By Damian Fanelli
On June 5, EMI will release an expanded 40th anniversary edition of David Bowie’s landmark 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars.
The album, which originally was released through RCA Victor on June 6, 1972, was Bowie’s fifth full-length and was written while he was recording 1971’s Hunky Dory.
Ziggy Stardust was recorded at Trident Studios in London between November 8, 1971, and February 4, 1972, with Mick Ronson (guitar, piano, backing vocals, string arrangements), Trevor Bolder (bass), Mick Woodmansey (drums), Rick Wakeman (keyboards) and backing vocals on "It Ain’t Easy" by Dana Gillespie. Bowie sang, played acoustic guitar, sax and harpsichord.
The album was produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, who began his storied career as an Abbey Road tape-library tech and engineer who worked on The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album, later moving to projects with the solo Beatles, Bowie, Jeff Beck, Dixie Dregs, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Devo and many others.
We recently spoke to Scott about the Ziggy Stardust sessions, his days working with The Beatles and his upcoming book, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust (Alfred Music Publishing, $24.99, hardcover), which he co-wrote with Bobby Owsinski.
Part one of our Scott interview focuses on Ziggy Stardust. Look for part two (The Beatles, Jeff Beck and beyond) next week.
GUITAR AFICIONADO: How did you wind up working with David Bowie?
I left Abbey Road and started working at a studio called Trident. I engineered a lot of David’s first album there, which went under three titles -- David Bowie, Man of Words/Man of Music and Space Oddity. I did a lot on that. I then did overdubs and mixed The Man Who Sold the World. These were both just as engineer; I worked with Tony Visconti on those.
Then one day I was working with David on something he was producing, and during one of the breaks I happened to say I wanted to move into production. He said he’d just signed a new management deal. He said he was going into the studio and was going to produce the album himself, but he didn’t think he could do it. So I co-produced it with him, and that led to Hunky Dory.
On Ziggy Stardust, how did guitarist Mick Ronson get that very unique, "scooped-out" electric guitar sound?
That was very much Ronno. He always used a 100-watt Marshall, and he would go through a wah-wah pedal. He’d find the sound we liked and then just leave the wah-wah pedal there.
So he’d leave the wah in one position?
Yes. He used it as a tone control.
How did you and Bowie work in the studio?
I’ve always said we were a great team. We all seemed to know exactly what was required of each other during the whole process. Sometimes David had demoed material and the band had heard it beforehand, but quite often he hadn’t, and he would teach the band the song -- and they’d have to get it. For the initial tracks, we would’ve been going more for just bass and drums, unless there was a piano, and we would’ve got that live as well.
But they had to get the tracks fairly quickly because David gets bored – or he used to, probably still does. If it took more than three or four takes, he’d want to move on. So they knew they had to get the takes very quickly, and we just carried on from there. Ronno was always remarkably fast getting his parts. David was the most amazing singer I’ve worked with; 95 percent of the vocals on the four albums I did with him as producer, they were first takes. I’d get a level at the beginning and we’d just go from beginning to end and that was it. No Auto-Tune, no punching in, nothing. Just complete takes.
OK, you just mentioned the best singer you've ever worked with. How about the best guitarist?
Steve Morse. He’s so good in so many areas, and he knows where to use them. I’ve worked with John McLaughlin – he’s a great technician, but it’s very much like a lot of the vocalists these days. He needs to throw in as many notes as he can within each bar, which works for some things. There are other people who are minimalists and they play so little. The thing with Steve is that he can do both very well and he picks and chooses when he does each one -- and it always works perfectly. He is a technician who plays with soul. That's the first time I've ever said that [laughs].
The opener on Ziggy Stardust, “Five Years,” has a piano sound – and a drum sound, for that matter – that is reminiscent of the sounds on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album from 1970, which was still a recent release when you and Bowie were working on Ziggy. Was Bowie heavily influenced by Lennon at that point?
Heavily? I wouldn’t say so, although he was definitely influenced. He was influenced by many people. He always described how he’d take bits and pieces from all over the place, put them in a melting pot and they’d come out being him.
Speaking of Lennon, Ziggy Stardust was recorded at Trident, where The Beatles briefly recorded around 1968. Were you involved with any of those sessions?
At Trident I was only involved with solo-Beatles projects, not Beatles projects. I did overdubs and mixed All Things Must Pass with George; I did “It Don’t Come Easy” with Ringo; I mixed “Give Peace a Chance” and recorded “Cold Turkey” with John. Bits and pieces like that.
What is your approach to producing? Are you more of a hands-off kind of guy?
Yes. I give as much freedom to the artist as possible. It’s their album. I guess I followed what I saw from working with George Martin. It’s the “give them enough rope to hang themselves” kind of thing.
Why do you think Ziggy Stardust has gone on to be considered a classic, something worthy of the grand 40th-anniversary treatment? And to stretch that a bit further, why does it seem that particular era in rock is so packed with “classics,” something that seems a bit more difficult to come by today? You know, it's the old joke about, “Yeah, who’s gonna remember that album in 20 years?”
First and foremost, it's major labels. For several years now, they haven’t wanted to invest in talent they could grow. They wanted an instantaneous, "dumb everything down as much as possible" situation. That’s number one. I think there were pressures put on artists back then that are no longer there. The artist had to come up with material – two albums a year. The contracts were, they had to do one album every six months. I think that pushed them; I like that kind of thing. It puts them on edge. You’re not striving quite so much for perfection. You’re not second guessing yourself all the time. These days it takes three to four years before the next album comes out.
It’s been watered down so much because no one wants to make a decision. It’s trying to make everything perfect, putting everything "on the grid" -- the three worst words in the English language. It lacks soul these days, it lacks feeling. It lacks humanity most of the time.
The 40th anniversary edition of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars will be available on CD and a limited-edition format of vinyl featuring the new 2012 remaster with a 5.1 mix and high-resolution audio on DVD; the DVD features previously unreleased 5.1 and stereo bonus 2003 Ken Scott mixes of "Moonage Daydream" (instrumental), "The Supermen," "Velvet Goldmine" and "Sweet Head."