by David Currie
It was cold and wet and windy. London in these conditions becomes far from the most hospitable of places, especially when your laden down with a tape recorder, camera and clipboard.
….I had an appointment that day to talk to Tony Visconti, a name commonly linked with the worlds most acclaimed rock artists – David Bowie, of course, being the name which instantly springs to mind.
….Days before, I had tried to make some sense of the thousands of questions running amok in my mind – some were on paper but for the most I was reliant on my own memory and for some reason, the only thing which kept repeating in my mind was (pinch punch first month).
….I arrived at Viscontis Good Earth Studios in a state of mental confusion. I was a little apprehensive about this interview, especially when you take into consideration how rare it is for Tony Visconti to talk about his work with David Bowie
….Good Earth itself is a cozy little place, effective for working but still retaining those little touches that make things seem more comfortable. In one room, an old Wurlitzer juke-box stood proudly, shining as good as new, a corner housed a flickering television which,lets face it, always makes any place seem more inviting.
….A cup of coffee and a gracious welcome from Good Earths staff later and I was beginning to feel a little better.
….Then, at the PRE-arranged time of 2.30 pm – Tony Visconti appeared.
….He was engaging, extremely friendly and immaculately dressed with an incredibly youthful and fresh appearance.
….I was led into his office, which was a seductive gallery of gold records and framed photographs, taken by himself of the many stars he has produced. (One casual shot of David, depicted the not-so-serious one smiling broadly, dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt with I Love Switzerland emblazoned across it.)
….And so, our conversation began. Throughout it all, Tony Visconti was pleasant, informative and very charming – speaking in a confident voice, with soft traces of a Brooklyn accent diffused over the years, with a certain Englishness. Its easy to see why David Bowie took an instant liking to this man, something which has developed into a deep friendship that will probably last forever. He talked of Haddon Hall, David in the studio, Joey Bowie and a whole lot more.
You were born in Brooklyn. Did you have a musical childhood?
Yes, I did. First of all, I was singing ever since I can remember. Both my mother and father were singers, not professionally, though. And my father bought me a ukulele for Christmas when I was four years old. It was a Popeye ukulele, and it had different colored strings and a book. So I taught myself to read ukulele diagrams and I knew a lot of chord changes by the time I was five.
Did you have any Classical teaching?
Well, not at that age, but when I was a little older I studied Classical guitar from !! to 14 and then I went to a High School similar to the one you see in FAME. I didn’t have the dance and all that but the music programme was excellent and I was majoring in five music periods each day, giving up my lunch break and physical training. I had quite an extensive musical education there.
How did you first come to England?
In 1967 I meet Denny Cordell who was then the producer of Joe Cocker, Procol Harlum, Georgie Fame and The Move and he had a session in New York. I worked for a publishing company called the Richmond Organization and was the the house producer there, having just got the job and Denny worked for the associate British Organization – Essex Music. So when we meet he was saying: Oh, were transatlantic brothers and I helped him do a recording session for Georgie Fame in New York. He wanted to do the session British style without any arrangements – just pieces of paper and thing. Its very unprofessional to do that in New York, its almost professional here if you’ve got a lot of time – but in New York, three hours of musicians time costs a lot of money. You’re always expected to prepare for sessions. So, I did a great saving that day act – I wrote out a quick arrangement, xeroxed it and brought it to the studio helping to communicate Dennys intentions to the musicians as hardly understand him myself, coming from New York. So, I acted as a kind of translator and it all worked out very well. To cut a long story short, the incident was instrumental in convincing Denny that I was the person he needed to assist him and I came over to England as an Assistant Producer.
Can you remember the first time you were ever able to work in a studio?
Oh ye, I started recording sessions in America when I was 13. I was always in neighborhood groups, always forming bands and I just went in at 13 to do some demos. At the time, I had a best friend who lived around the corner from me who worked for Atlantic Records in their studio and he used to sneak me in, so I was often in on sessions by people like Aretha Franklin – just as an observer. And also, late at night, wed go in and my friend would explain every thing to me. He was very instrumental in giving me my early studio education. I started professional work when I was 16.
Perhaps, some people don’t realize how important a producer is to a record. Can you explain exactly what a producer does?
