David Bowie Producer Tony Visconti Recalls ‘Holy’ Career Highlights

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(photo: AP)

More than three months after the death of music legend David Bowie, his longtime producer Tony Visconti still marvels at Bowie’s immense creativity and talent.

“He knew a secret that nobody else did,” Visconti tells Yahoo Music. “He never copied yesterday’s hits. He had enough confidence to create the new style – which is really hard to do, having one person in music creating a new style. He’s like Thomas Newton in [the 1976 film Bowie starred in] The Man Who Fell to Earth. He has original patents, which is different from functional patents or design patents. He was great that way, and yes, it was different from what everyone else was doing, but he could also be damn commercial at the same time.”

Last month, Visconti served as the musical producer of a widely acclaimed three-night Bowie tribute, which featured artists ranging from Heart’s Ann Wilson to the Flaming Lips, performing in New York at the City Winery, Carnegie Hall, and Radio City Music Hall. And for the past two years Visconti he has been touring with former Bowie drummer Woody Woodmansey as Holy Holy, which has performed Bowie’s Visconti-produced 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World in its entirety as well as a selection of classics.

“Woody and I are the original musicians who played on The Man Who Sold the World, Visconti says. “And Woody challenged me to play it again. We never got to play it back in the day. So here we are, very happily doing it now, and we’re playing to massive audiences. There have been little kids in the audience, who knew the words to ‘The Man Who Sold the World.’ Even the photographers in the pit know the words, which is amazing to see.”

During some downtime, Visconti speaks with us about the recent all-star tribute, the creation of Bowie’s final album Blackstar, how “Space Oddity” was “a cheap shot,” and the music Bowie never got to record.

YAHOO MUSIC: It’s almost as though Bowie pulled all the stops on Blackstar with the knowledge that this would be his grand finale. When did he tell you he was ill?

TONY VISCONTI: I had seen him a couple days before he started working with the band, so I knew. And on the first day we were together, he told everyone in the band, but it was something we had to get out of the way. He told them straight-out, and it was never mentioned again. We worked for the next three months with Donny McCaslin’s band. And he and I spent another four months doing overdubs and mixing it at my little studio. But the thing is, he wasn’t suffering during any of it. He was full of energy, full of life. He didn’t work as long as he used to. He would leave at 5 or 6 p.m. instead of 7 or 8 p.m. – that’s all. He was so excited about the album that his energy was as strong as anyone else’s in the studio.

Judging from the lyrics, do you think this was meant as a farewell record?

Only in hindsight. He wasn’t saying goodbye to his fans. He definitely had another record planned. The contingency might have been built into the lyrics – “Oh, in case I die,” that kind of a thing. But death has been on his mind since we met – singing Jacques Brel’s “My Death,” and so on. That’s a big, poetic subject. All poets write about death.

Do you know what he was planning for the follow-up to Blackstar, and have you heard any of the songs?

He told he wrote five songs, but I never heard them. He passed away three weeks after he told me that.

How did you first meet David?

We had a common contact; David’s publisher was my boss. The publisher had a record production company and David was signed to him. I had just discovered Marc Bolan and Tyrannosaurus Rex [later known as T. Rex] a month earlier, and when I started recording with them my boss said, “You seem to be a specialist with weird artists.” He played me David’s first album, which he made before Space Oddity, and I loved a lot of what I heard because I could tell right away that he was a great lyricist and he had a fantastic voice. I said, “I’d love to work with him, but he’s all over the place. He isn’t in any one particular style.” And my boss said, “Well, that’s the problem. Do you think you could help us with that?” I said, “I’ll give it a go.” He said, “Would you like to meet him?” I said, “Sure.” And he opened the door to the next room and there was David waiting to meet me. The prelude was all a setup.

Did the two of you hit it off right away?

As soon as we began speaking, we really got along well as friends. We loved the same types of music. We ended up spending most of the day together, including a walk down Kings Road, where Roman Polanski’s brand-new film A Knife in the Water was playing. So we went to see it. That’s how well we got along on the first date. He had great insight and put a lot of thought into everything he said. And he often talked about books he read. He read loads and loads and he had a good memory. You could rely on him for facts if you wanted to settle an argument. He was great in that way.

Specifically, what caught your ear about Bowie’s largely forgotten self-titled first album, which came out in 1967?

It was very inventive. It was all over the place, which worked against him, but it showcased his ingenuity. I like working with cerebral people who have something to say or feel passionate about something, or even just use music as a great palate instead of using the four rock ‘n’ roll chords. He was already using sophisticated chord changes. His idols were Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, who wrote “What Kind of Fool Am I” [from the musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off]. And also, he was well schooled in jazz, so he was well aware of the major seventh chord and the half-diminished chord. Whether he knew the names of them or not, he knew how to play them on guitar and piano. And he was only 20 at the time, so to me there was a lot to work with. There was no shortage of what to do with him, but we had to hone it down to the sharpest points.

How did you get him honed and focused?

