David Bowie's 1970 LP The Man Who Sold the World
is often considered to be one of his first great albums. But besides the title track—which was famously covered by Nirvana on MTV Unplugged and subsequently became a mainstream radio staple—the record isn't an obvious hit machine; its amalgamation of pastoral folk, muscular hard rock and gnarled prog are challenging and complex.
Still, within Bowie's catalog, The Man Who Sold the World
stands tall for several significant reasons: It was the first record he made with guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Woody Woodmansey, who would become anchors of his glammy backing band, the Spiders from Mars. And it was the second Bowie LP produced by Tony Visconti, who also played bass on the album.
The core quartet that recorded The Man Who Sold the World
parted ways after the record, with the late Trevor Bolder replacing Visconti on bass and Ken Scott producing Bowie's next LP, 1971's Hunky Dory
. As a result, this band configuration never had the chance to play the album live. "We were so into going out on the road with it at the time, all four of us, but we never did it," Woodmansey says, calling from London the week before Christmas. "It never got played as an album."
That's all changed thanks to the live project Holy Holy, which finds Woodmansey and Visconti reuniting to perform the album (and a second set of other early Bowie classics such as "Ziggy Stardust," "Life on Mars?" and "Changes") with an impressive cast of musicians: guitarists James Stevenson (The Cult, Gene Loves Jezebel) and Paul Cuddeford (Ian Hunter, Bob Geldof); keyboardist Berenice Scott (Heaven 17); saxophonist Terry Edwards (Gallon Drunk, Lydia Lunch); and backing vocalist Jessica Morgan, who's also Visconti's daughter.
"Her mom is Mary Hopkins, so she's got rock and roll parents," the proud dad notes in a separate interview. "She grew up singing right from the crib to the stage."
Tackling Bowie's vocal parts is Glenn Gregory, whom Visconti met while working on a project called International Blue with a Dutch composer named Stephen Emmer. Gregory—who's perhaps best known in the U.S. for being the lead singer of '80s synthpop act Heaven 17—is "one of the best singers I've ever worked with in my life," Visconti says. "He's so good. His voice is rich, and his interpretations are very, very sensitive."
Indeed, both Visconti and Woodmansey were in agreement that the Bowie figure needed to be someone who wouldn't imitate his style and vocals. "I thought, 'If we're going to play this album, we can't get someone who sounds like Bowie on stage, or looks like Bowie, or dyes his hair orange,'" Visconti explains. "[We] can't have any of that stuff, because it's not a tribute band. We're the original musicians." Adds Woodmansey: "We didn't want someone who sounded like David, because that would just a bit what we'd say 'cheesy.'" He laughs, and adds, "Glenn managed to grab the songs. You were so used to hearing David sing them, and [Glenn]'s got his own communication that comes through the songs."
The genesis of Holy Holy was "a little bit accidental, really," Woodmansey says. In 2013, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London invited him to be interviewed about the Bowie albums on which he played, and how they shaped music and culture. Along with the event, the Institute put together an ace live band—which at the time included Spandau Ballet's Steve Norman, Blondie drummer Clem Burke, and Mick Ronson's sister, daughter and niece (Maggi, Lisa and Hannah, respectively), along with Stevenson and Cuddeford—that ended up doing a set of Bowie songs at that summer's Latitude Festival under the name Holy Holy. This troupe of Bowie fans and acolytes invited Woodmansey to guest on a few songs.
"It went down incredible, but I didn't realize I would be [standing] at the side of the stage watching Clem Burke play all the parts that I'd played in my career," Woodmansey says with a laugh while recalling the Latitude Festival experience. "And I was going 'Aw, no, not that one, I want to play that one,' but I'd only picked three tracks to play, so it was really frustrating. It just reminded me how good the music was." The drummer scratched his itch to play more Bowie songs after joining Holy Holy full-time for their late 2013 gigs, as Blondie commitments prevented Burke from participating.
As Holy Holy's 2014 plans rolled around, however, Woodmansey gravitated toward doing something he'd always wanted to do: give The Man Who Sold the World
its proper due in concert. To make the experience sweeter—and more authentic—Woodmansey decided to call up Visconti and see if he had the time and/or inclination to reprise his bass parts. "I know he was up to his ears in production things with different bands and artists, and I rang him up and said, 'Look, I've got this idea, do you fancy doing it? I found two fantastic guitarists and a sax player,'" Woodmansey says. "And he just went, 'Yes.' I went, 'I didn't even have to talk you into it—I thought I'd have to talk you into it.' He said, 'No, it was one of my big regrets in my career that we never did that. I've often spoke to David about it, I regret we never got to tour it live.'"