A producer is responsible for the entire production of a record and that begins outside the studio when the producer and artist meet to discuss what material will be recorded and in which way. Also, what musicians to book, if it isn’t already a band, what studio and so on. All these things a producer must have a sure knowledge of because to book the wrong studio or hire the wrong musicians for an artist might be an disaster. He must accept responsibility for all these processes. Most producers also assume the responsibility of a music director. When you have an engineer producer, he can do this but mainly checks on the sound, tells someone when they’re out of tune etc. The kind of producer I am is that I can actually step into any job in the studio.
When did you first meet David Bowie?
I was wondering when we were going to come around that one! (laughs). OK, I’m a bit cloudy about this, but I’m sure that it was at the end of 1967 in the offices of Essex Music where I was employed. My other boss, David Platz just said: We got this young man and we don’t know what to do with him. He writes every song in a different style. I was already involved with Marc Bolan at the time, and he said: Since you seem to be the expert with these strange people – Id like to see what you can do with this David Bowie. So I met him there in the Essex Music room. 68 Oxford Street – I know how you like these little details.
Initial impressions. . . . .?
My initial impressions were that he was a nice, well-mannered young Englishman. He wasn’t the bizarre person he was made out to be, or was later to become. He seemed to want to like me instantly. He liked the fact that I was an American, and within 15 minutes we were sharing stories and experiences. We became very close in a very short space of time. I must say that my first impression was: I like this person very much.
It seems that in the early days, great pains were taken by people like yourself and Ken Pitt to keep David’s affairs and recording sessions in order. When did you first decide that such effort and tolerance on your part would be worthwhile?
I believed in David. I wouldn’t do anything for anyone unless I thought it would be worthwhile. I loved his songs – I was trying to get him to concentrate on one style of writing as I felt that it was his un-doing that he was writing in so many different styles. Of course, its well known that when he threw Space Oddity at me, I hated it. I felt: Who are you? You know, had just written a string of Simon & Garfunkel-type songs. Janine, and so on, really low-key folksy stuff. I still don’t like Space Oddity all that much, although when I hear it now I realism that I’m listening to classic recording. But it was never one of my favorite songs. I had a lot of reasons at the time, but they’re probably not valid now so it doesn’t matter. What happened with Space Oddity in fact was that I told him: You’ll probably have a hit record with this but how are you going to follow it up – its like nothing you’ve ever written before? and, in truth, it wasn’t until three or four years later until he did have another hit record. So my prediction was correct in that sense, that he couldn’t really follow it up. I saw that song as a spectacular cheap-shot, cashing in on the moon landing.
Is that exactly what it was? There’s all these different stories. Some saying the inspiration came from Kubrick’s 2001.
That’s exactly what it was, and had admit it I’m sure. You know, it was inspired by everything. There’s a guy in Beckenham who claims that Bowie stole the story directly from him. But the thing is, Davids just a person who, if you talk to him, you run the risk of him stealing some of your material. It happens to everyone in life. It depends on whether you want to volunteer it or not, but he will get it. He’s a very perceptive lad. It doesn’t matter where he got it from – Kubrick’s 2001 or whatever – he wrote it to get a hit record and power. And I guess I was too idealistic in those days and I felt he should be more faithful to his own style. This is where we differed on this point, in those days he would do anything to get a hit record.
You said before that when you met David he was mild-mannered Englishman. Has he changed much?
Oddly enough, he seems to have gone full circle. My last meeting with David, which was last August, showed him himself to be very mild-mannered and extremely polite. He’s also very cultural – he’s a world traveler. That’s always something I always give him credit for. He never stays in his hotel room. He always out wanting to know what’s happening. Nowadays, his favorite place seems to be Japan. He always returns to the Far East.
There wasn’t many reports of David out on the town on the last tour….
……Well its getting harder for him all the time. He realizes that.
Has his studio working method become more serious as he’s got older?
The last thing I did with David was Scary Monsters. His methods pretty much the same as we set on The Man Who Sold The World, its just that he writes at the very last minute. He doesn’t get nervous about going in beforehand. He has to actually get into the situation of being in a recording studio before he can do anything. At the beginning of albums, he’s pretty laid back, he smokes a lot, reads the newspaper and gives Carlos Alomar a few chords, perhaps. And fair enough, he does give Carlos credit when he’s very instrumental in writing something. Its only when things start happening – Davids a great believer in chemistry. There’s no chemistry when he’s sitting alone at home, but he has this way of getting very interesting people together and then to interact. This is his method.
Has that always been the case throughout David’s career – this channeling of ideas?