The thing he did best was accompany himself on the 12-string guitar. On the first album he had strings, brass, and small orchestral arrangements. But when he sat in a room and played his songs to me, just accompanied by his 12-string guitar, he sounded the most focused and the most comfortable. We based Space Oddity around his songwriting. I think every song has a 12-string on it. I didn’t want to get session musicians who were 40 or 50 years old to back him. We needed people of our generation. I found a cool rock group called Junior’s Eyes, and Mick Wayne, the guitarist, played that fantastic guitar solo on “Space Oddity.” They worked out great. At the end of the album we kind of knew that we broke into some territory, but we weren’t there yet.

You’ve said that you didn’t love the song “Space Oddity,” which turned into one of Bowie’s biggest hits. [Editor’s note: Visconti delegated the song’s production duties to Gus Dudgeon.]

I thought it was a bad choice for a first single because I saw it as a novelty record. There was a man who had just been in orbit a few weeks earlier. And it sounded to me a little like the Beatles. And the “here am I sitting in a tin can” part sounded like Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends. I thought the double-harmonies were derivative, and in my own words I said it was “a cheap shot.” Also, we had already sequenced the album and I didn’t feel like we needed another song. We had the album rehearsed and worked out and we were ready to go into the studio to record it when he wrote “Space Oddity” two nights before we were set to go in. I was a young producer back then and I wasn’t able to quickly adapt to a sudden turn of events, which I later had to do with him. He did this all the time afterwards – write one of his best songs before the album’s done or in the middle of the album.

Were you surprised when “Space Oddity” became, to many, Bowie’s signature tune?

Yes, and years later he and I joked about it so much. But the one thing I predicted was that he would not have a hit after that. “What are you going to follow that up with?” I said to him, “What are you going to write about, flying to Jupiter, flying to Mars?” Space was a subject in later songs, for sure. But it really took about two years before he had another hit record.

Bowie was much more of an artist than a traditional pop or rock star.

He made a point that he wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll musician; he was an artist that used rock ‘n’ roll as a medium. He was also a painter. He studied mime. He was an actor. Playing rock music was one of the many facets of his talents that he used – obviously the one he’s best known for.

Why didn’t you work with Bowie on Hunky Dory, which was produced by Ken Scott?

We had an acrimonious split. The reason we’re doing The Man Who Sold the World now live is because we never did it live back in the day. Woody, [guitarist] Mick Ronson, and I lived with David for two months. We rehearsed it. We devoted our lives to him and then we went into the studio and felt triumphant. We were breaking all kinds of boundaries – not only David, all of us. We had this freedom to be very expressive and one of the forerunners of metal and heavy rock. And at the end of it, almost a day after it was mixed, David hooks up with his new manager Tony Defries who says, “You have to get rid of the band. You don’t need them.” It was a big slap in our face. Fortunately, I was already working with Marc Bolan on his second album and I just went my way, and Woody and Mick went back up north to Hull feeling very dejected.

Were you in touch before you hooked up with him again in 1974 for David Live?

My attitude was if David was with Tony Defries, I didn’t anything to do with him, because I had earlier dealings with Tony and I didn’t like him at all. And him having David fire us was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After we had devoted our lives to him for more than a few months. So I wasn’t on board for Hunky Dory, but David phoned Woody and Mick back and they came down and played on Hunky Dory. And they got back together and formed the Spiders From Mars, proving Tony Defries wrong. I was really surprised David didn’t stick with us, but on the other hand he made a career move that helped him immensely. We were in contact by the time he did Ziggy Stardust. Our friendship resumed. We were seeing each other socially, but we didn’t get back to work until Diamond Dogs.

What was it that reconnected you as friends after such an uncomfortable breakup?

He very politely invited my wife and I to a comedy theatrical performance by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. We just picked up where we left off. There was no olive branch extended. He was saying what a great job I was doing with T. Rex and making all the overtures to create a situation where we’d work again. People really weren’t confrontational in those days. We were hippies and we didn’t call each other out. But he was extremely friendly and courteous and I couldn’t resist him. And I didn’t hold any grudges, because I was doing great with Marc Bolan and he was doing great. So it was a great opportunity to jump back in with our friendship and see what we could create together.

Do you wish you had produced Ziggy Stardust?

I would have liked to, but I would have done it differently. I don’t think it’s a very heavy record. Ken Scott did a good job, but I think I could have put a bigger, bolder stroke on that album, compared to what I was doing with T. Rex at the time.

You produced the Berlin Trilogy – Low, Lodger, and Heroes – a landmark achievement in your career with Bowie. Did you set out to make three albums with a thematic link?

We realized that in the middle of Low, because Low started out as an experiment. David phoned me when he and Brian Eno were at David’s home in Switzerland working out some ideas. They asked me if I could bring anything to the table. I told them I had this harmonizer, which no one else had, which f—ed with the fabric of time, and that made them yelp with joy. We had a nice three-way discussion about what we would do. And then David said, “You know, this might be a complete failure. Are you prepared to waste a month of your life?” And I said, “I would happily waste a month of my life with you and Brian.” So we started making Low as an experiment, which took off all the shackles of commerciality. We didn’t have to worry about making a hit record. We did anything we wanted. We tried many different experiments. I had the harmonizer on the snare drum. The drummer was thrilled with it, but David and Brian weren’t convinced yet. But the drummer could hear it in his headphones and he realized if he hit the stick hard it would make one sound and if hit it light it would make another sound. And then we used it throughout the album and everyone liked it.

