Gus Dudgeon's studio career was moving ever higher back in the 1960s; he was making more contacts, getting promotions, and working with bigger and bigger artists. Then a certain David Bowie came knocking on his office door and that career went stratospheric. To space even…
Angus Boyd "Gus" Dudgeon’s production career was very typical of anyone who worked in recording studios in the 1960s. He started as a tea boy at Olympic in London, and then gradually worked his way up.
Gus, though, knew the big breaks would probably come by way of contacts – yes, even back then it was perhaps more about who you knew rather than what you knew.
Luckily, among Dudgeon's many contacts were producers Denny Cordell (Moody Blues, Procul Harum), Andrew Oldham (Small Faces, Rod Stewart), and eventual Rolling Stones producer Glyn Johns. With just those three names in his address book alone, he was almost certain of a decent studio career.
So Dudgeon soon rose to engineer status and ended up working at Decca Records where – as luck would have it – he met David Bowie, after which he helped engineer some of his first releases.
“I got on with Bowie really well," Dudgeon said in a 1975 interview with International Musician and Recording World. "He was very easy to talk to, but he was also like a fish out of water.
"I don't know how the hell he ever got a record contract with Decca. It was completely the wrong label for him. Nonetheless, we did things like The Laughing Gnome, if you remember that one."
Ah yes, Bowie’s comedic (but brilliant, in our book) The Laughing Gnome. In fact, Dudgeon is even credited as doing the ‘gnome vocal’ on the track, so must have responded to Bowie’s question, "haven't you got an 'ome to go to?” with “no, we're gnomads”. Hey, we thought it was funny.
Anyway, back to the Dudgeon story, because while being Bowie's gnome voice would have been a life ambition box ticked for us, it was just about to get even better for Gus.
By now Bowie had moved on to Mercury Records who had heard one of his now multiple demos of Space Oddity, and wanted to put it out to tie in with the impending Apollo 11 moon landing mission in July 1969.
We're pretty sure it was this one, although you can go down many 'Space Oddity demo' rabbit holes, should you so wish – there are a few versions about.
Dudgeon explained in the 1975 interview what happened next – some incredible good fortune, that's what.
“He [Bowie] already had his producer, Tony Visconti, and we were all working in the same suite of offices. One day, David came into my office and asked me if he could play me a demo to see how I felt about it. I told him it was fantastic. Straight away, he asked me if I'd like to produce it. He said Tony didn't like it and thought he had better material for a single.”
Yes, that demo turned out to be Space Oddity, the single Mercury wanted to release, and now Gus was going to produce it over Visconti, but with Tony's blessing.
“When I rang up Tony,” Gus recalled, “he said I was welcome to do the A and B sides of the single, and that he would do the rest of the album. I just couldn't believe my luck, because it was just the sort of thing I love to get my teeth into. It was in need of production. It needed thought and it needed planning.”
Gus brought all of those to the table and the song was rerecorded into the form we all know and love today, but the track had a very difficult gestation, for reasons you might not be aware of.
“It came out, and instantly the BBC banned it,” Gus said. “They said they weren't going to play any records that had anything to do with space because if the astronauts didn't come back, it would be weird for them. I couldn't believe it. But then the astronauts did come back, and we started getting airplay again!”
After a few weeks, a Bowie appearance on Top Of The Pops finally helped the record reach the UK top five. It would go on to make several reappearances over the following decade, and has now, of course, become one of Bowie’s most iconic songs.
“Space Oddity was so obviously the best thing Bowie had written," Gus said in the 1975 interview. "I could never understand why Tony passed on the single. And I think in some ways he might have regretted it, although he still says he never liked it that much.”
Dudgeon would later go on to work with other legends including Elton John, but also has a final historic credit in the world of music production. In 1971 he used a tape loop of some African drumming in the track He's Gonna Step on You Again by John Kongos…
This, The Guinness Book of Records says, makes him the first person to use sampling in music production. (We're not quite sure whether The Beatles might have something to say about that, having clearly used tape loops many years before, but we're not going to stir the pot.)
Dudgeon went on to have many other production and collaboration credits with acts including Chris Rea, Steeleye Span, XTC and Menswear, but sadly died in a car crash in 2002. He was aged just 59, but Space Oddity, sampling and a laughing gnome are more than most of us could wish to be remembered for.