Well, yes, he draws people into him but he’s not necessarily the channeller, although, in the end it all does come through him. They get quite out of control, recording sessions. David would be the last person to admit that he’s totally in control of it all. But we do create a context in which people can have a lot of freedom. Ultimately, we wait until everybody leaves before we start editing stuff down. We record a lot of material, there’s a lot of tracks that never make the album, a lot of backing tracks which never make the album also. You, know, totally finished tracks musically, with guitar solos and such like, and if David doesn’t feel inspired enough to write the words at the time, they’re just left like that. Fashion was originally called Jamaica – he was going to write a little ditty about Jamaica, but couldn’t think of anything to write. It almost got thrown away, until, at the very last minute he decided to call it Fashion. He must have been talking to someone. David often lets people into the studio when he’s working. Iggy will come along and friends like Fripp will walk in. Not to work with him but just to interact on a conversational level. You see, when you’re getting a David Bowie vocal you’re getting very much how he actually felt maybe an hour beforehand.
Does he find it easier to work with other people in the studio, because he’s performing to people rather than just a microphone?
No, they’ll go away. He’ll send them out and perform just to me because he’s not that much of an extrovert, believe it or not! But he’ll talk to them open a newspaper and suddenly say: ‘OK, record these two lines. ‘So, he’ll sing something like ‘Joe The Lion’, that was written this way, just the two lines then: ‘Stop the machine. ‘He’ll think for a moment then say: ‘now drop me in after those lines,’ And slowly, not only the vocal will emerge from this session but the lyric and the melody. On ‘Scary Monsters‘ for instance, only ‘It’s no game’ and and the song by Tom Verlaine ‘Kingdom Come’ were the only completely finished songs in which we already knew the lyrics, melody and so on.
He seems to like that method of song-writing as he’s always enthusing about how good Iggy is at it. . . .
Yes, that is something he learnt from Iggy, quite honestly.
Can you describe a basic day in the studio with David? I know you’ve already gone a long way in doing that, but is there any kind of routine?
Well, one thing where we differ from most people is that we’re out of that syndrome of where you get in at 4.00 in the afternoon and leave at 10.00 the next morning. We stopped doing that during ‘Young Americans‘ when we were both silly young men just keeping those hours for the sake of being there. Pushing and pushing ourselves, not really knowing what we wanted. Nowadays, it’s a lot more clearer of what we both expect from a recording session. A typical session might start at 2.00 in the afternoon – David and the musicians coming in and messing around for a while. Things happen very quickly, especially around Carlos. And within two hours we’ll have something really nice on tape. One reason it doesn’t take so long now is that, for example, at the time of ‘Low‘ David was so unsure of this new direction that he said: Let’s treat the first two weeks as demos.’ And after the two weeks had gone I said: ‘We have much more than demos here, why do we have to re-record all this lovely stuff?’ Se we listened back and and the lesson learnt from that is that we keep the machines running while we’re creating and we do all the demos on 24 track – just in case. That’s been the approach to every album now, and there’s no need to go back and re-record anything. We haven’t done that for years. So about 8.00 in the evening. David might say: ‘That’s enough’ and tell the musicians to go home but he would stay to do some la-la’s or some humming – just to get some ideas down on tape. After that, we’ll go out and reward ourselves – have some dinner, go to a club or see a show and return to the studio until 2.00 the next day. So, our session last no longer than eight hours, and quite often they’re as short as 6 hours. Once the backing tracks are finished we do send them away. That’s like Phase 1 and we never return to it. The next phase is over-dubs and then we bring in people like Eno and Fripp who are specialists in that field and still that’s quite a short day. We bring in people who have hot ideas anyway who’ll do anything, and as it’s David they usually end up doing nothing! Phase 3 would be when David does vocals – which is very, very private. Because he’s composing on the spot we usually have no unnecessary people present – not even Coco. It’s just me, an assistant engineer as I’ll engineer his vocals and that’s it, just three people. Again, these sessions will only last 5 hours, after which, we’ll go out.
Can you recall any particularly humorous occurrence whilst working with David?
