Music History

"This Is a Different Human Being": Tony Visconti and Holy Holy Play on With the Spirit of Bowie

In 1967, when producer Tony Visconti first met a young David Bowie, in the office of David Platz, head of London-based publishing company Essex Music, the first thing Visconti did was stare into Bowie’s eyes, which appeared to be two different colors.

“I didn’t know which one to look at,” Visconti says. “I knew immediately: This is a different human being. He wasn’t like the rest of us. But he had this wide grin on his face. And he was anxious to meet me. I was described to him as being this young American producer who was already working with Marc Bolan, whom David knew. They were friends from their teenage years.”

Visconti says the two spent the rest of the day talking about American jazz and underground music like Frank Zappa and the Fugs; that evening, they went to see the film A Knife in the Water, directed by Roman Polanski, whom they’d also been discussing that day.

“We always liked black-and-white films from foreign countries,” Visconti says. “If it came from France or Poland or Germany and it was black and white, we probably would have loved it.”

A few days later, the two started a creative relationship that would span nearly five decades, with Visconti producing fourteen Bowie albums, including his 1969 self-titled album, Young Americans, Low, “Heroes”, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and Bowie’s final opus, Blackstar, which was released two days before the singer’s death on January 10.

Visconti also produced and played bass on 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, which is one of Bowie’s heaviest albums, from a sonic standpoint. It’s also the album that is performed in its entirety by Holy Holy, the supergroup that Visconti formed in 2014 with drummer Woody Woodmansey, who played on World as well three other Bowie studio albums and two live releases.

Not long after The Man Who Sold the World was released, Bowie hired manager Tony Defries. According to Visconti, Defries saw Bowie as the next Elvis, telling him, “You don’t need the band. We can get anybody to play with you.”

Visconti says that Bowie was young and eager to get his career going, so he just did what Defries told him to do, and the band was fired. Woodmansey and guitarist Mick Ronson (who would both team up with Bowie again less than a year later) moved back to Hull, England, while Visconti put all his efforts into working with T. Rex, producing epic albums like Electric Warrior and The Slider.

Fast-forward to 2014, when Visconti received an e-mail from Woodmansey, reminding the producer that The Man Who Sold the World had never been performed live after it was released and asking Visconti if he’d be up for playing it live. The only problem was that Visconti had forgotten his bass parts on the album and told Woodmansey he’d need a couple of months before going to London to rehearse for what would eventually become Holy Holy.

Holy Holy also includes Heaven 17 singer Glen Gregory and keyboardist Berenice Scott, guitarist James Stevenson (who’s worked with the Alarm and the Cult), guitarist Paul Cudderford (who’s worked with Ian Hunter and Bob Geldof), multi-instrumentalist Terry Edwards and vocalist Jessica Lee Morgan. In addition to performing The Man Who Sold the World on its current tour, the group also plays Bowie songs recorded between 1969 and 1973.

“I actually had to write the album out,” Visconti says. “I wrote it out in musical notation, and I studied it. And, really, it was so much fun to play those parts again. Then the first rehearsal with Woody in London was just magic. The two of us locked up together like we never even split up. It was just wonderful.”

When listening to The Man Who Sold the World, a lot of which Visconti says was improvised, he could hear what he was going for, but he couldn’t quite pull it off in the studio. “So now the parts are a little more refined. I’m getting to the high notes that I wanted to play, and I’ve smoothed out a few things, but it’s still rough at the edges; I still kept it raw.”

In arranging the music for Holy Holy, Visconti realized that the keys on a lot of early Bowie material were very high. “David was very young, and he couldn’t have sung them years later,” Visconti says. “He has two different voices in his career. He’s got the deep one that he ended up with, and he had that really high one back in the old days.”

Vocalist Gregory asked if the keys could be dropped in order to make the songs easier to sing. So the guitars and Visconti’s bass are tuned down a whole step — as in “The Width of a Circle,” which was originally in the key of E and is now in D.

“So with the dark lyrics and detuning, this album sounds darker and heavier and more powerful than it ever did,” Visconti says. “But it’s the same album. The people in the audience are singing along with every lyric. Real, true Bowie fans know this album by heart. They can’t believe that they’re actually hearing it performed live on stage.”

Visconti says he relives the recording process of The Man Who Sold the World every time he’s on stage. He thinks about the recording of “Black Country Rock” and “She Shook Me Cold” — live, as though the band were on stage. The musicians had spent the previous six weeks or so working on the songs and were a finely tuned band by the time they started performing.

“So when I’m playing them on stage, my mind just goes back to, especially, ‘She Shook Me Cold.’ It was Woody, Mick and I in this enormous studio meant for forty or fifty musicians,” Visconti says. “And we were playing so loud we were, like, shaking the woodwork. Everything was shaking. Mick was definitely an ‘eleven’ man, and so was I.”

While Holy Holy’s recent tour kicked off this month with Bowie tributes at Radio City and Carnegie Hall, the band had considered stopping an earlier leg of the tour in January after hearing of Bowie’s passing while the group was in Toronto.

“We didn’t really want to go home and split up the band,” Visconti says. “We talked about it. It wasn’t a very long talk. It took about twenty minutes to decide to go back on stage and play it. And I said, ‘Look, if we break down and cry, I don’t think we’ll be the only ones. I think the whole theater is going to break down and cry.’ That kind of happened. But there were moments in that show, mainly, of great, you know, transcendence. I can’t describe it better. It was almost like a spiritual experience. To know he had just passed away and that we were celebrating him. Woody and I made a speech before the show, saying, ‘We’re going to celebrate him. We’re going to try to not be morbid, not be dark.’ It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”

Visconti says it’s been getting a little easier to play Bowie’s songs live, but the members of Holy Holy are still using the shows as a process of healing from the loss.

“I’m getting a lot better now, but still grieving over him,” Visconti says. “He’s a dear old friend, like a brother to me.”