Still Hunky Dory
by Eddie Allen
The beginning of 1990 saw Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter together again after having gone their own separate ways for a number of years. Hunter and Ronson first joined forces on Mott The Hoople's All The Young Dudes and, as a member of The Spiders From Mars, Ronson produced the 'Ziggy Stardust' album as well as playing on 'The Man Who Sold The World,' 'Hunky Dory,' 'Pinups,' and 'Aladdin Sane' (the latter remarkable in itself for an unearthly Ronson intro to Cracked Actor). Along with Bowie he co-produced Lou Reed's Walk on the Wild Side, from the album 'Transformer.' An impressive opus from the one-time Hull council gardener.
From the days of both Mott and Bowie, Mick has always had a style of his own, so I had to ask him why one track on the new LP, 'YUI Orta' sounded more like Roy Buchanan than the man himself...
'Well, one day I was just playing and I played a bit that sounded like his track Sweet Dreams. And from that point on I couldn't get rid of it, so I kept it on the album.'
Isn't that taking a chance, doing something that sounds so much like someone else?
'Well, it's only one little tiny section...'
It sounded like most of the track to me.
'Really? The whole track? No, I wouldn't have said so. He's...like...faster than that. But the one little bit in it - the actual Sweet Dreams part - I think is close. I saw Buchanan once and he sort of played it with a slur - almost like Patsy Cline would sing it - so I sort of did the same thing; the part just stayed in there. I never really thought about it apart from that; I didn't labour over it or anything. Roy's one of the players that I get off on, but I don't listen to him that much. But I really like the way he played.'
'But then Jeff Beck was an influence on me too, and I always thought George Harrison was a great guitar player. If you listen to all that Beatles stuff you'll see he's a great player, although a lot of people don't really think of him that way for some reason. I don't know why. Neil Young is someone else whose guitar playing I like a lot - his electric guitar playing. He's fantastic the way he plays, he can be so manic.'
Is that something you get off on yourself, or do you like to sit down and work on things for a long time. Like with this album for instance?
'I didn't really work on it at all. It's basically cut right off the floor; what I played was kept.'
Do you prefer that?
'Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. There are one or two things on the album which, if I'd have concentrated, I think I could have done more with, but we were kind of pushed for time. Also, because I wasn't producing it, I just wanted to walk into the studio, play and get out. You know what happens when you're making an album: you can get into that thing where you just keep on working on it. I added up the hours we spent in the studio, and working twelve hours a day we recorded fifteen songs and mixed them in twenty days. So most of it was actually cut as we were playing. One of the main reasons for doing it that way was to try and keep some freshness about the record, not get it to where it's one of those really polished, super modern-sounding technical records. If you do that, then I think you're in danger of making it sound like something else. Some of the songs sound very structured, and I think to have been more technical about that could have been too much.'
'I like to record with things a bit freer, guitar-wise, rather than me having to sit in tight little song structures. That way it loosens the whole thing up. I can imagine if we'd spent a whole load of time on this material it might have sounded like that, so we kind of left it lose on purpose.'
'What often happens when you go into the studio is that you can end up thinking it could have been done better. But all you do is end up copying what you've just done; you get it sounding better but you often lose all the feeling. We're very aware of that, so when we'd put a track down, we left it as it was.'
Is that the way you approached your guitar sounds as well?
'We didn't mess with the guitar sounds really; I just plugged in and turned it up.'
'I don't use that stuff, I never have. I used a really cheap guitar - I think it was a Roland Synthesis guitar. I play a Telecaster a lot, but with the single coil pickups I was getting a lot of buzzing in the studio. So I just used the Roland through a Boogie head and a Marshall cabinet, then plugged in my pedals. But the trouble with pedals is they tend to cut down a lot of the signal. That, plus being miked up in the studio tends to lose the sound. I don't use lots of effects, but I like to use a chorus and a wah-wah. I also like to use distortion now and again, but the best guitar sound is straight into the amp, at all times, with no pedals at all. People who have a rack-full of gear have so much compression on the sound, that by the time it goes through the rack it doesn't matter what they're playing. It all sounds the same.'