(Pause in thought) I remember when we were doing the backing vocals to ‘Red Sails’ . . .the context we set was a Chinese backing track with German backing singers and we all acted the part, There was David, Brian Eno and myself clenching our fists and singing ‘RED SA-AA-AILS-S!’ in very butch voices, you know, really getting into it. All three of us had our eyes tightly closed. Now the studio – Mountain Studio in Montreux is right off a Casino and the side door to the studio was left unlocked on this day. Through these doors, in walked these three Swiss waiters dressed in black suits with aprons down to their ankles carrying food for somewhere – obviously they had walked through the wrong door. I don’t know how long they were standing there but. I opened my eyes first and said: ‘Oh my God!’ and there I was shaking David to try and get them to stop but the headphones were so loud they were totally into it. When they finally realized, we all burst out laughing at these waiters standing there with these trays of food, jaws down their knees hardly believing what they were seeing. Of course, I must tell you, it’s disembodied singing. To us, we had the music but what the waiters saw were these three maniacs acting like German Operatic singers! You can imagine the cultural clash and what an encounter that was . . .
Everyone will think of that now when they hear ‘Red Sails’ . . .
Yes, I’m sure they will (laughs)
Going back a few years – was Haddon Hall a successful commune ? I understand it got quite crowded at one point . . .
It was quite successful to the purpose that we were all incredibly poor and originally David, Angela, myself and my girlfriend Liz were going to share it. It was certainly cheap at £8 a week for these massive four rooms and massive hallway. It’s just beautiful – or was beautiful, it’s gone now. (Haddon Hall was sadly demolished in 1981). It was only when we decided that we couldn’t go on as a solo-artist, that we had to construct a band around David which was Hype or Harry The Butcher or one of the many names he used to have, that we thought we had to get all these people. I’m sure you know who the original members of Hype were – Mick Ronson, John Cambridge and myself. Woody Woodmansey eventually replaced John on drums. Also, we had Roger, I never knew his last name as we called him Roger the Lodger – he was our Australian rodie. And so, all these people were sleeping upstairs in the gallery. It all got incredibly funky after a while and I was quite happy in my room. But as a commune, I’d say no it wasn’t successful because if we had rows it was about the household money. We always felt it was being misappropriated.
Was anyone appointed some kind of house leader?
Well, Angela was. And with David, we’d give them all the household money and I remember one day they came back with Chinese takeaway food . . .for themselves and a couple of tins of beans! I said: ‘God, you know, £8 doesn’t go very far these days’ and so we all immediately accused them of using the household money on their take away (laughs). Which, of course, they didn’t – it’s just that we were all so terribly poor. We were hungry. But there was a lot of animosity. Like, Angie assumed the role when she saw us move in. The first thing she did was to go out and get a job as a secretary and it was made clear that my girlfriend had to cook for everyone, which, naturally, she hated. So, it was totally unsuccessful as a commune. I must tell you that. Nothing but animosity flying about everywhere. And, quite honestly, when they started being very open about their sex lives that’s when it got really heavy. They would bring people home late at night, and I didn’t mind what they did in their bedroom – but these people were trying to get into our bedroom as well! (laughs).
You built some kind of studio . . .
Yes, in the basement we built a small rehearsal studio. We sound-proofed it and it didn’t work – everyone in Haddon Hall wanted to strangle us! In those days, I mean you know how loud we were, almost heavy metal band and with Mick Ronson, who’s totally deaf in one ear, we had to turn it up loud originally. Eventually, though, we had to rehearse at low volume. Haddon Hall was constructive in the way that we were able to live and work together – I’m just saying on a day to day basis, on a living basis it wasn’t successful, but professionally, it was OK . . .
Was that the original intention – to create a creative workshop!
Well, for David and I. We were going to keep those people out. But when they started living with us it went beyond the original idea.
The Spiders slept on the gallery. Did it lead anywhere?
No, it went around in a circle. You walked up the stairs and there was a stain glass window at the top then two small staircases on either sides of the main steps which lead to the gallery where you could have hung old paintings of dead ancestors, but it went around in a square and met itself. There were no doors leading off, there might have been, years and years ago, but they were all sealed.
In a few other places where David has lived, he’s painted some murals on the walls or cupboards. Did he do anything like that in Haddon Hall ?
No, we didn’t own it. We weren’t allowed.
Does David much painting ?
Yes. He does a lot of painting. He never did any at Haddon Hall but when we were doing ‘Low‘ and ‘Heroes‘ he was painting all the time and considering having an exhibition, in which I think he’s chickened out of that. He was going to do it under an assumed name, which is the stupidest thing in the world when you think about it. I mean if you’re David Bowie and you paint you should just put them out and say ‘David Bowie’s Paintings.
