You’re the celebrated sticksman from one of the iconic rock ‘n’ roll outfits of all time. You’re merrily touring the States with some buddies, playing the old hits. And then, out of nowhere, you get the news. The man whose songs you’ve been singing, your old pal, has just died, becoming for that moment the most famous person on earth or beyond. Shit suddenly gets very real.
Such was Woody Woodmansey’s 2016. The man behind the kit in the Spiders From Mars was with his new outfit, Holy Holy, when news came through that David Bowie had died. The year since has seen press and public falling over themselves, with complete justification, to praise the Dame (except the Mercury Music Prize panel, desperate not to be obvious). For Woodmansey, and his tour partners, including Bowie producer Tony Visconti on bass, the impact has been huge.
‘It’s been quite amazing. And I’d been on the Ziggy tour!’ he says, of Holy Holy’s gigs since then. ‘You never really got reactions like this. He’d become like a family member to people. You see what he meant to them. It’s like I’m a rock ‘n’ roll drummer and a counsellor, you know.’
Bowie’s death was a sad, but ultimately celebratory, turn of events that thrust the Holy Holy project into the limelight in a way that certainly wasn’t foreseen when the band started “by accident” in 2014.
‘I got asked to do an interview at the ICA on my “contribution to culture”. It’s a bit “up there” for me, you know, a bit highbrow. But I thought, I’ll see if I enjoy it. And I did. There were some great questions. They’d put a band together for it – Clem Burke [Blondie], Steve Norman [Spandau Ballet]… a good band. They said, “We’re gonna do Latitude. Would you come and do two songs?” So I played Ziggy and Five Years. I didn’t realise I’d be stood at the side of the stage watching Clem do my drum parts. We’d got friendly, but I wanted to run on and pull him off and take over! It reminded me of the quality of the songs. It hit you how good they were to play.’
That taste of the old days was enough for Woodmansey to start hatching plans for something bigger. In particular, there was an element of unfinished business about the first album he’d recorded with Bowie.
‘We’d never played The Man Who Sold The World album live. We had no finance to go out and gig. So I phoned up Tony Visconti to see if we could do it. I thought it would take two hours to talk him into it. It didn’t!’
A short UK tour led to a longer one, which led to that poignant tour of the US last year. On those US dates, a beautiful moment stands out. Woodmansey was unceremoniously dumped from Bowie’s band in 1973 prior to the recording of Pin Ups, after a fractious US tour, but there was to be a heart-warming on-stage coda to the two men’s relationship shortly before Bowie died…
‘We were playing the Highline in New York on 8 January, Bowie’s birthday. We got to the gig, saw the guards on the door, and they said he’s going to come down and sing. He didn’t. But half way through the gig, we phoned him up from the stage, and played a karaoke version of Happy Birthday to him, all the crowd singing. He asked what the crowd thought of [final album] Blackstar and they went absolutely mental. It was nice for us. It gave us a boost.’
‘Then two days later, we heard [he’d passed away]. It was surreal. It was early in the morning, so you didn’t know if you’d got it right. It was tough. It was especially tough for Tony. He knew he was ill, but he thought he had lots of time left. It hit him hardest.’
With such devastating news, surely the tour was called into question?
‘We had a band meeting and asked “what are we gonna do?” We still had gigs left. “Do we pull ’em?” Tony said, “David worked right until the end. He’d want to keep going.” And he was right. Even in the early days, he [Bowie] was ill. He wasn’t eating well. He was undernourished at the best of times. He’d get flu and wouldn’t talk much before a show. We’d say to him, “we gotta pull tonight’s gig”, but he’d say “no”, do the gig and then collapse afterwards. He had that attitude – “The show must go on.” So we did the gigs. I’d look out and see six rows of kleenex tissues, people hugging each other. Some nights it would be twelve rows of kleenex. But I thought, “We’re not here to grieve. This is a celebration!”‘
‘A lot of the crowd had never seen the material. They were from after that phase. We had everyone from 16 year olds to 70 year olds there. We had a girl in the front row. She sung every word to every song. Tony asked her her age and she was 14! Then there was a wheelchair user, head-banging away. Everyone loved it!’
And that could well have been that. One last blast playing the songs of the past, in memory of the man who wrote them, fans paying their final respects via the music. Then came a phone call from what, to some, might seem an unlikely place. It was a place close to Woodmansey’s heart though, a place that had, with an amount of ridicule, been named UK City of Culture 2017. “Hello, this is Hull calling…”
‘The [City of Culture] Committee said, “you and the Spiders were the biggest export from Hull!” – I thought it was fish fingers or something! – “It would really help us if you played and we’d like you to play the Ziggy album.”‘
Hull got its wish. The band play two sold out gigs at Hull City Hall this weekend. ‘We sat down and started breakfast,’ says Woodmansey, ‘and before we finished it was sold out!’ As requested, it’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars in its entirety. It’s hard to think of a better way to showcase Hull’s underestimated rock ‘n’ roll credentials. How does he feel about this homecoming?
