Ralph Mace ~ How I Became A Spider From Mars

November 15, 2012

It has been over 40 years since the release of David Bowie’s SPACE ODDITY single in the UK, a record which was to launch the career of probably the most innovative, charismatic and talented English rock star.

At the time of its release, 1969, I had recently joined the staff of the pop music department at Philips Records in London where they were riding high in the charts with a string of number one hits with such artists as Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield and Manfred Mann. Philips were also ever alert for new talent to help compete against the other major UK companies, EMI, Decca, Polydor and Pye Records. One of Philips new signings was David Bowie, who had been previously signed to Decca Records without any outstanding success. 

At the beginning of the swinging sixties, London was exploding with live music, mini skirts, trendy fashions and young people making their mark everywhere, there was a confidence and vitality in the air which is hard to imagine today. All over the country there were music venues presenting, Pop, Folk, Jazz, R&B Soul  and  Blues and it seemed that every pub in most cities had some live act performing most nights.

Part of my job at Philips was to arrange promotion and concert appearances in Europe for their artists and this meant I needed to know and understand what all these new artists were about. David Bowie was, and still is for that matter, a sort of music chameleon. In 1969 his music and performances had mainly been folk orientated with various stabs at the pop market. He was writing a lot of songs and was trying to form a group and find a musical image and sound that would suit him best. An important part of David’s set up at this point was his American girlfriend Angie who was full of ideas as to what was needed for success and would all the time be hassling managers, promoters and record companies to do more to promote Bowie. They were not making much money then and in the midst of all this, David and Angie decided to get married having their wedding breakfast with cans of beer and coke in my office.                                                                                           

Fortunes were to change  with the record SPACE ODDITY which, like all new releases at Philips was put on the plug list for radio plays and to gauge its success ~ in air play and record sales ~ and was reviewed at our weekly marketing meeting. The only effective way of promoting any new record in those days was for it to be heard on the radio and that was mainly the old stuffy BBC which had woken up a bit after the pirate radio stations ruled the waves for a couple of years, but now airplay was even more difficult to get in a country now exploding with pop music and scores of new releases and artists every week. Unlike today, there was no iTunes or YouTube to help promote, no computers and music was enjoyed either on a 45 rpm vinyl record or 33 rpm vinyl record or at a live concert.

After several weeks SPACE ODDITY had received no airplay and had virtually no sales and there was calls to stop promoting it to the radio stations at our weekly marketing meetings, but for one promotion man Dick Leahy a young man who would later run his own company GTO Records and be the mentor for the up and coming George Michael. Dick refused to drop the Bowie single saying that it was too good a record to drop. His persistence finally paid off with a few plays at  BBC Radio One which stated the bandwagon rolling and which became stratospheric when the BBC used SPACE ODDITY as the background music to the TV news reports of the first landing on the moon by Apollo 11 in July 1969 and the record took off like a rocket ~ sorry! I suppose the idea that an astronaut might just float away into space fired up the public’s imagination.                            

By 1971, David’s star was well set in the firmament and he began preparing tracks for a new album to be recorded at the now famous Trident Studios in St. Anne’s Court, just off Wardour Street in the heart of Soho’s Red Light District, just down the street from the Marquee Club. By then I had moved to my new job at Famous Music, which was part of Paramount Pictures across the road from Trident. David and his producer, Tony Visconti, regularly called in to see me and they invited me to attend any of the recording sessions if I wished. One evening, after work, I did just that. David and all the group were in the control room trying to overdub a new keyboard part which Visconti had written to be played on the moog synthesizer, a new revolutionary instrument at the time and one which had recently been made famous by the Moody Blues and Walter Carlos on his Switched On Bach album. The moog part for “Memory of a Free Festival” which appeared on the self ~ titled album David Bowie was a little tricky, it needed pianistic fingers and none of the group made a very good job of it. After several of them had tried their fingers at it, I suggested to David that if they wanted to get home before breakfast it might be a good idea for me to take a stab at it. David smiled and nodded and I sat down before the new moog keyboard for the first time. My fingers were in pretty good shape in those days and after a couple of trail runs we had the moog part in the can. Then the parts for several further songs appeared and I put these tracks down too.

When the album, The Man Who Sold The World, was released the credits on the back of the album cover listed : DAVID BOWIE: guitar, vocals; TONY VISCONTI: Electric bass, piano, guitar; MICK RONSON: guitar,; MICK WOODMANSEY: drums; and RALPH MACE: Moog Synthesizer.           

And that’s how I became a SPIDER FROM MARS

Ralph Mace ~ November 2012

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