Life with David Bowie was the ultimate rock and roll rocket ride recalls drummer Woody Woodmansey ahead of Cambridge gig

Words like icon and legend are thrown around lots these days, but David Bowie was the real deal. Woody Woodmansey, who played drums on classics like The Man Who Sold The World and Spiders From Mars, remembers their time together.

Woody describes his time with Bowie as the ultimate rock and roll rocket ride. There were good times. There were bad times. But he cherishes every moment.

The drummer and Tony Visconti are paying tribute to their friend on the Holy Holy tour, featuring Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory on vocals. They will perform The Man Who Sold The World, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Spiders From Mars and other hits from 1969-1973.

Q: Can you describe the show coming to Cambridge Corn Exchange next February 24?

It’s really the best example of Bowie music that’s on the market live (he laughs). There are lots of tribute bands and you know with having two guys that worked closely with David through early albums there’s an understanding. There are a lot of good musicians in the world, they can play things note for note, copy off a record but even with David on live shows it’s like the spirit of that song, its like what are we trying to say with that song. That became our senior communication if you like, it’s not just getting the notes right, it’s creating that atmosphere for that song. That’s what people got off on, that’s why they bought the albums and that’s really why you go to a gig. So we concentrated on that, not that we play bum notes (he laughs), there might be one or two here and there...

We’ve got a good bunch of guys together, that either got into music through those early albums or were really big fans and had already learned a lot of the stuff. Having Tony (Visconti) there on bass, who’s worked on probably more albums with David than anybody else is a real bonus. And he’s a phenomenal bass player, so it gives a great rhythm section.

We try to capture that soundtrack of people’s lives. We did two American tours and had a load of teenagers turning up with albums under their arms. At first I thought they’re obviously bringing it for their mum to get signed (he laughs) but it was for them, there were their favourite albums. Their mum and dad probably weren’t even going out when we were touring. It’s been enlightening seeing that.

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When we toured with David it wasn’t very secretive but it was in a bubble. We did 150 gigs in a row maybe and you didn’t really meet many people, one or two fans would get through to the hotel or things like that or if we went out clubbing; but we didn’t just party. Nowadays you do meet and greets, things like that. It’s been really interesting playing that music and then seeing people who have waited 40 years to say thank you. You get a life story of what it means to them and it’s more emotional than the show actually (he laughs).

Q: There was more mystery back then wasn’t there? I grew up in a time when if you wanted to find out more about a band you did it through the album sleeves

I remember buying a Hendrix album. I travelled 80 miles. I could only find one shop that had it in and I came back in the middle of summer on the top of a double decker bus, clutching this album on vinyl and I must have read it like 1,500 times. It just meant you listened to the album, looked at the cover and your imagination just went. There was more scope for opening your mind and your imagination because you had something tangible to look at and read about.

Q: How did you and Bowie meet?

I started working with him in the beginning of 1970. Mick Ronson had left the band, but I was in Yorkshire and joined him in London. Then David phoned one day and said “Mick says you were a great drummer and you’d really fit in with us. Don’t worry about food, don’t worry about rent, I’ve got this house we’re all going to live together and we’re going to do an album”.

All I knew was he was a bit of a folk guitarist, I’d seen one little flyer of him in Yorkshire with curly hair, that’s all I knew and I wasn’t a folk fan as such because it didn’t really have loud drums and guitars. Anything like that was background music to me.

Mick had said to me “no, he’s really good he’s got potential” (he laughs). So I went down to London with a list in my head you know. Does he look good, does he dress good, is he intelligent or is he thick; can he write music, does he know what he’s talking about. He played some of the folk stuff that didn’t really move me when I was sat in his lounge and then he picked up his guitar and played a track called Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, which was a folk song really but the way he put it across I was blown away. I thought wow... he’d be a good front-man. He didn’t bat an eyelid and his voice was very English.

I’d been used to Paul Rodgers, Roger Daltry, those kind of rock figures with that edge. He didn’t have that, but he had that ability to put a song across, straight into your psyche. I thought writing a song, for me, has always been you’re not telling the whole story and he was a master, probably the best at pointing you in the direction of a song just with the words he chose. By the end of the song you know what it’s about. You’re probably the only one who thinks that’s what its about, but it means something to you personally.

Then we went straight in and did The Man Who Sold The World. We were still really influenced by what we’d been playing, which was progressive rock from Hendrix to Zeppelin. So it was influenced really by the way we played. He’d just got married to Angie (Barnett) so he was a little bit, shall we say distracted, (he laughs). Tony had to keep dragging him out of a room to say we need lyrics from you we need a song, come on you got to do it. We got through that one and he was going through management things at the time so we never got out on the road and played that album live, which was a big regret for all of us.

Then we were straight into Hunky Dory. David had been on a promotional tour of America and he’d met Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. We started listening to Neil Young and John Lennon’s solo stuff; widening our musical interests... after America he had a piano in the bedroom and his 12-string in the lounge and we’d be making toast and you’d hear him plonking on one of the different instruments.

He would say “Woody, I’ve finished one come in and have a listen” and every one was a great track. It just felt like there were no fillers, he had sorted out what he wanted to do and what he wanted to write about. I think in his earlier career he’d done other albums and folky things, comical things, all sorts but that was the first time he realised “I’ve just got to write what I think and I’ve just got to do it the way I want to do it not try to be somebody else”. It really came through in the songs.