‘I’m excited. It’s nice to be able to contribute to the Capital of Culture. They contributed to us, you know. They followed us when we were The Rats [Woodmansey’s first band with guitarist Mick Ronson]. You need that support while you get your act together. But it’s actually the first time we’re playing Bowie material there. We never got to play back in the day. We wanted to, even Bowie wanted to.’
Which draws attention to the elephant in the room – who do you get to take vocal duties? Standing in those shoes is one unenviable task. Lorde made a decent fist of it at the Brits, but a one off special is different from a full gig and tour. In Holy Holy, that task has fallen to Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory. He’s not a figure that would automatically leap to mind for the job, but he comes with the highest recommendation.
‘When Tony said yes to doing it, he told me, “I’ve just finished an album with Glenn. He’ll do a good job.” And Glenn’s pulled it off. It’s a hard job to take on. We didn’t want somebody who sounded like Bowie, but Glenn’s managed to understand the songs. He’s got a great voice.’
Has Woodmansey himself had to adapt his playing, going back to old material after this time? Apparently, the secret’s all in how it was recorded in the first place.
‘Your playing changes anyway, hopefully getting better. I’ve made a few minor changes, streamlining. Generally the parts just worked. We didn’t spend a lot of time rehearsing. Bowie would just bring in a new song, then you’d take it to the studio, thinking “Fuck! I hope I remember some of it.” Then he’d say, “no, I’ve just done another one!” You’d only just got your head round the arrangement and he’d change it. You got quite good at reading the nods and winks in the studio.’
‘We never went more than three takes. If it got to 4 it was a bad session. Jean Genie was one take. Life on Mars was two takes. At first, we kind of thought he was an idiot. You’re in one of the best studios in London. You could take more time. But that freshness – it’s usually the right idea and when you plan it you lose it. Somehow the whole track took on a different life. It was bigger than the parts you played, more than just the notes.’
Woodmansey, like his bandmates, was a no nonsense kind of Yorkshireman. Bowie, it’s fair to say, was somewhat more la-di-da. Famously, trying to get the Spiders into feather cuts and shiny jumpsuits took some persuasion. And if 1970s Yorkshire was resistant to the look, surely 1970s Glasgow was much the same. How did they feel coming up here back in the day? Weren’t they taking their life in their hands?
‘Bowie thought if three Yorkshiremen can take it, there’s a good chance to Scots can take it.’
‘We played [now demolished venue] Green’s Playhouse. We’d just done Top of the Pops with Jean Genie. We never got to see ourselves on Top of the Pops as we were heading up to Glasgow. [Keyboardist] Mike Garson was American and had only just got used to English accents, and then our Yorkshire accents, and now he had to deal with these Glasgow ones. After the gig, we were trying to keep the fans away, and these big looking Scottish dudes were heading towards us. This guy, he mouthed off. Every second word a swear word. I always said, if they like you in Glasgow, you’re alright. If they don’t, they’ll soon let you know! Garson was asking, “Did they like us? Did they like us?” He couldn’t understand them. But, fuck… I couldn’t either. Then I noticed one of them had an album under his arm, and he put his hand out to shake ours…’
There’ll be no such doubt about the welcome when Woodmansey and band return to Glasgow on Monday with the Ziggy tour. Glasgow loves its music, and Ziggy is up there with the best. But what of the future, after the current tour’s over? It turns out it’s not all about Bowie…
‘I’ve actually just been doing stuff with Rita Ora. I thought she was just someone from X-Factor/The Voice, all electronic drums. I hadn’t really paid attention. I was like, “Are you sure you want me?” But they did, they wanted that hard-hitting rock stuff. She’s got an amazing voice. We had a great time in the studio. And of course, I’m still promoting my autobiography, doing book tours and things like that.’
Talking of autobiographies, does he enjoy that process of looking back or would he rather just be looking forward?
‘A bit of both. It helps to run through it. You really had to do a timeline, remember what it was like. I spotted things I hadn’t spotted before. It was bittersweet. There were some bad times, but it was a good adventure. A rock ‘n’ roll dream come true…’
And it was a rock ‘n’ roll dream that left an indelible mark on others, as Woodmansey has been finding out during these recent tours.
‘After a gig, we met these two brothers. They both went to Vietnam. They told us, “The only album we took was Ziggy. If we hadn’t had that we’d never have come back.”‘
Who says music can’t change lives?