Tony Visconti: The Man Who Sold The World

Moving on from being the mod who fronted bands such as the Lower Third, David Bowie released a strange yet enchanting debut album in 1967, and became something of a folky troubadour in 1969, but ultimately was proving to be something of a one-hit-wonder after ‘Space Oddity’.

Tony Visconti, 75. worked on 11 albums with David Bowie, including the 1970 breakthrough The Man Who Sold The World, below. Picture: Christophe Archambault / AFP via Getty Images.
Tony Visconti, 75. worked on 11 albums with David Bowie, including the 1970 breakthrough The Man Who Sold The World, below. Picture: Christophe Archambault / AFP via Getty Images.

In 1970, The Man Who Sold The World saw the singer rid himself of the 1960s while setting the tone for a new decade that he would soon own.

Celebrating that anniversary at the Dublin Bowie Festival next week is Tony Visconti, the album’s bass player/producer, and Bowie’s drummer between 1970-3, Woody Woodmansey.

Touring as Holy Holy (named after Bowie’s 1971 single) since autumn 2014, Visconti suggests Bowieinitially wondered why his former band members wanted to take the album on the road.

“David did not endorse the idea of playing the album live,” says Visconti.

“In fact, he asked me why I wanted to do it. I explained, we never played it live, we broke up after it was finished. But when he saw a video of Holy Holy playing ‘The Width of a Circle’ live he said, ‘If only we stayed together we would’ve been that good’.”

The idea of taking the album on the read originally come from Woodmansey, the last surviving member of Bowie’s backing band the Spiders From Mars.

“Woody wrote to me several times in 2014 to play The Man Who Sold The World and Ziggy Stardust on the premise that we both originated the parts we originally played,” recalls Visconti.

“I didn’t answer at first. Playing a two-hour show on bass was something I had never done so I was hoping it would just go away.

"The final time he wrote he said in caps, ‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE WILL YOU ANSWER MY LETTER!’

“Still, I gave it some thought and it suddenly became a personal challenge, to get into playing shape stamina-wise.

I never stopped playing bass, I’ve played for David Bowie’s albums and for many other artists. The only issue was could I play for two hours? Once I said yes to Woody I practised the show every day for three months.

During the early months of 1970, Bowie and his live-in band (for a short time known as Hype) worked on tracks for the forthcoming album.

Under the stairs at the singer’s Haddon Hall residence in Kent, Visconti, Woodmansey and Bowie’s essential side-man Mick Ronson created a curious rock alchemy that attired Bowie’s recurring themes, among them an elite race, the supernatural, the polarity of good and evil, and mental illness.

“In rehearsal, Woody and I discovered we played very well together, along with Mick Ronson,” says Visconti.

“We loved Cream and Mick asked me to channel Jack Bruce, which I did. I think Woody was about 19 at the time and it took a while for him to connect with me socially. I was an older guy from Brooklyn and he was a young lad from Driffield, Yorkshire.

"It was humour that eventually brought us together. When you’re standing between two Yorkshire men cracking the lewdest of jokes nonstop you find yourself in an immersion situation that is irresistible. We became mates.”

The album’s opening and closing cuts, ‘Width of a Circle’ and ‘The Supermen’, became a firm staples in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust set-list.

While Visconti would be absent for Ziggy’s rise and Bowie’s breakthrough as the character, he suggests there would never have been a Ziggy Stardust if it wasn’t for TMWSTW.

“This was very good for David to realise he could write progressive long-form songs and to use his vocal flexibility to the max!”

The forthcoming performance at the Olympia will square the circle back to a venue where Bowie performed the album’s title track back in 1997.

It was also famously covered by Lulu in 1974 for a version produced by Bowie and Ronson, and by Nirvana for MTV Unplugged in 1993.

Visconti’s bassline and the absorbing arrangement during the outro provides Bowie’s haunting vocal with a further sense of the uncanny.

“The outro of the song was my idea because we were just playing the same chord sequence around and around,” says Visconti.

“I quickly sketched out a three-part choral piece featuring David on top, Mick Ronson in the middle and me on the bottom. It was just an experiment to make the outro more interesting but David loved it because it was dramatic and gave weight to the message. I still have that sketch on music manuscript paper.”

Beyond the obvious contemporary rock influences of the time, Visconti adds that:

“Mick and David had other music interests, including jazz, classical and things avant-garde. So did I, but I had actual experience playing jazz live. I taught Woody how to play a jazz bolero drum pattern on ‘All The Madmen’ and also how to play the Latin American percussion instrument the guiro on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.

Tony Visconti: The Man Who Sold The World

"Mick, who was a trained violinist and pianist, and I shared the writing of the classical string parts for several songs.

“I was a keen arranger of voices since high school and wrote most of the backing vocal parts for the album. I also played bowed upright bass on ‘After All’. All four of us had lots of influences that we brought to the album and we were a bit competitive about that too.”

Bowie’s jazz influence would be much less pronounced during the 1970s than on the likes of ‘Saviour Machine’, and Visconti suggests it was such a liberating experience to play that song and several others that made him go back to his jazz roots of his late teens.

“I was in bands that were jamming on Charlie Parker tunes, Dave Brubeck tunes… I had the freedom on The Man Who Sold The World to soar as a bass player — and I didn’t hold back.”

The Brooklyn-born producer and musician, now 75, adds that The Man Who Sold The World is second only to Scary Monsters as his favourite among the 11 studio albums he produced or co-produced for Bowie.

Scary Monsters helped define another decade, and celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2020.

On Scary Monsters, we got everything right. We recorded under better conditions than ever before. Most of David’s previous albums were recorded quickly, he didn’t really like spending long hours in the studio.

"But we took our time on Scary Monsters, we pushed ourselves out of our comfort zone, recording the backing tracks in New York and then with David asking for a three-month break to write the lyrics.

“We resumed in my Good Earth studios in London to record the vocals, the overdubs and the mixes. We took our good time and made sure we loved it all before we handed it over to the label — who adored it! We started this album saying, ‘Let’s make this our Sgt Pepper.’ That became a running joke for every subsequent album.”

- Holy Holy will appear at The Olympia Theatre as part of the Dublin BowieFestival 2020 on Saturday, January 11

- Face to Face with the Men Who Sold The World: An Audience with Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey,Sunday, January 12, Royal College of Surgeons; dublinbowiefestival.ie

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