Having recently finished reading Woody Woodmansey book Spider from Mars – My Life with Bowie (St. Martin’s Press 2016), it seemed appropriate to update his story a bit. We had passed along some information on his newly released book in April of 2017 based on a brief review of the book and a short interview with Woodmansey, both of which appeared in Classic Rock Magazine. It seems there were a couple of thing in those pieces that were a little off, so let me take this opportunity to set things straight and tell you more about Woody the Spider.
Michael Woodmansey was born to a single mother in what can only be described as the small, rural English town of Driffield, Yorkshire on February 4, 1950. Her father’s conventional thinking of the day would have sent her packing had not her strong willed mother intervened. With his biological father in the armed forces, Michael Bradley (as he was called until his parents married some years later) would be molded in those early years by his maternal grandparents. When his father left the service and they established their own home, young Michael found himself to be at odds with his father more than he had ever been with his grandparents. He was an adequate student, but education lost most of its charm when it became apparent that the English class system of planning one’s future rested more on where one came from and not what potential one might have. Michael was from a working man’s home and had already been pigeon-holed into the “find a trade, work until you die” box because that is how the system worked at the time.
His apprenticeships at skilled trades like electrical work and plumbing were short lived. He stumbled upon music accidentally. A buddy’s older brother rehearsed with a band in a shed called ‘The Cave’ at their father’s farm machinery repair shop. Michael’s buddy got him inside the room for a Roadrunners rehearsal and the seed was planted: he would be involved in music. A small group of his other mates decided to form a band and after finding no method of osmosis that worked to help him learn to play the guitar, he picked up a battered drum kit from the local Salvation Army and found out he had a knack for playing the drums. Like most fledgling bands, they played a few house parties and dances as they rode the growing wave of rock music as it developed in the early 1960s.
Being fans of science fiction comics, the band called themselves The Mutations. They secured permission to practice in The Roadrunners’ Cave and began absorbing music of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, John Mayall, and numerous artists from Tamla Motown label. They had to look the part and as Woodmansey now recalls, “I decided to grow my hair long, which was the start of the downward slope academically speaking. The teachers hated it and wouldn’t let us eat our lunch with everyone else; they actually had a special table in the canteen for the long-haired boys. I guess it’s hard to imagine this nowadays, but back then the whole school would walk past you, chanting “Unclean! Unclean!” and pretending to ring lepers’ bells.” As he lost all interest in his schooling, Michael became the class comedian which didn’t sit well with the school administration or his parents. Threatened with expulsion, he pulled his act together for a semester, only to be told, “Leave, or we will toss you out.” At the age of fifteen, he was forced to tell his mother and father he was leaving school to learn a trade. His father accepted it as the best course but his mother did not.
When the drum stool in The Roadrunners was offered to Woodmansey, even his Mutations bandmates agreed it was a move he needed to make. When The Roadrunners had run out of steam, he was out of music for a while but still searching. In those early days of rock and roll, there were a lot more semi-professional musicians working day jobs and gigging whenever they could. After his failed attempt at trade apprenticeship, he had joined his buddies working at the Vertex Spectacle factory.
He found he liked factory work and his knack for fixing machinery presented him with an opportunity to move up the ladder. Woodmansey was somewhat dismayed that he was offered a chance to work in more of a supervisory role at Vertex. He wasn’t sure how the older workers would take to having a much younger supervisor, so he said he would have to think about it over the weekend. While he was mulling over whether or not to take the new position, he received a call from David Bowie asking him to join his new band. Bowie was a folk singer with a one-hit wonder reputation after Space Oddity was released. In the end, Woodmansey’s internal dialog ping ponged back and forth as he compared a life of stability and a steady income to that of a musician in a new band with a future full of question marks. He decided that he didn’t want his future self to look back and say “What if I had given this a shot?” With the Vertex factory in his rearview mirror, Woodmansey found himself living with Bowie and Angie at Haddon Hall while they pieced together music that would ultimately lead to the Spiders from Mars incarnation of Bowie’s career. It was a Spartan existence with Mick Ronson and Woodmansey sleeping on mattresses on the landing of the first floor flat apartment. Producer Tony Visconti played bass on their earliest recording efforts as The Hype. When bassist Trevor Bolder joined the band, the classic Spiders from Mars began to make a name for themselves. Blazing new territory that would usher in the new musical wave of “glam rock”, they weren’t an immediate phenomenon. They did their road and recording work with due diligence through the albums The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971). They found their golden glam rock gimmick with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (1972) which rose to number 5 on the record charts.
