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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Making Of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust Album

David Bowie imageMajor 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. Ken co-produced three other Bowie albums from that time period (Hunky DoryAladdin 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] 


Unknown said...

That was NOT a very insightful article. The recording of that album HAD to be more interesting than that! :(

Rand said...

Heavy tears at this tragic news.

Such a gifted and truly unique, inspirational artist and one of the greatest of all time and worthy of everyone's admiration and respect.

I loved this amazing man so much...♥♫

Anonymous said...

Some great inside information here. Thanks!

Nichole said...

Thanks for posting yours and Ken's book excerpt; as I will have to get that in the future. Must be a wonderful experience to get the vocals all in one take. Despite how cliche this might sound, David's music and most of the 70's makes me wish I had been a teenager in the 70's because despite all the other worldly chaos, people still cared about things, real things and their music reflected that. Anyway, aside from being a fan of his music,I was also an equal fan of his acting especially in Tony Scott's "The Hunger" and his small part along with BB King in "Into The Night." Of course there are so many more of David's films I would like to see. Saddened as well that he is gone. Would have liked to have seen his passionate performance of "Loving the Alien" live in concert.

Anyway, here is another intriguing article that I found since David's transition...


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