned David up from his mobile and he answered. He said ‘we’re onstage just down the road from you and we got the audience to sing happy birthday to him over the mobile. And we played a bad karaoke version of Happy Birthday to him over the phone [laughs]. He really liked and then he said ask the audience what they think of Blackstar, his new album, ‘cos it had just come out on his birthday. And they went mental. Which he thought was really nice.
And then he said ‘Good luck on the tour, catch you later’. And then a day and a half later, our next gig was in Toronto, we got called early in the morning and we got the news. That was surreal to be honest. I mean it was for everybody really, nobody saw it coming. And it was like ‘wow, what do we do? Do we pull the gigs out of respect? And then Tony said that [David] had worked right up to the end, even when he was ill, he’d work as long as he could on the musical and the album and then go home, rest and then come back again. And I remember on the Ziggy tours, he didn’t always eat properly and he was not a healthy specimen all the time and he would catch bad flu. And some nights he could hardly talk and we’d say ‘shall we pull the concert?’, and he’d say ‘Nah, I’ll get there’ I’ll do it’. And he would, he would pull it together and then collapse afterwards. So we thought that we ought to follow that example, that was his thing – the show must go on. So it did.”
Getintothis: One of the most striking things about the Ziggy album is how it constantly gets rediscovered by new generations of fans and bands. When you were recording it, did you get any sense that you were recording something of historical significance?
WW: “[Pause] No. [laughs]No, you don’t, I mean we moved from The Man Who Sold The World to Hunky Dory and that was, I guess, for me it was a songwriter’s album. It was David going ‘I can write on Piano, I can write on guitar’, he was kind of streamlining everything he’d done before into a direction, and I think that the Ziggy fell and the Ziggy concepts started to happen a little bit during Hunk Dory. Life on Mars probably should have been on Ziggy and Queen Bitch probably could have been on there. So it started to come to fruition on that album, but he still hadn’t really started to join the dots up at that point.
“But when we’d finished Life on Mars, Ken Scott called us in and we sat there and even our jaws dropped. It was like ‘is that what we sound like?’ [laughs]It was a dawning on us. And then you’re a bit worried and you think that there’s nothing out there like that, has it gone too far? But that track was probably the one where we went ‘wow, there’s a lot more to his songwriting, he’s got more strings to his bow than he’s actually shown by this point’.
“But you’re just doing your next song really, doing your best on that next song or that next album, so you never thought that in 40 years people would still be appreciating it. And the fact that it’s been on the radio all that time, it’s never really disappeared. We thought it was good, we always thought we were good [laughs], you wouldn’t do an album and think ’yeah we’re really shit aren’t we”
Getintothis: The rate you all worked at back then was phenomenal. There was at least one album a year and a huge amount of touring; how did you find the time to write, record and rehearse?
WW: “Well luckily we didn’t have to write, David did most of that. But I guess you go into a sort of rock n roll bubble, you know, the rock n roll lifestyle, and you’ve decided to play that game so that’s what it means. It just became a matter of ‘that’s how we do it’. You didn’t get much time off, I don’t think I had a Christmas off or a birthday off or New Year’s Eve off through that whole period, you’re always doing something. you’re in the studio or you’re on the road, you know. But you’re doing what you love so you never really see it as hard work. And then when you get back off a tour and you get back to your flat, put your suitcase next to the chair, sit in the chair and wake up two days later! [laughs]”
Getintothis: Bands don’t seem to operate like that anymore, there are longer breaks between albums and tours.
WW: “No, they don’t. But I think a lot’s changed. It could be that the 70s were closer to the roots of rock n roll, ‘cos it had only been out twenty years. So all the inspiring music and what you listen to when you’re learning your craft, you pick it from the roots of rock n roll. So when you have to do new stuff, you’ve got that attitude in your head. I think now that, all these decades later, it’s probably lost a lot of that. And then with technology coming in it makes it easier for people.
“The way we worked you had to get that song in three and a half minutes, you had to play it correctly, with feeling, more or less immediately. Nowadays you can do a chorus and then go ‘well lets cut and paste it into a song’, and that wasn’t what music, or rock n roll particularly was all about. It’s that feeling, it’s not just the right notes. There’s thousands of musicians who can play the right notes, but can they get any feeling into it? I like to hear the human being playing the keyboard, not wonder if it’s a sample or if there’s a real drummer been anywhere near it.
“When we were touring, I remember one night there was a girl sitting at the front and she’d been singing along with every song, and Tony stopped the show and he said ‘how old are you?’ and she said ‘fourteen’. And he said to the audience ‘there’s a girl here, fourteen, and she knows every word, and at the back there were 70 year olds and they were headbanging! And they were singing all the words as well [laughs]. And a lot of the people at the meet and greets are teenagers, so I guess good music will always get through, will always get discovered.“
Getintothis: My theory with David Bowie is that everyone has their own version of him that they think of as theirs. Mine would be the Hunky Dory era, but with your completely different vantage point, what is your David Bowie?
WW: “Well, it’s probably a blend. It’s probably what we went through from The Man Who Sold The World, which taught us what we could do as a rock band, to Bowie’s songwriting really coming through on Hunky Dory. That for me was probably the classic album I think. There was no gimmicks or anything, it was just ‘these are songs, they’re well crafted and well sung. And they’ve got messages and it’s a good product’. And then Ziggy was the concept and that brought it all. And we were able to bring all that together and put it all in a show. And the Aladdin Sane was what happens when you’re on the road, writing and recording at the same time.
“It was more rocky. And it was our impressions of America, we probably played a bit different when we were over there; it’s bigger so you think you have to play louder [laughs]. So I guess my Bowie was stretched over four albums. I guess it ended up being such an iconic character that he created in Ziggy, and he made sure we were all on the same page. You couldn’t stand behind him as a blues guitarist from Huddersfield with ripped jeans and not a clue what he’s all about. And he did a good job of that, he didn’t do it all in a weekend. He would say ‘we’re going to see a play tonight’ and we’d say ‘what’s the play?’. And he’d say ‘I don’t give a shit what the play is, watch the lighting guy, he’s the best one in London.’
“So he kind of brought theatre lighting into rock n roll, which hadn’t really been done before. And with clothes it was kind of an education process, we had to know what was happening to make it all believable. It was a good journey, we weren’t just musicians playing things.”
Getintothis: How closely did you follow his career afterwards? Did you buy his records, see his shows?
WW: “I saw him a couple of times. I kind of like the weird side of him, as opposed to the Let’s Dance commercial stuff. Cat People (Putting Out Fire), weird concepts like that, I always felt that was David. He never sang like anybody else or worked like anybody else. When you hear “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” coming out of the lounge you wonder ‘What the hell is that all about’, you know [laughs]. And that’s why I liked him, it was the weird, freaky side.
“For me he was one of the most creative individuals in music. And as a songwriter he had that ability to point you in a direction, even if it was weird. And at the end of the song, you had your own story, you knew what it was about. It might not be what he meant it to be about, and it you ask a hundred thousand people you might end up with a hundred thousand different stories. But that was his talent, he could write it so that you could contribute to it, he didn’t join up all the dots.“
Getintothis: And one last question, will you be doing any U Boat songs?
WW: “[Laughs] No, definitely not!”