Producer Tony Visconti: Holy Holy Is "Not a Memorial; It’s a Celebration"

Tony Visconti, left, and Woody Woodmansey.
Tony Visconti, left, and Woody Woodmansey.
Howard Pitkow

Calling Holy Holy merely a David Bowie cover band would be an insult.

The project had Bowie’s seal of approval. The group — dare we call it a supergroup, as it includes bassist longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti and and Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey — sold out venues last year playing the classic album The Man Who Sold The World in its entirety. It annoyed Woodmansey that the 1970 album never got its own tour. Bowie had just signed with manager Tony Defries. As Visconti recalls, Defries saw Bowie as a young Elvis and Defries fired the band. It took Bowie a year to realize he needed them back.

Visconti, who produced some of Bowie's legendary albums, had already moved on and started producing with T-Rex. He never became one of the Spiders From Mars. In 2014, Woodmansey emailed Visconti about joining Holy Holy. The producer didn’t know if he could still play the energetic bass lines in The Man Who Sold The World. He committed himself to learning the parts despite some initial frustration.

“I took the challenge,” Visconti recalls. “I practiced for three months before I even met up with Woody. I was in good shape by the time I met him.”

The set list consists of selections from Bowie’s catalog that Woodmansey and Visconti played on, including “Life On Mars” and “Space Oddity.” The duo recruited a stunning list of performers to join them, including Heaven 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory, the Cult’s James Stevenson on guitar, and the highly sought-after session saxophonist Terry Edwards.

Visconti says of Gregory, “I thought it would be much better if we had someone who didn’t resemble Bowie or even sound like him, but made it their own and had the power to pull it off.”

Holy Holy was in Toronto when the world lost Bowie to cancer that fateful January day. Visconti knew their friend was ill because he worked with Bowie on Blackstar, but the news of his death still came as a shock. According to Visconti’s Facebook page, the band discussed whether they should continue with their tour. The decision to press on and honor their dear and talented friend was a unanimous one.

“We didn’t see any con to going on with the show,” Visconti recalls. “It would be great for us to play rather than go home and be morbid. If we cry, we’ll cry. If the audience is going to come, we will expect them to cry. It was a very cathartic experience because in the middle of all the sadness and grief, there was great celebration. It’s not a memorial; it’s a celebration.”

Visconti continues to be in awe of many contemporary musicians, and admires those who practice hard to become virtuosos and aren’t putting out what he describes as “sugary pop music.” He recently collaborated with Grammy-winning artist and fellow bass player Esperanza Spalding.

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“She’s just about my favorite bass player,” he gushes. “I have total respect for her. She’s amazing, and I idolize her.”

Visconti still misses his old friend. He recalls Bowie praising Holy Holy and telling him how much he wished he could play The Man Who Sold The World live back in the day, which validates the tour for Visconti. He has a theory about why Bowie continued working with him up until the end.

“We had a familiarity that allowed us to get to the core of the work,” Visconti recalls. “We didn’t go through formalities. We were just old friends. I knew him for 47 years and because of that we were able to get down to business. I’ve seen big, powerful professionals quake in fear in front of him. That would put him off. When it came to making music, he just wanted to get the job done. We just wanted to throw a hand grenade in there and make something new.”

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