Q: You worked on some seminal albums?

We did Hunky Dory and got Rick Wakeman in on piano and that was really opening it up to like “there’s more to this guy than meets the eye”. When we finished Life On Mars our jaws were on the floor... I remember saying to Ken Scott the co-producer he put such a sparkle onto everything. We were really really proud of the stuff we were doing. At the same time you thought nobody’s doing anything like this. To realise you might have done something you’re proud of but nobody might like it, its not guaranteed...

A couple of weeks later we were into doing The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust album. Man Who Sold the world was like... everything on that album they can sing, it’s got all your favourite licks and you can just rock it out. Hunky Dory was a song writer’s album, really.

How do we back up somebody with a voice and songs like that basically? Ziggy was like okay, we’ve got to get back to a bit of balls again, you know and it just kind of worked. We learned what to play behind David really quickly, you didn’t have much time anyway in the studio. You learned early on that he didn’t like to do more than two or three takes of a song so you better have your act together or you’ve got a bad session.

Q: What was he like to hang out with, to live with?

He was a bit of everything. He wasn’t predictable, you never quite knew where his head was at when you started a conversation. If he was in the middle of thinking about creating something or whatever it was you might not get the answer you were expecting (he laughs). He was just interesting to watch because a lot of the times he was an artist 24-7, which was different; we’d never been around people that really were like that.

He was always reading a magazine and coming up with ideas or we watched movies and he was always thinking “how can I use that, how can we do something similar to that without copying that”. He’d come out with wild ideas sometimes. He’d walk down the stairs in this dress which you’d never seen and you’d think “oh God” and it wasn’t like one of your mates putting a dress on for a laugh, and he would go “do you want to go out”. It was a serious fashion statement so you had to quickly figure out “how do I answer this, he’ll ask me what do I think to it” (he laughs).

Q: How long did you work together?

Until the end of 1973, at the Hammersmith Odeon when the Ziggy thing finished. Fame was the next album. We’d done BBC albums, live albums, things like that. It was the ultimate rock and roll rocket ride, one playing from playing little clubs in Beckenham, south London, where they booed us off or threw things at us to walking out on 20,000 people and they’re all going mental and that was in such a short space of time. You had to hang on to yourself.

Q: Did the two of you keep in touch over the years?

Not a great deal. I saw him in the 1980s when he was doing an album in France. I went over there and hung out. We went to dinner and chatted through all the good times and bad times (he laughs) and got closure on that because there were some things that shouldn’t have been said and there were things never said that were. So that was nice. Then emails. He always said “if you want to get hold of me for anything urgent or whatever, it might take you a week to get hold of me but if it’s something important”... but nothing really important came up (he laughs).

He did want to out the Spiders back together in about 1980 and it didn’t work out. I think Mick was in the middle of a production and must have been in a bad mood the day he was asked (he laughs). I think a few times David was trying to find that group spirit that was a part of his early stuff. I think Tin Machine was probably a desperate attempt to get that band thing back, but you can’t take David the solo artist and drop him into the middle of a band of unknowns and hope it’s going to work.

Q: Where were you when you heard he’d died?

We were on tour in America. We’d just played a gig in New York that wasn’t far from where he lived. We got to the gig and the staff were saying “do you think David’s going to come down and sing with you, there’s a rumour”. We said “well, we haven’t heard the rumour but he’s quite welcome to come and sing if he wants” (he laughs). Obviously he didn’t turn up but half the way through the show Tony turned round to me and said “I’m going to ring David up” and we said “yeah, yeah do that”.

He answered and we said “we just rung up to wish you a happy birthday” and we played a really bad karaoke version of happy birthday and got the audition to sing, held the phone up.

He said “that was really nice, tell them thank you and ask them what they thought to Blackstar and the audience went wild”. He said “thanks for ringing, good luck with the tour and I’ll catch you later”. So a day-and-a-half later, five in the morning, my phone was spinning round the bedside table, so many calls coming in.

Finally I glanced and my son had rung from England and said “I’ve just heard it on the news, Bowie’s just died”. It was surreal, I was going “are you sure it said that”. We got everybody up and we had to figure out what we’re going to do, we got another 12 shows, do we pull them out of respect. Somebody said “well David worked right up to the end”... we thought he’d got through it all, he seemed to be getting better even though he said he had a hard time working.

I said on the Ziggy tours sometimes he wouldn’t eat well so he wasn’t that healthy and there would be days when you thought he’d got pneumonia and you’d say “we’ve got to pull the show, there’s no way he’ll sing” and he would always say “I never cancel, there’s no reason, you promised you’re going to play, you play”. You’d go on and you couldn’t tell he was ill and then he’d walk off and collapse. You’d get doctors to look after him and I said “well the show must go on”.

Q: The tour sounds like a wonderful way to celebrate him and his music?

It is. I’ve come to realise over the years how much. It’s the same with any artist, but particularly the Bowie fans who know everything - every lyric, every sound on a track, that you had your dyed on June 27 that year (he laughs - you’ve got to get it right because we care about the music and the audiences.