So – this is the book that I’ve spent so long reading. I finished it a week or so ago, but then I went back and read a whole lot of bits again, then I read the appendicies, then I went back and read some more. I suspect it took our very own Paul (perhaps better known around here for his heroic work on the market proposals) less time to write it than it took me to read it.
This is in no way because it’s a duff read – precisely the opposite – it’s so detailed, so fascinating, so full of information I just couldn’t take it all in at once. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowie himself keeps a copy by his bedside to remind himself what he was up to during some of those lost years…
When I was a junior Phantom a friend of the family gave me a whole bunch of posters, memorabilia and general promotional material. I suppose he thought I’d be impressed (and eternally grateful) that he worked for a major record label and could get hold of giant posters for their latest album just like that. Of course, being a snotty kid, I took one look at them, decided they were gross, got out my felt-tip pens and used the back of what is now probably extremely valuable Aladdin Sane ephemera for drawing paper. I distinctly remember removing the gloopy bit in Bowie’s collarbone with my round-ended scissors because it freaked me out.
I grew up with Bowie around me; I believed the stories in the hand-me-down copies of Music Star about him being a nice clean-cut chap who had weird eyes since birth (yup, they peddled that one to their teenybopper readers and I bought it…) He has just always been around, but he wasn’t from ‘my time’. The only single of his I actually bought ‘at the time’ was Ashes to Ashes, a musical millennium after Ziggy. It has taken me many years to appreciate his music.
Of course Paul is a local writer, but I don’t usually talk about books by local writers unless they have a local theme. I always knew David Bowie was a Sarf London boy, but I was utterly delighted when Paul gave me further proof of my theory that everyone who is anyone will eventually fetch up in Greenwich. Yup, folks, Ziggy Stardust, one of Bowie’s most famous creations, was born under Gee-Pharm in South Street.
This is something Paul’s found out for himself during what must have been exhausting, let alone exhaustive, research. He says
“Jon Newey, who played drums with Peter Perrett, of The Only Ones – told me about Underhill, a cellar in Greenwich where he’d rehearsed next door to David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy and the Stooges – Jon remembered their monstrous guitar riffs spreading through the building like the rumbling of a subterranean earthquake.”
At the time, Paul didn’t realise just how important this Underhill Studio was, he just thought it was bands practicing. But a couple of years later into his research, things began to fall into place.
“Early in 1971 Bowie was regarded as washed-up, a one-hit wonder. That summer he worked up Hunky Dory, which was a critics’ fave but initially made no impact on the charts. Then around September 1971 he started work on the album that would make his name: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. And Ziggy, the ultimate rock-’n'roll creation, was hatched at Underhill.
Hunky Dory had been put together in the recording studio, without any preparation. Ziggy was the one time when Bowie worked as a proper band, with guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey, taking time to work out the songs beforehand. “It was a bit more rock and roll and we were a rock band,” says Bolder. “So doing that album was more like Oh yeah, we know what to do with this. We rehearsed it, we went in and we played. At Underhill Studios in Greenwich. “
Of course, for a true Greenwichian like Paul, this was red-rag to the proverbial. He HAD to know where these studios were.
‘Jon Newey’s description had suggested it was at the bottom of Stockwell Street,’ he says. ‘I’d gone around old Greenwich residents to see if they knew where the studio was, but with no success. Trevor Bolder told me it was on the main road from Lewisham – South street? Finally I tracked down the man who had actually built the studio: Will Palin. And it was Will who told me that the birthplace of Ziggy is now the home of Gee-pharm, at 2 Blackheath Road, on the corner of South Street. “A friend called Joe Copeland had a car spares business and called me in, he said, You know about the music business, do you know how to sound-proof? Because I’ve just taken over the lease on this building.”
Palin sound-proofed the building with polystyrene, “we got it cheap from a cold storage place that was closing down.” There was a car parts store on the ground floor, an escort agency on the 1st floor, and always “a band in the basement”. The partners got the call from a management company in September 1971 to say they wanted to book the studio – which turned out to be handy for Bowie, then living in Beckenham, as it was on the way to the West End. Bowie, Ronson and band worked out each song at Underhill, one by one – and Ziggy was pretty much there within a fortnight, a fully developed album that he’d record at Trident Studios in Soho, that November.
There was more work to come; in January 1972, Bowie commissioned the Ziggy outfit, quilted jumpsuit and wrestling boots, and had his hair cropped short. Later that month he gave his “I’m gay, and I always have been” interview that caused a sensation. In the spring he brought over his new protégés Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, both of whom rehearsed at Underhill. Finally, in July, his appearance on Top Of The Pops, arm camply draped around Mick Ronson’s shoulder, launched Ziggy Stardust to the nation, and the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gee-Pharm’s current owners, Lalit and Sali Gupta, are pretty excited with their rock & roll connection. “Someone mentioned Bowie’s connection with the building when we bought it, but we were never quite sure. There are signs there was some sort of studio – but there wasn’t a zebra crossing, like you have at Abbey Road, to authenticate it!” They’d be well up for a blue plaque. Personally, I suspect the link would be a bit on the tenuous side for EH (and you have to be dead or over 100 to get a Blue Plaque anyway) but I could imagine that the PRS might be interested in a plaque similar to the one for Squeeze on the Borough Hall.
Paul finishes the story for us
“By September, 1972, Bowie and the Spiders were off for their first US tour – Will Palin was recruited as a roadie, and left Underhill behind. We don’t know how long Underhill continued as a rehearsal studio, or what happened to the escort agency (today the 1st floor belongs to a solicitors – how times have changed – TGP). In July 1973, Bowie “retired” from live shows, killed off Ziggy, and sacked The Spiders, with much rancour. So those early days, cooking up Ziggy at the Gee-pharm building – “when we were becoming a band”, as Bolder puts it – mark the happiest period of Bowie’s rise to fame. And of course, represent one more vital contribution Greenwich has made to modern culture. “
Indeed. If you want an absorbing, dense-in-the-best-possible-way read, Paul’s book Starman – David Bowie, the Definitive Biography is available now at £20 from all the usual good bookshops, Amazon etc. A fine read.