NB/Disclosure: I was kindly provided a press copy of the book. Thank you McNidder & Grace!
Like a lot of classic rock fans, I love David Bowie. I even named my cat after him. So when the opportunity came to review a new book about David Bowie, written by drummer John Cambridge, I knew it was something I’d be very interested in and it would be interesting to read about his life as a musician and his memories of David Bowie, as a longtime friend of his, and other classic rockers. I say it all the time, classic rock is a small world and I think it’s so important now for anyone connected to the scene to share their stories in order to preserve the history of classic rock. Why read this book though? Well John Cambridge has a reputation for being incredibly detailed and organised, keeping a diary of all the gigs he played since 1964 and because he was so close to David Bowie that he shared a car, dressing room, and even a bed with him (his words). And he was David Bowie’s best man when he married Angie Bowie. Not a lot of people can say that, so he has a unique and valuable perspective on Bowie! He’s also an avid autograph collector who has had pretty much every important rock star of the 60s and 70s autographs in his autograph book. That’s priceless!
When it comes to solo artists, how often can you name the members of their backing bands and how much do you know about their backing bands? Unless you’re a big nerd when it comes to that musician and everyone connected to them, you’re not going to know much. So who is John Cambridge? He’s a rock drummer originally from the north of England (coincidentally a lot of musicians David Bowie worked with were northern English, just like his dad).
This book tells the story of John Cambridge, from his upbringing in Hull and getting a drum kit as a teenager only after years of him practising by hitting Beano annuals with knitting needles to working with David Bowie and life after that. There are seven chapters in the book, plus an appendix full of information. It’s a quick and fascinating read and classic rock enthusiasts will learn a lot from it. And like I said about the Jimmy McCulloch book, I cannot get over how everyone knew everyone in the British rock scene. So much name dropping and lots of great stories! He also dispels a lot of myths and misconceptions in Bowie history. To say he knows Bowie is an understatement.
He got into professional drumming by accident when he was at a gig and the band’s drummer was late and they needed someone to sit in for him and Cambo’s friend said that he could play drums and so he did that! We all need that encouraging friend who believes in us, don’t we? And then in 1964, he joined The Gonx, his first serious band, later joining a bunch of other bands like The Rats, The Hullaballoos, ABC (which Steve Marriott suggested as the band’s name), and even thought of forming a band with Mick Ronson and Robert Palmer! Imagine that! Being in a local rock band in England was pretty cool because whenever British rock bands did national tours, they had local bands open for them and it was a great opportunity to meet musicians and possibly even network with them.
I always think of rock stars as people who played their instruments from a very young age and were total prodigies, but that isn’t always the case and it’s really encouraging for teenagers to see that some great musicians started playing guitar, bass, or drums as a teenager – so it isn’t too late, even if you’re past your teenage years! Life is a journey!
In 1969, Cambo makes the move from Hull to London thanks to Mick Wayne (the guitarist who played that famous solo in “Space Oddity”, perfectly released in time for the Moon Landing) inviting him to be in his band, Junior’s Eyes. For any British musician not from London, moving there is a rite of passage and a big step up for your career. Bigger and better opportunities in the Big Smoke! What a way to finish the decade! As well, he got the opportunity to perform internationally with Junior’s Eyes – they played the Star Club in Hamburg, where a lot of up and coming British groups played: The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Yes, you name it! Mick Wayne was Cambo’s connection to Bowie, as his group, Junior’s Eyes were David Bowie’s backing band in 1969, but producer Tony Visconti introduced Cambo to Bowie and they met for the first time days before they played together. Junior’s Eyes played on the album David Bowie and were his backing band in 1969. Rather than studio musicians, they opted for a band because it was more cost effective and easier to organise and they could tour with Bowie too! Bowie’s backing band in 1970 were called The Hype, hence the name of the book. The Hype were John Cambridge (drums), Tony Visconti (bass), and Mick Ronson (lead guitar, replaced Tim Renwick). In the book, he talks a lot about Bowie’s approaches to making music: relaxed and prepared, but quick with few takes. Cambo in fact was Mick Ronson’s connection to David Bowie, he suggested his old friend from Hull when David Bowie and Tony Visconti were looking for a new guitarist. However, it took some effort to track him down in Hull, as he was working a day job at the City Council Parks Department. Funny enough, he resisted at first, saying that he’d been screwed over in London before and didn’t want that to happen again. What a change, going from that to playing guitar for David Bowie!
