HOLY HOLY's current touring show of The Man Who Sold the World wasn't meant to be an elegy for David Bowie. But sometimes fate has its own way of deciding what happens.
"We were about to play a show in Toronto when we got the news," says Tony Visconti of Bowie's death from liver cancer on January 10. "And we made a choice to continue because the alternative would have been too miserable. If we all went home, it would have been too horrible to deal with."
Visconti has produced countless acts and contributed to dozens of landmark albums, but he's perhaps best known as the producer of several of Bowie's watershed recordings, including the esteemed "Berlin Trilogy" of 1977-1979 and Bowie's final album, 2016's Blackstar. But in 1970, Visconti was more than Bowie's producer—he was also bass player for the Hype, a trio that included drummer Mick "Woody" Woodmansey and visionary guitarist Mick Ronson that backed Bowie on his third full-length, The Man Who Sold the World.
Holy Holy, featuring Visconti and Woodmansey (Ronson died in 1993, also from liver cancer), is recreating that album in full, along with other choice songs from Woodmansey's early-'70s tenure with Bowie. So it's definitely not a tribute act—it breaks the rule of tribute acts in that these are the original musicians. "We don't really want to be a tribute band and play things that we weren't on," Visconti says of Holy Holy's focused repertoire. "That would be cheesy."
The current batch of shows began long before Bowie's surprise death saturated headlines. In fact, Bowie himself gave Visconti a private approval of sorts. "He knew we were on tour," Visconti says, "and he saw a video of us playing in 2014 in London—and he loved it. He thought we were doing a great job and he bemoaned the fact that we split up before we were able to perform [The Man Who Sold the World] live with him and Mick Ronson. And he said we would have been that good if we went out and played it live. So I'm happy we had his blessings. He didn't do it publicly, but he gave me his blessings, which I really appreciated."
It's the closing of a circle that was left unfinished in 1970. The Man Who Sold the World marked a period of great invention for Bowie, Visconti, Woodmansey, and Ronson, who functioned as a tight collaborative unit on the songs. "Of all the Bowie albums, it's one of the most difficult to play," Visconti says. "It's very complex, very layered. And it was the turning point, too, to his future albums. That was the birth of the Spiders from Mars."
Visconti wasn't part of Bowie and the Spiders' 1972 glam-rock breakthrough—a week after completing the recording of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie's manager fired the Hype. "We thought we had a hit record," says Visconti. "We thought we were going to be as big as Cream or some group like that. It was a real serious blow when we were told that we weren't needed anymore. And David kind of waffled around for a year. It wasn't until he decided to record Hunky Dory that he called Mick and Woody back. Because he did value us—he really loved us, we were a tight band. But he went by the advice of his manager who wanted to turn him into an Elvis situation."
In the years since, The Man Who Sold the World has gotten its fair due (a 1994 Nirvana cover of its title track didn't hurt), but at the time it felt like the rug had been pulled out. The album marks some of the fiercest music of Bowie's career alongside some of his darkest, most philosophical lyrics. Ronson, Woodsmansey, and Visconti surmounted the heavy riff rock of the era, then Bowie supercharged it with his extraterrestrial worldview. Epics like "The Width of a Circle" and "All the Madmen" deal with the schizophrenia of Bowie's half-brother Terry, while "The Supermen" combines Nietzsche and the apocalypse, and "Running Gun Blues" steps into the mind of a serial killer. "After All" is a dark-magic carousel ride, and "Black Country Rock" is among the best straightforward rock 'n' roll songs in Bowie's catalog. In all, The Man Who Sold the World was Bowie's first undisputed classic, even if it wasn't fully appreciated at the time.
Visconti and Woodmansey's reunion in Holy Holy and their tackling of this formative work live is in many ways the perfect way to—as the lyrics of "Black Country Rock" say—leave Bowie and Ronson "with fond adieu." And Visconti sees a parallel between The Man Who Sold the World and Bowie's later work. "It was never consciously spoken of, but there is a connection," he says. "[Blackstar was] almost a return for David to being extremely adventurous. I wasn't there when he recorded Ziggy or Aladdin Sane, but those sound more like commercial pop albums—with a twist, David wasn't conventional by any means. He went experimental on [2002's Visconti-produced] Heathen, too, so I think there's a link between Heathen, Blackstar, and The Man Who Sold the World. I don't know how conscious it is, but in hindsight it seems like they're siblings, those three albums."