What George Martin was to the Beatles, Tony Visconti was to David Bowie and Marc Bolan.
Beginning with Bowie’s 1970 “rock” debut, The Man Who Sold The World, and extending through such classics as Young Americans, “Heroes” and Scary Monsters, the veteran producer served as the guiding force behind Bowie’s best work.
The same was true for T.Rex’s Marc Bolan. After steering Bolan through his acoustic apprenticeship, Visconti produced such seminal T.Rex albums as Electric Warrior, The Slider and Tanx.
In the following interview, the legendary soundman talks about his work with both artists, while offering behind-the-scenes insights about guitar greats Mick Ronson and Robert Fripp.
You’ve often said The Man Who Sold The World ? the 1970 Bowie album on which you played bass throughout ? established the work methods between you and Bowie.
That’s right. On the Space Oddity album, we had no idea what we were doing. It was all over the map. But then we met Mick Ronson at the very end of making that album, and we allowed Mick to educate us. We were scratching our heads, thinking, “How do we get a big rock sound, for David?” David felt very awkward, up to that point. He hadn’t worked with serious rock musicians. Mick was the first person we had met who had dedicated his life to being a rock guitarist, and specializing in this genre. Mick’s favorite group was Cream, and he specifically told me to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing, and to copy him. That second album, The Man Who Sold The World, became the blueprint for the rest of David’s career. Virtually everything he’s done since, you can trace back to something on that album.
Subsequently you left Bowie to work with Marc Bolan, but five years later you helped Bowie achieve his first No. 1 hit, with “Fame.” Instead of capitalizing on that success, however, the two of you then made two very experimental albums, with Low and “Heroes.”
We started Low on the premise that we might simply waste a month ? that it might be a load of rubbish that, in the end, we would just throw away. But halfway through the making of the album, we knew we were onto something incredibly exciting. We couldn’t wait to release it to the public. Fortunately, the public and the critics reacted beautifully. They really felt the album was remarkable. It was the record company who hated it. They wanted another Young Americans, and they said as much.
The title track from “Heroes” is considered by many to be Bowie's best song. The sound of Robert Fripp’s guitar on that track is amazing.
Fripp and Brian Eno worked out a way to really mutilate the guitar sound, using Eno’s briefcase synthesizer. Fripp also worked out a feedback technique where he knew exactly where to stand in order to sustain certain notes. He put a piece of marked tape on the floor, and he would stand on the letter G, for instance, if he wanted the G note to sustain. It was a matter of how close he moved to the monitor speakers. He didn’t use an amp. He plugged directly into the console. Recording that song was a wonderful three-man choreography. Between takes, Bowie was saying, “Do this. Try this. I like what you did five minutes ago. Could you do that again?”
Let’s talk about your work with Marc Bolan. George Martin used orchestration with the Beatles, of course, but the way you used strings on the T.Rex albums was something entirely new.
Well, Marc was a very innocent guitarist, and sometimes he would play very strange things. In his mind, he might be playing a blues lick, but it might not have the flatted 3rd, or something would be not bluesy about it. If I heard a nice phrase that he played, that was a little unusual, I would amplify it by doubling it on the strings. Suddenly we would have a motif ? a motif derived from his playing. I would then write it up, harmonize it, double it in octaves, and have the string players do their parts. I would even notate the bend, if Marc’s playing had a bend in it. The British string players who live in London are some of the best in the world. They would listen carefully to the way Marc played a phrase, and would say, “Okay, we’ll play that. That’s cute.” In the end it sounds as if we were being extremely clever ? like it was the original concept ? but the string writing was always an afterthought. It was amplifying something that was raw and gutsy, that I would then turn into a sophisticated sound.
Bolan’s guitar solo on “Ballrooms of Mars,” from The Slider, has a beautiful sound. How was that done?
That was one where we did about five guitar takes. Any one of them could have been the right take, or I could have made a composite from all of them. But just for laughs, I threw up all five faders. We had the solos on five separate tracks, and when we heard them together, Marc and I just looked at each other and said, "That’s it. That’s the way it’s going to go down." So that's how I mixed it, with all five takes mixed together. Marc had no idea, as he was playing these improvised solos, that we would end up using them that way. But when we did, it was glorious.
Actually it was the same with Robert Fripp, on “Heroes.” That lovely guitar line that runs throughout “Heroes” is the same thing. Fripp didn't realize we were going to use all three takes. That’s why that line isn't exactly in sync. It’s wavy and floaty, and very similar to “Ballrooms of Mars,” in that way. I certainly didn’t trademark that approach, but there's a subconscious genius going on there, with the guitar player, when someone plays five great solos and they fit great together.
Do you have a theory as to why T.Rex ? which became a phenomenon akin to Beatlemania in England ? didn’t break bigger in the U.S.?
Yes. I think, around that time, American bands were very proud of their musicianship. People in America at the time could really play. There were very serious drummers, very serious guitarists, and singers with great voices. They were also bearded, with long greasy hair, and they wore jeans on stage. Whereas, with Marc, there was always a little touch of fluff ? a little bit of phoniness ? in the sense that he put a lot into his visual performance. It was of course the era of glam rock, and when Marc came over to America wearing glamorous clothes, and make-up, nobody was ready for that. Bowie had the same problem, originally.
Do you have a sense of how his career might have played out, had he not died at age 30?
He went through an awful period after he and I parted company. He was drinking heavily, and using a lot of drugs, and he put on a lot of weight. But towards the end, he had slimmed down, he was fresh, he stopped drinking and he used drugs to a much lesser degree. His death was a real tragedy. He was showing signs of a true resurrection, and I think he would have been become a fantastic artist to reckon with.