Major Tom has left the planet, and I can think of no better tribute to music legend David Bowie than an excerpt from producer Ken Scott’s memoir Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust (which I had the pleasure of co-writing) about the making of what may be Bowie’s most enduring work – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Scott co-produced three other Bowie albums from that time period (Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and Pinups) and knew the Thin White Duke well. This is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of the book.
“David had a few demos prepared for the album, but interestingly two of the songs that he decided to record were actually from that first day I reconnected with him (the day of the possible wardrobe malfunction nightmare) when he produced Freddi Burretti – “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On To Yourself.” Even though David had originally written these songs for Burretti and not for himself (they had been eventually released under the name of Arnold Corns), David thought they might fit nicely in this record, and they did. One song that eventually made the record, “It Ain’t Easy,” had initially been considered for another album. It was a leftover from the Hunky Dory sessions and so was the only track on Ziggy that Rick Wakeman played on.
As with Hunky Dory, what was to become Ziggy was recorded at Trident [Recording Studios in London] in about two weeks, with another two weeks for mixing, but this time we had moved from 8 track up to the relative luxury of 16 track, thanks to the addition of a brand new 3M M56 tape machine. The sessions themselves weren’t much different to any of the other Bowie sessions. The basics took about 4 or 5 days and were virtually the same for every track. It was only the nuances in each song that would vary. What’s more, nothing was recorded 100% live. There were overdubs on every track, and as is usually the case, some more than others.
There were a lot of tracks recorded for Ziggy that didn’t make the album ( most of them I had forgotten about until I began mixing Ziggy for 5.1 release recently) – “Velvet Goldmine,” “Bombers” “Holy Holy” and Jaque Brel’s “Port of Amsterdam”. If I remember correctly, for “Velvet Goldmine” we put a lot of work into it and so it was fairly finished, “Bombers” was only somewhat finished, “Port of Amsterdam” was David with just an acoustic guitar, and “Holy Holy” was only a basic track and I don’t think we even got a good one. Originally one of the tracks intended for Ziggy was “Round and Round,” the old Chuck Berry rock n’ roll classic. Now that one had the least number of overdubs of all the songs that weren’t strictly acoustic and was completely finished. It was actually supposed to be on the album until RCA decided they needed a single and that was the track that got kicked.
As I said before, David is an amazing singer, and 95% of his vocals on Ziggy and every other album I recorded with him were done in a single take. There was one completely calculated exception however. In the first part of the song “Rock And Roll Suicide” David sings very quietly, and so in order to optimize the sound quality, I had to crank the level of the mic preamp. He eventually becomes a power house and his vocal range was quite different for the latter part of the song, so I had to readjust the levels to compensate for that, hence the vocal for that song was recorded in two parts – each part a first take of course. I learned not to expect anything different.
As with everything Bowie, there are lots of myths and misconceptions and the so-called “sax section” on “Suffragette City” is certainly one of them. The fact of the matter is that it’s not a sax section at all, but a synthesizer. We thought we had finished the song but, as these things often go, it was lacking something. I’d been spending a lot of time messing with the ARP 2500 synthesizer that Trident had recently purchased and suggested we give it a try. I got the sound, and Ronno played the part that David came up with. We were not specifically going for a sax sound and to me it sounds nothing like saxes so it always surprises me when people tell me they thought it was a sax section. Then of course came the really big surprise when David told American DJ Redbeard during an interview that he played all the saxes in the song, but then again, lest we forget, we’re talking about Mr Bowie. One can never tell if he really didn’t remember or he was just telling the interviewer what he wanted to hear.
Of course there’s always a favourite track and on Ziggy it’s “Moonage Daydream”. All the songs work for me but that one just works a couple of percent more for some reason. David has said in interviews that he’s always been like a chef. He takes ingredients from all of the music that he’s heard, mixes it all together, and it comes out being his own. In this case, he took an idea from the B side of the 1960 Hollywood Argyle’s #1 hit “Alley Oop” called “Sho Know A Lot About Love,” where a baritone and flute play the same line together (well, a couple of octaves apart, but I think you know what I mean), and used that same concept for the solo of the song. The only difference on “Moonage” being that it was a recorder not a flute playing with the bari, both of which David played.
He was incredible in that he’d see a trumpet or an accordion or some other instrument in the studio and say, “Let’s find a way to put this on there.” We were so into rock and roll and wanted to remain true and pure, and we’d think,”Oh, God (covers his eyes and hangs his head), he’s not going to put that on it?” He’d do it and place it somewhere back in the mix and it would work. That amazed me.
The same with takes. We’d do the second take and feel, “Now I know the song,” and he’d go, “That’s the one.” We’d all argue that we could do a better one but he’d say, “No, that’s the one.” After a while we’d begin to think, “We’d better get it by the second take.”
