Lovers of 70s-era David Bowie have been in for a real treat this year. Not only have we had Tony Visconti and original Spider from Mars, Woody Woodmansey, touring the Ziggy Stardust album in full, we now have virtuoso Bowie pianist, Mike Garson touring the Aladdin Sane album in full.
Joining Garson on this tour are former Bowie guitarist, Kevin Armstrong; award-winning vocalist Gaby Moreno, Terry Edwards (PJ Harvey band) on sax and guitar; along with the current Iggy Pop rhythm section of Ben Ellis and Mat Hector. It’s a stunningly good band. From a fabulously groovy ‘What’s That Man’ through to a poignantly dramatic ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ they bring to life the full Bowie masterpiece in all its glory.
For ‘The Jean Genie’ we get an extra treat. Deep Purple’s Roger Glover (whose talented daughter Gillian Glover is providing backing vocals tonight as well as being the solo support act) is taking a night off from the Purple tour and takes the stage to play bass for this song. Sadly, I never got to see Trevor Bolder doing the bass-line of ‘The Jean Genie’ but seeing Roger Glover doing it has got to be the next best thing. We even get a cheeky snatch of Purple’s ‘Black Night’ at the end!
After a magnificent performance of Aladdin Sane, Garson introduces a second set of other Bowie favourites, kicking off with a stunning Space Oddity. Then it’s on to ‘Life On Mars’.The piano is as prominent on ‘Hunky Dory’ as it is on ‘Aladdin Sane’, albeit in a very different style. But after the jazz-infused piano of ‘Aladdin Sane’ Garson moves on to deliver a truly majestic version of ‘Life On Mars’ that even manages to out-Wakeman Rick Wakeman. An extremely gifted composer and musician it’s nothing less than an absolute pleasure to see the great Mike Garson in action this evening.
Another treat is seeing Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel fame take the stage to guest on vocals for a few numbers, including a superb ‘Changes’ and a wonderfully frenetic ‘Absolute Beginners’ as well as two of Harley’s own songs ‘A Friend For Life’ and ‘Sebastian’.
Like all great art the songs celebrated tonight will live on long after the demise of their original creator. They will undoubtedly carry on being performed many years into the future. Inevitably, there will come a day when no-one who actually performed alongside Bowie is around any more. For now, though, let’s be thankful that people like Mike Garson and Kevin Armstrong are celebrating his legacy and the unmistakable part they played in it.
First Set – Aladdin Sane album in full:
Watch That Man
Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)
Panic in Detroit
The Prettiest Star
Let’s Spend the Night Together
The Jean Genie
Lady Grinning Soul
Second Set – Bowie Favourites:
Life on Mars?
A Friend for Life
Wild Is the Wind
My review was originally published on the Get Ready To Rock website here
“He’s fucking sacked us,” Spiders bass player, Trevor Bolder, was seen to mouth when David Bowie announced at the Hammersmith Odeon in October 1973 that it would be the final Ziggy show ever. Tragically, like Bowie, Bolder and his former Spiders colleague Mick Ronson are no longer with us. However, three years ago Spiders drummer, Woody Woodmansey, teamed up with long-term Bowie collaborator, Tony Visconti, to tour The Man Who Sold The World, an album that both played on. Now their Holy Holy outfit have done the seemingly impossible and resurrected Ziggy and the Spiders, forty-odd years after Bowie declared it would be the last show they would ever do.
Would they pull it off? I was certainly keen find out. Much as I wholeheartedly agreed with all of the tributes last year about what a truly unique, talented and infuential presence Bowie was throughout his entire career, for me it was always the early 70s glam rock period of Bowie’s work that I was truly, unequivocally a 100% fan of.
Starting out with The Width Of A Circle from The Man Who Sold The World, the seven-piece band go on to perform the Ziggy Stardust album in full, treating the crowd to blinding versions of Starman, Ziggy, Suffragette City and all the other gems from that iconic album. Once the final song of the album Rock n Roll Suicide plays out they give us to a spectacular run-through of other Bowie classics including Changes, Life On Mars and Space Oddity.
Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory delivers superb Bowie-esque vocals with the familiar phrasing that we all know and love from the records, while at the same time avoiding descending into a “Tonight Matthew I’m going to be…” pastiche. Post-punk icon James Stevenson absolutely nails the Ronson guitar licks in what is a talented band of world-class musicians. And, of course, it goes without saying that Woody Woodmansey is still an exceptionally talented drummer. The outpouring of affection for him throughout the night is thoroughly deserved.
The capacity crowd sing along to every word and the whole thing is joyful and celebratory. As we inevitably lose more and more of our twentieth century rock icons it becomes more and more apparent that we continue to have a tremendous yearning to still hear the music they made being performed live. We are no more going to forget Life On Mars in fifty years time than we have forgotten A Wonderful World almost fifty years after the death of Louis Armstrong. The challenge is to find an appropriate way of continuing to celebrate such music in a live setting. Holy Holy perhaps provides the template. They don’t claim to be the original band, although they’ve got a living, breathing direct link to it in the form of Woodmansey. They are not a tribute act, in that they avoid the role-playing and dressing up which can risk turning contemporary live performances into the musical equivalents of historical re-enactment societies. They do, however, pay tribute to the music in a way that is accurate and authentic and which delivers the songs with great love, care and affection.
