Tony Visconti Talks Recording, Falling out and Reuniting With David Bowie

Death Cab For Cutie's Dave Depper speaks with the man who produced The Man Who Sold The World.

As a kid, Dave Depper's parents got him a David Bowie boxset for Christmas. He's still not quite sure why. It's not like they were huge Bowie fanatics looking to indoctrinate their son. Maybe they figured that, having absorbed the Beatles, it was the next logical step in his pop music education. Either way, that's where the obsession started—not just with Bowie himself, but the entire constellation of musicians and producers orbiting around him.

When the Starman went back home in January, Depper, a longtime Portland session player who currently plays guitar in Death Cab for Cutie, mourned as deeply as anyone, penning an eloquent remembrance for The Talkhouse blog. So with Bowie's closest collaborator, producer Tony Visconti, bringing he and drummer Woody Woodmansey's Holy Holy project to town, to play 1970's The Man Who Sold the World in full, we invited Depper to interview Visconti about the Thin White Duke's early career.

Dave Depper: Where are you calling from today?

Tony Visconti: I'm in Dallas. We played a great show here last night but our bus broke down here yesterday, so we went on about two or three hours late.

Is the bus all fixed up?

I just woke up about 10 minutes ago so I have no news about the bus yet. Hopefully we'll get out of here by plane or by bus.

For context about The Man Who Sold the World, I wanted to go back a few years before, to when you first hooked up with David Bowie, in 1967. You're presented with this opportunity to work with David Bowie, who at the time just wrapped up an impressive string of failures in terms of getting songs on the charts. Did you immediately sense the potential with him, or was this just like, "Here's this minor artist I'm being saddled with because I'm a novice producer?"

No, I never felt like that with any artist. I was just so attracted to his voice and his writing. I told the person who suggested we work together that every song he played was completely different from the last. I said, "He's bouncing all over the wall here." He said, "Well, that's why we'd like you to work with him, because you seem to be a specialist in weird artists." Those were his exact words, because I'd worked with Marc Bolan in his young infant band, Tyrannosaurus Rex. You have to give Great Britain credit: they do respect the eccentric person. They're not regarded as an outsider. Eccentric people of any sort in England are regarded as insiders; it's part of what makes up "the Great Nation." That's their attitude. So they hadn't abandoned David, they just wanted someone to make him profitable. That was the idea: How can we sell this strange person?

What was your first thought, then? What did you think you needed to bring to what David had to offer?

After we met and we spoke about many things, I felt his strength was his 12-string guitar. I heard what he could write on his 12-string guitar and accompany himself. As a standalone artist, he had a good sound and good style. I based my production around that. We had a very minimal rhythm section, and he was capable of doing his own backing vocals. So that's how we started. And The Man Who Sold the World was my big idea for him.

With what's known as the "Space Oddity record" [1969's David Bowie], was Bowie pretty confident in what that album should sound like, or was he making it up as you went along?

We made it up as we went along. He was happy someone was interested in him and helping him get focused. He was performing in his local area, in Bromley-Beckenham, in a pub called Three Tuns, where he did a weekly arts slam. So he was testing all these songs out to a small public before we went into the studio.

So less than a year later, you and David are recording The Man Who Sold The World, which is so different in sound and intent it's almost like the work of an entirely different artist. What do you credit this to?

Well, we didn't get immediate success. "Space Oddity" was a success, but it was more the record than the artist. When he made that, I told him, "You'll get a hit. It's kind of a novelty record, the astronaut in space and all that, but you don't write that way normally, that just came out of the blue." But there was something in there, something very inventive, that he didn't do normally with his 12-string guitar, and it started edging toward another style of writing. And we realized if we're going to pull this off, we need a better band. We can't just work with ordinary people. We need to find an extraordinary band. Through the old drummer we were using, we found [guitarist] Mick Ronson. After jamming with him for just 20 minutes, we said, "You're the man." I think it was the introduction of Mick Ronson that changed the whole plan. And of course, Mick recommended his friend, Woody Woodmansey, his friend [to play drums], as a quartet. That was the nucleus. We knew absolutely where we were going from that point onward. And yes, it sounded like an entirely different artist.

