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Robin Mayhew - The Live Ziggy Stardust Sound

Ziggy Days!: George Underwood (Illustrations), Peter Hunsley (Stage Equipment), Robin Mayhew (Sound), Bob See (Lights)

Robin, thanks very much for taking time to talk about the live/concert Ziggy Stardust sound. Its something that doesn't get much of a mention in David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust biographies and that's a shame because it was such an important part of the whole experience. But we will now attempt to put the record straight!

You were the sole sound engineer for all the Ziggy Stardust concerts?

Yes and what great days!

When did you first meet David?

I first met David at the Country Club, Haverstock, Hampstead. I was the sound engineer for a band called Tucky Buzzard who had signed up with Tony Defries. Tucky Buzzard were a heavy metal-type band and their stage volume was high. We performed first and then David and Mick Ronson did an acoustic set. Their sound was appalling with howl and feedback. We had stayed because we could not break our equipment down till the end of the show.

When David had finished, Angie Bowie came to me and asked if I'd have a word with David. He was amazed that he could hear everything that Tucky Buzzard had played even though their volume was so high. He said that he was preparing to take the Spiders from Mars out on the road and would I come to a rehearsal with the PA system we used to see how things would be? The venue was the Beckenham Rugby Club Hall.

Tell me more about your sound...

The PA I was using was designed and built by Mike Turner (Turner Electronics) from Ealing, West London. Unlike the sound rigs of the early seventies which used separate bass horns, mid-range horns and tweeters, Turner's system used the "wall of sound" concept with multiple full-range speakers in reflex cabinets each running at comparatively low output. The sheer number of cabinets gave a smooth, comfortable sound and moved a vast amount of air through the room/auditorium. David was impressed by the fact that he could actually stand in front of the rig without causing feedback. Obviously for larger arena type venues, which were bound to come, long-range conventional horns had to be used, but for the early 2,000 to 3,000 seat venues, the Turner system was ideal for the Ziggy experience and this system was used at all the UK gigs.

The sound for the Ziggy Stardust concerts was unique and quite revolutionary then?

Yes - It definitely gave David an edge over other performers of the era and suited his more theatrical approach to rock music.

What was he cost of the sound system?

When Tony Defries bought the system from Tucky Buzzard and the additional cabinets and amplification from Mike Turner, I think the cost would have been about 5,000. The 24 channel mixer which came later was around 1,000.

How many speakers did you use and what type?

The usual configuration consisted of sixteen 1x15" full-range reflex cabinets (20hz to as high as they'd go) - eight 1x10"(200hz to as high as they'd go) and sixteen 075 tweeters (5Khz upward). All drivers were JBL. Sometimes at larger venues such as the Rainbow, Finsbury Park and Hammersmith Odeon, twenty-four 1x15"s would be used. The amplifiers were Turner A500s and A300s and the total output of the standard sixteen cabinet rig would be no more than 3,500KW.

The system looked immaculate with all the speaker cabinets matching and covered in black vinyl with aluminium strips round the edges and this also suited the theatrical nature of the shows. The first mixer consisted of 12 channels only but was soon upgraded to 24. Believe it or not the echo facility was a Watkins Copy Cat tape-loop machine and that was the only sound-effect we used. At the beginning of the Ziggy touring period there were no on-stage monitors but with the wall of sound concept the band could hear the mix very well from their stage positions.

What was the setup for the US gigs?

In the States I commissioned Clair Brothers, Lititz PA to supply a conventional JBL system for all the Ziggy shows.

What was the first main Ziggy Stardust gig you did?

Bristol University, Main Hall (1 March 1972) is the one that I remember - probably 200 people tops were there. I know that we did a Bowie gig at Aylesbury Friars Club (25 September 1971) and Tucky Buzzard did the warm up with our sound system and that David and what would become the Spiders went on using a Tasco system. I think David's hair was still long like on the Hunky Dory cover. In these early gigs Cream's 'I Feel Free' was used in preference to Width of a Circle.

Apart from yourself as the sole sound man - who were the others and what did they do at the Ziggy gigs?

The running of the gigs was left to Peter Hunsley who had worked with Mick Ronson's band Rats in Hull and myself. Willy Palin who worked at the rehearsal studio in Foresthill came along to help with the humping. Stuart George who had also come down from Hull was in charge of security. Lighting was done by a company called Heavy Light and the main man there was Nigel Olaf. They had been doing T Rex and Angie got them on board. See Factor, who we had used in the States took over lighting after the Lindsey Kemp mime show at the Rainbow Theatre. Roxy Music were support on that fantastic show.

How many would be working on a typical gig and what did they do?

At the height of the period the most crew we had was probably 10 personnel including Suzi Fussey who handled the wardrobe and helped with make-up and hair styling. George Underwood, in the picture, and his wife were along in the States purely as friends of David. He had drawn the marvellous Ziggy caricature on the first posters. I did have one but somewhere over the years it's gone!.

