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Music

Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 on the huge impact of David Bowie

Next month, David Bowie’s former producer and bassist Tony Visconti will embark on a new tour with the project Best of Bowie. The tour will see Visconti joined by Heaven 17 frontman, Glenn Gregory, whose powerful vocal prowess will give a nostalgic rebirth to an eclectic spread of Bowie’s impressively diverse discography.

Glenn and Tony will be joined on stage by Tony’s daughter Jessica Lee Morgan (12 string and sax), Paul Cuddeford and James Stevenson (Guitars), and Janette Mason on Piano/Keys.

The original lineup was set to include Woody Woodmansey, Bowie’s drummer from the Spiders From Mars. However, a recent turn of events concerning a clash of COVID vaccination views has resulted in Woody departing the group; Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard has subsequently replaced him.

The project has been in the works for a number of years and was initiated prior to Bowie’s death in 2016. Bowie gave enthusiastic backing for his friend and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti to form the tribute act. Visconti rose to fame during the early 1970s working with Marc Bolan of T. Rex first and then later went on to co-produce 10 of Bowie’s albums from Diamond Dogs (1974) to Blackstar (2016).

Ahead of this exciting tour, I was lucky enough to catch up with Glenn Gregory to have a chat about all things David Bowie:

Q. What was your favourite Bowie era?

A. Glenn explained that it would be “a toss-up between two”. He highlighted Aladdin Sane as his original favourite because he fell in love with the piano sections throughout the album. He explained that it came out at a time when he was searching for music that he could identify with, “I was obviously searching for music that wasn’t from my mum and dad’s era, you know? Because they were very Beatles and Stones, which I liked, but you want your own music really.” He continued to explain that Aladdin Sane was the first album that his parents said they didn’t like the sound of, and so naturally it became the first album he felt he could identify with growing up.

Glenn explained that the other Bowie era he was particularly interested in was the Young Americans soul era. While the album was “not a lot of people’s favourite and a lot of people [at the time] thought Bowie had lost his way a little,” Glenn asserted that as unfashionable as the choice might be, “I think that’s my favourite Bowie album.”

Q. What was your favourite song between those two eras?

A. “I think ‘Aladdin Sane’, the track itself, is fantastic,” Glenn answered, he explained that it wasn’t the easiest track to sing live, but he just loves the piano sequences by Mike Garson, who seems to be effortlessly “dancing all over the piano”.

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Q. Has Bowie been more of an influence on you as a vocalist or as a general creative in songwriting?

A. “That’s very interesting. Nobody’s asked me that before. I think probably more vocally really,” he answered. Glenn recalls that even back in his days with Heaven 17, he was in the studio recording vocal tracks for The Luxury Gap and remembers “Martyn [Ware] being in the control room and saying, ‘do it in ya Bowie voice!’”. Glenn described that when he first met Tony Visconti in Abbey Road Studios, Tony had turned to him while mixing one of his tracks and said, “You know what, there’s a lot of David in your voice.” Glenn said that he had a “massive grin” on his face after that and had said: “That’s fantastic, Tony, can I have that in writing?” He then recalled that it was only a couple of months after this that Visconti had decided that Glenn was the man for the job on the Bowie tribute project.

Q. Did your path cross with Bowie’s back in the day?

A. Glenn explained that he had met Bowie on a couple of occasions, but the first time was the most memorable. He explained that he had been with the Human League on their tour stop at a small venue called The Nashville in London. During the performance, there had been a “weird buzz going around the crowd,” and people started whispering, “David Bowie’s here!” to which Glenn remembered internally replying, “Don’t be daft, what would Bowie be doing here?”

Just as the Human League were finishing their final song, Glenn had headed backstage to the dressing room, where he waited alone for a moment. Then suddenly, “just before the set finished, the door flung open and in came David Bowie with this big guy behind him, and he just grabbed me by the shoulders, and he started shaking my shoulders, beaming all over his face. He was saying, ‘They’re fucking brilliant, they are the future of fucking music’.”

Q. Was your music with Heaven 17 strongly inspired by David Bowie?

A. “Definitely, in his kind of writing technique,” he replied. Heaven 17 had often used the William Burroughs “cut-up” technique which Bowie had often used before. He explained that he had used it most obviously in Heaven 17’s first single ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’. Glenn detailed that most of the lyrics had been inspired using “a couple of political magazines” and “the American Billboard magazine”. He continued, explaining that he still uses a similar technique today and writes down little snippets of things he hears or reads to use for lyrical inspiration.

Q. What’s your favourite Bowie song to sing?

A. “Hmm, that’s a good one, because there’s a lot. I really love singing ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’… there’s something about it that just kind of takes me,” Glenn answered. He continued, “Another one that does it for me is ‘Life On Mars’,” he explained that it had meant a lot to him as a teenager, but that it had also accumulated a new level of power and sentimentality after the Starman’s death. He explained, “I kind of choke up quite a lot during [‘Life On Mars’].” Glenn recalled the powerful moment he had performed his first Bowie tribute gig in Toronto following Bowie’s death in 2016 and explained that ‘Life On Mars’ was the song that really resonated with the audience, “everyone was sobbing … it’s a powerful sound, isn’t it?”

Q. What’s your favourite Bowie song to dance to?

A. “I get reasonably animated on stage, but that’s the only place (Glenn chuckled).” He explained that often he would do the odd Bowie cover when he sings with Heaven 17, “we do ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ sometimes, that’s really good to strut your stuff to. In fact, we are going to do that for the first time in the Best of Bowie set as well, so it’ll be really nice to do with a full-on live rock and roll band.”

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Q. If you had to pick out one of Bowie’s less well known or less commercially successful tracks as a favourite, which one would you choose? 

A. “I absolutely adore singing ‘Quicksand’… it’s just beautiful,” Glenn replied. He then proceeded to sing the opening line, “I’m closer to the Golden Dawn/ Immersed in Crowley’s uniform/ Of imagery.” He continued, describing the song, “It’s weird, it doesn’t really make sense and yet it kind of touches you as if it’s real, and living … I think it must be his voice because that’s pretty out there and if you read the lyrics, you just think ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ But when you’re there, and certainly for me when I’m singing it, it just sounds like one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry you’ve ever heard. (…) We’re doing a version of [Quicksand] for this tour, too, which will be cool.”

Q. With Woody Woodmansey, unfortunately, parting from the band the other week, I wondered whether you are all still on good terms? Is it likely we’ll see him back in the lineup once the COVID pressures have lifted?

A. “Certainly, I adore Woody – he’s fantastic. I think we’d all welcome him back if he wanted to come back. So yeah, I wouldn’t say that it would never happen again (…) it’s up to woody really, I think, if he wants to come back, the door’s open.”

Best of Bowie are set to perform a range of iconic hits and cult classics from Bowie’s extensive back catalogue across a short tour of nine dates which are as follows:

Wed 2nd March – Town Hall Birmingham
Fri 4th March – Corn Exchange Cambridge
Sat 5th March – Barbican York
Mon 7th March – Philharmonic Liverpool
Wed 9th – March Waterside Theatre Aylesbury
Fri 11th – March Forum Bath
Sat 12th – March Tramshed Cardiff
Sun 13th – March Barbican London