Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Upon the 40th anniversary of David Bowie’s ground-breaking fifth album, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, co-producer Ken Scott has no problem describing where Bowie was in the popular scheme of things when they went in to record it in late 1971.
“Nowhere,” he says, bluntly. “He’d had success with what at the time was considered a novelty record, which was Space Oddity (1969). He was almost more known for (widely panned 1967 single) The Laughing Gnome than he was for anything else. He was really nowhere, but he knew what he wanted to do.”
Scott had engineered Bowie’s 1969 self-titled and 1970 The Man Who Sold The World albums with producer Tony Visconti, before taking the production duties for Bowie’s 1971 LP, Hunky Dory. While well regarded, the iconic singer had yet to really break through, though Scott has it that Bowie wasn’t too worried about being a nowhere man.
“No, he was very calm about it,” Scott recalls. “He was fine. I think he needed to see if he was going to sink or swim on his own terms, because he’d tried it not on his own terms and it hadn’t worked.
“I had come to realise, at least in my own mind, that one of the reasons he went to work me with rather than Tony Visconti, was that Tony, being a bass player and a member of the band, was so in control of what it was turning out like, musically. I don’t think those first two albums were really David’s albums. They were more Tony’s, and I think David wanted his own voice. He wanted to form his own direction.”
The album famously dances around the tale of Ziggy Stardust, a prophetic rock star in a world that has only five years left to exist. Conjecture has raged for years about the multiple characters Ziggy was allegedly based upon, fuelled by Bowie’s enigmatic musings on the topic. One thing is certain, it seems; Bowie didn’t sit around conceptualising it in the studio.
“It was much looser than that,” Scott says. “It was never discussed upfront; the only comment that was made between Hunky Dory and Ziggy was David saying, ‘I don’t think you’re gonna like the next album because it’s more rock’n’roll’. He was proved completely incorrect because I did love it.
“One of the interesting things, that must have had an effect on all of us in the studio and our relationship, was that Ziggy was done so soon after Hunky Dory. Normally there’s a six-month span where you all go off and do different things and you come back and almost start your relationship afresh. Whereas because Ziggy was done a month after we completed Hunky Dory we didn’t have time to get involved in other things.
“So we came back in as the exactly same team and we were almost thinking along the same lines. We didn’t have to say anything to each other; we knew what we had to do because we’d already started that thing with Hunky Dory.”
Recorded at Trident Studios, London, The Rise And Fall… contains its fair share of Bowie classics, including Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City and Rock’n’Roll Suicide. Arrangements were handled by Bowie and his longstanding ‘70s guitarist and foil, Mick Ronson.
“I don’t think David would have achieved the success he did without Ronno,” he says. “Ronno was exceedingly important. But for those early records, so were Woody (Mick Woodmansey, drums) and Trevor (Bolder, bass). It was that typical thing of the whole being more than the individual pieces.”
Ken Scott, David Bowie and Mick Ronson in the studio
Scott went on to co-produce Bowie’s 1973 albums, Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups, in a portfolio that includes work with The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Sir Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Lou Reed, Supertramp, Duran Duran and Devo. He keeps in touch via occasional email with Bowie, who once referred to Scott as his ‘own George Martin’.
“As a vocal performer I’ve never worked with anyone, since or before, who was as good,” Scott says. “95 per cent of David’s vocals would be recorded in the first take. It was amazing. He’s an exceedingly talented singer/songwriter/musician and a really nice guy.”
Since his last world tour for the Reality album in 2003-04, the 65 year-old Bowie (married to former Somalian model Iman, with whom he has an 11 year-old daughter, Alexandria) has rarely been seen in public and not released any new material, leading to constant speculation about the state of his health. Scott offers another take.
“I don’t know about all that,” he says. “But remember, when David Bowie would change character he would change it 100 per cent. I think he’s changed into the character of a doting father. And he’s done it 100 per cent.”
The remastered 40th Anniversary Editions (CD/vinyl/DVD) of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars are out now. Ken Scott’s book, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, is available through Alfred Publishing.