Portrait: Gramain Vincent
The sonic pathfinder for Marc Bolan and David Bowie (but also Morrissey and Mary Hopkin) straddles glam and folk and prog and pop and is still twiddling knobs as he closes in on his eighties. In this extract from MOJO’s exclusive interview with Visconti, the producer discusses working with Bowie and Bolan in their nascent folkie years, the rivalry between glam rock’s two totems and working on Bowie’s final album, Blackstar…
Bowie was small-scale when you started working with him.
It was an economical thing. He could get gigs in a folk club with a 12-string guitar. He couldn’t afford to put a band together. Until I came along. I played bass, and I moved in with him and eventually we attracted John Cambridge and Mick Ronson and we became The Hype. His label wasn’t really friendly, even after Space Oddity, which was a massive hit. David wanted to tour with us, but there was no money to support us. So Angie [Bowie], who was very entrepreneurial, went to the label and said, “I want you to sign up The Hype. We’re gonna make a great record for you.” The guy said, “OK,” and we never made the record. We just used the advance to buy amps and drums.
Bolan and Bowie were friendly rivals. Was there any sense of crossing the floor when you worked with both of them?
I was working with both of them at the same time, loving them equally, doing my best for each of them. Then David had the first big hit. Marc saw it more as rivalry. David loved Marc, and was always kind to him. Marc was occasionally very catty and snipey. But it got better when he became more successful and they were on more equal terms.
You’d turned down the chance to produce Space Oddity, so your first big hit was T. Rex’s Ride A White Swan in 1970…
Yeah, the day my life changed, when that went to Number 2.
Bolan was a great pop star but soon people started saying he was 50 per cent talent, 50 per cent bullshit self-mythologising…
He was a poet. And a product of his own creation. He grew up on the streets of Hackney, but he had a beautiful accent, he was eloquent and articulate. He literally invented this person who wasn’t Marc Feld but Marc Bolan. He was two people in the same body. I met him when he was very humble, just a little bit of arrogance, which I knew was gonna grow…
He was clearly smart, so why wasn’t he smart enough to read the room once he became a star?
Musically, he was limited. With his seven chords… I counted them. Whereas David, he could sit at a piano and play all kinds of jazz chords. All his early stuff showed that he was musically very interesting.
And Bowie immediately killed off Ziggy Stardust, his teenybop persona…
Yes. Whereas Marc had a big hit with Electric Warrior and repeated the formula again and again.
Did it feel strange when, after having worked so closely with Bowie on two albums, he had his breakthrough without you?
Hunky Dory is my favourite Bowie album. And then when he invented Ziggy, I went, Oh, this is fucking incredible. It’s not a David Bowie album. It’s a Ziggy Stardust album! No one had done that before.
How were you brought back into the fold?
It was Diamond Dogs. David was trying to produce himself for the first time, and he got lost. And he phoned me up. “Tony, I’m making this album. I’ve tried mixing all over town. But I’m not getting any mixes that I like.” And I had just built my home studio in Shepherd’s Bush. I think I was the first producer in this country to have a proper 16-track home studio, at this house in Melrose Terrace. The ground floor was entirely studio and in the basement were my echo plates. David comes round and I had no studio furniture yet, just a carpenter’s sawhorse. So we sat on that and I mixed the first track and he called me at, like, three in the morning and said, “It sounds fantastic.”
How different was the guy who made Blackstar from the boy you cut the Space Oddity album with?
When I met him, David was an eager young guy, very enthusiastic, he’d hardly met an American, so he was all over me. Once we started talking, we found out that we liked the same things. Before we had any success, for about two or three years we were just friends. We furthered our friendship by living under the same roof. We’d always have visitors over, Haddon Hall was practically an open house. I remember once we had some guy with an amazing quiff there and David was staring at him intensely all through this visit. And as soon as he left, David ran to the bathroom and combed his hair into that quiff. He was always open to any kind of influence. His antennae were always up.
Then in later years, wealth and fame introduced him to a whole circle of people who were out of my realm: very famous actors, gazillionaires and all that. He moved in the art world. He could speak eloquently on any subject and fit in anywhere. If [he was with] a bunch of Londoners he would go back to speaking like he came from Bromley. There was a lot of gravity about him in his final years, he was a deep thinker. But when he recorded Blackstar, when he knew that his time could be limited, it didn’t stop his sense of humour in any way. He was still very open and friendly. He told everyone, “I can’t come to the studio every day for medical reasons.” But he was still happy as anything to be in the studio.