7th July 2011
The producer of no less than twelve David Bowie albums, Tony Visconti needs no introduction. Ric Rawlins met him in North London to discuss the early Spiders From Mars, and their much missed virtuoso guitarist, Mick Ronson
I’m as nervous as a rat on a cruise ship, but it turns out that Tony Visconti is sports casual. “Are you my date?” he laughs in his NYC accent, after I’ve nudged my way into a conversation to quasi-politely introduce myself. “I am indeed!” I grin, all the while thinking ‘Nuts! This guy is ten times more relaxed than I am. Get a grip!’
I’m outside the Water Rats to talk to Visconti not just about Bowie, Mick Ronson and the early days of The Spiders From Mars, but also about a new artist he’s produced, Kristeen Young. He enthusiastically describes her as “perfectly art rock”, and reels of a great story about how Morrissey – another of his clients – demanded she toured with him.
But those stories are nuts in the fire, saved up for a future feature. For now, this week is Bowie Week on Artrocker.TV, and it’s time to cut to the nitty gritty. “You’ve probably been talking about Bowie your whole life,” I say – introducing the subject with a slight lack of subtlety – “so please stop me if I ask any boring questions.”
“OK, well just don’t ask me ‘What’s he like?'” laughs Visconti. “That’s the boring one!”
Ric Rawlins: So you were the bass player in Hype, which became the Spiders from Mars.
Tony Visconti: Yeah, I was the one that left Hype, and Trevor Bolder took my place.
I wanted to talk a bit about Mick Ronson, because I’m sure you’re asked about Bowie a lot, but what are your memories of Ronson, and how did you see him as a guitar player and arranger?
Well, Bowie and I finished the Space Oddity album and we looked at each other and realised it wasn’t a rock album – we wanted to make a rock album. We respected the rock groups around at the time like Cream and such like, but we didn’t have it in us! We needed someone to be [that] important element, and that somebody we were introduced to was Mick Ronson.
A drummer I was working with in a band called Juniors Eyes came from Hull, and he knew Mick back from Hull, when they were all in a band called The Rats.
So we got Mick down, actually while we were in the last stages of finishing the Space Oddity album, and Mick actually played a little bit of guitar, and he clapped, on ‘Wild Eyed By From Freecloud‘. So he’s on that album!
But then we started jamming with him, and we got him to play on a John Peel show, doing a little bit of guitar for us. John Peel knew Mick from some work he did with a folk singer – I forget the name – and so he was known to John Peel, who totally approved of Mick [playing] with us.
So we got down to the nitty gritty part of putting the band together, and Mick turned to me and he said; “You have to listen to Jack Bruce” [bass,vocals, Cream]. He had advice like that for every one of us. He wasn’t outspoken – he was very shy and all that, but if you asked him a direct question he would give you a direct answer. So he said “you have to listen to Jack Bruce”, and he made me get a short scale EB3 Bass, the one that Jack Bruce played.
I was already a guitarist/bassist, and it was basically Jack Bruce that played lead bass – it was like a second guitar to Eric Clapton. I was bending strings and slapping it – getting distortion – and we have Mick to thank for that. If it wasn’t for Mick… ? Who knows? There might have been no Ziggy Stardust. And I hate to say things like that because nobody really knows, but he was so important.
His guitars solos are so iconic aren’t they? The solos on ‘Moonage Daydream’ and so on. Would he write the solos in advance?
He would work them out, yeah… He was very melodic – I know he studied the piano and violin as a child. By the time we met him he was playing in a blues band, not using any of those skills, and he was working as a gardener in Hull. So we were very, very lucky – that we met him and that he met us.
Bowie and I were unchained; we would do anything. These were great fertile days where you had to be different to be signed. Now you have to be samey to get signed. In those days, the more far out you were [the better]. The people who set that up were The Beatles; every time they brought a record out they did something weird; there was a new persona, new instruments, new sounds… so it was a great fertile period of creativity. So to have a guy like Mick work with the two of us, who were very whacky and avant garde, was perfect. He grounded us.
Did Mick mind all the Greek God hairstyles and glitter jackets?
Oh he protested at the beginning. At the start it was as if this blues band from Hull, The Rats moved down one by one and became the Spiders From Mars. And Bowie often says that in the beginning they all protested – no glitter, no platform shoes. But once they were getting the girls – who were going nuts over them – then they’d be arguing backstage. ‘Can I use your lipstick? Can I use your eye shadow?’ So all of a sudden this was a very masculine thing, it was something that the girls were into. It was very, very odd.
What’s your favourite Mick Ronson moment on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’?
Well on that album it would be a song called ‘She Shook Me Cold‘. I was at my Jack Bruce best and Mick was at his Jeff Beck best [laughs] or Eric Clapton best – and it was just a killer live recording. We didn’t overdub a thing. The whole track just sounds very sexy and very grungy.
And definitely Nirvana borrowed a bit of our sound, including the title track of the album – in which the arrangement’s hardly changed at all. But I would say that ‘She Shook Me Cold’ was the four of us at our best.