In short, Holy Holy shows a way forward as to how we can continue to enjoy some of the greatest music of the twentieth century well into the twenty-first. A genuinely and truly impressive gig.
The Width of a Circle
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
It Ain’t Easy
Hang On to Yourself
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud
All the Young Dudes
Oh! You Pretty Things
Life on Mars?
Black Country Rock
The Man Who Sold the World
Watch That Man
In January 1973 at the height of the glam rock craze, two singles with instantly memorable but remarkably similar riffs were both enjoying chart success: The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster!’ and David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’, each released by RCA records. Which came first? Were they both dreamt up independently? Did one copy off the other? Or did they both draw on influences from somewhere else?
In the folk world songs have always been adapted, evolved and passed on. In the rock world that sort of behaviour is more likely to get you involved in lengthy court cases and costly lawsuits. But in folk there has been over a century of legitimate and rigorous study looking into the often murky origins of traditional songs and tunes. A simple question therefore is: can the principles of studying folk in determining song origins also be applied to glam rock?
We start with the song ‘Blockbuster!’ written by The Sweet’s then songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, recorded on 1st November 1972 in London and released in January 1973. In Dave Thompson’s Sweet biography ‘Block Buster’, The Sweet’s Steve Priest recalls Chapman playing his idea for a new song on an acoustic guitar while they were backstage at the BBC waiting to go on Top Of The Pops to perform ‘Wig Wam Bam’ (most likely their appearance on 14th September 1972).
The riff was remarkably similar to David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ recorded on 6th October 1972, released in November 1972 and in the charts at the same time. “While en route to Tennessee, ‘The Jean Genie’ was developed from an impromptu tour bus jam,” in September 1972 recounts the Mick Ronson biography, ‘The Spider With The Platinum Hair’ by Weird & Gilly. This would have been just prior to the band’s gig in Memphis which is recorded as taking place on 24th September 1972, several days after Mike Chapman strummed the riff for Blockbuster to Steve Priest on the other side of the Atlantic.
Both sides have always denied copying one another and given both ‘Blockbuster’ and ‘The Jean Genie’ were recorded and released around the same time it seems unlikely that either would have had time to secretly copy the other, then get it recorded and released, all within the confines of the same record company, RCA.
What is far more likely is that they were both influenced by the Yardbirds’ 1965 hit ‘I’m a Man’.
Alwyn Turner’s website Glitter Suits & Platform Bootsquotes The Sweet’s Andy Scott as follows: “And then, you wouldn’t believe this, before our release we were in the office of the guy who was our contact at RCA and he played us the new David Bowie record, he played us ‘Jean Genie’. And I went, ‘That’s the same guitar riff,’ and he went, ‘Is it?’ This is a record company guy and I’m saying, ‘Haven’t you noticed?’ And he went, ‘No.’ I was horrified, I was thinking: that’s coming out first, and we’re coming out a week behind it, on the same label, it’s got the same guitar riff. I said: well, we don’t stand a chance of being #1. That was my thought. And within three weeks we were #1 and he was #2. I’ve since spoken to Trevor Bolder, the bass-player, and he said, ‘Remember “I’m A Man”?”
Here is that Yardbirds’ version of ‘I’m A Man’.
Interestingly, Iggy Pop and The Stooges also recorded a version of ‘I’m A Man’ during the sessions for the Raw Power album in early 1972. Bowie was involved in remixing this album and although ‘I’m A Man’ doesn’t appear on the album, he would certainly have been familiar with the Stooges cover version. Could this have had an influence on Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ later that year?
We can hear Iggy & The Stooges version of ‘I’m A Man’ here.
Both recordings are, of course, cover versions of a 1955 original version of ‘I’m A Man’ by Bo Didley.
Bo Didley’s song is itself influenced by a song Willie Dixon wrote for Muddy Waters‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ recorded in 1954
The blues of Bo Didley, Muddy Waters et al can be traced back through the early electric blues of the 1940s to the acoustic blues of the 1920s, through the slave trade, plantations and back to African origins, where a number of the elements that would come to define key features of the blues could be traced back to.
But it’s worth specifically going back to that Bo Didley tune. The riff in ‘I’m a Man’ is significantly changed from that played by Muddy Waters in Dixon’s ‘I’m A Man’. Didley has adapted the tune as a simple repetitive four note riff repeated throughout the entire song, making it notably different.
So although it was influenced by an earlier blues song I think we can safely say that the riff that appears in ‘Blockbuster!’ and ‘Jean Genie’ first emerged in a Bo Didley song in 1955.
Thanks also to Michael Duthie for pointing me towards the Mickie Most video (below) and to Josh Beeson for pointing me to the Iggy & The Stooges version of ‘I’m A Man’.
Another fascinating release from the 60s that could have played an influential role in the later 70s glam releases was Mickie Most’s 1964 version of ‘Money Honey’.
Unlike earlier versions of Money Honey by Elvis and previously The Drifters, the Mickie Most version utilises that same Bo Didley riff. Most would go on to be a towering figure in glam rock as mentor and producer for Suzi Quatro and as RAK Records boss, home to the likes of Quatro and Mud. He knew Mike Chapman very well and could have helped plant some of the creative seeds for that Blockbuster riff, further strengthening those glam rock links back to blues history.