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Hunter - Ronson: Once Bitten, They're Twice Shy

July 1975
by Ron Ross

After all those years in suburban Kent, last autumn Mick Ronson finally moved to a new house right off Hyde Park, the hub of Central London. Although the semi-detached calm and quiet evenings with the telly had suited Mick, he had been a little lonely for some musical company. 'I need other people around me,' he'd realized. Nobody wanted to travel almost out of town to drop 'round to their mate's place. So the only answer for it was to move house to a reasonably handy spot, where friends would be welcome and he'd get back into what was happening.

It was there, on a Sunday afternoon about two weeks before the final Ronson co-produced sessions for Hunter (on Columbia Records) that Ian Hunter wrote 'Once Bitten Twice Shy,' his first solo LP's opening track. 'I think it's one of the best rockers I've ever written,' Hunter told Circus Raves in the midst of the maiden Hunter-Ronson onslaught on Britain, a 15-day celebration of the diamond duo's return to rock 'n roll. 'Once Bitten Twice Shy' is an apt adage to describe Hunter's new attitude to producing rock and performing it. But though he's been bitten, Ian is no longer bitter. In fact, 'neither of us have been this happy for years,' he volunteered.

Hunter called just before a gig in Newcastle, the North England home of brown ale and Britain's. soul capital, where Bryan Ferry grew up on R'n'B. Ian was looking forward to playing that night, because 'the last four shows have just been amazing. The tour's caused quite a bit of chaos here, quite a few people camping outside the halls to get tickets. It's because Mick's somewhat of a ladies' man.'

Musical marriage secure: He's secure enough about their musical marriage now to joke about his onstage spouse, but Ian, as happy as he is with his first album since leaving Mott, appreciates the impact of one of those typically Hunter-esque close calls he's just been through. After all, just three months before he had been a very sick out of commission rock star. While visiting his manager in the States, during a pause in what would be Mott the Hoople's last tour of Europe, Hunter suffered a nervous breakdown.

During his convalescence at Blood, Sweat and Tears drummer Bobby Columby's house in the ritzy suburb of Westchester, N. Y., Ian's plans for a solo career began to materialize. Ronno, who had belatedly joined Mott at the end of the summer of '74, threw in with Hunter when he flew over to work on Ian's solo material last December. Hunter and Ronson took advantage of Columby's home recording studio to put some of Ian's new tunes together, and then, at the beginning of the new year, they returned to London to cut Hunter, still somewhat uncertain as to what direction their hastily formed union might take them.

'We were lucky that the album came out as good as it did,' ' Hunter admitted.'Going solo was a big step and it could easily have gone wrong. There were brand new musicians on it, and Mick and I were still sort of feeling each other out. I'd played with the same bass player and drummer for six years and all of a sudden I was playing with new guys.'

But for the success-hardened Hunter, going solo was the only step left open to take. 'I wasn't having any fun with Mott,' Hunter said with regret, about to reveal in full his mental state just prior to amputating the Hoople. 'In fact I thought I'd lose it, that's what really seared me. I was getting very pissed off with certain elements within the situation I was in. There was a lot of laziness, a lot of middle class hanging on to money, and not bothering too much with a direction. I wasn't fat, but I felt fat, do you know what I mean? It was a foregone conclusion: you went out, did the gig, got the money.

Crazy old Mott: 'I think I finally realized that my days with Mott the Hoople were over, and the thought of that did me in. It was a crazy old band, and I felt really bad about dropping them in the shit. But I knew I couldn't play with them no more. I could no more play with them than fly. It was irrevocable. It was horrible, getting on the phone and saying, 'Look, I just can't do it any more. I think in a lot of ways they only have themselves to blame. Looking back, I warned them so many times. But nobody took any notice; they thought I'd be there for the next ten years.

'I think Mott the Hoople actually split up when Mick Ralphs left. I loved working with Mick Ralphs, the way I love working with Ronno now, and me and Mick didn't get on in the end, which was a great shame. I think a lot of Mott died when Mick left. I felt very vulnerable when Mick left. He wasn't very interested for the six months be ore he left, but I missed him a hell of a lot. It got to the point where there was one particular guy in the band I couldn't bear to look at. I could see us coming back to the States and playing Madison Square Garden, and actually, I was dreading it. To me it was negative. It didn't feel like a rock 'n roll band. It felt like a business.

