Starman

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.”

Barrie Wentzell

 

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.


the attachments to this post:

Ziggy Gee Pharm
Ziggy Gee Pharm

Barrie Wentzell
ziggy bowie

ziggy album
ziggy album

Ziggy Paul
Ziggy Paul


17 Comments to “Starman”

  1. Stephen says:

    Ch .. ch .. ch .. ch .. changes!

    Gosh, this must be a super reada and what a wonderful bit of original research.

    Nice work!!

  2. OldChina says:

    This has just slightly blown my mind. I’ve probably jogged past the Gee-Pharm with Bowie playing on the iPod numerous times!

  3. tintinhaddock says:

    It’s a great book. Thoroughly recommended.

  4. Paul T says:

    Yeah! Fame at last! Thanks Phant.

    There are lots more Bowie connections with Greenwich. I believe he attended mod dances at the Borough Hall; his very first band, The Kon-Rads played at Blackheath several times; and the promo for his first demo of Space Oddity was filmed at Clarence Studios, which I think is just over the creek.

    But best of all was the reaction of Lindsay Kemp – the larger-than-life, juicily camp dancer whose troupe Bowie performed with – who when I told him I lived in Greenwich wailed “don’t talk to me about that place. That is where David was always disappearing to, cuddling up with Natasha Korniloff in some little cottage…”

    Natasha was an exotic figure, born in India of Russian extraction, who designed Kemp’s staging and costumes, and went on to craft several outfits for Bowie, including the Pierrot outfit in the Ashes To Ashes video – she lived in Egerton Drive for decades, so I guess that’s where she and David had their trysts.

  5. Yes, it IS ‘at last’ Paul – but I wanted to read all the book before telling the world about your fab sleuthery.

    My, my, my. Don’t you think Greenwich is pretty tame these days? We bask in reflected glory of former bohemians. There ARE one or two left, but they’re being slowly priced out, I fear.

  6. scared of chives says:

    can’t wait to buy/read it.

    who’d have thought when stuffing my face with lamb kebab on south street, opposite was where it all happened….wow

    (cover of ziggy taken in heddon street off regents street) http://www.5years.com/art.htm

  7. I should possibly point out that Greenwich is only mentioned briefly in the volume itself as it’s a book aimed at (heavens) non-Greenwichians too, who will have, unbelievable as it may sound, only a passing interest in Gee Pharm. Therefore, what Paul’s told me here has been glossed-over in the book, probably by evil editors who don’t realise just how important Greenwich is to the world. Seriously, though, folks, the book is worth reading for its sheer detail on everything else Bowiesque.

  8. Oh – and isn’t Heddon street dull these days too!

  9. Robert Number 16 says:

    Dear Phantom.
    What an interesting post.Some twenty years ago + when I was living on prozac from Gee Pharm I ran a charity shop next the large pub The Graduate. It was called Turn Ups(onyone recall it?)There was an escort agency above one of the shops at the top of South St It was run by cool dude black guy with a big motor bike.I recall him calling into the charity shop telling me that I should give him £500 for protection.Otherwise “The boys” will be round.(I did seem to think that could be fun)I explained that if “The Boys” wanted to “do” the place we had a warehouse full of toot which we could replace over night,So I suggested he tell them if they needed anything just call in during opening times and I would be happy to give them some stock.Cool dude then said he could do me a good deal on a bird above a shop in sarf st.I explained that he was barking up the wrong tree with me.I later heard that he was doing time for his first floor antics

  10. Tee hee – brilliant story, Robert!

  11. Robert Number 16 says:

    O M G It`s all sex today in Greenwich.Just been into The Co Op . The oriental boy on the checkout, name was I thought.( My eyes are going)Pang.”What`s your name?” I asked politely
    “Hung” he said.
    “Are you?” I said, by a mistake.
    “Velly nice” he replied with a large grin.
    Greenwich is not so dull after all.

  12. Kate says:

    Fascinating (and Robert’s story too!) That neck of South Street gets so forgotten about compared to the neat little row of shops at the bottom end. More stories of the same please!!

  13. Andy285 says:

    I’ve walked right past this building on my route to work for years, never giving it a second glance, completely unaware of its connection to one of my favourite musicians. Every time I click onto this website, I find something that makes me fall in love with Greenwich all over again.

  14. RogerW says:

    Ah, another place to add (retrospectively) to the memories.
    And, hey, just a few doors away from where “the laundry on the hill” (of Squeeze fame) used to be.
    I was a great fan of Bowie, having been 15 in 1972. I lived in Mottingham; my best mate lived in Beckenham. For all the countless journeys we made to each other, along Southend Rd – where Bowie lived – neither of us ever got to catch sight of him. I seem to remember, however, that my mate did get to see Trevor Bolder, who also lived in Beckenham, not far from the Post Office.
    Happy times!

  15. Will Palin says:

    Hi Paul,

    Pleased to have helped fill-in the pieces – great article and hope to read the book – Little things; the correct address is Underhill Rehearsal Studios, 1, Blackheath Hill, Greenwich. SE10 (hence Underhill – although Tolkien influenced as well)! Credit should also go to Les Copley (Jeff Beck/Tears for Fears Drummer Jimmy Copley’s Dad) and Lance Spencer who put so much effort into the building and Bob Woolford (Audio Ltd) for his acoustic knowledge – certainly more than a ‘one man job’. Other Bands included Genesis, Greenwich-based MacGuiness Flint and Paul Jones, Spread Eagle, Sam Gopal, Neil Innes et al.
    All the best, Will

  16. Thanks for that, Will. Fascinating. I did wonder at the whole ‘Underhill’ bit – but I guess Tolkien was as trendy then as he is now….