Woody Woodmansey [Spiders from Mars drummer]
I really enjoyed doing that album but I remember it being a nightmare because Bowie would come in and just throw songs at us. We were used to it, but the unfortunate thing wasn’t “Here’s a song. Let’s rehearse it for an hour.” It was “Here’s a song. You got it? Let’s go.” You had one or two takes, and that was it. It still turned out great.
Trevor Bolder [Spiders from Mars bass player]
One of the things that really made Ziggy (and all the albums I co-produced with David) that much better were the great orchestral arrangements that Ronno [guitarist Mick Ronson] put together. They were even more brilliant when you consider the fact that he always had this habit of running out of time before they were finished. I have this remembrance of him rushing in about ten minutes before the session was due to start, running up to the bathroom on the first floor, and locking himself in so he could find the privacy to finish writing. He’d come out about twenty minutes later (ten minutes after the session should have begun) with a huge grin on his face and a stack of charts. That happened almost every time.
Ronno’s contribution to not only Ziggy, but every Bowie album that I worked on was major, major and, did I mention, MAJOR. He was a great guitarist, a great arranger and a great down to earth guy. He knew exactly what was needed at exactly the right time. Neither David or I would have achieved anywhere near the success we had without him.
The orchestra that we used generally consisted of eight violins, four violas and two cellos (or 8, 4 and 2 as we’d call it), with the violins divided into four first violins and four second violins. There were occasions he would use a smaller string section but also times, as in “Rock And Roll Suicide” when he’d add double basses. He actually went all out on that particular track and added a brass section comprising of two trumpets, two trombones, two tenor saxes and a baritone sax. This was one of the few times that the saxes were session players as opposed to David playing them himself.
I’ve come to realise that an unusual thing about Ziggy is that there’s acoustic guitar on every track, even the rock and roll ones. It didn’t seem unique at the time as I had started my rock n’ roll listening to the likes of Presley and Bill Haley, both of whom used acoustics, so using them seemed quite natural and gave the songs a whole different feel. I wasn’t into cymbals at that point (I have no idea why), so I used the high end of the acoustic more as a percussive instrument, almost as a high-hat sort of thing. It wasn’t something we consciously thought of or went for, but it’s always there.
When the album was turned in to RCA they apparently didn’t hear a single, so back in we went to cut “Starman” at the beginning of January 1972. The song turned around quickly, I think a day to record the basics and most of the overdubs, a day to finish overdubs, including the strings, and another to mix. The song finished up replacing “Round and Round” on the album.
There were some strange things going on with the Bowie recordings during that period that I didn’t find out about until much later. There appears to be a second mix of “Starman” wherein the only difference is that the morse code part on one mix is really loud and on the other really quiet. I have no idea which one I actually did or how or why the second one came about. After hearing both, it sounds to me like there was only one mix and that those sections were copied louder, or quieter, and had been edited in to make it different, but no one seems to have any recollection of it being done.
Another strange occurrence was with the song “John, I’m Only Dancing,” which was recorded as a single to take advantage of Bowie’s growing popularity after the release of Ziggy. The song was recorded at Trident in June of 1972 in much of the “Wham, Bam, Thank you, Ma’m” fashion of “Starman,” meaning recording the basics and overdubs over 2 days, and mixing on another. I was never aware of it until doing the 5.1 mix, but there were actually two versions of the song. Apparently David and the band went over to Olympic and recut the song almost identically, directly after we had recorded it at Trident. To this day, I don’t know why this was done and neither does anyone else, except maybe David, and the details of both sessions seem fuzzy to everyone involved.
The only one [version] I can remember is the one at Olympic, because we recorded it, then the Faces came through the door when we were recording backing claps in the hallway, and they all joined in. It was in the daytime. We might have done it at Trident, but I always remember putting it together at Olympic. Maybe we just did the backing track there and finished it at Trident. We never mixed it at Olympic.
The record blew up in the UK immediately, eventually reaching #5 on the UK charts, but only #75 on the Billboard 200 a full year later. The single, “Starman,” reached #10 in the UK, but again, only #65 in the US. A second single off the record, “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” reached #22 in 1974. David had now become a full-fledged cultural phenomena in England and other parts of the world, as Ziggy, with The Spiders From Mars, played to sold out concerts in the UK, Japan, and a few parts of the US.
I have to pass comment on how amazed I am that forty years after we recorded Ziggy we’re still bloody talking about it. It was never meant that way when we originally did it because back then we thought that an album would have a six-month life span. We had no idea that all these years down the line people would still be interested. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t even that old at that point, so how could anyone know?”
– Bobby Owsinski is the author of 24 books on recording, music, the music business and social media. Read excerpts at bobbyowsinski.com