Cybernauts: when Def Leppard met The Spiders From Mars

In 1997, two members of Def Leppard – vocalist Joe Elliott and guitarist Phil Collen – joined forces with two former members of David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars band – bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey – to pay tribute to ex-Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson, who died from cancer in 1993. They did so by forming a Bowie cover band called Cybernauts, which also featured a keyboardist named Dick Decent. The band’s name presumably came from a quote by Mr. Decent, who had this to say about the first rehearsal:

"The instant that first guitar riff came sidewinding out of Mr. Collen's awesome slack, and the rhythm section to end all rock rhythm sections came in like a cybernaut from the next galaxy, any idea in my head other than the pure joy of playing with these guys was crashed into oblivion. Then big bad Joe opened up his formidable throat and the rest is history...".

The band went on a mini-tour performing five shows in the U.K., and their very rare CD was recorded during one of those shows.

The Cybernauts CD, simply titled Live, was recorded in August of 1997 at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. The CD was released only in Japan in the year 2000 in a limited edition. The following year, the band sold a 2-CD edition of the album through their website, also in limited quantities, with a bonus disc containing studio tracks recorded in 1997 and 2001. At that time, the band members insisted that the album would remain a strictly limited edition release, but in more recent years, Elliott and Collen have suggested the possibility of an eventual reissue.

In retrospect, the Cybernauts CD makes a good companion piece to Def Leppard’s 2006 covers album Yeah!, on which the British pop metal band paid homage to many of their ‘70’s rock heroes. In this case, two members of Def Lep were doing the same for just a few of their idols, and with the help of two of them. Live is a surprisingly great CD that transcends the usual limitations of tribute concert recordings.

The Live CD features covers of 17 Bowie songs from the early-to-mid-‘70’s, including the Mott The Hoople classic “All The Young Dudes” (which was written by Bowie), and a cover of “Angel No. 9” from Ronson’s 1975 solo album Play Don’t Worry.

These performances update (so to speak) the originals from early-‘70’s glam quirkiness to smooth ‘80’s-style arena rock professionalism. There’s no forgetting the presence of the original Spiders rhythm section; they sound especially authentic on “Hang On To Yourself”, “Ziggy Stardust”, and “Jean Genie”. Collen’s guitar playing is excellent throughout, showing him to be fully up to the task of playing Ronson’s role in the band. He particularly does Ronson justice on “Moonage Daydream” and “Starman”, and brings impressive intensity to the epic “Width Of A Circle”. Elliott is not the most Bowie-like singer, but he is one of hard rock’s most penetrating vocalists. He does a fine job here, sometimes aiming for Bowie-like phrasing (on “Changes”, for example) but more often putting his own professional spin on the songs, particularly on stunning renditions of “Life On Mars”, “Starman”, “The Supermen”, and “Rock N Roll Suicide”. In fact, “Life On Mars” and “Starman” stand out as tracks on which the entire band shines brightly, even capturing the celestial feeling of those songs.

The quintet does a remarkable rendition of Ronson’s 1975 song “Angel No. 9”. To begin with, that song was actually a Pure Prairie League cover – but that’s another story. The Cybernauts’ rendition is clearly based on Ronson’s showier interpretation, and they manage to find the cream at the song’s center. It’s hard to determine if their rendition of the intense “White Light, White Heat” is more faithful to the Velvet Underground’s original or to Bowie’s frequent live cover versions, but one thing is certain: it sounds about as clean as a wild-and-dirty pre-punk song about amphetamine abuse is ever going to sound. One potential pitfall that was avoided: when the band performed “The Man Who Sold The World”, they were not standing in the shadow of Bowie as much as the shadow of Kurt Cobain. Instrumentally, this rendition is very reminiscent of Nirvana’s famous Unplugged version, but Elliott follows Bowie’s vocal timing, while singing the song in his own style. “All The Young Dudes” was a smart choice for a show-closing anthem, and it was equally smart to emulate the Mott version instead of Bowie’s. Great show, gentlemen!

During that same month in August 1997, the quintet also recorded studio tracks in Dublin. And after the Live CD’s limited release in Japan, the Cybernauts reunited to record more studio tracks in Tokyo in December of 2000 and January 2001. Later in 2001, the band sold a limited 2-CD edition of the album through their official website, the bonus disc of which featured seven tracks from those studio sessions. (This edition of the CD had different and less colorful cover art). The bonus studio disc was titled The Further Adventures Of The Cybernauts.

The first four tracks from this disc were recorded during the 1997 session. The disc opens with a solid cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”, with Collen proving once again that he can play guitar as well as his models. The next three tracks are studio versions of three of the same Bowie songs the band covered in concert. ”All The Young Dudes” and “Moonage Daydream” are given well-arranged, expertly mixed Leppard-like pop metal renditions; meanwhile, “The Man Who Sold The World” is clearly – and successfully – arranged to sound more like Bowie than Nirvana. The last three tracks were recorded during the 2001 sessions, and they were Bowie covers not featured on the live disc. These three tracks are less dominated by the Def Leppard guys, allowing Decent and the Spiders rhythm section to add more Bowie-like flavoring to “Time” and “Lady Grinning Soul”. “Panic In Detroit” works the best of all, with all five musicians coming across with equal effectiveness resulting in a spot-on rendition.

Sadly, two of the Cybernauts passed away earlier this decade. Dick Decent died in 2012, and Trevor Bolder died in 2013. And I’m sure you are well aware of the passing of David Bowie in 2016.

Cybernauts - Cybernauts Live

Cybernauts “Live” (Universal UICE-1006) 2000

Track Listing:

1. Watch That Man
2. Hang On To Yourself
3. Changes
4. The Supermen
5. Five Years
6. Cracked Actor
7. Moonage Daydream
8. Angel No. 9
9. The Jean Genie
10. Life On Mars
11. The Man Who Sold The World
12. Starman
13. The Width Of A Circle
14. Ziggy Stardust
15. White Light White Heat
16. Rock 'N' Roll Suicide
17. Suffragette City
18. All The Young Dudes

Cybernauts - Cybernauts Live

Cybernauts “Live” (2-CD edition) (Arachnophobia ASO 2001) 2001

Disc 1 contains the same 18 live tracks listed above.

Disc 2 is titled The Further Adventures of the Cybernauts

Disc 2 Studio Track Listing:

1. Manic Depression
2. All The Young Dudes
3. Moonage Daydream
4. Man Who Sold The World
5. Time
6. Panic In Detroit
7. Lady Grinning Soul (w/hidden acoustic version of “Moonage Daydream”)