15 April 1989
by Kirk Blows
He's the eternal journeyman, the perennial traveller with guitar slung over his shoulder; a man whose career has consistently meandered with an uncertain quirk and charm. Now, back with Ian Hunter, MICK RONSON talks about his relationship with the vocalist and their joint plans for the future...
Freedom is a word that means a hell of a lot to Mick Ronson. I always has done. Freedom in the sense of retaining independence, having the right to follow his nose, and to always have that one extra option available. And it's this autonomy that guitarist Ronson has exercised over the years, from his initial impact-making days with David Bowie ('70-'74), throughout the Rock-smeared '70s and his liasons with Lou Reed, Mott The Hoople, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, as well as his constant forays into production.
We're talkin' about a true rock 'n' roll survivor here, but if on the rambling journey there's been one constant, then that would have to be his continuing relationship with vocalist Ian Hunter, a kinship that's united the pair on a musical basis on several occasions, most notably with Ronson's co-producing and playing on Hunter's successes of '79 and '81, namely the 'You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic' and 'Short Back And Sides' albums.
Since then, things have been pretty quiet on both fronts. Ronson made a brief guest appearance on 'All Of The Good Ones Are Taken,' Hunter's last LP in 1983, and that's been it, apart from some brief talk of a third solo album by the guitarist, which finally came to nothing. And then, out of the blue, we hear of a Hunter / Ronson European tour, climaxing with two dates at London's Dominion Theatre (February 15/16--see review issue 14). These are indeed strange times.
With both keeping fairly low profiles during the mid-'80s, what's brought the two of them back together again, in the disposable-Pop dominated environment of 1989?
'It goes back a few years,' explains Ronson. 'I've been doing quite a bit of production and have been travelling a lot, spending time first in Italy, then France, and then here in the UK for a while. But when I was here I wasn'thaving a very good time. There were a lot of things going on in my life that weren't right, so I decided to take myself off to Nashville, where I stayed for most of last year.'
There Ronson produced a hit Country album for David Lynn Jones, but once again those eternal itchy feet started to get the better of him, prompting unrest and the desire to move on.
'People were suggesting I stick around in Nashville--I could get a lot of work down there, but it would have felt as if I was retiring, like it was paper 'n' slippers time or something. I'd given up playing the guitar for a long while, and then I started wanting to play again.
'I rang up Ian, who I always talk to whether we're working together or not, and said, 'Look, I gotta do something. I want to play the guitar again and get out there.' I didn't want to be in the studio all the time, because that just seemed like I was doing a regular nine-to-five job or something. And the reason I wanted to get into the music business in the first place was because I valued my freedom. I needed to be able to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and then I ended up in a situation where it was almost like doing a normal job. And that I refuse to do. That's not what music is all about.'
It's a subject that Ronson has firm feelings about.
'The business has changed a lot in that respect. When I started, people used to play because they wanted to. It never really entered into their heads about making money. But these days it's just about making money, that's really the extent of it. Half of the people you see think they're in the fashion business or something, and they're in it for the money, that's their priority. It's all bullshit!'
So having made the approach to Ian--who was just as keen to get something established, having spent the last year or so doing nothing beyond residing in New York and writing occasionally--the two of them ended up going to Canada and playing some strip bars, just to feel things out. And 'things' worked out well enough for Ronson to hire a manager and line up some US dates.
'Ian was back in England, at the time so I called him up and said, 'Remember those dates that are being set up--well, we've booked 61!' He just said, 'Fine.''
The tour was a total success, and that's not too surprising taking into account the degree of loyalty American fans seem to have for many Rock bands...
'But there's a lot of loyalty here in Europe too,' states Ronson. 'I mean, I've never really played Europe properly, probably about three weeks in 15 years or so. And Ian's never really spent any time here either, and we haven't got a record out, and yet the places were jammed. Everywhere we went the promoters were cursing the fact that they hadn't booked us for more nights. It was really, really good.'
I mentioned that the warmth of the response was perhaps down to the fact that the names of Hunter and Ronson are, to a large extent, synonymous with the '70s, times when Rock was at the forefront of what was going on, and people remember them for that.