'I'm not concerned with having a lot of money; I'm concerned with enjoying myself. I hadn't been laughing or smiling for a long time. I was getting to be a bit of a bastard, and I think it was basically because I was unhappy with what I was doing. I haven't regretted leaving Mott for one second.'

Time to get down: The press had a field day with Hunter's exit and his coincidental break down, while Mott's thousands of fans were torn between the band and its erstwhile spokesman. It seemed that somebody had to be to blame for the break up. Though no music writer actually had the nerve to state it as a matter of fact, many thought Hunter was finished, and the unevenness of Ronson's solo album, Play Don't Worry, had not restored public confidence in Ronno's potential to go it alone. While shaken, Ian was realistic. 'We said to each other, 'let's just get down and deliver something, and then people will shut up',' he reasoned and began to work up material while he recuperated as his manger renegotiated his recording contract.

His faith in Ronson remained limitless. 'Mick had had a lot of bad criticism for Play Don't Worry, but if anybody only knew, he'd gone through hell making that album. He was really smarting from the criticism, but it's a great album considering the circumstances,' Hunter proposed in defense of his easy-going ally. Ronson himself was man enough to admit, 'Towards the end of Play Don't Worry I was thinking I had to finish it off, but I couldn't wait until after it was finished to find permanent musicians.' Speaking to Circus Raves during a break in the Hunter-Ronson recording sessions, he acknowledged, 'I need people to write with and perform with all the time. I need that involvement with other people because it's a bit strange being on your own.'

He had done his best to help Mott pull themselves together, after he joined them late in 1974, just as he had honed the Spiders into the perfect weapon for David Bowie's Ziggy assault two years earlier. When it looked as if Mott might still record a sequel to The Hoople, Dale Griffin had praised Ronno's productive peacemaking by saying, 'Ian and I have had conflicts in the past, but with Mick, everyone seems to end up happy. He knows how to make compromises and put his own little things in as well. I think our next album will be a lot more positive as a result, and a lot less sorry for itself.'

Nixed rigidity. Hunter himself calls the album he finally did record 'very upbeat.' Over the hiss and crackle of a so-so trans-Atlantic connection, he got down to specifics on the making of Ian Hunter. 'The album changed in mid-flight, actually,' he revealed. 'I went in with a different sort of material, but the funky things were coming through more. I had a couple of those dramatic type things that I do, you know, and they just didn't seem to fit the new kind of music, so we kicked them off. Rigid sort of things like 'Marionette'.'

The feel of Hunter-Ronson's rock certainly has a self-assured groove, far more relaxed than the taut suspense in which Mott specialized. The production, thanks to Ronson, is clean and uncluttered, yet dense and overwhelming when Ian's powerful sentiments in the lyrics call for it. Drummer Dennis Elliott, whom Hunter introduced to Ronson, gets a recorded sound close to the percussive perfection of Aladdin Sane and Pin-Ups. 'I always thought that when I left Mott, I would like to work with a 'swing' drummer, a jazz drummer. I always admired Charlie Watts; he has a slight delay when he hits the snare. Mick had this drummer and I didn't like him, but I knew a drummer I really wanted to try out. Mick's a drum freak - he's worked with Tony Newman and Aynsley Dunbar - and the first time he heard Dennis, be couldn't believe it. Dennis has made a lot of difference,' Ian believes.

Filling out the Hunter-Ronson lineup are a first-rate keyboardist, Peter Arnesen, and Geoff Appleby on bass, from the Rats, an old band of Ronno's. Since Arneson had to go into the hospi tal for an operation before Hunter and Ronson began their British tour, they borrowed the Bee Gees' Blue Weaver temporarily. Weaver had previously worked with Mott on one of their American tours.

Explosive and cocky: Hunter is not surprisingly one of the most impressive 'debut' albums ever released. The eight tracks are alive with spontaneous musical discovery mingled with a sense of direction that results from Hunter's years of experience in arranging and performing his own songs. 'Once Bitten Twice Shy' kicks things off with an explosion of cockiness in the tradition of 'Rock 'n Roll Queen' and 'All The Way From Memphis.' The combined effect of Arnesen's stride piano and Ronson's rock-ribbed riffing would do the Stones proud, and between the killer flash of Ronson's guitar and the biting sarcasm of Hunter's vocal, errant 'mama's little babies' would do well not to mess with Hunter-Ronson.

