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Music

The landmark song David Bowie recorded while "bawling his eyes out"

Ken Scott has worked on a number of albums, but for many people, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ranks as his most assured work. And Scott was happy to pay tribute to songwriter David Bowie on what would have been his 75th birthday. 

“With all of the top name artists I’ve worked with, and vocalists, I’ve never come across anyone quite like that,” the producer told Music Radar. He wasn’t the only one blown away by Bowie’s raw talent, as he explained: “A friend of mine said they’re perfect in their imperfection. And that’s what it is. They’re not totally in tune. They’re not totally in time, but they come from your soul. He’s putting across himself in every one of those.”

He continued: “The first track on Ziggy, ‘Five Years,’ by the end of the take he was bawling his eyes out; there were tears rolling down his face. Now, unfortunately when one is mixing, doing a final mix, you’re trying to be dramatic, should we say, and put everything across as best you can. And when you do that sometimes these little bits and pieces get a little lost.”

Adding: “[Y]ou do hear that there’s emotion in his voice at the end there. But now quite often in my talks, I will play the ending of ‘Five Years’. It starts off with just the regular track [then] I’ve laid that down so it’s just David and acoustic guitar…I’ve had members of the audience that have heard this – they’ve started to bawl their eyes out. It is so moving. And that’s what he gave every single time.

“Of the four albums I co-produced with David, about 90 per cent of the vocals were first take, beginning to end,” he said. “I would run the take, get the level for his vocal, go back, hit record on the take, and what he did that one time through is what we still hear today. And that’s no Auto-Tune…no cut and pasting things, no moving anything around. It was one performance that came from his heart every time.”

Scott has a pedigree in rock. He was one of the first people to dispel the myth that The White Album effectively broke The Beatles up. “This was a six-month project, almost,” he revealed to GuitarWorld. “And I haven’t done a project, even a two-week one, where someone hasn’t lost their temper at some point. They’re artists; they’re touchy at times.” 

What emerges from Scott’s memoir, Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust: Off The Record with The Beatles, Bowie, Elton & So Much More, is a sound artist who tells it like it is. A straight-shooter, if you will. He shows scant interest in the steamier side of rock, and what we get is someone who is workmanlike, professional and deeply respectful to the artists he worked with. 

But it is interesting to note that he singled out Bowie for his honesty, especially when you consider that he worked with John Lennon and George Harrison. Neither of the men were quick to flatter Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a project rooted in a parallel universe. It’s doubtful either of them would have approved of Ziggy Stardust, considering the efforts it went into building a narrative, but Scott makes it clear that although the characters are fictitious, the sentiments and performances are genuine. 

It’s refreshing to hear that Bowie gave it everything he had. It’s not my place to call ‘Five Years’ his most truthful performance (I never met him), but I think it’s safe to say that it’s a very fine one.