by Danny McCue
On the phone discussing business in Polygram Records' spacious new digs in mid-town Manhattan, Mick Ronson appears rock star thin and somewhat older than when anybody last saw him in these parts. But his hair - blond, shoulder-length, and styled in the impossibly perfect coif of a British rock guitarist with roots in the early seventies - is immediately familiar. In terms of body language during an interview, Ronson is quiet, except when talking about other guitarists, such as Pete Townsend or Jeff Beck, when he demonstrates on air-guitar how their individual styles fed his. He speaks in cool, clipped phrases. Sitting in close quarters, I find it impossible not to picture him with his guitar slung low about his waist, the spectre of David Bowie, the first front man he ever backed, blurring in the foreground.
His partnership with Bowie began in February 1970, when an informal invitation to come down and play a radio session resulted in his becoming a member of Bowie's then back-up band, The Hype. In February of 1972, two years after coming together as The Hype, and for the purpose of serving the title of the upcoming 'The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust' album, the band became The Spiders From Mars.
It was a time when Ronson's style could be best described as rock 'n' roll primitive. Light on distortion, it was mostly loud and firmly rock-based, as opposed to the blues-based style favoured by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. On records and in live performance, he combined the sloppy but lovable rhythm style of Keith Richards in the pre-Mick Taylor Stones, with the power chords of Townsend. As reflected on the Chuck Berry cover 'Round and Round' and the cover of the Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat', both included on last year's David Bowie, Sound and Vision collection, from Ryko-disc, Ronson's first fame came about as a result of his being a competent and solid rhythm player, who used his leads to embellish the established mood of the assembled pieces.
'Basically I was playing to the song.' remembers Ronson. 'That's how l thought about music and still do. Rather than just sort of endlessly play away, I always try to find a reason to play what I'm playing.'
On 'Ziggy Stardust', both the album and the song, that sense of playing what's right for the song meant creating his leads, not as flash, but as sweetener. More often than not, he chose to use chords to create fills themselves, one instant being the shifts in 'Ziggy Stardust' a simple A-B-A-B construction, in which quickly strummed chords serve as introductory fills, establishing a grittier and heavier sound for the B sections of the song.
'I've always thought that the act of playing the guitar was the act of trying to make a point of playing the guitar. With David Bowie, I played that guitar for all it was worth. I was playing the thing seriously and I wasn't trying to be clever playing it. I played a lot of simple things in the interest of being direct. I mean, if you get sort of fancy and cluttered, it's kind of hard for people to pick up on. You're baffling them with science.'
Utilizing a fuzz box, Ronson's approach to 'Suffragette City' was to combine elements of The Who with the infectious boogie of Fats Domino. Ronson's lead, a jumble of eighth notes played on the bass strings of his guitar, served to propel the song into the next verse, rather than draw attention to the player himself. It's an approach that carries through all of his work.
Despite the success of the Ziggy Stardust album, and a production partnership with Bowie that would result in his co-producing Lou Reed's 'Transformer' and Mott the Hoople's recording of Bowie's 'All The Young Dudes' - thus leading to Ronson's first direct contact with singer lan Hunter - within a year, Bowie would disband The Spiders From Mars. Joining Mott the Hoople himself after Ariel Bender left the band, Ronson appeared on one single, 'Saturday Gigs,' before Mott itself disbanded - albeit temporarily. This would begin his on-again, off-again, fifteen year partnership with Hunter. But did moving from the flamboyant Bowie to the more soft-spoken Hunter require any great change on his part as a guitar player?
'No,' says Ronson, 'same guitar player, y'know. I just try to play guitar to what the song is. I try to look for good hooklines on the guitar, things that people remember. That's why I like George Harrison because those solos he did with the Beatles were some of the best solos I ever heard. They were the type of things you could whistle as you walked down the street. In those days, the solo was as important as the song - even when it wasn't a solo, when it was a hookline in a chorus, you remembered the guitar lines and guitar parts, and that, to me, is great. That's how one should approach playing the guitar. I try to play it so that people go, 'Oh, wow, isn't that great,' and yet it's simple.'
Out of that philosophy grew 'Once Bitten, Twice Shy,' the Hunter-Ronson penned grand treatise on rock 'n' roll as life, art, sex, and religion, a cover of which, by Great White, recently cracked the top five on the U.S. singles chart. 'That one was written in my apartment in London,' says Ronson, 'when lan had started talking about doing his first solo album. We just sort of switched on a drum machine. We were sitting around playing, and just came up with the chorus. After that, the rest was written right quick.'
The song opens with a simple, steady shuffle, a la Chuck Berry, catchy not flashy, with the arrangement slowly building excitement with each additional layer of guitar. The solo, as captured on the original recording, restates the brazen attitude of the verses, while punctuating a by-then stomping beat. 'More often than not,' Ronson says, 'some of the things that happen instantly are the most catchy.'
