Tony-Visconti-(c)-Marilyn-Kingwill

Forty-five years have passed since David Bowie released The Man Who Sold the World, a landmark album that featured guitar great Mick Ronson, “Spiders from Mars”-era drummer Woody Woodmansey, and then-up-and-coming producer-bassist Tony Visconti. Last year, Visconti and Woodmansey revisited the project in a big way, performing the entire album—plus other classic Bowie songs from that era—in a series of shows that included Glenn Gregory on lead vocals, along with guitarists Paul Cuddeford and James Stevenson stepping into the role of Ronson.

The project’s resounding success inspired Visconti and his ‘mates to push forward with another series of U.K. shows coming next month, including an appearance at the legendary Isle of Wight Festival. In addition, a live double album—capturing a concert staged at London’s 02 Shepherd’s Bush Empire last September—is slated for release on June 1. Recently we caught up with Visconti to get his thoughts on recreating Bowie’s pioneering classic, his memories of Ronson, and why he feels the SG bass is the perfect instrument to recapture those brilliantly distinctive “Man Who Sold the World” bass lines.

What triggered the idea to stage the Man Who Sold the World performances?

The credit goes to Woody Woodmansey, the original drummer of the Spiders from Mars. He is also the only remaining survivor. Tom Wilcox, an executive at the ICA in London, is also responsible for assembling the band and guests. Tom is a fervent fan of David Bowie’s music.

Had you kept your bass chops up through the years?

I keep up my bass and guitar chops because I play on a lot of my productions. I played a lot of the bass on Bowie’s last album, The Next Day. This tour is another story. I had to write out what I played over 40 years ago and proceed to practice and memorize those parts.

What was it like when you first locked in with Woody after all those years?

I walked into the first band rehearsal just to say, “Hello.” I was due to start the next day. There was a bass, so I picked it up and started playing with Woody and his band, Holy Holy, and we locked in immediately. That was before we hugged. The joy in the rehearsal studio was really high.

Was there an agreement at the start that you would perform the material as faithfully as possible?

We stuck to the original formats of the songs, but there were a lot of jams in those songs that were just too much to memorize. A jam is a jam. Having said that, a lot of the signature licks went right back into our current interpretations. We also had to drop the keys a whole tone to accommodate Glenn Gregory’s deep baritone voice. At the time Bowie recorded the album, he was around 22 years old and he had a very high range. But these songs sound so much darker in a lower key and the sound is more in line with the dark lyrics. Fans had no problem singing along.

What are some of your most vivid memories of making the original album?

We were brave young dudes. We felt we could do just about anything in the studio by then, and we left no stone unturned. We played powerfully and got into some very atonal areas. It was truly an “Art Rock” album, although that term didn’t exist yet. We played live, too, and Bowie sang live--if he had finished the lyrics. Only half the lyrics were complete when we recorded. Bowie played all the acoustic guitar on the album. We all sang backing vocals–it was a little ahead of its time, kind of Queen-like. The only outside musician was Ralph Mace, a 40-year-old concert pianist who was also head of the Classical music department on the label. He played the synthesizer parts we wrote out for him, kind of in the style of Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos. We borrowed George Harrison’s Moog--the big one, not the mini-Moog--and Chris Thomas, the famous producer, was the only person in London who knew how it worked.

Your bass playing on TMWSTW is melodic and heavy at the same time—also very “up-front.” Was there a bass player whose style you tried to adopt, and make your own?

When Ronson joined the band he made me listen to Jack Bruce. He told me I should play like that. That was fine because my first instrument was ukulele, then guitar. My guitar was a Gibson ES-355, by the way. I started playing bass at 15, so what Ronno was asking me to do was to combine the techniques of guitar and bass--lead bass! I took to it like a duck takes to water. I really didn’t listen to Jack Bruce much after I analyzed what he did--I ‘got it’ and just started working on my own version of lead bass. Also, just to be clear, even though I was the producer of the album, it was Ronno who made me put the bass up high in the mix.

Would you say, then, that Ronson served as band leader?

I think that credit goes to David, if it goes to anyone at all. It was a very communal process, banging out those arrangements in rehearsals and fine tuning them in the studio. All of us played an equal part. Bowie and I wanted to create a real rock band, and when we heard Ronno we knew he was what we needed. He came up with amazing ideas for us to play with.

Tell us a bit about your SG bass. What were the features that grabbed you?

When I first started to practice for the September 2014 tour, I started out on a long-scale bass, and most of the songs felt weird to play, like a lot of work. Then I remembered that we had borrowed several basses from a London music store back then, probably Macari’s. One of them was the Gibson EB-3 bass, the one Jack Bruce played. It was easy to play all those melodic parts I was coming up with because of the short 30-inch scale. I immediately set out to buy an EB-3, but I couldn’t find one apart from expensive vintage ones and new models made by Epiphone. There was nothing in between except the SG bass. I live near a Guitar Center, so I went there and tried the SG basses they had hanging on the walls. They had three of them and I found that I loved the ease of playing. I also love the plain matt sunburst finish. It is a beauty and it seems to be very photogenic. Anyway, I started practicing on the short-scale neck, and then everything I played over 40 years ago made sense. Strange, but I swear I had “muscle memory” of playing those parts. It felt so right. The SG is virtually an EB-3 with a different tone circuit, but both have the same pickups. The sound was truly massive live and I was more than happy to play a two-hour show on a lighter bass.

You worked with two artists—Ronson and Marc Bolan—whose association with the Les Paul is legendary. Did either of them ever discuss the instrument with you, express why it was so integral to their sound?

They both loved Gibsons, especially the Les Paul models. I would say they used them 90% of the time for that thick rock sound. They each had several Les Pauls, and I think Marc had an SG as well. They played the Les Pauls at lower volumes, less than “10” on the knob. The Les Paul was capable of various amounts of subtlety in their hands.

What was Ronson’s setup for the Man Who Sold the World sessions?

It was simply a Les Paul, a Marshall, and a wah pedal. I can’t remember the model of the Marshall, but was 100 watts and had only three controls--volume, treble and bass. His amp setting was 10-10-10, all the time! He used the wah in stationary positions to get different mid-range eq. He rarely ever used distortion pedals.

How difficult was it to duplicate Ronson’s parts for the live shows?

Paul Cuddeford and James Stevenson are Ronno experts. It took two guitarists to duplicate the parts, because Ronno often double-tracked and played chordal parts live-in-the-studio and overdubbed his solos. I couldn’t believe my ears standing on-stage with these brilliant guitarists.

Have you been surprised by the enthusiastic response—the way fans have responded?

It almost brought me to tears. We practiced so hard for the shows, and to see the joy in the faces of the audience, to hear the screams and cheering was so, so worth it! It could have gone the other way if we weren’t up to par. As regards the upcoming shows, I’ve never been to the Isle of Wight, so I am especially looking forward to that one, and to the final one at the Shepherds Bush Empire. And, of course, all the others in between.

Photo Credit: Marilyn Kingwill