Mick Ronson: One Of The Boys
by Ben Edmonds
'I'd like,' announced Ian Hunter, his sweeping hand motion orchestrated by an imaginary drum, 'to introduce the new lead guitarist of Mott the Hoople...Mick Ronson!'
This proclamation was met with spectacular silence, finally punctuated with polite applause as Ronno snaked his way through the assembled New York journalists to take a seat next to hunter at the heavily-miked front table. The cat, you see, had pretty well clawed its way out of the bag in the preceding week.
And what a juicy item it was, when the gossip express arrived at your stop. Mick Ronson--one time guitar translator of Bowie's rock and roll persona exercises and (a questionable solo career notwithstanding) perhaps the strongest guitar personality since Jimmy Page--teaming with Mott the Hoople, another much-loved (and considerably better-consumed) pack of refugees from the Bowie playpen. (At the London press conference two days earlier, Tony DeFries--el presidente of the Main Man empire and manager of Ronson as well as Bowie--had joshingly welcomed Mott 'back into the family,' causing at least one member of the band to visibly choke on his drink.)
But maybe we're already getting too far ahead of the story, for there's one big chunk of business that should be cleared up first, namely, Mr. Ariel Bender, whose exit from Mott was reduced to a footnote by the Ronson fireworks.
To understand Bender's departure, you hae to consider the circumstances under which he joined. First generation guitarist Mick Ralphs left (in a conspiracy with Paul Rodgers that would become Bad Company) at a time when Mott desperately needed to consolidate the commercial strides they'd made in their post-Bowie surge. The man they wanted, claims Hunter, was Ronson. The man they settled for was Luther Grosvenor, the former wildman guitarist of Spooky Tooth and Stealer's Wheel. He was rechristened Ariel Bender and off they went.
It looked like a solid alliance for awhile. Bender seemed to recharge the band's flagging batteries, and their live performances--always a show- to-show proposition--took on a new vitality. His playing was a raw and undisciplined as his off-stage lunacy, and his energy input seemed to more than compensate. The release of The Hoople album raised some doubts; a good record, but largely a reiteration of points Mott had already made. Its adventurous moments were more Ian Hunter vehicles than Mott songs. Bender's playing was often painfully awkward, and the energy he brought to the live shows couldn't save him in the studio. A freeze out.
Taking in the Central Park panorama that came with his St. Moritz hotel suite, Hunter reflected on Bender's failure to fully integrate. 'I thought it was down to me talking to him and egging him and building his confidence; slowly twisting him for what I thought was his benefit. But Bender's wild, y'know. He's got incredible qualities, but they can work against him. He's not got much self-control; he tends to let things slide. But you're dealing with people, not flotsam. You've gotta give people time. If you pick a wrong musician in a position like a guitarist's, it's a year before you know.'
The live show aside, the lack of oomph on that last album gave way to a feeling that Mott had exhausted its resources, and maybe wouldn't have pulled themselves back up were it not for the Ronson buzz. Is this a fair estimation?
'Yes, it's precisely time, that's all I can say to you. The whole saga of Mott the Hoople never would've happened if we'd felt a bit less. It could've been bigger sooner, but it would've lost a lot. I want it right now; I want everybody in it right; everybody's gotta be 100% there. It was just fucking good timing, this thing with Ronno. It was luck again, that old bit o'luck that we always seem to get when the chips are down. Perhaps we deliberately put ourselves in that position to encourage that kind of thing to happen.'
But does Ronson, a solo career well under way, really want to sublimate himself in a band? 'Yes,' was the guitarist's emphatic reply. 'A few weeks ago, I decided to get a band together because I felt my music was lacking in continuity, largely because I'd been using a lot of different musicians. They'd all walk up to me and say 'whadya want?' and it's hard trying to do things that way. It's nice to be able to work with a set of people you have confidence in, people who can make contributions because they're as aware of your capabilities as they are of their own, rather than just playing the session and picking up a check.'
For the last couple of years, the responsibility for shaping and directing Mott the Hoople has rested with Hunter. In Ronson, they've added a strong, as well as a public, personality. A potential threat, if you're looking down from a dictator's throne. You've always seen Hunter painted as an iron-fisted ruler, but the tone of his response immediately defies that tag.
'Look, if I was as macho as I was made out to be, I'd have fucked up a long time ago. I want him to say no; I want him to kick up and argue. I'm inclined to over-dramatize. I need somebody to pull me back. I want Ronno to do that.'
If this situation serves to improve Hunter's performance, it will do the same for Ronson. With Bowie, he was an active definition of rock and roll dynamics, working every opportunity at the spotlight into a compact explosion of music and visual effect. His solo tour of England was considerably less successful. Trapped by the spotlight in the center of the ring, his mobility was frozen. With Mott, the burden will once again be balanced and his performing equilibrium restored.
'I think front men are born,' was the way Hunter explained it. 'Though I think Ronno's the best sideman since Leon Russell, I don't think he was born a front man. I went to see Bowie, but I couldn't take my eyes off Ronno. I'm sure a large portion of the audience did the same. He becomes the frontman because he's got somebody to work off of. In Mott the Hoople he will be a front man in his own right. He can worry about his sound, he can worry about his strings, his movements, because he's still got me in the middle holding things down.