There's a great BBC recording of you playing where you hear the transformation in front of you. From what I understand, that was something like two days after David met Mick Ronson.

That's right, and we hadn't yet met Woody, so that's a very transitional recording.

It seems like that particular show, on the BBC, would've been such an opportunity. Did it seem crazy to just use this guy you'd met two days before, or did it make complete sense?

It was kind of crazy, but he stayed with us, in our apartment, this huge apartment in the south of London. We used that whole time for rehearsal, so we were ready for four or five songs. We flubbed it. We made quite a few mistakes, and I think John Peel asked David if we were his band and he made a joke like, "Not after today they're not." It was rough and tumble, and we needed to do much more work, which we proceeded to do. We got Woody, and Woody and Mick moved into the apartment we were living in. They slept on the floor and we rehearsed in the basement. And three months later, we were in the studio.

You mentioned the record label championed letting artists be as weird as they wanted to be. I'm interested in the environment in which you recorded The Man Who Sold the World, in terms of the record company and feeling pressure to build on the success of "Space Oddity." Did you feel any pressure, like this was your one shot?

Not really. What we felt was, like a lot of young groups in those days, we were living in the shadow of the Beatles. They could do whatever the hell they wanted, and we liked that. We liked that freedom of creativity. The Beatles would never build off their former successes. They'd come out with "Strawberry Fields Forever." And we grew up in that time, where the more psychedelic you were, the crazier you were, the better chance you had at getting into the public eye. And the label felt that way. We didn't have the kind of A&R men who came much later, which dictated every chorus, every guitar chord, all that ridiculous interruption. I think we had only one visit from an A&R person, who stood there for 15 minutes with their mouth agape, and then said, "OK, carry on boys! Sounds great!" and left. So we were pretty much left to our own devices. All that was expected of us was to deliver a really great album, and we thought it was great. We didn't think about singles, although I guess "The Man Who Sold the World" was the closest one we had on the album.

But that wasn't the problem. The problem was, they liked the album, they released it, it got great reviews. But it didn't sell well, for one simple reason, that Woody explained to me, because I forgot this. We were actually fired—not by the label, but by Tony Defries, who was David's manager. They had just got together, and he said, "You don't need the band, lose them." David was in a dilemma. He loved the album, but Tony Defries had filled his head with [ideas of] Elvis Presley kind of stardom. He said, "You're gonna be Elvis, I'm gonna be Col. Tom Parker." So we never actually went on tour. We never promoted it, we never went on Top of the Pops, we never went on Old Grey Whistle Test. We just dissolved the band, which was insanity after working that hard and being that committed for three, four months. It was a deep low. Woody and Mick went back to Hull in the north of England, and I was already working with Marc Bolan, making his second album. And that was it. We went our separate ways.

Did you have a falling out with David at the time over that, or was it, like, business is business?

We did have a falling out. We had a disagreement over Defries. David wanted me to stay on as his producer. But I already had dealings with Defries. I didn't like the way Tony did business with me prior to signing David up. So I went my way, too. I didn't want to be his producer anymore as long as he was with him, because I had the strangest feeling I would never get paid. In the end, he took lots and lots of David Bowie's money from him. I told David that would probably happen, and I was right.

But yeah, we got back together with David Live and a few other things. What was thrilling, when we got back together, we went out socially. We became friends again, because we really liked each other. We used to double date with Angie [Bowie's first wife] and my wife, Mary Hopkin. What we really got together on was Diamond Dogs, when I built a studio in my home. I was one of the first producers to ever have a studio at home—16-track. That's when we got together professionally, and that's really a great album. I'm really proud of that one.