Further evidence of the team's no-nonsense approach to hard rocking loose living women is given by 'Who Do You Love?' and 'Lounge Lizzard.' 'Lounge Lizzard' and 'Who Do You Love?' are pure fabrication,' Hunter noted. 'Those songs use a girl, but it's a cover up for something else I was trying to say. A lot of it's fictional, to be perfectly honest with you.'

Ian had wearied of writing increasingly venomous autobiographical lyrics for Mott. He may believe as he sings 'The Truth The Whole Truth Nothing But The Truth,' a steely Zeppelin-like showcase for Ronson, that 'the truth won't hurt you.' But describing Mott's problems with stardom as he lived them did Hunter a lot of damage. 'I wound up in a corner where I didn't see anything else but my immediate company. And you tend to withdraw into yourself. I hate writing autobiographical songs. But sometimes you get into a corner and you can't write anything else. You are working all the time, and you're not seeing anything.'

His solution has been to cut down his concert schedule so that rock 'n roll becomes less of a loser's game and more of a good time. 'In England we're only doing 14 dates instead of the 24 that Mott had booked before my breakdown, and in America we're only doing 25 when Mott would have done 40. You've got to have time to write, you've got to have time to get around, you've got to have time to meet people and see situations and go through things,' Hunter insists.

Boy, oh boy: Perhaps Hunter's dearly bought perspective is expressed most emotionally on 'Boy,' an eight-minute heart-stopper Ian calls 'the best song I've ever been involved in.' With several equally dramatic sections, held together by Arnesen's teardrop piano. 'Boy' is a piece of advice, telling someone to get himself together,' as Hunter puts it. 'It again deals in rock 'n roll suicides, do you know what I mean?' Significantly, 'Boy' is the only song on Hunter where Ronson is credited as Ian's co-composer, and when Hunter sings 'Genocidal tendencies are silly to extreme,' it's not hard to figure out which of their mutual friends is being warned. 'I've a bit of a name for writing words,' Ian concedes deprecatingly, 'but I like 'Boy,' because it's a very long song, and yet it's so melodic all the way through.'

Melody is also a virtue of 'It Ain't Easy When You Fall' and '3000 Miles From Here,' a folky acoustic quickie described by Ian as 'a very last minute thing. It's a sad little song, but I thought it had to be said. Groupies get the piss taken out of them something rotten, but there's some very sad and very romantic things happen on the road. Even if it's only a night, y'know? Even though they're sad little things, they're sometimes very nice.'

Reflecting on his penchant for painful reflection, now fortunately transferred from harsh self-examination to a sympathetic understanding of rock 'n roll's victims, Hunter remarked, 'It's funny, I do come up with these god-awful painful lyrics. I'm pretty straightforward. I'm not doped up to the eyeballs. But there's a lot of sadness in the world.'

Nothing to say? The depressing state of affair's in Britain today, which Buffin pointed out was a real bring down for Ian when be was writing for The Hoople, is one important reason Ian moved to America this spring, to a large, lazy house in scenic Westchester. A bigger problem for Hunter at the moment than Britain's demanding tax-man is that 'I have run out of things to say, which is probably the worst thing that can happen. One of the reasons I'm going to live in America for a while is because I've run out of lyrics. I always get off on the States; it always inspires me, whether it's below the belt or whatever. I'm a bit of a downer as a songwriter anyway. And I also try to be very honest, so I find it difficult to sing about the roses and moon and June when we're surrounded by idiots over here in England. America moves more in keeping with the way I move. We're planning on doing Mick's next solo album over there, and he's looking for a place near me.'

The once brooding Hunter seems to have rolled away his stone once and for all. 'The band's going to stay together, whatever,' he can say without hesitation. 'Mick's talking in years now whereas before he was talking in months. It's definitely clicking, it's definitely got its own magic. This group's a great vehicle. It's all very normal and natural. There's no more big deals.'

Advised that he had to be getting on to that evening's gig, Hunter had only one more point he wanted to make perfectly clear: 'I think people thought I'd had my day, and I didn't think that at all. I haven't started yet.'

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