The second side of Low was pretty different from the first side.

The concept was completely different. I wish we still had Side A’s and Side B’s. The whole concept has gone away with CDs, and now with downloads you just cherry-pick tracks. But at that time that was really novel, and by the middle of it we knew we had something. We moved to Berlin to mix the album. And once we did that, we absolutely knew we had to make a second album with Brian. We didn’t know about the third one yet. But we certainly knew we had to make Heroes and continue those ideas.

Bowie has said went to Berlin to get clean from cocaine. Did anyone use any drugs for mind expansion during those sessions?

David didn’t need any drugs to help him out from a creative standpoint. He used to do cocaine to stay awake. But cocaine doesn’t give you any ideas except a massive ego. He allegedly took heroin in Berlin. He never did it in front of me. And I knew the signs of heroin use, and he certainly wasn’t nodding out at all. So I don’t know if that’s true, and we actually never discussed that. It was irrelevant to what we were doing. David had all that music in his head. He had one of the most fertile imaginations of anyone I’ve ever met. I think his greatest influence during that time was the historical art movements that went on in Berlin and were still very much present. Then, there was the stark reality that we were in a war zone and big, black military tanks were going down the High Street. There were Russian guards and French and American soldiers everywhere. That’s inspiration.

Lodger was a poppier album than Low or Heroes. Did David intend to make catchier music when you started that record?

It was called the “Berlin Trilogy” for the simple fact that we did three albums quickly in a row. And in fact, none of that album was recorded on Berlin soil. It was all done in Switzerland. But Brian Eno was on all three albums, and that’s what links them. We were still pursuing his oblique strategy ideas where he’d cut a deck of cards and [the card that came up] would be a cue for the next part of the song. It was fun working that way.

Coming back to the present, what was the highlight of last month’s Bowie benefit shows for you?

It was great to have some of the jazz people there, like Esperanza Spalding performing one of the most difficult Bowie songs ever written, “If You Can See Me” [from 2013’s The Next Day]. And also, it was great playing with the Donny McCaslin quartet [which played on Blackstar]. Their bass player couldn’t make it that night, so I was like the deputy bass player for that performance. That’s almost like playing with the Beatles.

Which participants impressed you?

Cyndi Lauper [who sang “Suffragette City”] stands out for as being one of most energetic performers who actually knew the lyrics. The thing I felt bad about was everyone was reading off teleprompters and didn’t really know the lyrics. It belied their attachments to Bowie, actually. Some people knew him personally and loved him and knew the music, but others didn’t. It was a good show. It was really good. I don’t want to put it down. What the audience saw was really great, and that’s the most important thing.

Did you know Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips was going to come onstage on the shoulders of Chewbacca?

No, but we had a lot of fun with that backstage. People were trying to steal the box that the costume came in. That was a great idea, and I had a nice chat with him. I’m a big fan of the Flaming Lips, so it was a lot of fun. And Wayne is a really big Bowie fan as well [as evident from the Lips’ recent cover of “Space Oddity”].

What was the atmosphere like backstage?

It was kind of haphazard, and there was chaos at all times. When people got out front it was very loving and respectful, which is good. I wish I could say more nice things about it, but for us is was two terrifically long days that started at 8 a.m. and ended up well past midnight three days in a row. We did the City Winery, then Carnegie Hall, and finally Radio City Music Hall.

Can you elaborate on this backstage chaos?

There was a constant party going on. Everyone you can imagine was there. Twenty different entities all got backstage passes for their friends. For Laurie Anderson’s song, our keyboard player couldn’t make it through the crowd to the stage. These people were just jamming both sides of the stage. That’s the chaos I’m talking about. There were too many friends, too much partying going on when the actual show was happening onstage.

What do you think David would have thought about that?

I don’t think he would have wanted it like that at all. In the first place, David did not approve of the tributes. He had been asked several times over the years to be a part of a tribute to his music and one prerequisite was that he perform. And he was adamantly against that. But he told me I could do it. And I was really happy to pay tribute to my friend. And I agreed to do to it last October, while he was still quite alive. But he wasn’t going to have any part of it and neither was his family.

Will any of the shows come out on CD or DVD?

That’s up to the promoters. I know they have very stringent rules at Radio City and Carnegie Hall. They even demand a royalty. Maybe they’ll make an exception because it’s a charity. I have no idea.

For the past two years, you and Bowie’s one-time drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey have been touring as Holy Holy. Tell me about that.

We started doing it with David’s complete knowledge and tacit approval. He wouldn’t say it publicly, but he thought we were doing a great job.

Did the Holy Holy project take on new significance after Bowie died?

Absolutely. It was fun to begin with, but now it’s very cathartic for us to play this music and for the audience to listen to. It’s mainly a crowd full of smiling faces. There aren’t as many tears as there were [when we played] in Toronto the day after he died. A couple people are weeping, but most of the audience is happy to celebrate his life.