Tony Visconti on Bowie: ‘There was always a feeling of adventure in the air’
The musician/producer was a long-time collaborator with the late, great Bowie
Tony Visconti: ‘I miss David dearly.’
Some collaborations and friendships are meant to last. Just ask musician/producer Tony Visconti, the Brooklyn-born son of second-generation Italian immigrants, who in 1967 left New York (where he was employed as an in-house record producer) for London, to work as an assistant producer for a number of UK pop groups. Within a year, he had worked on albums for Tyrannosaurus (later shortened to T) Rex, during which he met one of lead singer Marc Bolan’s friends, an emerging songwriter by the name of David Bowie.
Instantly hitting it off via similar tastes in music (“Frank Zappa, The Fugs, Velvet Underground”) and movies, Visconti quickly became involved with Bowie as an arranger/producer. He continued to work with Bowie on a string of acclaimed records throughout the 1970s, as well as producing his final four albums, the last one being the man’s heroic swansong, Blackstar, released on January 8th, 2016, two days before his death.
Back in the late 1960s, however, Visconti admits that not everything he worked on with Bowie was deemed a success; he was still developing as a songwriter, still trying to corral his talents.
“I was asked by our publisher to channel him into one style,” he recalls, “and I found the thing he did best was to write on his 12-string guitar and accompany himself. His songs were good, but as a record producer I was a bit of a novice, which at that time forced me to leave the technical aspects to indifferent engineers. He was all over the place, creatively, when I first met him, but the period immediately afterwards was much better. At best, the songs were charming, albeit a bit naïve.”
By 1969, Visconti had worked with Bowie on his second album, the self-titled work that spawned Space Oddity, the first hit single of his career. Bowie wasn’t for standing still, however; and he quickly dropped one style for another. Visconti’s co-production role on that second album advanced to producer on the remarkably swift and artistically consistent follow-up, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World (TMWSTW).
What had changed in Bowie’s life/world to have given that album such a firm focus? Visconti – using no small sense of co-ownership throughout – says that himself and Bowie felt they had exhausted the folk/rock leanings of the previous album.
“We had to break into something heavier, and the thing that changed both of us was Mick Ronson walking through the door.” From the port city of Hull, northeast England, Ronson’s guitar style “blew our minds, and so with another Hull musician, drummer Woody Woodmansey, we tore into the making of TMWSTW with a desire to blow away all the competition. This was Bowie’s Prog Rock album, and whether it was a hit or not we just had to do it this way”.
With remarkably secure attention to detail, Visconti is spilling a mountain of beans in advance of his visit to Dublin in the second week of January as part of the Dublin Bowie Festival, which especially celebrates the 50th anniversary of the album. Along with an in conversation event (Sunday, January 12th, at Royal College of Surgeons) there is a gig with his band Holy Holy (Saturday, January 11th, Olympia Theatre), which will perform in its entirety TMWSTW album, as well as selected Bowie tunes from early-mid 1970s.
“We never censored ourselves, we didn’t make it for the top 20 market, and I’m very proud of it,” he notes of the album. The songs are brilliant, he adds, and – surely the acid test for any producer/musician – he says he can listen to it “a lot without wincing”.
What did Bowie think of the album? How much of a creative success did he make of it? “We were happy we made it, but we didn’t have a chance to promote it properly by playing live shows. He got a new manager at the very end of making it, and this person told him he should fire the band, that he didn’t need us. So we never played the album live, we went our separate ways, Mick and Woody went back up to Hull and I concentrated on working with T Rex. It was tragic for us.”
When TMWSTW was released in the winter of 1970, it continued Bowie’s then obstinate lack of chart success. Perhaps adding to this was the UK/European album cover, which featured Bowie wearing a dress (designed by UK fashion designer Michael Fish, famous for the atrocious kipper tie, and rather more fanciful shirts for Jon Pertwee’s five-year role as Dr Who). Around the same time, Bowie was featured in UK gay magazine Jeremy (a subscription-only publication because newsagents refused to stock it), a signifier for his subsequent admission, in a 1972 interview with Melody Maker, of being bisexual.
I ask Visconti about Bowie’s lifestyle at this time. Known to cherry-pick from various sources as a means to rouse creativity and other stimuli, by this time he was married to Angie Barnett, an American actor/writer who had a sizeable influence on him.
“She was always encouraging him to be more outspoken, more outrageous. He told me he was bisexual right after I met him in 1967, but kept it a secret from the public until that interview. I admired him for this. It was a courageous thing to say, and the positive effect on people still in the closet was overwhelmingly liberating.”
As for Bowie’s lifestyle, Visconti adds, money accrued from the success of Space Oddity was spent buying antiques on the Old Kent Road and expensive clothes in more upmarket areas of London. Within a short space of time, divisions arose.
“We took turns buying the weekly groceries. The budget was £8, and we could buy enough lentils, carrots, rice – you know, hippy food – to last. When it was David and Angie’s turn to spend that £8, the posh food they bought would last only a day. We had one major row about that, but apart from the differences in affluence we usually had a great time. Almost every evening turned into a party.”
‘I get a little tearful’
The wheels kept turning, but in Bowie’s case brakes weren’t used – no sooner had he finished one album than he was on to the next. In quick succession came the attractive Hunky Dory (1971) and the loosely conceptual The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). The rollout of albums from 1970-1980 (which also include Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Station to Station, Low, Heroes, Lodger, and, finally, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) assuredly constitutes the most adventurous sequential stretch of music by any contemporary pop/rock musician. Visconti doesn’t disagree.
“It was a wonderful time of growth and accomplishment for him. He made a point of not repeating himself, and his successes now made it okay for him to be all over the place. He didn’t stay in a particular genre for more than one album, yet he gave birth to genres the world had never heard before and that other musicians made a whole career from copying any one of them. Although he seemed prolific, he was slow at writing songs – he wasn’t the type of writer that can sit with a guitar or at a piano for hours and come up with the goods.
“He came to the studio and played ideas to the musicians and allowed the great talent in the room to come up with something he couldn’t imagine, but when we got magical takes from the musicians he knew he had something by which to write lyrics and melodies. It was often frustrating, but it didn’t take all that long to get to a good place.”
Coming up to four years to his death, there is no doubt that Visconti and Bowie had become much closer friends and genuinely empathetic collaborators, particularly from 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality onwards. Cue a serious tug at the heartstrings.
“I miss David dearly. We finished his last two albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, in my New York studio. He was very comfortable in that contained, cosy space, often bringing with him as many as three books that he would read whilst I would be doing technical stuff.
“The sofa where he sat has become a shrine, with a portrait of him over the place where he used to sit. When I work with other artists, they take turns sitting there. Sometimes I get a little tearful about him and think about how he was also a great friend with whom I’ve had some of the best discussions ever. Sometimes, especially around now when I’ve been remixing some back catalogue of his, I turn to the portrait and ask him what he thinks. I’d like to think he hears me, but I’m not daft, you know.
“He was a joy to work with,” continues Visconti, without prompting. “He’d light up a room and everyone involved knew they were part of a great record. There was always a feeling of adventure in the air. Musically, too, we were always on the same page – we’d reach a point in a developing song and say, ‘now how do we throw a spanner in here and make it something no one’s heard before?’.”
Holy Holy perform at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, Saturday, January 11th. Billed as The Men Who Saved the World, Tony Visconti (with Woody Woodmansey) is in conversation with Tony Clayton-Lea, at Royal College of Surgeons, Sunday, January 12th. Both events are part of the Dublin Bowie Festival. For further details, visit dublinbowiefestival.ie