Michael “Woody” Woodmansey was the drummer for David Bowie’s The Spiders from Mars from 1969-1973 on the hit albums The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars. Born in Driffield, Yorkshire, in 1951, he is the last surviving member of The Spiders from Mars. He continues to play with his band Holy Holy and lives in London.
(Photo credit: Stephanie Rushton)
From SPIDER FROM MARS by Woody Woodmansey. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
ALL THE MADMEN
“Is that Woody?” said the voice on the phone.
I said it was.
“I’m David Bowie.”
“Hello there,” I replied, surprised.
“Mick Ronson gave me your number,” he told me. “I’ve got a band down in London – I believe you know my drummer, John Cambridge?”
“Yes, I know John,” I said.
“Well, John’s leaving the band,” he continued. “Mick says you’re a really great drummer and that you’d fit in perfectly, as a player and as a person, so we want you to come down and join us in London. You don’t have to audition – the job’s yours if you want it – and I’ve got a place where you can live. I also have Tony Visconti on bass and he’s my producer.”
He sounded polite, and Mick had taken the trouble to recommend me to him, so I didn’t want to be rude to the guy. I said, “Sounds good to me, David – but I just need to look at a few things.”
He was keen to get an answer from me, so I said I’d call him back on Monday.
It might be difficult to imagine now, but in early 1970 Bowie seemed like a one-hit wonder. His single “Space Oddity,” which got to Number 5 in the charts, had come and gone, and the follow-up, “The Prettiest Star,” had flopped. His first album, David Bowie, had been released in 1967 and included whimsical songs like “The Laughing Gnome” and “Love You Till Tuesday.” It hadn’t worked and neither had the second album – also called David Bowie, bizarrely – which came out in autumn 1969. Not that I’d listened to it. I’d been listening to bands such as Led Zeppelin and Cream over the previous couple of years; Bowie’s influences were obviously completely different. My friends wouldn’t even know who Bowie was if I asked them about him.
On the other hand, Bowie’s band – who were now called the Hype – were obviously talented, which appealed to me. The four musicians had made a bit of progress, but not much: they’d played a John Peel Show on 5 February, and done some gigs around London. One of these was unusual because they’d dressed up as superheroes. Bowie was Rainbowman, Tony Visconti was Hypeman, Mick was Gangsterman and John Cambridge was Cowboyman. That show, with its theatricality, has been seen since as one of the moments that inspired the UK glam scene.
Mick and I were like brothers.
Most importantly as I saw it, Mick and I were like brothers. We’d travelled the length and breadth of England in the Rats, and when you spend that much time cooped up in a van with someone, you get to know them pretty well. I was very close to Mick. He wasn’t the saint that he’s been made out to be since he died in 1993, but he was a good man whose word I always trusted, so if he thought Bowie had potential, that was important to me.
Of course, I’d have to move to London, which didn’t immediately appeal. It would be a big jump to go to a new city with new people on a career path that I didn’t have much experience of, apart from a couple of years of playing in semi-professional bands. I knew it had to be done, though. Nowadays you can live in Manchester, for example, and still be in a big band, but it just wasn’t possible to do that back then. London was where you had to go if you wanted to make it as a rock musician, just like the Beatles had a few years before. The door to rock & roll success was slightly open if you wanted to go through it, but you couldn’t go through it from Hull, and the Rats were never going to be big in any case. We just didn’t have the right connections to anyone else, or any connections at all come to think of it.
My problem was that I’d been offered a great job that could potentially set me up for life, and that kind of offer didn’t come along very often to twenty-year-olds in my part of the world. The Vertex job might sound unattractive to you, reading this forty-five years later, but it might well have taken me to the comfortable standard of living that my parents dreamed about for me. All my mates worked there, and I really liked it.
I sat on the sofa on Friday and Saturday, going backwards and forwards, getting nowhere. The TV was on but I wasn’t paying attention to what was on it. I knew my parents wouldn’t want me to say no to the factory job, and I knew that June and my friends wouldn’t want me to leave Driffield either. I sat there and tried to picture what my life would be like in either scenario.
