INTERVIEW: Woody Woodmansey | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It’s probably an understatement to say that I have a certain penchant for all things Bowie, so when the chance to interview the last surviving member of The Spiders From Mars presented itself, I apprehensively stuck up my hand. Woody Woodmansey is about to embark on a tour with his band Holy Holy, which features among others legendary musician and producer Tony Visconti, Heaven 17 frontman Glenn Gregory and various members of Mick Ronson’s family (daughter Lisa, sister Maggie and niece Hannah). They’ll be playing The Man Who Sold The World album in full along with various other Bowie classics from the period.

Our interview happened to fall on the anniversary of Mick Ronson’s death, so I began by chatting about Woody’s memories of his ex-band mate.

“I remember him as a friend more than anything, when I joined his band in Hull called The Rats, he was one of the few musicians around that was a perfectionist. When he learned or played something he had to get it right and would spend the time it needed to get it right. That was impressive because there were not that many professionals at that time; we would do the university circuit supporting the big bands and we would always have a laugh, it was serious as far as music goes but we would always have fun on the road.”

As for Woody himself, it’s really quite an achievement that a drummer from Driffield should end up in one of the most legendary British bands of all time, how exactly did that happen?

“I set off at 14 learning drums by accident really. Mick and I played an open air festival but we didn’t know each other, I was in The Roadrunners and he was in The Rats, we had both come to watch each other play without knowing and there was a kind of mutual admiration thing going on. I remember thinking that would be a cool band to be in. I was working in a factory at the time and he brought the whole band along: ‘Hiya, Woods, I’m Mick Ronson, we want you to be our drummer but you will have to audition, although you have already got the job if you want it’. He left that band after a couple of years and went down to join David Bowie, then I got a call from David who wanted me to join his band and come and live with them at Haddon Hall in London.”

“It was in some ways ahead of its time, you couldn’t even now imagine a Led Zep fan with that sleeve under his arm”

Considering it had been 40 years since Spiders From Mars broke up when Woody began Holy Holy in 2013, I was curious to know how Lisa, Maggie and Hannah Ronson came to get involved in the band. “I got to know Mick’s mother and Maggie when she was a little girl – I used to nick all her sweets. I was asked to do a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art and a band was put together made out of all people who got into music via Bowie. I was to guest at Latitude festival and I was stood at the side of the stage waiting to go on while Clem Burke [from Blondie] played every song I’d ever played. It was really frustrating, I just wanted to get up there, grab him by the shirt and pull him off stage and say ‘get off I’m playing this one’!”

Another high profile member of the band, producer and musician Tony Visconti, was also drafted in to play in the band. Which came as something of a surprise for Woody considering Visconti hasn’t played live alongside Woody since 1971 with The Hype.

“I rang Tony with the idea to do The Man Who Sold The World and he said he’d love to; it was one big regret that we never got to perform it live. He flew in got off the plane, dropped his bags at the hotel, got to rehearsal, picked his bass up and we went right into Width Of A Circle. We grinned all the way through, it was there already.”

Considering The Man Who Sold The World is a very rock-orientated album, it contrasted massively with the cover art which featured Bowie in a dress. But for Woody and the rest of the band, Bowie’s image – and indeed, their own sparkly stage attire and platform boots – came as a bit of a surprise.

“We were only concentrating on the music. David had just got married and was less involved than he might be, he had written the songs and we just jammed it and pieced it together and David came in at the end and put all the vocals down. When we saw the photos we thought ‘Woah, that’s definitely different and going to get attention!’. It was in some ways ahead of its time, you couldn’t even now imagine a Led Zep fan with that sleeve under his arm, which at the time worked against us.”

After three years and four albums the end of The Spiders From Mars came as something of a shock, for fans and the band alike. At the end of a gig at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 Bowie told the audience that it would be the last performance with the band, effectively sacking them live on stage.

“It took me a long time to get over that but I’m philosophical about it now. David had to spring it on us as he knew I for one would probably have walked out if he had pre-warned us. He had a plan that we were not part of I suppose.”

Perhaps Woody hasn’t been entirely out of Bowie’s mind though. On Ziggy Stardust, arguably one of the most lauded rock albums of all time, Woody’s instantly recognisable drum beat on Five Years has become an iconic opener, and it was recently reprised on Bowie’s recent album, The Next Day, at the end of You Feel So Lonely You Could Die. “Five Years was a kind of end of the world song, it had to set off the atmosphere for the album; it’s the end of the world, you’re not going to be that excited! It seemed to sum up the apathy and despair all in a drum beat. But yeah, I noticed that [on You Feel So Lonely…], it was a nice surprise actually. It was just totally unexpected so was a real nice touch.”

In retrospect, part of Woody’s legacy of playing on four of Bowie’s most celebrated classic albums may have been worth the heartbreak of the disbanding of the group. “Sometimes I think fuck me, I did that! But the wife won’t let me get big headed about it!”

Tony Visconti, Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy and Glen Gregory perform The Man Who Sold The World and other Bowie classics at O2 Academy, Newcastle on Friday 26th June.

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