Touring relentlessly in the wake of Ziggy’s success began to take a toll on the Spiders. The Bowie – band relations took a downturn when Woodmansey learned that some of the support musicians were being paid a lot more than the original Spiders. Bowie’s growing drug additions were making him more and more aloof. When he and his manager were confronted with the pay disparity, the Spiders were disappointed that Bowie claimed that he could perform his music with any musicians. The band that helped him create the entire Bowie catalog that led to Ziggy was now being deemed as “superfluous” much to their disappointment. With no leverage, the band carried on until Bowie took another right turn and announced that Ziggy was now history. His manager called Woodmansey and in a display of utter spite, informed him on his wedding day that he was no longer in Bowie’s band. While one would not blame Woodmansey for being bitter at this unforeseen turn of events, he soon got over the anger and disappointment of being sacked and began to reflect on the events that ended with his termination from The Spiders: “In retrospect, it’s now obvious that events had been set in motion even before that (‘that’ being his reactive outburst during the wages discussion that had not done Woodmansey any favors and put him at the top of the firing list)”.
Woody further explained ‘events’ as follows: “I had also noticed his (Bowie’s) inability to be in control of ‘Ziggy’ and that he appeared more and more in character 24/7. I had thought at the time that ‘Ziggy in America’, as he had described the Aladdin Sane album, was a bit of a compromise for him and he’d wanted to move on. I looked back now and realized even at that point that he was looking for a way out of Ziggy Stardust and back to David Bowie, but ’Ziggy’ was so huge I don’t think he could see how to do it without potentially disastrous consequences for his career. Therefore, we had to go, along with ‘Ziggy’.” Add the fact that RCA records refused to continue funding Bowie’s massive tours and ‘Ziggy’ was on a final, slippery slope.
Bassist Trevor Bolder eventually called out Bowie and his manager for what he termed, “the disgusting thing you did to Woody at his wedding,” but Ronson took him aside and reminded him that at this point, this would only have them sacked as well. As it turned out, Bowie’s Pin Up album was their last go around with him anyway. Ronson went on to work with Mott the Hoople and made a name for himself as a producer and studio player. Bolder and Woodmansey formed a band they called Spiders From Mars but when that group folded, they went off in different directions.
Woodmansey had a few misfires in his career. Not showing up for an audition for Wings and turning down an offer from Meat Loaf were things he could have regretted, but as he did when he was fired from Bowie’s band, he made a choice to move on to the next thing. Over the years, he has done studio work with the likes of Dexie’s Midnight Runners and toured with Edgar Winter and Art Garfunkel. Pianist Nicky Hopkins had become a close friend and got him in the door with both Winter and Garfunkel. He also made fast friends in the business like Joe Elliott of Def Lepperd who was a big fan. Woodmansey found this out in 1997 when working with Elliot at a charity function. Elliot showed Woodmansey a hat Woody had signed for him when Elliot attended a show by Woody’s band U-Boat in 1976.
Woodmansey circled back in 2014 when he and Bowie’s long time producer Tony Visconti began touring as Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy. Having been two of the principle architects of Bowie’s early sound, they have played the whole of The Man Who Sold the World album with Visconti stepping out to tell anecdotes about those days. At one such concert on January 8, 2016, Visconti called Bowie during the show to have the crowd sing Happy Birthday to him. Bowie in turn asked Visconti to find out what they thought of his new album Blackstar and after they roared their approval, he wished Holy Holy well with the tour. By the next stop in Toronto, Bowie was dead. That night, Visconti and Woodmansey stepped out to explain that they were going to deal with their grief with music and to celebrate David and his music. It was a fitting tribute that they continued to the end of the tour. Woodmansey continues to take pride in his musical career but still says his proudest accomplishment is his family.
Top Piece Video: Holy Holy with Tony Visconti & Woody Woodmansey performing Width Of A Circle from ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ album, at the Shepherds Bush Empire, London in 2014