Hard to believe, but this month marks the 40th anniversary of David Bowie’s glam rock masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Powered by one of rock’s tightest-ever ensembles – Trevor Bolder on bass, Woody Woodmansey on drums, Mick Ronson on guitar and Bowie himself of rhythm acoustic – Ziggy Stardust remains an essential touchstone for any up-and-coming four-piece rock band.
To commemorate the album’s 40th year, EMI has just released a special newly-remastered edition of the disc, with a 5.1 mix. The release is available on CD, on limited edition vinyl and on high-resolution DVD, with bonus tracks.
Producer-engineer Ken Scott, who produced the Ziggy Stardust album alongside Bowie, has also just published a remarkable book detailing his experiences recording Bowie and other rock greats. Titled Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust: Off-the-record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton, and So Much More, the book offers behind-the-scenes looks at the making of The Beatles’ White Album, Elton John’s Honky Chateau, Jeff Beck’s Truth and many other classics.
From his home in Los Angeles, Scott spoke with us about Bowie’s work methods, how Mick Ronson achieved his distinctive glam-era tone and why pressure in the recording studio can be a good thing.
You write in your book that you consider Bowie the most remarkable singer you’ve ever worked with. Why do you feel that way?
Ninety-five percent of the vocals I recorded with him – on Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Pinups – were done in first takes. I would set the level, we would roll tape and that was it. That became the performance everyone heard. Whether or not you love his voice is a personal matter, but his ability to put those performances across is beyond admonition. And that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. There are places where the pitch is slightly off, or the timing is slightly off. But they’re human. It’s not like what we have today, where everything has to be auto-tuned and moved around on the grid. Bowie’s vocals are actual performances, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re still talking about Ziggy Stardust, 40 years on.
Bowie sang almost exclusively in his upper register on the Ziggy Stardust album. Why did he stop doing that, beginning with Aladdin Sane?
I can’t say, for sure. I can only guess. But I would think that was part of David’s character change, something he did by choice. Over time that sort of thing happens, Elton John being an example, these days. It sometimes happens with age, but my feeling is, with David in those days, it would have been by choice.
Handclaps were a big part of many of the arrangements on Ziggy Stardust. Whose idea was that?
(laughs) I can’t really say which ideas were whose. Everything was very much a team effort. Take David’s acoustic guitar, for instance. Ziggy Stardust is a rock and roll album, but every track has acoustic guitar. That was a reversion to the early days of rock and roll. Elvis, Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran – they all used acoustic guitars in their rock and roll material. I did the same with David, who played most of the acoustic guitar on the rock and roll songs. I used it like a percussive instrument. I didn’t like cymbals in those days, so I tended to keep the cymbals down [in the mix]. I used the acoustic guitar like a high-hat, where it was more “high-end-y” and “clicky” than tonal. I used that sort of rhythm, as opposed to the “high-hat” rhythm.
Did Ronson play his Les Paul to the exclusion of all other electric guitars, on those sessions?
Yes. It was a remarkably simple setup. It was his Les Paul going through a wah wah – a Crybaby, I believe – into a one-hundred-watt Marshall. That was it. When we were working on tone for the guitar, he would go through the wah wah, find what we liked, and then he would take his foot off and leave it there. He used the wah wah for tone control.
Was his solo on “Moonage Daydream” done in one take?
As best I recall. My recollection is that there had been no discussion, beforehand, regarding what it should be, or what it was going to be. It was more like, “Okay, it’s time to do it,” and he just played it. David and I just went, “Wow!” Whether or not Ronson had spent time working on it at home, beforehand, is something I can’t answer.
Why didn’t Ronson go on to great success as a solo artist?
One has to have a certain ego to be a frontman, and I don’t think Ronno had that ego. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. Generally speaking – and I want to stress this is a generalization – musicians have particular personalities, related to their instruments and to the role they play. A bass player tends to have a personality that’s different from the personality of a drummer, and so on. There’s a personality trait peculiar to a frontman – the lead singer – that Ronno definitely didn’t have.
The arrangements on the demos for some of the Ziggy Stardust material were much different from what ended up on the album. Were the arrangements worked out in the studio?
They were. I’ve since spoken with Woody about that. He points out that he and Trevor were always worried in the studio, because David got bored easily. They knew they needed to nail something by the third or fourth take; otherwise, that song might be sort of taken off the list. They were always playing by the seat of their pants, trying to get a proper take as soon as possible. Of course that ratchets the excitement up very high.
What did you think of Ronson’s piano work?
Well … (laughs) There’s one track – I can’t remember which – where he couldn’t play both the right hand and the left hand at the same time. We put down the right hand, and once we got that, we put down the left. And I mixed them together to make it sound like one piano. I find the whole experience on those Ziggy-era albums, with regard to keyboards, to be very interesting. You’ve got Hunky Dory, with Rick Wakeman, whose piano playing is exquisite all the way through. It’s all of one style. And then you’ve got the simplistic piano style on Ziggy. And then you move to the avant garde, with Mike Garson, on Aladdin Sane. Everything else tended to remain fairly similar, but the feel of the keyboards changed on each of those three projects.
By the time Pinups was made, Bowie was truly a star. Did that affect the way he worked in the studio?
No, it was always exceedingly professional. We always had just a couple of weeks to record an album. Aladdin Sane took slightly longer – probably three weeks -- but only because we started recording in New York, before going back to England to carry on. Those albums were made during a period in which artists were expected to come up with an album every six months. There were extreme time constraints. You couldn’t mess around. We had fun all the time, but it was productive fun.
Was that a good thing, the pressure to come up with two albums a year?
It made the cream rise to the top. Only the best artists could keep it going. Just look at the material that came out from that period. It was unbelievable – from Bowie to Elton John to The Who and beyond. It’s amazing, the things that we still listen to and talk about today, that were made under that pressure. You were forced to make decisions quickly, without second-guessing yourself. And the quality of the work was better as a result.
Does the esteem in which Ziggy Stardust continues to be held surprise you?
It floors me, the fact that we’re still talking about it 40 years later. For me, it was one month out of 50-odd years of working the studio. But yes, I love it. To borrow what Paul McCartney said about the White Album, “Yes, it’s a great little album.”
Read more about Ziggy Stardust, Mick Ronson and the History of Glam Rock.
Photo credit: Brian Ward / © 1972 The David Bowie Archive™