A full house greets the arrival of Woody Woodmansey to the smart and compact stage in the temporarily repurposed children’s area of Hull Central Library. Woody is here as part of the Humber Mouth literature festival by virtue of his newly released memoir, “Spider From Mars”. The event is hosted by local writer/musician/all round good egg Russ Litten, who seems impressively calm considering he’s about to have a public chat with a genuine rock legend.
Originating from Driffield, Woody retains a strong East Yorkshire accent and he’s thoroughly engaging from the first minute, talking about his early days in seminal Hull band The Rats back in the late 60s. The Rats also gave Mick Ronson his early break, and it was Ronson’s departure to join up with an emerging David Bowie that would eventually see Woody (and bassist Trevor Bolder) follow suit.
The story goes that Bowie was in need of a new drummer. Ronson suggested Woody and before long the Spiders From Mars were born. Woody talks with genuine warmth about his former bandmates including the maverick Bowie, who at the time, of course, was not yet the superstar he would later become. From the way Woody talks, though, it seems the young Bowie was something special even then, a step ahead of everyone else – a man who somehow knew he was destined for greatness.
Those early sessions yielded Bowie’s first genuine rock album, The Man Who Sold The World, and set him and his band on the path to the top. 1971’s altogether more considered LP Hunky Dory continued the trajectory before the unparalleled greatness of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust arrived in 1972.
With Ziggy, came the makeup and clothes that define that era. Woody recounts Bowie’s first foray into makeup. The rest of the band, he says, wanted no part of it, being three brusque Yorkshiremen unaccustomed to such things as mascara and lipstick. Bowie’s clever mind games persuaded them to come on board with his new ideas. “Next thing you know,” says Woody, “we’re all going, oi, have you got my eyeliner?” He gives a big smile as he adds that he was the one who drew the proverbial short straw and ended up dressed, reluctantly, in pink.
It was also around this time when Bowie began using drugs, and I’m surprised to hear how effective he was at keeping this from his bandmates. Woody tells us on one tour he suddenly began noticing a man in their traveling entourage that he didn’t recognise. “I didn’t know what he actually did”, he says, “and someone said, oh, he’s the dealer”. He never thought at the time that “the dealer” was there for Bowie – he assumed, innocently, he must be there keeping the road crew going with pick-me-ups while they lugged heavy gear around on a daily basis. It was only later when it became clear it was actually the mercurial Bowie who was becoming heavily involved with drugs. The Spiders smoked the odd bit of pot, Woody says, but no more than that. Bowie’s experimentation was becoming more serious.
1973 brought Aladdin Sane, the third of Bowie’s holy trinity of early 70s releases. Interestingly the drum parts on “Panic In Detroit” were, says Woody, the only time Bowie ever told him exactly what to play, insisting he wanted a sound “like Bo Diddley” (not a bad call, as it turned out). Aladdin Sane also saw a new member of Bowie’s backing band, with pianist Mike Garson joining the setup. It was then that relationships within the band occasionally became strained – not least when Garson inadvertently revealed that he was being paid substantially more than Woody was for his role in the band. It wasn’t the kids that had killed the band, but the Spiders had made their last album with Bowie (as a complete unit anyway – Ronson and Bolder would stay on to play on follow up album “Pin Ups”, with Aynsley Dunbar stepping into Woody’s formidable shoes).
Interestingly, Woody reserves the strongest praise for late bass player Trevor Bolder and his skills as a musician. Bolder’s playing, he says, meant that Ronson had to play the way he did, but it was the bass that drove the sound. It’s an interesting and often overlooked insight into Bolder’s expertise, although it highlights his own modesty (he never praises his own musicianship, though he’s got every right to) and the fact of the matter is, the real reason the Spiders were such a force, wasn’t down to any one of them, it was undoubtedly the sum of the parts. Ronson’s guitar, the rhythm section of Bolder and Woodmansey, and of course the genius of their frontman – this is the combination that worked so well together and produced not one but three albums of pure rock perfection.
Sadly, Woody is now the last man standing, with Ronson, Bolder and Bowie all taken too early and all taken by cancer. Their music, though, lives on – and always will.
Woody Woodmansey’s book “Spider From Mars” is out now through Pan Macmillan – for details, or to order a copy, go to www.woodywoodmansey.com
WORDS | Nick Boldock
Images | Paul Newbon – Facebook Page