To Visconti, the request was indeed a no-brainer. "We split up after the album was made," he says. "You rarely get second chances in life, so I just jumped at the opportunity." In fact, when the bassist landed in London to rehearse for the first four The Man Who Sold the World
gigs, which took place in the U.K. in September 2014, he couldn't wait to dive back into re-learning the record. As Woodmansey recalls, Holy Holy had planned "to spend a day in rehearsals just getting everything polished up" without the bassist, as they figured Visconti would be jetlagged.
However, his old friend had other ideas. "[Tony] took his bags to the hotel, picked up his bass and came down to the studio that day, instead of the next day," Woodmansey recalls. "He just walked in and said, 'So what are we doing?' We went, 'Whoa, you're not supposed to be here until tomorrow.'" Holy Holy started running through the set anyway, and realized they had immediate chemistry. "By the end of the first number, everybody in the band had grins on their faces," Woodmansey says. "That was without any rehearsal. It was tight, and it was spot on. It was really easy putting it all together, because everybody was trying to do the best they actually could. You could feel that."
This initial U.K. Man Who Sold the World gigs went over like gangbusters, and led to more touring there, as well as dates in Japan and Ireland, and now the U.S.—somewhat to Visconti's surprise. "I just wanted to do the initial four shows back in 2014 to prove to myself I can still do it," he says. "We didn't say, 'Oh, let's do an American tour.' [But] American fans have been screaming for an American tour." If all goes well, he hopes Holy Holy is able to hit other places—the West Coast and the Midwest in the U.S., Canada and even Mexico—and maybe even record some original songs with this current lineup, assuming the stars aligned.
"I think it would be enticing to write new material, and even get my old friend David Bowie to maybe write a new song for us," Visconti says. "There's enough recorded music out there. I would only do this if it became something exceptional. I just don't want to throw another CD into the fire."
Then again, both Visconti and Woodmansey are certainly keeping busy. The latter does session gigs in between Holy Holy shows, while the former is busy producing the new record by avant-pop artist Kristeen Young and Bowie's new album, Blackstar
, which arrived Jan. 8. "[Some people] are trying to say 'It's like the Berlin period. It's like this, it's like that,'" Visconti says of Blackstar. "It isn't. It's very new and very different. I can tell you we didn't consciously try to recreate anything from the past. This is a completely forward-looking album. Whereas on [Bowie's 2013 album] The Next Day
, I'd say we drew heavily on the past. We did revisit Ziggy on some tracks; we did revisit The Man Who Sold the World. But Blackstar
's totally new, and I can't help it if it reminds you of something old, but it's not intentionally in the album."
As to whether Woodmansey has heard from Bowie about Holy Holy's interpretations, he laughs and says, "I have a zip on my mouth, I'm afraid." But nearly 45 years after he drummed at Music Hall on the opening night of the "Ziggy Stardust" American tour, Woodmansey says he's thrilled to be coming stateside for the first time with Holy Holy. And he's also been pleased with the enthusiastic reception to Holy Holy's take on The Man Who Sold the World
. "When we did the U.K. tour, the English tour, we wanted to do a meet and greet," he says. "We had families [that] the mother and father had been at the "Ziggy [Stardust]" tours, and now they've got like 18-year-old kids and they were clutching albums, they were their favorite albums. There was a lot of that; it wasn't just one off.
"[And] there were 16-year-olds in the front row at some of the gigs singing all the words. I never thought The Man Who Sold the World
was a sing-along album," he chuckles. "We were blown away. Tony, in fact, stopped at one point and said, 'There's a 16-year-old girl down here, she's just sung every flipping word of [an obscure The Man Who Sold the World
] track. He said, 'She knew it word for word, she's like 16.' The girl was just beaming."
But as befitting Bowie's relentless commitment to progress and the shock of the new, Holy Holy is a transformative experience, something which breathes new life into a beloved classic. "Musicians love this album, and Bowie aficionados worship this album, but to revisit it, it gave us a chance to bring out even more depth," Visconti says. "I think the show has actually got more depth than the original album has."
Holy Holy U.S. Tour, 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, The Odeon, 1295 Old River Rd. Tickets: $20, ticketweb.com.