How long would it take to set up the sound at an average UK or US gig?

Early UK gigs took about 3 to 4 hours to set up and the later US/UK gigs probably 5 hours.

Did you have any other duties?

On the very early gigs from the mixer position at the back of the hall and from the sides, myself and Peter Hunsley (the stage manager) would throw out handfuls of A4 pictures of David and the Spiders during the 'Wham Bam Thank you Ma'am line in "Suffragette City" to finish the show.

One day when we were still in the Gem offices in Regent Street, I was asked to proof-read all the lyrics to The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars to make sure that they matched the sung words. They were all typed out and after listening over and over to the Ziggy Stardust track, I swear that David sung 'like a leper messiah' - whereas the typed lyric sheet words were 'like a leather messiah' - so I changed them. Again in "Rock and Roll Suicide", I heard David singing 'wall to wall (as in carpet) is calling' not the 'waterwall is calling' as in the draft lyrics - so I changed them. If you look at any lyric sheet for the album you will see my words there. I never talked to David about it!! Maybe I'm responsible in some way for weird lyrics!!

What was your last gig with David?

My last Ziggy concert was the Hammersmith gig when David broke up the band. Mick Ronson and Peter Hunsley were the only ones who knew it was going to happen. Peter told me that David was going to 'break up the band' over the intercom just before the last show began.

Here is a very special treat from that concert.  Its a never-heard-before recording of Barry Bethel introducing the last Hammersmith Odeon concert (3 July 1973) and Mike Garson performing a solo piano warm-up gig for the show, consisting of a seven-minute medley of Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, John, I'm Only Dancing & Life on Mars? 

Link to mp3 (10:13 minutes & 9.6 megabytes) (Recorded live at the desk by sound engineer Robin Mayhew)

"The Hammersmith gig itself was phenomenal. I was pissed off though because Tony DeFries had come over and made me sign something before the show.  I think I made $52 from that performance, the soundtrack album and the rights of the movie and that didn't seem fair!  What people don't know about that gig is that I opened the show on solo piano.  David asked me to be his opening act. So for just fifteen minutes I took some of his hits, "Changes", "Life On Mars?" and "Ziggy", and made a medley for the gig [Ed: As noted:  Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, John, I'm Only Dancing & Life on Mars?].  I came out to do the spot and I was scared to death.  So was Bowie.  He told me backstage that he was more frightened for me that night than for him!" - Mike Garson (1999)

Did you help with the 1980 Floor show in August 1973?

Yes. I think I was the only one of the original crew to be involved. I placed full-range speaker cabinets all round the Marquee and it worked really well. Whilst setting up the piano for sound, I was playing the introduction to "Lady Stardust". David came to me and said "That's yesterdays music"!

Did you have any involvement with any of the studio album recordings?

I used to go along and help with the backline equipment and did a bit of clapping sometimes but mainly to hear the new stuff as it was created so I had an inside picture of the sound.

What was your best memory of the time?

Arriving in Los Angeles and staying at the Beverley Hills Hotel for two weeks while David travelled across the US by car and train. Loads of fans knew he was coming and the excitement was extreme. To subsidise our meagre wage (35 per week) we would invite fans to dine with us on the understanding that they would pay a contribution to the meal costs. We would then charge it all to our rooms and pocket the cash!

What was your worst memory?

The Earls Court gig. The stage was too low and the house JBL sound system which had to be used to augment our sound rig failed. It was a bit of an audio disaster but the crowd loved it.

What was your favourite Ziggy show?

All the Ziggy shows were fantastic. I remember one night David had jumped off part of the PA stack and twisted his ankle so he was unable to do much moving about on stage. So he actually got off the stage and came out to join me at the mixer and sang the rest of the show from there moving amongst the nearby audience.

Also the 27th May 1972 Ziggy concert at the Ebbisham Hall, Epsom is special to me as my second son Oliver was born at Epsom Hospital just round the corner from the gig. As soon as the last number had finished I shot round to see him delivered. David and Angie sent flowers.

The Japan Ziggy tour was also an experience I'll never forget. They loved it and I remember being struck by the odd fact that standing at the sound desk at the back of the venues every head was covered with black hair.

Who did you work with after David?

Because of the close association with Lou Reed's Transformer album and the Save the Whale gig at the Festival Hall - I found myself very much in demand by Lou and worked with him round the world during his Sally Can't Dance period. Great band and Lou really enjoyed the true funk/rock experience. During this time I formed the sound company called Ground Control and worked with many bands of the seventies including The Clash, The Stranglers, Blondie, David Essex, and of course, Mott the Hoople.

If you would like to get in contact with Robin, his biography and contact page can be found on his website at www.the-presidents.org.uk

---This page last modified: 03/02/07---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)