Life was great for Cambo, having it all: living in London – a major music centre, working full time as a musician, plenty of work, working with genius musicians, and recording in state of the art studios. Living the dream! Sadly though, he and the rest of Junior’s Eyes were not listed in the credits on the original British release, but they were listed on the American release and Cambo convinced Bowie to give him his copy of the American release. Cambo even lived with Bowie for a time and tells some really interesting stories such as once sharing a bed with him because the other option was the couch and seeing him write “The Prettiest Star”, from Aladdin Sane. And the time that David Bowie and his first wife Angie came up to Hull and spent time with Cambo’s family. It is also said that David Bowie and The Hype played the first glam rock gig at The Roundhouse on 11 March 1970. That’s rock history! And with The Hype, Cambo dressed up as a cowboy, not a pirate like Dylan Jones said. Another great story from the book is when Mick Ronson went on the Ziggy tours with Bowie, his guitar playing was so overpowering a reverse Spinal Tap situation happened where the roadies modified the knobs of the amps so they could only go up to 8. David Bowie and Mick Ronson worked well together writing songs because Bowie was great with lyrics and Mick was great with arranging the music, but often Cambo was left out of that and it made it harder for him to play drums the way they wanted.
The story of how Cambo left Bowie’s band has a lot of misconceptions and Cambo sets the record straight: it wasn’t his decision to go back to Hull, he simply wasn’t required in the band, Bowie was evolving and that meant he needed new musicians to work with that would suit his sound better, simply put personnel changes happen at work – it’s a fact of life. That said, David Bowie was never egotistical or rude to Cambo, he was just evolving and wanting to try new things. One thing I found interesting is during this time in the early 70s, David Bowie was pretty broke, to the point of asking Cambo to pay him back the fiver he loaned him to get back to Hull. He didn’t have a lot of hits to his name and was worried about being a one hit wonder with “Space Oddity”, but Peter Noone’s hit version of “Oh! You Pretty Things” got him out of that funk. So I guess making money as a rock star is a slow burn, or at least it was in those days! Shortly after Bowie sacked Cambo, he auditioned to be Badfinger’s drummer and play their US tour and almost got the job, but in the end their drummer, Mike Gibbins wanted to do the US tour. That’s another what if story! While Cambo didn’t stop drumming, he worked as a plasterer.
There was a 20 year period where Cambo and Bowie never saw each other, but once they were reunited, there were no hard feelings, only a true friendship and a wholesome, heartwarming story that’ll bring tears to your eyes. And so when Tin Machine played in Bradford, Cambo travelled there not knowing how he’d meet Bowie. At soundcheck, Bowie spotted Cambo and walked straight towards him and they picked up where they left off and he finally got David Bowie’s autograph in his autograph book. Bowie even gave him some free concert tickets for the show, but Cambo had a prior commitment to play a show at the Ritz Club in Hull. A few years later, David Bowie called Cambo from his home in Switzerland to break some bad news, Ronno has cancer and that he’ll give him his number so they can chat. He rang Ronno and left a message and minutes later, Ronno rang him back and they chatted like friends catching up.
Even until the end Cambo and Bowie corresponded via email and there’s a heartwarming story about how Iman sent Cambo a letter asking him to share memories and photos of him with David Bowie for his 50th birthday, and he even got an invite! But the party was in New York and he didn’t have the money to go, but thanks to friends in Hull, he and his wife got the money to go to New York and have a blast celebrating David Bowie’s 50th birthday.
Overall, Cambo is a great storyteller with an interesting life, and despite that very humble – doesn’t really get starstruck, he has a down to earth writing style – very factual and not sensational, very detailed knowledge and history of 60s and 70s British rock and roll – the book is jam-packed full of facts and you’ll be sure to learn something new from it. Any fan of David Bowie might want to read this book, which has been praised by Tony Visconti and Iman. And also a great source for anyone doing scholarly work on David Bowie!
Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!
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