‘You Think We’re Gay, Don’t You?’
How The Spiders From Mars embraced fashion during Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era
By Woody Woodmansey
The year 1972 was shaping up to be an insane one for us. An English tour was booked from January until September; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was set to come out in June on RCA, even though we were still flying high because Hunky Dory had just been released; and, in the autumn, we were going to America for the very first time as a band.
What could possibly go wrong?
It’s hard to imagine now, but ridicule and career suicide were very real concerns. We knew our music was brilliant, but our look… Our ‘education’ on showmanship and image had started back in Haddon Hall around the time we were recording Ziggy. We always had weekends off and David used them. ‘There’s a play in London that I’d like us all to go and see,’ he announced one day. ‘What’s it called?’ I asked.
‘I don’t give a shit what it’s called,’ he said. ‘The lighting director there is really good and I want you to get an idea of what can be done with lights.’
Looking back, I suppose that, at the time, bands would use red, green and yellow lights and possibly a strobe light. It was very basic. So he more or less asked us to watch the lighting, not the play. It was quite an eye-opener when we saw how the lights integrated with the music and the scene on the stage, and helped create more impact.
Once we even went to see a ballet — I think it was The Nutcracker — which was funny because we all thought it was just a night out and we bought popcorn, crisps and Cokes before we went in. When the performance started we had to very gently place these things on the floor as they were too noisy to devour! I actually enjoyed the ballet, which surprised me. And once again we saw how the lighting added so much to the performance.
David was tackling us on the clothes front too. We had a bit of a clothes allowance now and so we started to shop on the fashionable King’s Road in Chelsea. We particularly liked Alkasura — which was a favourite of Marc Bolan — and Mr Fish (owned by Michael Fish, who’d designed the dress Bowie wore on the front of The Man Who Sold the World). Freddie Burretti, David’s friend and clothes designer, had also introduced us to Stirling Cooper clothes, which we liked because of the cut of the jackets and the trousers, which were more like jeans and fitted well around the crutch. Very rock ’n’ roll.
I remember the first time we went to these chic clothes shops, Bowie bought a black and green striped satin suit. I bought a brown velvet jacket with a peplum and embroidery down the front, and a mustard-yellow canvas jacket. Mick got a suede jacket that had multicoloured snakeskin lapels. We also bought t-shirts with unique designs.
The femininity and sheer outrageousness of the offstage clothes—let alone the soon-to-come onstage gear—was a stretch for us at first, I admit. But after a while, we calmed down and got used to the idea. We knew we couldn’t just wear jeans and t-shirts any more, on or offstage. It wouldn’t have worked. Plus we got used to standing out in a crowd, pretty quickly I might add. So it definitely appealed to our rebellious artistic instincts.
For shoes, more prosaically we went to Russell & Bromley. I remember the sales assistant looking at our selection and saying, ‘You do know these are girls’ shoes?’ We did! They looked better and more stylish than any men’s shoes and complemented our new clothes. It’s quite ironic that Mick, Trevor and I chose these ourselves, considering our initial reaction to what we’d be wearing on stage in a short while.
So we had started to look more like a rock ’n’ roll band. At least, we thought we did.
One weekend at Haddon Hall Bowie started to talk about our stage clothes. He mentioned the films A Clockwork Orange and 2001, A Space Odyssey which we all loved. He said he liked the look of the ‘Droogs’ in A Clockwork Orange — who were dressed the same, all in white, their trousers tucked into black ankle boots — and thought we should look like a gang. He then showed us some drawings he’d done, of collarless bomber jackets with zip-up fronts and lace-up boots which almost came up to the knee. I think at the time we just shrugged it off as an ‘idea’, although we did like the concept of being a gang.
A week later we found ourselves in the fabrics department of Liberty of London, following David and Angie as they sorted through the shelves. Occasionally they’d ask us, ‘What do you think to this?’ We hadn’t really joined up the dots at this point so we’d answer dismissively, ‘It’s all right.’ Between ourselves we’d be saying, ‘This isn’t really rock ’n’ roll, is it!’
Having said that, the four of us had been to see Alice Cooper at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park, when he toured the U.K. in 1971 and his band wore very similar outfits to the ones we eventually had made, although I think theirs were less stylish and less well made, and they didn’t have the boots. (Funnily enough his band was originally called the Spiders, before becoming the Nazz and then simply Alice Cooper.)
