Episode 52

Episode 52

“At each concert the band became more comfortable with each other on stage and we all slowly became accustomed to Ziggy becoming part of our lives” – David Bowie.

The 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour, which started at the Friars Club in Aylesbury on January 29, was the first opportunity for fans to see the exciting new band line up play material from the recently released Hunky Dory, and as the tour progressed introduce new songs from the forthcoming album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.’

As was tradition for new groups just starting out, Bowie and his band travelled hundreds of miles from venue to venue in a convoy of various cars, vans and trucks with a small group of management, roadies and crew as support.

Here are (from left), George Underwood, Peter Hunsley, Robin Mayhew and Bob See, on the road in 1972.

Many of the early shows in the tour were performed on college campuses or in small town halls where there were only a handful of people – and the band often relied on family and friends to make up the numbers. But as the tour progressed and the positive reviews in the all powerful music press at the time helped generate word of mouth, the crowds grew larger and the response became more supportive – and the Ziggy myth began to grow.

Those early dates were extremely important in developing the live performance skills of David, Ronno, Trevor and Woody. Although each of them had several years experience playing in rock bands, Defries’ ambitions for Bowie and his band meant that extra time and effort way beyond the standard pub rock skills were required to reach a level to support their rock star ambitions.

David’s first and only costume change for the first few weeks of the tour (pictured above and below) was into the white satin trousers and zippered collarless flock jacket which Daniella Parmar had bought for him in one of South London’s Indian markets.  

In addition to several weeks of intense rehearsals in venues like Underhill Studios in Greenwich, South London, and the Beckenham Rugby Club, Defries booked the band into Emerson Lake and Palmer’s studio Manticore in Fulham, which had a full size stage and audio set up, allowing the sound crew to fully experiment with their specially designed and built 12 track mixing desk – extremely advanced for its time. Angie had also purchased a special gold AKG microphone for David to use, to complement the bright colours in the band’s new outfits. According to sound engineer Robin Mayhew he recalls Paul & Linda McCartney visiting the Manticore rehearsals one afternoon, stayed for tea and watched the entire set.

One of the key factors which allowed Bowie and the band to perfect their live set so quickly was the request from Defries that each concert was recorded by Robin on a Revox tape recorder specially set up at the sound deck. After each concert Defries would sit with David, either in a hotel room or usually back at his home – Haddon Hall – and listen back to the full show on David’s own Revox, analysing the set structure, performance and audience reaction.

Bowie and Defries discussed things like the response to songs as they varied the set list structure, analysing the different reactions to songs like  Hang on To Yourself and Ziggy Stardust to help decide the opening number for example.

Although David had performed some stage shows with Lindsay Kemp, he had never performed an extended season or experienced the discipline required to produce a successful theatrical production, so this period of examining the recorded performance and then using that feedback to improve the following show was all very important work which proved invaluable when the band toured America and David had to manage the interaction and expectations of audiences in different markets across the country.

During this early period Mick Ronson’s previous experience was extremely important and he very quickly became the ‘musical director’ ensuring that everybody in the production crew and the band worked well together, remembering key moments during the set that required instrument or equipment changes and set ups, demonstrating that it wasn’t just his musical prowess that was an important part of Bowie’s success. During the first dates on the tour Ronno and Trevor’s extended ‘guitar battle’ during the band’s version of Cream’s I Feel Free (which allowed David time for a costume change) was replaced by Width of a Circle.

David also experimented with various stage antics, including his first attempt at walking on the hands of the audience at the Imperial College in London. He had recently seen footage of Iggy Pop performing this feat at the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival. Emboldened by a very receptive crowd, David decided to emulate Iggy, but underestimated the enthusiasm of the college crowd who were surprised by his antics and let him drop to the floor. Undeterred Bowie recovered, returned to the stage and continued.

The review of that concert in the Melody Maker that week was glowing….. “The music is muscular, the performances witty and assured. What other group would dare to do I Feel Free before a London audience, complete with Cream rip-off solo – so calculated as to be a thing of glorious absurdity? Because Bowie and his band are nothing if not superb parodists, right down to the way in which Ronson walked to the front of the stage and invited the front row to caress the body of his guitar. Dedicated to bringing theatrics back to rock music, David Bowie swirled and captivated at London’s Imperial College on Saturday, queening his way through old and new songs, before a house packed to the door. And they hung on every word that dropped from his lips.”

By the way – as Defries explains – Iggy Pop had mastered the art of crowd surfing and walking on their hands with the aid of peanut butter – as you’ll hear! 

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Episode 52