Tony Visconti's Bowie Bass Lines

June 29, 2016

“Width of a Circle”
“David came up with the opening theme, starting on E, and Mick thought of starting with the guitar feedback before playing the first note,” says Visconti. “It was my idea to harmonize it, with the bass coming in the third time, on B, as the highest instrument. The first guitar solo is typical of what we were going for as a power trio. I’m moving about like Jack Bruce, and Mick and I join up at some point, playing the same notes up high—E to G, etc.—one of several homages to Cream. The next part, the dreamy power-ballad section, was improvised in the studio; we all played a part in constructing it. Mick, David, and myself sang the backing vocals, double tracked, almost choir-like. The final section was improvised, then organized until we got the structure and ended with the dreamy power ballad for the finale. David said he was going for the feel on ‘He’s a Dirty Old Man’ by the famous underground group of the day, the Fugs.”

Example 1a shows Visconti’s line, covering the 5th of each chord change. He then doubles the root of the line in bars 5–8, while also establishing the funky groove. Bar 9 sets a Jamerson/Rainey-esque pace for the upcoming first verse. Example 1b comes from the power-ballad section, at 4:43. While improvising on the D chord in the last two bars, Tony adds color above his open D string by descending via the root, major 7th, dominant 7th, and 6th. Example 1c occurs during Mick Ronson’s guitar solo in the final section (6:38). While laying down a root-driven shuffle in A, Visconti embellishes the GD turnaround on beats three and four with upper-register triplets that outline a G triad and a 1st-inversion D triad—an ear-grabbing move he repeats four more times.

“All the Madmen”
“On the second verse, I’m hammering on high B’s, A’s, and C’s, using the volume knob on the bass for volume swells. The instrumental after the breakdown soliloquy is a jazz bolero beat, which I took from my background as an upright player. I taught it to Woody, who was a very fast learner, and Mick rose to the top with a Spanish-themed guitar solo.”

“Black Country Rock”
“This is from a spontaneous, funky jam we played at almost every sound-check. In the studio, David came up with the chords, and Mick and I wrote our own parts.” Example 2 shows the opening four bars of the first verse. State the last measure boldly, and keep in mind it’s a unison line.

“After All”
“One of my favorites on the album, this was a finished song that David had been singing with just his own accompaniment on 12-string. We laid it down that way, and then overdubbed everything afterward. I played at least two different basses on verse 2. One was an Ampeg Baby Bass, which I found at Macari’s in London for £200. I first played the bass parts on my Precision, and then I doubled them with the Baby Bass played with a bow. For the bridge, I play very high on the P-Bass with a lot of left-hand vibrato, and the Baby Bass comes back in the chorus. Keyboardist Ralph Mace played various bass sounds on a Moog Synthesizer for the last verse and outro.”

“Running Gun Blues”
“I played my bass part either very loud to get overdrive out of my amp, or I may have helped it a little with a borrowed Fuzz Face. Parts of the bass line were overdubbed by Ralph or myself using a deep and buzzy Moog sound. There were no patches in those days. We just turned knobs until we got what we wanted.”

“Saviour Machine”
“I’m very proud of this one. It’s a classical-music-oriented bass part, played fairly high on the neck. The song was initially played by David on his 12-string, but I saw an opportunity to make it into a jazz waltz.” Example 3 shows Visconti’s walking bass line at 2:06. Moving sequentially in groups of three in the first three measures, Tony switches to an ascending two-note grouping against the 3/4 pulse on the last beat of bar 3, before returning to a descending three-note grouping on the last beat of bar 4.

“She Shook Me Cold”
“Mick and I turned up to 10 on this one. We didn’t know what we really sounded like until the playbacks.”

“The Man Who Sold the World”
“I felt I should have played running scales under the choruses, because the melody was so sparse. Hispanic music was very popular in New York when I was growing up, so the inclusion of claves and a guiro was my idea. Woody had never heard of those instruments, but I put them in his hands, gave him a five-minute lesson, and he played them like a boss!”

“The Supermen”
“I thought a Wagnerian choir and timpani would be just right for this. The song was originally called “The Cyclops,” and the gallumping bass part was my impression of a cyclops marching down your street. The choir parts at the end are David, Mick, and myself tracked three or four times. I’m also doing a bit of Tuvan throat singing in the beginning, before we even knew what that was.”

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