Back in Beckenham swatches of the fabrics they’d chosen were brought out. Freddie Burretti had helped refine Bowie’s concept and it was he who’d suggested the outfits should be different colours — pink, blue and gold — so we had the gang image but it was less menacing than the ‘all white’ of the Droogs. It was decided that Trev would look best in blue as he had dark brown hair. Angie suggested that Mick would look best in gold as he had blond hair. That only left one colour!
‘I’m not too sure about pink!’ I said.
‘I know what you mean,’ Bowie said thoughtfully, ‘but it takes a real man to wear pink and pull it off.’
I obviously fell for this line as that’s what I ended up wearing.
The Droogs also wore a codpiece and Freddie used an idea from the Stirling Cooper jeans to simulate this idea, adding a separate piece of fabric cut in a zigzag from the waist down to the crotch on either side. (The influence of A Clockwork Orange was also heard in the live show, because we used the electronic version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the film’s soundtrack to open every gig.)
We had a second set of outfits that were just as outrageous. Mine was a brown and gold top with gold lamé trousers. Trev had another blue outfit but the top was made from a flock material. Mick’s was a sequined maroon jacket and black trousers. Bowie had a black and white flock top with white satin trousers. They were all made in the same style: collarless bomber jackets and tucked-in trousers. All these clothes were made by Susie Frost, Zowie’s nanny. Freddie may have helped make some of Bowie’s outfits, too.
The boots were a kind of trendy looking wrestling boot, flat and laced up the front and made of coloured patent leather. Mick’s were green, Trev’s were blue and mine were dark pink. We all also had a pair of black patent leather boots while Bowie had his red ones.
During this deep discussion on who was wearing what, which went on for some time, Angie burst into the room and in a panicky voice said, ‘You’ve got a problem, boys. Ronson’s just packed his case and headed for the station. He said it’s all too much for him, he’s quit the band!’
Bowie said to me, ‘Go find him and talk to him, do whatever you have to do to get him back.’
So I made my way to Beckenham station to find Mick sitting on the platform looking very pissed off.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
‘Back to Hull,’ he said. ‘I’ve had enough. I can’t go on stage wearing clothes like that. I have friends who’ll see me. It’s all too much, I just wanna play guitar.’
‘I understand what you’re saying,’ I said, ‘but it’s not going to work wearing jeans and t-shirts, is it? I remember when we were in the Rats you wore Apache boots and a long tasselled waistcoat and wristbands. That was over the top for the time, plus I’ve seen pictures of you wearing a real girlie frilly shirt so it’s not that much of a leap, is it?’
We then talked about how it would either work brilliantly or not at all and there was always the possibility that we could be laughed off the stage, but it was worth the risk, wasn’t it?
Eventually, after much talking it through, he said, ‘I suppose you’re right’, and we headed back to Haddon Hall.
Quite a few people have claimed that I’m the one who said, ‘Fuck off, I’m not wearing that’, but this time it wasn’t me.
As well as the clothes, the shoes, the lighting, etc., what was still needed to complete the transformation of us all, Bowie concluded, was the hair.
A young woman called Suzi Fussey worked in a local Beckenham hair salon where she did Bowie’s mother’s hair. Mrs. Jones would talk to Suzi about her son and eventually Suzi was asked to come up to Haddon Hall to do Angie’s hair. While she was there Bowie asked her, ‘What would you do with my hair?’, which was shoulder-length and brown at the time.
‘I’d cut it short,’ Suzi replied, which she did.
So he had the start of what would become the Ziggy haircut. The colouring of it would come later. I don’t remember exactly when.
Daniella Parmar, a muse of Freddie Burretti’s, often came over to Haddon Hall with him. She would regularly have different coloured hair; once it was very short, peroxide blonde with an ice-cream-cone shape cut into the back and dyed in three colours! This inspired Bowie to look for a more synthetic hairstyle for Ziggy. He found a girls’ magazine with a model on the cover who had red hair (apparently she was a Kansai Yamamoto model, though I didn’t know that then). He copied the cut and colour and had Suzi carry it out. When his hair was finally completed he asked, ‘What do you think?’