David did contribute some pieces to an exhibition which included the New Expressionist movement in Germany between March 23-25, ’83. I think they were all lino cuts. But it would be nice to see a full exhibition of his work.
They’re very good paintings. A lot of depth and perception in them.
Returning for a brief moment to Haddon Hall – David used to collect old cars then didn’t he?
Well, he ad an old Riley which he loved. He only had about three, that was after I left, I mean looking back on it now, he really wanted the flat all to himself (laughs). As soon as we all moved out he brought in loads of antiques, but it was a passing hobby. Anyone who knows anything about David will know that these hobbies last for about a month. So if you’re not there for a month, you might miss an entire aspect of his life! It’s come and gone.
Can you tell me about the session for BBC’s ‘Top Gear’?
Oh, I remember it well (laughs)
It was billed: ‘David Bowie and the Tony Visconti Orchestra’ . . .
That’s mainly what it was. Do you know the titles? Hold on, I have the tape here . . .
(At this point, we surfaced from cloudy state of interview conversation as Tony rose from his seat and proceeded to hunt for the ‘Top Gear’ tape. In the blink of an eye, he had located the tape and kindly handed it to me. The box was clean and well preserved, encasing the original reel to reel recording of the show. The date scrawled on it was May 26th, 1968 and with Tony’s consent I dutifully made a note of the songs performed. 1. In The Heat Of The Morning 2. Silly Boy Blue 3. London Bye Ta Ta 4. Karma Man 5. When I’m Five I asked Tony for a concise list of the musicians making up the Tony Visconti Orchestra and he instinctively re-activated the tape recorder, fingers moving with the authoraitive touch of a seasoned producer . . .)
It was Herbie Flowers, Barry Morgan – the boys, in fact – Herbie on bass, Barry on drums. The guitarist might have been John MacGlocklin, might have been. I know that he played the 12-string on the studio recording of “Karma Man” and I think we kept with him. The string players, were, you know, just guys booked for that. After they all went home, David, myself and Steve Peregrine-Took, who was also there did the backing vocals. But it was all done through the BBC – you just told them what you wanted and they would book the musicians for you. They were all guys who would work for £7 an hour. You just phoned up an agency and there they were. Of course, they weren’t as well known then as they are today.
It’s well known that your contribution to Marc Bolan’s carrer was also very important. How did they differ? Marc often seemed less intense, in public.
Marc less intense?! Marc was a fucking raging lion! He could be, if he wanted to be, such an obnoxious person. He had such a strong ego and was quite full of himself. Very arrogant, indeed. Marc in the studio was pure busness. For example, when we were making ‘The Slider’, if he’d booked the studio for three days, he’d make us all stay up for three days and nights and record his entire pieces of the album. For tax purposes he had to recod albums out of the country. David’s quite lisurley in the studio, not intense at all when he works. Perhaps you’ve got this image of David with furled brow (laughs). No, David enjoys his work. He’s quite academic, although it seems that he doesn’t have a method, he’s always keen to do things differently. He doesn’t run around, shouting at people, demanding results. He’s quite willing to accept what happens. And then he does his little alchemy – his magic to charm people around whereas Marc would say things like: ‘You fucking get that right’ or ‘Im not paying you to eat meals and stomp around like a little Gestapo. David’s really quite liberal.
Maybe where most people go wrong is a tendancy to analyse his work too much ?
No, it’s very good. You can analyse his work. I can tell that here’s a lot of deep thinking, we’d be misstaken to deny that. But he does all his irrespection at home – all those experiences. There’s a photograph behind you of David, myself and Bruce Springsteen. It was taken during the recording of ‘Young Americans‘ . After we spoke to him, and he left, we did a Bruce Springsteen track! Things like that. It is right to believe that he’s a deep person, but a nice person. A NICE person to work with (laughs).
Were there ever plans for David and Marc to write and record together? Ones that almost happened?
