Bassist on classic David Bowie tracks: ‘He was greatest British artist since Shakespeare’

Herbie Flowers playing bass behind David Bowie and Marc Bolan in this shot by an unknown photographe

Herbie Flowers playing bass behind David Bowie and Marc Bolan in this shot by an unknown photographer. Mr Flowers would like to know if there are any more photos in the set. - Credit: Archant

A musician who played bass with David Bowie on some of his most famous recordings at the Decca studios in West Hampstead said he believes Bowie was “the greatest British artist since Shakespeare”.

The Decca Studios in West Hampstead, where David Bowie made early recordings

The Decca Studios in West Hampstead, where David Bowie made early recordings - Credit: Archant

Herbie Flowers is one of the most accomplished bassists of his generation, having played with Bowie, T-Rex and Lou Reed amongst many others, but said Bowie was the best of them all.

Herbie, who is 79, worked with Bowie for around ten years, recording alongside him in Broadhurst Gardens where the bassist lived in a mews backing onto the famous Decca Studios.

He recalled: “I first met him at the Maida Vale Studios in the late 60s when he did BBC sessions of live radio, and it was obvious then that the guy had such great talent.”

He got to know Bowie better when he worked with him on a re-recording of what would prove to be his breakthrough single, Space Oddity.

David Bowie's Space Oddity was a defining moment in his career

David Bowie's Space Oddity was a defining moment in his career - Credit: Archant

“It had been recorded before, but Tony Visconti (Bowie’s longtime producer) asked Gus Dudgeon if he would re-do it because it sounded like it might be a hit single.

“It was a magic day in the studio. David seemed to like being with a bunch of session musicians who had come up through the jazz system, and he was rather amused and bemused by the style.

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“What struck us all is that he knew exactly what he wanted, even at that young age.”

Herbie said he was taken by surprise by the depth of his feelings upon hearing of Bowie’s passing, having not seen the star in person for decades.

“I didn’t think I’d feel like this. I’ve been quiet most of the day, just thinking about him.

“I am sad most of all that he died so young - and 69 is young - because if luck had been with him, we could have had 15 more masterpiece albums.”

He said he most admired the completeness of Bowie’s vision: “The albums and the videos are like great artworks, like Salvador Dali, Picasso or Andy Warhol.

“Music was only one part of what David was, apart from being a complete gentleman, he had a great eye for video as well as for coming up with new identities for himself.

“He could do everything to do with music and the production, he would write the piece, collaborate on the production and lead everybody through the dance as though he was the Pied Piper making everyone dream.”

Herbie toured America with Bowie for the Diamond Dogs album in 1973-4, and recalls that the singer’s theatricality was both ahead of his time and yet born of a long tradition.

“There were quite a lot of furrowed brows because we were a bunch of long-haired men dressing up, but if you go back to Shakespeare’s time, that’s how it was, with the men wearing the make-up and the fancy clothes.

“For me, he was the greatest British artist since Shakespeare.

“That tour cracked America for David, but I remember feeling a bit intimidated because we attracted a certain amount of negative attention.

“But I felt very proud to be a part of it.”

Herbie said he saw no evidence of the singer having demons during the times they worked together.

“We were mainly together in the studio or on tour, so we had to be professional.

David Bowie in 1972

David Bowie in 1972 - Credit: PA

“David didn’t suffer fools gladly.

“He was very intelligent and was attracted to other intelligent, talented people.

“David was very theatrical and never put a foot wrong.

“For me, there was no high and low in his work, as some critics say. He was always prolific,

“He wasn’t a mess like a lot of us were in the 70s, when the world was going crazy. He was a great example. I find him faultless.”

The musician said his favourite Bowie memory is of working with him on the series, Marc - six, half hour programmes broadcast live in the late 70s from Manchester by Marc Bolan.

“David came on and sang Heroes as Marc’s special guest. We spent half a day together, and I won’t forget that in a hurry.

“I’ll also never forget hearing the finished version of Walk on the Wild Side, which David produced for Lou Reed.

“I consider myself incredibly lucky to have played bass on that track.”

Herbie said he has no interest in modern pop music, and puts Bowie in the same category as opera singers because of the drama he brought to his work.

“It’s funny that Decca sold their studio to the English National Opera, because when I used to work with David in there, it was like he was performing an aria at times.

“We were like his orchestra, and it was an honour to work for him. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.

“He was always the master of invention.

“As fast as he was doing one thing, he was nurturing another idea, and all of a sudden, he would block Ziggy,or whatever he was doing, and move onto something else, like the Thin White Duke, or invent the Diamond Dogs thing, which was going to be a musical originally.”

Herbie said there was mutual respect between Bowie and his musicians: “He loved good musicians. He loved the saxophone.

“Ronnie Ross, who played the saxophone solo at the end of Walk on the Wild Side, was David’s saxophone teacher, which not many people will know.”

He said another of his favourite Bowie memories was from when they recorded the Diamond Dogs album at Decca: “David said he had an idea, and he sat there cross-legged and scribbled out the lyrics to Rebel Rebel, complete with this lovely guitar rift.

“So we got Alan Parker in, and by the end of the afternoon, the track was complete.”

He said that what impressed him about Bowie’s 50 year career was that he never let his standards slip.

“Everything he released was an event, a landscape or a portrait or like one of the Grimm’s Tales.

“Every song or album would be perfect in its own way.

“It’s influenced me, because since working with him, I’ve turned down quite a lot of work opportunities because you know it won’t be the same standard.

“I was spoiled, in a good way. Once you’ve toured America with Bowie, nothing else can top that.”

Herbie said that far from peaking with his earlier albums, he felt that Bowie had improved with age.

“I found his last two albums the best of all, because they’re so mature. Where Are They Now has the most exquisite video I’ve ever seen.

“I’ve never met anyone who was as complete an artist as Bowie.

“The media describe many people as icons these days, but very few deserve the title. David did.”