- in Book Excerpt , Production by Bobby Owsinski
Producer Ken Scott On Working With Early David Bowie
Recently I went back and began to read some of the Ken Scott biography Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust that I was lucky enough to co-write. It’s a great book (if I do say so myself) with some wonderful stories about Ken working with some of the legends of music business. One of my favorites is this excerpt where Ken meets David Bowie for the first time and eventually becomes his producer. Enjoy!
“Early into my time at Trident I was assigned to engineer an album with a young David Bowie and his American bass playing producer, Tony Visconti. My first impression of David was that he was rather flamboyant, with long blond hair and definitely inspired by the San Francisco “Flower Power” hippie movement that was at it’s peak in 1969. He was pleasant (and always is to this day), but neither he nor his music hit me as anything special. Please remember that I had been working with the biggest band in the world and had recently finished Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, and so after working with artists of that caliber, it made me very hard to please. A session with a little-known artist like David Bowie became just another gig.
David had already done a couple of singles and an album for Deram Records (a subsidiary of the well-established Decca Records) and had released such classic tracks as “The Laughing Gnome,” a novelty record that many in the press interpreted as a children’s record. At the time I met him, he had a real folky hippie kind of thing going, which was a little too rambling and wordy for me. Lucky for us all, Bowie, being Bowie, changed direction on every album, so the first one was folk, the second one leaned more toward metal, and onward with each record taking on strange mixtures of every musical genre.
The first Bowie album that I worked on had various titles. David Bowie in England, Man of Words, Man of Music in America and, several years later, after our success, it changed yet again. The single “Space Oddity” was quite successful, reaching #5 on the English charts, but although it got David known, it really didn’t help his career much. A great record, yes, but when push comes to shove it’s not the kind of song to build a career on, just a novelty song (once again). “Space Oddity” was virtually forgotten after it left the charts, at least for a while, and everything else he came up with was so different that the album did virtually nothing. However after the later success RCA decided to rename the album “Space Oddity” when they reissued it in 1972, where it eventually jumped as high as #17 on the Billboard charts in the US and when reissued again in the UK in 1975, the original single became David’s first #1.
Strangely, I didn’t work on the recording of “Space Oddity”. Tony (producer Tony Visconti) hated the song and refused to record it, so the role of producer was handed over to Gus Dudgeon who worked on the track with Trident co-owner Barry Sheffield engineering. Then it was up to me to record and mix the rest of the album along with Tony producing.
Man of Words, Man of Music (or David Bowie or Space Oddity) featured a variety of session musicians, from bassist Herbie Flowers and John Lodge (not to be confused with the bassist from The Moody Blues with the same name), guitarist Tim Renwick, drummer Terry Cox, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, cellist Paul Buckmaster, along with even Mr Visconti playing the occasional bass part as well. Tony was definitely in control of the sessions and the arrangements, with David saying little after the players learned the song. Later during mixing, it was all Tony again, with David rarely around, a practice he would continue during all the albums I did with him.
The next album was The Man Who Sold The World, once again with Tony producing, but this time featuring a new band and a harder rock direction. David recruited Mick (Ronno) Ronson and Michael (Woody) Woodmansey from an unknown band, The Rats, and convinced them to move from their native Hull to London, while Tony became the one and only bass player. The project was started at Advision, another independent studio in London, and so I only became involved to do some overdubs and mix the album, and was unaware of much that went on during tracking.
For Man Who Sold The World, it was the first time for us in a big, proper London studio. Before that we’d try to get all of our favorite licks in and David had to write above that, so there was not a lot of planning. It was done on the spot. Tony is a hands-on producer in that he played an instrument, so there’d be a lot of, “You play this, then I’ll play that.”
The album was released on Mercury Records in the US in November of 1970 and in the UK on April of 1971, and although it met with generally good reviews, failed to dent the charts. It was at that point that David, fed up with his lack of success, gave up and temporarily quit the music business.
We Meet Again
The next meeting came one day in the spring of 1971 when I found myself scheduled on another session with David. He had booked time at Trident to produce a single with a friend of his, Freddi Buretti, who later became one of his clothing designers. Now Freddi was….how shall I put it….very effeminate, and on this occasion he was wearing a very, VERY, tiny pair of hot pants and I, along with the rest of the Trident family, was extremely worried that he might suffer a major wardrobe malfunction, but thankfully the gods were with us on that day. I never did know if I was assigned to work on this session purely because David and I had previously worked together or whether he had asked for me, but as luck would have it, or those same gods, there we were together again.
There comes a time in many engineers lives when they grow tired of coming up with ideas and having a producer taking credit for them, and I had come to that time. Too often after my making a suggestion, the producer would accept all the accolades if it worked, or say “Oh, It was only Ken’s idea anyway” if it didn’t. I didn’t feel that was fair, and felt like I had a lot more to offer than currently being allowed, so I started to seriously think about giving production a try if the opportunity ever arose.
Robin, Roy and I were sitting around talking at Trident one day and discovered we were all going through this same thing with various producers and all feeling the same way about moving on. We were making suggestions, and if they worked the producer would take the credit, and if it didn’t it was the engineer’s idea. We decided at the same time that we wanted to get into production so we could have more say. We went to Trident management and presented our idea, and they said that they’d begin to set up a company to look after us in that area.
So here I am working with David again when during a tea break I happened to mention to him that I wanted to start moving into the producing side of things. Much to my surprise he replied, ‘Well, I’ve just got a new management deal, and I’m about to start a new album. I was going to produce it myself but I don’t know if I can. Will you produce it with me?” Of course, I wasn’t going to say no. Just like that, I was a producer. Besides, I never really thought that David would amount to much at the rate he was going, so if I screwed up, no one would hear it anyway. Well surprise, surprise!!!!”
You can read more from Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.