They never actually recorded together apart from ‘Prettiest Star’. I know there’s a lot of speculation and you can believe what you want to believe, but I was there the whole time and even the albums I was absent on I can promise you Marc Bolan never walked in on any session. I got him to play lead guitar for ‘Prettiest Star‘. During the ‘Young Americans‘ days David told me that he had talked to Marc. I haden’t seen him for a couple of years as we didn’t have a very nice break-up at the time although we made it up later. So David stayed up all night with Marc, talking about old times and David was already quite successful in America by then wich is something Marc wasn’t. Marc’s way is to slag other peole off to make himself look bigger and he tried to have a go at David that night telling him that he was doing things wrong and David just put him very straight about where he was at, that he wasn’t going to break America with his present attitude, that he should bend a little more to American taste. They did have plans to work together, probably that night. You know, if you’d stayed up with me all night at the end I’m sure we’d say: ‘Oh God, We’ve solved all the problems of the world. Tomorrow we’ll get up and do ’em!’ It was one of those cases. When they did both get up next day they didn’t feel like doing all the things they had talked about the previous night. But they were always talking. Marc was saying how he’d write a film and David would act in it – David would never act in movie written by Marc Bolan, he just doesen’t have that kind of respect for him. Just casual plans to work together, but they never came to fruition – and I know that.
David once taught you to ski . . .
Was he a patent teacher?
Execellent teacher. He’s great! I stood up in court for him a couple of years ago in Switzerland when he was going through his divorce with Angie – I just stood up as a witness. And while I was there he said: ‘Why don’t we have a skiing holliday? You’ii be a natural because of your Martial Arts training’. My girlfriend sprained her ankle within the first hour! But david had me going down the 1,000 metre slopes two days later. For two days that lad took me up to a little hill and made me walk up and down in that cross-legged position, with the toes pointing in and all that. Yes, he’s an excellent teacher – Very, very patient. The funny thing was, his son Joey passed us about eight times going down the most dangerous slopes. He’s got all sorts of medals for skiing . And he’d say: ‘Hi, daddy. Hi, Tony’ then zoooooommm right past us like a streak of lightening leaving David and I tottering down like old men! Joey is actually a much better skier than david, but kids are, aren’t they. They take to things much easier.
Why do you think David shields Joey so much from the public eye?
It’s a matter of privacy. There’s also the danger. Most famous people face the danger of their kids being kidnapped. There are nice people like yourself around, but there’s an equal amount of nutters. The man’s just being cautious and protective. John Lennon’s death certainly stopped anyone being very open with the public.
Yes, it’s all very understandable. My reason for asking the question is because we get loads of letters asking questions about David’s son, what does he look like etc. . .
Well, I can tell you what he looks like. He’s got blond hair, very fair and he’s a good cross between David and Angela. A very handsome boy, very tall, he’ll probably grow up to look very much like his father. He’s perfectly in line with everything and he loves his Dad. His Dad doesn’t love his taste in music ‘though (laughs).
….A couple of years ago, Joey’s favourite group were the ELO, wich David can´t stand. But, you know, father and son are bound to differ on a few points. They absolutely adore each other, I tell you, it’s a very healthy relationship – The love in both their eyes when they look at one another is quite astounding.
I know of your Martial Arts training and also that David once studied Karate – Did you ever practice together?
No, well, I’ve shown him some Win Chung and he was very keen but David really lacks the discipline to study anything, quite honestly. I’m all for discipline and I’ve put many years into my Martial Arts. It´s like, David will meet someone for example – Lats year he met a nice Chinese Girl who taught him some Tai Chi – but only some.
….He’s very interested in his body and doing something with it but he’s far too active to remain in any one discipline for so long. He’s very much his own teacher and uses the world as his school.
….He was very proud of the fact that his record producer does Martial Arts – I remember when I met Lindsay Kemp, David said: ‘Lindsay, watch this!’ and david made me gothrough my repertoire for Lindsay who was very impressed and warned me not to hurt my body by doing those vigorous exercises in too cold a state, to warm up a bit.
….Also, on several occasions, David was confident that I was not only his friend but could also act as a bodyguard. There have been some moments, when David has been in need of some protection. For a person who’s so private, he can have these lapses and can go very public all of a sudden – He’ll just go out, not tell anyone where he is and end up in some idiotic club at 8.00 in the morning. He usually does this in New York.
I suppose it’s good for him to grasp those moments of freedom . . .
It’s good for him, yes, but it might be dangerous for him, as well.
Another of your hobbies is photography. Do you have a vast photographic library of all the artists you’ve worked with?
Yes, I do and I’m compiling a book of photographs at the moment which will probably be out by Christmas. They’re not artistically great, but they do capture the people I’ve worked with in natural poses. It’s just a matter of sharing, not to make tons of money. I realize now that I have a lot of knowledge people would like access to.