'Well, we've never been typical Pop stars, on the front page of magazines and all that business. That's for celebrities, people who need to be stars. We aren't after that at alal, appearing on the covers of magazines, trying to look like Greek gods. We're really here to play our new material and to play what we want to play, whenever we want to play it. I don't care about the other side of the business.
Indeed, the current show is very brave and ambitious, with its high percentage of totally new material. But as the response at the Dominion shows illustrated, fans don't always come purely to appreciate the old hits.
'We played nine new songs and only six old ones, and that's he idea; that's one of the reasons we're out on tour. We're not here to pay ourselves on the back, to tell ourselves how wonderful we are and say, 'Don't these people love us.' That's for those who choose to reform for a quick cash-in. If it comes across like that, I don't want any part of it.
'The whole idea of being out there is to play new material, and that's what we should be doing. You should always go forward in your life; you should never go back.'
Throughout Ronson's career--despite the solo albums, the production work and the collaboration with other artists--the partnership with Hunter continues to surface. What is it that keeps bringing them back together again?
'We don't really know what it is, but we DO work very well together, we always have done, and there's some kind of reaction when we do it. It does happen with people. You get two personalities together and for some unknown reason it's like a magical kind of thing.
'And two heads are better than one, anyway. Ian's very opinionated about certain things, but then again so am I. We see things very differently in a lot of ways. But we can work things out and that's good for both of us. I don't get things all my own way and neither does he.
'I can say to Ian, 'Look, that stinks, that's rubbish.' He's done things with other people and I don't think they're being honest with him half the time. It's like, 'Yes boss, no boss.' They generally agree with him on everything, but you don't want that; you want somebody you can talk to and be honest with. And that's why I think it works.'
But H/R only seem to work with each other for limited periods of time. Does Ronson see it as more of a love/hate relationship?
'It's not that. I remember we went on a couple of tours after the '...Schizophrenic' album and they were good. But shortly afterwards I felt that I wanted to do something else. I didn't feel right, I didn't feel as if I was being honest with myself. I didn't want to play the guitar that badly, and I didn't want to play 'All The Young Dudes' again.'
And so Ronson packed his bags once again, and went to Canada, worked with The Payolas and singer Lisa Dalbello, and then even considered leaving the business altogether.
'I thought about going to college and becoming a chef. I didn't want to be known just as a guitar player for the rest of my life. For a while there I just lost myself. People do, they lose themselves, and when that happens it can last for years.'
His career has meandered considerably, and there have been times where, 'I haven't felt very good about myself, and I haven't felt good about anybody else either.' Bt at least he has the freedom to do what he likes. Lots of people don't...
'Yeah, but that's because they choose not to. People can have a lot more freedom if they want, they just decide not to. And it's the same musically. Musicians can get into a routine and then it ends up just like a normal job.'
I wonder if Ian Hunter shares his feelings about Rock and about being a musician...
'Yes, he does. We talk a lot, we always talk. We talk for hours, we always have done. I know I can talk to Ian about anything.'
The plan now is to start work on an album, having just put pen to paper for a deal with PolyGram Records (Phongram in the UK). The material is ready and as soon as a decision is made on a producer, Ronson not wanting to get involved on that side this time ('I don't want to be babysitting this project. I just want to go in, play the guitar and when I get tired I want to be able to leave'), a studio will be booked. The guitarist is eager to get straight in there, but how far forward is he thinking?
'I'm looking past the album, yeah, but this thing will last as long as it lasts. If there comes a point where I don't feel like it's progressing, and it's become a stalemate or something, then I'll know it's time to move on.'
It seems Ronson's hungry to play the guitar these days...
'You bet I am, more so than ever! You have to remember that I only recently started again.'
Was it difficult to get back into it?
'Not at all, because I felt like playing. It's down to instinct, y'know? It's as simple as that. You follow your heart and you follow your conscience. Like, I don't mind playing those old songs again now. It's part of something I was involved with, those songs are part of me.'
But then, of course, Ronson hasn't had to play the aforementioned songs for the past 15 years. His basic philosophy has stopped him falling into that trap..
'That's exactly right. There was a time when I didn't want to play that stuff, I didn't feel the need to. And that's why I stopped. But now I don't mind because we're approaching things in a different way, and playing all the new material.
'I'm enjoying playing again. I'm not very good at conversation onstage, I'd rather talk through the guitar--I can say a lot through that.'