‘It looks amazing,’ I said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it, especially on a guy.’
My hair was now shorter, and styled, but it was still brown. A couple of months into the tour, I decided I would have the Ziggy cut and also have it bleached blond. It made me look a bit unearthly, perhaps like a member of Ziggy’s family.
Back then there wasn’t the range of hair products we have today; in fact, the trick to the Ziggy hairstyle, which stood up on end, was a ladies’ setting lotion called Gard, which you spread over your hair before blow-drying it straight. We needed Suzi to join us on that tour so she could do all our hair, and she also became wardrobe mistress.
Later again on the tour, Trevor would have his long brown hair dyed jet black and Angie worked on those incredible sideburns by spraying them silver. Mick’s blond hair was styled and highlighted.
The transformation was complete.
On 11 January we unveiled Ziggy on a pre-recorded session for BBC Radio’s Sounds of the Seventies with John Peel. It wasn’t broadcast until 28 January, though. We went back on 18 January to record another session for the same programme, this time with Bob Harris, to be aired on 7 February. Both were recorded at the BBC Maida Vale studios.
The set list was ‘Hang On To Yourself,’ ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ ‘Queen Bitch,’ and ‘I’m Waiting For the Man’ for both shows. On the Bob Harris show we did ‘Five Years’ as an extra number. This was just the four of us with Nicky Graham on piano.
After that, on 19 January, we began a week of rehearsals for the British dates at the Royal Ballroom on Tottenham High Road, driving up there from Beckenham at lunchtime and going through the whole set, twice each day, non-stop. As I sat at the back of the stage I could see the three other guys interacting up front so I’d suggest things to them, like standing back to back for the beginning of ‘Queen Bitch,’ and then kicking away from each other when the heavy chords began, because it looked exciting that way. We’d adjust the lighting as we went along, too.
Everybody threw in ideas, although you had to be pretty sure it was a good idea before you suggested it, or Bowie would ignore it. The show wasn’t choreographed to within an inch of its life, but most of the major movements on stage were planned, along with the lights, to complement the music. I enjoyed being part of the creativity.
In the midst of rehearsals, we had our second shock to the system when we read an interview Bowie had done with the Melody Maker saying that he was gay and always had been.
This was completely new to us, despite the environment we’d lived in at Haddon Hall. He had his camp moments and effeminate poses but we assumed if he was gay he’d have mentioned it to us at some point. We’d got used to him doing things to get attention so we thought this was just another example. I must admit we never asked him outright as we’d never witnessed anything that made us think he was.
After the interview even Angie said, ‘You could have thought of your wife and at least said you were bisexual!’
Attitudes towards homosexuality were different in those days as it had only been decriminalized five years before in Britain. So, true or false, it was a courageous statement to make. It definitely sent shock waves through the music world and focused a lot of attention on Bowie and the Spiders. Still, all this — the clothes, Bowie’s statement — felt like a massive risk. When something outrageous hasn’t been done before, you worry that you’ll be a laughing stock and you’ll never get another gig in your life — which was a consideration, believe me.
Mick did an interview with a magazine right after that. His first statement to the journalist was: ‘Before you start, I’m not gay.’ More comments like that would have blown everybody’s cool, so Bowie stopped us doing interviews. Of course, with the way we dressed now, most people assumed we were gay anyway. This was tough for three northern boys like me, Mick and Trevor, but we had a down-to-Earth sense of humour about it.
We saw that people were genuinely unnerved by us. We would go into studios dressed the same way as Bowie, and the engineers would look at us with unease. You could tell from their faces that they thought we were gay because Bowie had said that he was. There was a certain attitude towards you.
We thought it was funny, though. I remember Mick and me sitting on the sofa in one studio, while engineers were tweaking the mixing desk six feet away — and you could feel the atmosphere. They were uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. What were we, they wondered?
Mick nodded towards one of them and said to me, ‘He’s got really nice legs, hasn’t he?’
‘No, the other one’s legs are better,’ I said.
As the engineers cringed we cracked up laughing. They just looked at us, faces bright red.
‘You think we’re gay, don’t you?’ I said.
‘Well, we weren’t sure…’ they answered.
We had that a lot, but we just played around with it.