The Drummers of David Bowie
David Bowie certainly knew how to pick a great band, and his drummers are no exception. From Woody Woodmansey, currently back with the Spiders From Mars band, via Dennis Davis and beyond, we round up some of Bowie's best drummers.
Honorable mentions must go also to John Eager (David Bowie, 1967), Terry Cox (David Bowie, 1969) Andy Newmark (Young Americans, 1975) and Hunt Sales (Tin Machine, 1989; Tin Machine, 1991).
Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey joined Bowie's band in 1970 at the dawn of what would be the Spiders From Mars era, with Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti. It was a glam-rock supergroup, behind a musical genius with a spontaneous vision, as Woody recalls. “Sometimes [Bowie] would say, ‘We’re going in on Monday to start the album.’ We’d go, ‘What tracks?’ And he’d go, ‘Well, we’ll have a go at blah-de-blah and blah-de-blah.’ You get in there and he’d go, ‘No, we’re not doing that. I’ve just finished this one. We’re doing this.’
The band rarely ever did more than three takes and at times Bowie wouldn’t even want that many. “‘The Jean Genie’, that was first take,” says Woody. “In the beginning, Trevor [Bolder, who took over from Tony Visconti on bass], Mick and I would go into the control room, hear it back, and go, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got it now. I wasn’t quite sure what happened there, let’s go do it.’ And Bowie would go, ‘No, that’s it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘That’s the take’. ‘No, that’s the first time we’ve played it!’ Trevor would go, ‘Yeah, there’s a bum note right in the middle.’ ‘Let me hear it.’ And you can hear the bum note and he goes, ‘Yeah, I like it.’”
“There is something in that newness, you’re creating at that point,” adds Woody. “It can be better played with a better sound and tighter, but it doesn’t have that newness, that freshness, and really that’s what you’re trying to get. You’re looking for that magic any time you go in a studio. He knew that. I don’t know how he knew that, but he was right. When we did ‘Life On Mars’, I remember Ken Scott saying, ‘Come up and listen to the mix,’ and we heard it on these incredible massive speakers and our mouths just dropped open. Did we play that? Is that us? I don’t know if the audience is ready for that. It was so different we didn’t actually know.”
A fantastic player and rock drumming journeyman, Aynsley was fresh from the always-impressive Frank Zappa gig when the call came to drum for David Bowie. Bowie's covers album, Pin-Ups, was first, featuring most of the Spiders From Mars band minus Mick Woodmansey, followed by 1974's Diamond Dogs.
“When I was with Frank Zappa,” recalls Dunbar. “Jim Pons, the bass player, loved David Bowie’s music so he gave me tapes to listen to. I really enjoyed the pop songs Bowie was doing. I was recording the Berlin album with Lou Reed and had a day off. Bowie called me at the hotel in London and asked me if I would like to go to the show that night and sit in with Jeff Beck. I said, ‘I’d love to, let me call Lou and see if he wants to come.’ I called Lou and he immediately decided he was going to call a session that night. We went to the studio and spent four hours doing absolutely nothing! I told Lou, ‘You better come with me to the party afterwards,’ which I was invited to. Lou and Bowie weren’t best of friends at that point and had a little bit of a problem. We sat down at the table and started laughing and joking and finally Bowie and Lou relaxed and managed to give each other a hug. That’s when Bowie asked me to join the band. I liked Bowie and I liked the music, so I got the gig.”
One of many New York drummers Bowie has played with over the years, Dennis formed an unbeatable rhythm section with bass player George Murray on much of Bowie's 1970s output.
Dennis had great pedigree - he studied with Elvin Jones and Max Roach, and his contributions to the likes of Station To Station and Heroes is well worth paying close attention to.
Omar's had some pretty big gigs, all told – including, most recently, Kate Bush – but he first came to prominence when he filled the Weather Report drum stool vacated by Peter Erskine. Round about this time, Omar was recruited by producer Nile Rodgers to play on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, a record that opened a lot of doors in the pop world.
“Sometimes musicians get typecast, so if they see you playing jazz, they say you’re a jazz drummer,” says Omar. “When //Let’s Dance//
came out it was so the complete opposite of everything else that I was doing that it didn’t even sound like the same drummer. I think it was perfect for my career. Sting said to me, ‘One of the first places I heard you was the David Bowie album.’ It was like a dream come true. because of all these different projects it was impossible for people to typecast me.”
Playing for Bowie, Omar was introduced to the pop charts thanks to the hits ‘Modern Love’ and ‘China Girl’. “Let’s Dance shows the rock side of me in a really good way,” says Omar. “Niles playing rhythm guitar, Stevie Ray Vaughan playing the solos, Carmine Bojas on bass, it was a killer rhythm section.”
For the last 20 years Sterling, alongside Zachary Alford, has been one of Bowie's go-to drummers, appearing on record on Black Tie, White Noise in 1993 and Bowie's most recent album 2013's The Next Day. Asked what Bowie demands from his drummers, Sterling told Rhythm:
“He doesn’t really ask anything; there’s a song, he plays it. I went into my Bowie banks. I’m not going to lie, I studied it. I listened to everything that Dennis did, as time went on I got a lot deeper into listening, my ears got better, so I went back – especially on the last Bowie tour I would really listen to Woody on Ziggy, and try to cop as much as I can because that’s such a time and a place, man. If you listen, some of it’s almost verbatim when I played it live. It’s really just to honour it, it’s so perfect as it is.”
New Yorker Zack started drumming at 10 years old, influenced by a rich musical heritage in his Manhattan neighbourhood – one particularly packed with drumming talent. Poogie Bell was his first instructor, and he also lived within a few blocks of now-fellow Bowie drummer Sterling Campbell. Zack played on Bowie's '90s album Earthling and shared drum duties with Sterling Campbell on Bowie's 2013 The Next Day.