Although the original Hunter-Ronson band would successfully complete the lan Hunter album, among whose other highlights are '3,000 Miles from Here,' on which Ronson's acoustic work represents something of an artistic middle ground between the Stones 'As Tears Go By' and Guns N' Roses 'Patience,' the band would stay together less than a year - leaving Ronson free to pursue other projects, namely a solo career of his own, a tour with Van Morrison, and another as a member of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. The ever-present tapes that circulate when an artist is of Dylan's stature reveal Ronson's tenure, one of blending in, often slightly behind the beat, with his American partner's country honk. He steps forward on most of the available recordings only twice, supplying tasteful and emotionally expressive riffs for 'I Shall Be Released' and revealing a propensity to wail in the upper register when 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' was done as a blues.
'I didn't know any of the Dylan material,'' says Ronson of the Rolling Thunder tour, 'so I was kind of lost for a while. But it was great figuring it out. It was a circus and Dylan was funny, too, because he changes things right in the middle of playing. He'll change key or play the bridge a bit longer than it's supposed to be - I loved it when he did that.' Playing with Dylan, Ronson feels, bore out the adage that, 'You've got to listen and you've got to watch,' if you're going to survive as a sideman.
Teamed with Hunter again in 1979, this time along with members of the E-Street Band and singer Ellen Foley (from Meatloaf's Bat out of Hell), the resulting album was called 'You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic'. As he had by now completed a decade of working with prominent front men - from Bowie to Hunter to Dylan and then back to Hunter again - all the while maintaining his own somewhat high profile, Ronson seems to have naturally stumbled upon the key to the ideal relationship between a singer and a guitarist. 'Well, yeah, when lan stops singing, I start playing,' he dead-pans. 'And when I stop playing, lan sings.'
'Cleveland Rocks' is the song most people remember from the album. It was originally recorded by Hunter with another band, called 'England Rocks;' a live version, recorded at L.A.'s Roxy and featuring Ronson, was on Hunter's live album, 'Welcome to the Club' in 1981, and on the 'Light Of Day' movie soundtrack as well, making it perhaps his most famous song of the 1980s. The song itself, as befitting a Hunter-Ronson original, is straightforward; a fanfare of chords dissolving into a tasteful feedback and long bends, hitting hard. It's a song built on lots of foundation bedrock, little in the way of excessive frills or fills. 'I feel if you're going to play chords, hit the guitar; I mean, you see a lot of guitarists who hit the chord, but it's sort of nice - bing! I think, what's that about? If you're going to play rock music, hit the chord: don't tickle about with it. I got that from Pete Townsend, who, to me, is the best rhythm guitarist in the world, a great chord player, wonderful stuff. Growing up, it was like, 'See how he plays guitar? Well, that's how you play chords.'
During this period, Ronson also appeared on John Cougar Mellencamp's breakthrough single, 'Jack and Diane.' 'I was helping with the arrangement of the song, and (mimics the acoustic chordal riff that dominates the tune) I thought, that sounds good, let's put it in.' Just as Ronson seemed to be on the verge of making yet another commercial go at the charts, the guitarist pulled a domestic disappearing act (although he would continue to work as a highly regarded producer in Canada). Between 1983 and 1989, Ronson claims he never touched a guitar, not once.
'What really finished it for me was, I was in the studio and a record company guy was telling us to change parts and I suddenly felt I was working at a job in the music business, and the reason I got into this business was I didn't want a 'job.' I don't want to think of it as, 'I got to go do this next bit of playing, because it's my job.' I'll only play guitar if I want to. I won't play it because somebody expects me to. That's what happened, and if I begin to feel again the way I did then, I'll put the thing down and won't play it again.'
Last year's unlikely titled 'YUI Orta', marks the return of one of the men who could be said to have paved the way for punk. Recorded at New York's Power Station, with Bernard Edwards producing, the album is a crash course in Mick Ronson's style. It is short on extended solos - with the good time-y break of 'Big Time' being the most notable - and effects - a wee bit of wah-wah is pressed into use on 'Cool,' but much of this batch of songs relies on chords for propulsion, and short fills, played on the bass strings of Ronson's guitar, for punctuation. 'Sweet Dreamer,' an exercise in solo guitar variations on the old Patsy Cline country standard, is bluesy, at times dirge-like, at others triumphant. Mostly, it's simple 'I got tired of seeing all these guys on the telly playing a million notes a minute for no reason at all,' he says of his return to active playing. 'I thought that trend would only last a while, but it's been going on for years.'
Ronson's favorite guitar is the Fender Telecaster. 'Very comfortable to hold,' he says, 'simple controls, simple pickups.' He says he's never owned a 'decent acoustic,' claiming he's done all his acoustic work, including 'Jack and Diane,' on a $100 Akai.
Before leaving, I ask Mick Ronson if he ever feels envious of younger players, like Joe Satriani, who've found success as instrumentalists on their own solo albums. He's still for a moment as he considers his answer.'Now and again, yeah,' he says, 'but not very often. I mean, I've done what I've done and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do - that's life.'