Going back to The Man Who Sold the World, in preparation for this interview, I'm struck by what a ferocious bass player you are on that record. You produced many more Bowie records, but up until Heathen, you used a session bassist instead of playing yourself. I'm wondering what the thought process was behind that.

I was his trusted bass player, and I actually played a lot of bass on almost every album. For instance, on Lodger, I play bass on "Boys Keep Swinging," because that's when everyone swapped instruments. But his thought process was, he had a fixed band that was going to go on the road with him, and I wasn't in it. So that was pretty much the only reason he'd use his touring musicians as well. All the musicians who played on his albums since then toured with him.

Did you ever find yourself wishing you had played bass on those sessions, or was it a relief to focus on the production side of things?

I loved to play in the studio, and I can see his reasoning that he'd want George Murray to be on the road, so I just got on with the production, which was a big job. The albums got more and more complicated, and my job was production and mixing. I wouldn't even record on the live sessions, I'd trust an engineer to do that, because there's too much to do. I'm a musician first, engineer second.

Speaking of Heathen, Reality and The Next Day, you're once again playing bass sometimes, and sometimes not. I'm curious what led to these decisions. Was it based on what the song needed? Logistical factors?

There were all different reasons I don't want to go into, but it was his personal taste, really. He felt certain people could play certain songs better. For instance, on Heathen, I was going to play fretless bass on a lot of the songs, but I was a bit out of practice on the fretless. Tony Levin lived down the road, he only lived 15 minutes away, so when David suggested Tony Levin play the fretless, I was all for it, because I wanted to watch him play. I wanted to steal some licks! One thing Tony Levin had was a fretless with markers on it, which I didn't have. That's one of his little secrets. So right after that session, I brought my bass to a guitar repair shop and said, "Put some damn markers on this thing!" It changed my style of fretless bass playing. David always got the right person for the right song. If a guitar player wasn't working out, we wouldn't fire the guitar player, we'd just get another one in for that song. I was used to working that way with David. Whatever serves the song was our mode of working.

I'm curious about the period between Scary Monsters and Heathen, when you weren't working together. This included several albums that are considered to be the low point of his output. I'm curious how closely you followed what he was up to during that time. Was it frustrating for you? Were you thinking, "If only I was behind the boards, this could be avoided?"

I did, actually. We didn't communicate during that period. He went into another one of his sequestered periods where he was only speaking to a small circle of people, and I was left out of that circle for a while. I did look on in amazement on how those records were turning out. They weren't very good, although there some great songs. I was so happy when I got that phone call for Heathen, and we were together more or less since then.

Did you find it was like riding a bike with him? Had your work habits changed much?

No, I think that's why it works. We got back together and resumed right where we left off. He's an old friend, so I never quaked in fear when I worked with him, like a lot of younger producers would. "Oh my God, it's David Bowie." I always respected him from the day I met him, but at that point in his life he needed that, instead of having a fanboy fawning all over him. He needed to feel relaxed to create a masterpiece like Heathen.

Touring with Holy Holy, is there any song you were lukewarm about the first time around that's come to life playing it this time?

We decided to do a medley he did once in 1973. Other members wanted to do it, but it didn't even sound good to me in 1973. It started out with Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud" and went into "All the Young Dudes" and ended with "Oh You Pretty Things." It was a really complicated attempt to do something like that back then, and I thought, "We're going to mess this up." But I wrote it all out in a chart, and I rehearsed them. The first two times we did it I thought, "I don't know if we're crazy trying to do this thing." But now we do it like an operetta, and it really works. It's one of the high points of the show. I tell the audience at the beginning of the show, "We're going to do some deep tracks. Things you haven't heard for a while or aren't really well known." We get a big round of applause just for saying that, and this is one of those things that's one of the highlights of the show. I wasn't sure it would be when we started a year ago.

SEE IT: Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey's Holy Holy plays Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., with Jessica Morgan, on Sunday, May 1. 7:30 pm. $29.50 general admission, $44.50 reserved balcony seating. All ages.

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