I couldn’t do it. I was stumped, so I sat there, numbly, for hours. Mick knew that Bowie had called me and rang to see what I thought of the offer to go down to London – but it didn’t help.
“Come on, Woods,” he urged. “We’ll have a laugh, and David’s a good songwriter. He’s a good frontman too, and we’re not gonna do fuck all up in Hull. He’s got a big place down in London. You’ll love it.”
After he rang off, I stared at the TV. In my head I imagined being sixty-five years old, about to retire, with my grandchildren around me. I’d just had my annual holiday. We were doing all right for money, and we had a nice house and everything was fine. Then a band came on the TV; I didn’t know who it was, but they fitted in with the scene that was going on in my head. I was talking to my grandkids, pointing at the TV and saying to them, “When I was twenty, I could have done that!” – and the whole thing went on pause.
If I took the factory job, that would be my future, and I’d be looking back with regret.
Suddenly I opened my eyes wide, and I knew that was the truth. If I took the factory job, that would be my future, and I’d be looking back with regret. I would have rejected my one chance to see if I could make it as a musician, which was the only thing I ever wanted to do anyway. I didn’t want to work in a factory for the rest of my life, after all.
I realized that even if I came back from playing with Bowie, and I was in the gutter with rags on, and all my mates and relatives were saying to me, “Ha ha, you wanker – we told you not to go!”, I could stick two fingers up at them and say, “Fuck you. At least I tried.”
And that was it. I called Bowie on Sunday morning and said, “I’m in. I’ve got to give a week’s notice but after that I can come as soon as you want me.”
“Great. I’ll see you a week on Monday. You can come down with Mick, who’s in Hull at the moment.”
I went to the factory the next morning and told my boss that I didn’t want the job, and also that I was leaving. Of course, he thought I was an idiot.
“So you’re going to be a pop star, are you?” he said.
I knew he was taking the piss, so I said nothing. Also, I could see his point. In an agricultural town like Driffield, no one went off and became a rock star. No one had ever done it, and there was no reason why anyone ever would. In his eyes it just wasn’t going to happen.
My parents’ reaction was twice as bad. They went completely mad. My mum burst into tears and my dad shouted at me, “Are you bloody mad? You’ve just been offered a foreman’s job at Vertex!”
“I really think this is going to work out, Dad,” I said lamely. I knew I would never convince him. I had been nervous about his reaction, of course, but I was expecting it because, as I’ve already said, I’d only ever had negativity from my parents when it came to music.
“Well, let’s see how long this band lasts!” yelled my dad, and stormed out.
I had no idea if it would work out for me in Bowie’s band. I didn’t particularly like his music, and I didn’t know if he had talent.
I can’t blame him for that, but I was adamant that, win or lose, this was what I was going to do. A fundamental truth that I’ve always held is that you have to be able to handle winning or losing with the same attitude. If you win, great; if you lose, deal with it. You simply say, “I didn’t get that one,” and move on. I had no idea if it would work out for me in Bowie’s band. I didn’t particularly like his music, and I didn’t know if he had talent. But I did know that I needed to get to London if I was going to make it as a musician.
It was a lot of blind faith on my part. The odds were stacked against me in every single way. I was an ordinary guy from a country town in a conservative part of the world, with parents who wanted me to get a proper job, at a time when rock music definitely wasn’t seen as a viable career option.
My mates didn’t really want me to go to London either, because we were a close bunch. When I told June about it she didn’t quite know how to react, because she didn’t know how long I’d be away. She was the only one who really understood what I wanted to achieve and the two of us had talked about the possibility of leaving our small town for London someday to further our careers. Even though that day had arrived a little earlier than planned, she understood I had to do it.
I left home a week later, on a rainy Monday in March 1970. I’d only been to London briefly a couple of times, once on a school day trip and once for an uneventful audition; I didn’t know the city at all. I was being totally uprooted from my home town to a completely new environment. It was fortunate that Mick was making the journey down with me, because he’d been up in Hull that weekend. I got a train from Driffield to Hull and met Mick at the station, and we went down to London together. Bowie sent up a roadie to fetch my drum kit from Driffield, which seemed quite grand to me.
On the train I asked Mick what kind of music we’d be playing. He said it was a bit folky and that Bowie was a good frontman, but that was about it. He had no idea what Bowie had in mind either.