It’s all very important . . .
Yes, it is. It’s become historical now – which is why I’ve come out to talk about it.
Do you have any home movie footage of David?
No, not David. Marc Bolan yes. I’ve got loads – about four reels. ‘The Tube’ only used 11 minutes of it, there’s lots more. Marc used to like to pose a lot, whenever I pull a camera out on David he accuses me of being a ‘perennial tourist’, which is what he once called me. Quite often, what would happen in the end was that he’d take my pictures away saying: ‘Oh, that’s great – can I have a copy of that’ or that it was a good thing that I took a picture of it (laughs). But really, david’s quite camera-shy when he’s private and, of course, he never wants a picture of Joey taken. I remember once, I snapped a picture of them together and Joey went right up to his Dad and said: ‘Tony took a picture of me!!’ and was quite distraught until David said: ‘It’s ok – uncle Tony is fine’.
……I do have a few photos of Joey with my own son Delaney but they’re strictly for my own private photo-album.
It’s interesting that, even so young, Joey has that awareness . . .
Well, he was told. You know, when you were young you were told ‘Don’t accept sweets from strangers’. With Joey it’s ‘Don’t let anyone photograph you ‘and, of course. Don’t accept sweets from strangers’, either.
Before, you mentioned the original title of ‘Fashion’ – Can you tell me of any other songs that were originally titled something else? . . . At this point, we broke from the conversation as Tony brought out a cassette tape from nearby cupboard. Re-commencing our talk he quoted from the track listing written on the cassette holder.)
These are rough mixes – ‘David Bowie 11/3/80 which eventually became ‘Scary Monsters’ we have ‘I Feel Free’ – originally by Cream.
David used to include that in the song set sometimes on the ’72 tour . . .
That’s right – It never worked out, though. ‘People Are Turning Gold’ became ‘Ashes To Ashes’. ‘It Happens Everyday’ turned into ‘Teenage Wildlife’ he’d sing: ‘It happens everyda-a-y’. ‘Kingdom Come’ and ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ also ‘It’s No Game’ were the same. ‘Is There Life After Marriage’ never actually made the album.
So that was a completely finished track?
Yes, ‘Fuje Moto San’ was that instrumental track ‘Crystal Japan’ – That was it’s original title. ‘Laser’ turned out to be ‘Scream Like A Baby’ – He sung ‘I Am A Laser’ – that was a song he wrote originally for The Astronettes in 1973. ‘Jamaica’ became ‘Fashion’ – ‘Scary Monsters’ and ‘Because You’re Young’ remained the same. So there’s a few there.
There’s one track which has emerged on audio tape over the last few years called: ‘Tired Of My Life . . .
I’ve never heard of that one.
It’s sung in a very Ziggy ’72/’73 style of voice and yet has lyrics from ‘It’s No Game’ . . .
Really. Well, ‘It’s No Game’ he wrote when he was 16!
……Upon this revelation, another short break for coffee followed. It does seem logical that David would possess a wealth of unused material, but with his constant traveling and changing of habitat, often resulting in much material either being left and forgotten or just disappearing, it is surprising that a song written in 1963 would eventually find a place on an album released in 1980.
……When our conversation continued, it seemed the right moment to ask the following question . . .
Did you like ‘Let’s Dance‘?
….No, I liked ‘Ricochet’ and ‘Modern Love’ very, very much. But not the actual title track. It was an album he had to make. He told me when I last saw him: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t use you – But I wanted one of those economical New York type of albums. It was very important, a new record label. It’s what I wanted and can we work together again?. I said ‘Of course we can’. We never had a firm contract or whatever to work together. He did ‘Station To Station‘ without me and even two tracks from ‘Young Americans‘ (‘Fame‘ and ‘Across The Universe‘). It’s Al right, we have a very healthy relationship.
….I was hurt, because I was booked to do ‘Let’s Dance‘ and he blew me out two weeks before. This was December 1982, and for three months he kept saying: ‘Keep December free, we’re going to go in and record then’. Getting close to that month, I phoned up Coco and she said: ‘Well, you might as well know – He’s been in the studio for the past two weeks with someone else. It’s working out well and we won’t be needing you, he’s very sorry.’ I had it out with him in August. It’s just that, at the time, I was very hurt that he didn’t phone me himself, which I would have totally accepted. It’s just the way he did it which hurt. But I’m off that now (laughs). Sometimes, david has the courage of a Lion, but I think that it was just around me that he didn’t know how to tell me because we go back ages and all that.