“He’s a good bloke, though, Woods,” he assured me. “We’ll be sleeping on mattresses at the top of the stairs, but you don’t mind that, do you?”
When we got to London, Mick had to go off to see someone – he was going to join us the next day – so I went out to Beckenham, the suburb where Bowie lived, on my own. It was a nice part of London; actually, it didn’t feel like London at all. The streets were clean and leafy; the houses were large and distinguished; and while it wasn’t as affluent an area as Chelsea or Kensington by any means, it was definitely a nice part of the world.
I remember walking with my two bags, which contained pretty much everything I owned, up to Haddon Hall, a massive Victorian house at 42 Southend Road. I was surprisingly nervous as I knocked on the door.
I recollect exactly what Bowie looked like when he opened it. He had light brown curly shoulder-length hair and he was wearing a rainbow T-shirt, a necklace, bangles, tight red corduroy trousers with a sparkly belt; and blue slip-on shoes with red stars that he’d sprayed on to the top of each one. I thought, “Whoa – he definitely looks the part.”
As for me, I had curly hair halfway down my back, a denim shirt, a pink tie-dyed vest, frayed jeans and moccasins. It was the progressive rock look.
“Pleased to meet you,” Bowie said. “It’s nice of you to come down.”
He invited me in, asking me how my trip had been and all the usual polite bollocks. Then we sat in his lounge and immediately started talking about music.
“I’m writing songs for a new record,” he told me. “Have you heard my albums?”
I told him I hadn’t, trying not to make it obvious that I didn’t think much of his work to date.
“The music might be a bit different this time,” he went on, perhaps sensing what I was thinking. “Tony Visconti’s going to produce the new album and he’s got some great ideas.”
The vibe was relaxed, and Bowie was confident and intelligent. In that very first conversation I found myself testing him as we sat there, just as he was testing me. I wanted to know what he could do, musically, because I’d come a long way and I needed him to be good.
“What direction do you think you’ll take with the new songs?” I asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” he replied, “but I know they need to be different from my older songs, and stronger. I want to make an impact, and I need to move on from where I was before.”
Although I wasn’t the biggest Newley fan I liked Bowie’s voice because it was pure.
He then played me some of his older songs on an acoustic guitar, and, to my relief, I really liked his singing voice. It was different from what I was used to – very clear and very English. It was obvious that the singer Anthony Newley was an influence, and although I wasn’t the biggest Newley fan I liked Bowie’s voice because it was pure. I was used to blues wailing from heavy rock singers – Robert Plant, Paul Rogers and so on – but Bowie didn’t have that kind of voice at all. He had a completely different approach: he’d express emotions in his vocals but just enough to put his point across to you, which I understood immediately. He could reach high notes, and hold them, and he never, ever sang out of tune. I never once heard him hit a bum note in all the years we played together.
To my surprise, I found myself thinking, “Fuck, these songs are good,” even though I’d previously dismissed them as being too lightweight for me. I particularly liked “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud,” which had been the B-side of “Space Oddity.” Perhaps I’d been wrong about him. (I must admit I grew to really like “Space Oddity” too.)
Then Bowie played me his two albums. Some of the songs were a bit too “novelty” for my liking, but there was depth in some of the others. The viewpoint from which those songs were written was unique, even back then. It felt as if only he could have written them. I’d never heard anything like them before, and they really got my attention.
What was most important to me was that Bowie could write songs. I needed him to be a good songwriter. We’d tried to do our own songs up in Yorkshire with the Rats, but we’d failed miserably, because we just didn’t have those skills even though we were good musicians. So I had a checklist in my head of things that I wanted from Bowie: I wanted him to be able to write, and to be a confident musician, which I could tell he was, just from seeing him sitting there and playing the guitar.
It wasn’t obvious what his songs were about, but that didn’t matter to me; the important thing, as I saw it, was that I had a story written in my head by the time he finished playing one of his compositions. That story was true for me, and it took me on a journey that I enjoyed. Good songs are supposed to do that and that, to me, was the sign of a good songwriter.
For more on Bowie and Woody, purchase the drummer’s book here.