This is an obvious question: Do you have a favorite Bowie album of all the ones you’ve produced?
I like “Heroes” a lot. There’s a lot of me on “Heroes” (laughs). Those three albums – ‘Low‘/ ‘Heroes‘/’Lodger‘ because it was it was a wonderful introspective period. On ‘Low’ both of us were totally depressed – David was going through a divorce and splitting up with a manager and my life was all ups and downs. And we both came out of it by “Heroes” – It was just the opposite. We were very optimistic, having a lot of fun, so I’d say that was my all-time favorite. ‘Scary Monsters I like also, because it was not only a good but it was also financially successful – which helps, of course. It was the fruition of those three albums. We has created a commercial style which everyone has copied. It really got the synthesizer thing off the ground. We put Gary Numan on the map and people like him.
Has David ever expressed a preference to you?
He loves ‘Low‘. It means something to him. He communicated very clearly his state, even though it was a miserable stat, he did it very clearly and he was pleased with that. ‘Low‘ presented a very bold musical statement as well. He wasn’t playing it safe at all on that album.
A good record to play when you’re depressed. . .
Yes, Music to cut your throat to . . . (laughs).
Did you see any shows on the last tour?
I saw three shows. I was asked, by David, to attend the show in Edinburgh because his sound was being criticized in the reviews in the press and he wanted me to see the show and tell him and the sound engineer what could be improved. My immediate response was ‘Why don’t you get Nile Rogers to do it? – But I got off my act (more laughs) and flew up to Edinburgh. So I stomped around in the field, in the and made a few notes, then I flew back in the private 707 which they had booked for the whole tour. It had a big conference table in the middle and instead of seats it had chaise lounges, marble table tops and a big bedroom in the back. So, David, Carlos and myself sat in his bedroom and I confirmed their worst fears about the sound – it was appealing. They said ‘Ok, will you come to the benefit concert at Hammersmith Odeon and put it right?
….Which I did, I went to the rehearsals and they just literally let me have the board so I did the sound that afternoon and left it for the engineer.
….He didn’t like what I had done – he was an American Texan who was used to putting out big bass, snare drum and vocals. They don’t believe in clarity on them, American records tend to be very thuddy. So he was trying to produce an American sound with what is basically very British music. Ultimately, we had a bit of a row, but then David jumped from the stage and I asked him what he thought of it . . .
….‘Sounds great’, he said and ‘Will you do the rest of the tour with me? I said: ‘No way, I’ve got a vacation booked with my kids who only have 3 weeks off this summer. I can’t follow you around the rest of the world’. ‘At least do Madison Square Garden with me’, he said, but the answer was basically no, I just couldn’t drop all my plans for the year.
….I haven’t heard from him since, (laughs) I saw him a birthday card so I hope he’s not holding it against me. He shouldn’t do, because it really wasn’t my tour it was his. They waited until the very last moment to get a sound guy – they should have thought about that.
Are there any artists you’d like to work with?
Not really. I feel I’ve had a wonderful career, a very interesting life and I want to produce people who just want to make great records. I’d like to work with David again, that’s for sure. Also, I’d like to write a lot of my own stuff now and produce it, not as a singer but as a composer.
You released one album of your own ‘Inventory’ in 1977 . . .
Yes, that was a disaster. Well, it wasn’t a disaster it was OK album. But now, I’d like to get people to sing my material and also to write some music for films. At my advanced age, which is 39, folks I think it’s the best thing for me to do.
….I’m not impressed by a lot of the younger groups coming up now, especially the synthesizer groups. Quite honestly, it’s very easy to make on that level – all the artistry is gone.
….It’s very much a writers market at the moment, everyone I’ve worked with lately are writers and first thing they own up to is that they can’t play and can I do something about it. I’ve even worked with a lot of young groups who don’t even want the responsibility of playing and that’s ridiculous. David’s about the only person I’d like to work with again, truth to tell . . .
To close then, if someone came up to you and asked you to describe David Bowie in just one word. What would that word be?
Incredible. (Spoken with a beaming smile) . . .
Tape ends . . .
It’s not over yet During the interview, Tony signed one copy of ‘Low‘ which, as it transpired is David’s favorite album out of all the ones he and Tony worked together on.