'I like it when, if you're going to play lightly it sounds clean, and if you're going to give it some stick then that comes over nice and loud. When you use a lot of effects, all that gets lost - no matter how you play. I really don't like guitars sounding that way because they don't sound real to me. It sounds like this synthesised kind of thing - in fact you might as well use a synthesiser.'
Do you use the old trick of balancing the wah-wah pedal mid-way, so it acts as a tone control? Some of your old stuff sounded that way.
'Yeah, but not very much. The thing with guitars and guitar sounds is that I really like to wrestle with them, because sometimes when you play the sound isn't quite right, but you have to beat the thing, and that reflects in the way you play. With loads of effects you don't actually get down to playing the thing, it's like 'tittle, tittle, tittle.' Plus, I always have problems when I play - like my Telecaster badly needs a refret, but I keep playing the thing and thinking, 'I've got to get this thing fixed!' I've always been the same way with guitars, they've always got something wrong with them. And there's always something wrong with the amp, but for some reason I seem to thrive on it all. I don't know what it is because I get really mad. I'm really lazy about getting things fixed and I tend to sort of leave them. But at the same time I kind of leave them on purpose, for some psychological reason I leave them like that so I have to wrestle with them. Then it feels real to me.'
'Getting back to sound, though, I didn't like the sound of the instrumental track on the album. I recorded it direct, and then for some reason they put it through an amplifier and that altered the whole touch of the thing so it sounded rather weird to me. Anyway, it's whatever it is...'
What have you been doing for the last ten years?
'Well, around 1981 was about the last time I played with Ian Hunter. But before that - after I'd worked with David Bowie and Mott The Hoople - I went with Bob Dylan for a while and then Van Morrison. Around '78 I came back to England to work with the Rich Kids and Careless Talk and then I kind of got all messed up. Then in '78 I went back to America where I worked with Ellen Foley, and I did an album for someone else but with Ian working on it as well. I produced David Johansen and also went on the road for a couple of short tours. Then in 1982 I went out on tour with T-Bone Burnett, playing support for The Who, and then after that I stopped playing altogether.'
'Pretty much. I still played in the studio when I was recording with other people, but I actually stopped 'playing' the guitar. I never thought I would go on the road again; I felt that I'd had enough. It seemed like all the super fast guitarists were coming out and I was thinking 'I can't compete with this.' And I felt that when I was playing I was just repeating myself all the time, so I thought, 'why am I doing this?' My heart wasn't 100 per cent in it and when it's like that I can't really play very well - and it sounds like it. It sounds like I don't mean what I'm playing.'
'So I went up to Canada and decided to get involved in more production work. I found this band called The Payolas and recorded two albums with them, one in 1982 and one in '83. They were really successful - in fact I felt the first album should have been a huge hit all over, but the States wouldn't do anything with it - apparently because of the name...'
'Then I found this girl singer, Lucy Delballow [sic]. I called her up and said, 'You're a great singer but I don't like your band' - they were like a regular bar band or something. 'Me and you should make an album together,' I said. So we did, and a lot of people still talk about that album. It was a real synthesised project, using a Fairlight for the drums and a Korg string machine and stuff like that, along with my guitar synth and a lot of treatment on her voice.'
'That was 1983. Then I came to London because my father was really ill and I went with this group called One The Juggler. I was supposed to stay in London to do various productions, but instead I went to Italy and France and did some stuff there. I tried to get a lot of things off the ground but it seemed like I wasn't going through a good period in my life. I was getting let down a lot and I couldn't seem to get anything together. It seemed to me that things were always falling through.'
'Then I went to live in Nashville in the Fall of 1986, and got involved in producing an album there for a guy called David Lynn Jones. That became a really big hit country album, so I thought 'great!' It was good to get back in the business and I was getting lots of things offered to me in Nashville and wondering whether I should get involved in them. Then, when I was recording David's second album he started taking so much time over it - he thought because he'd made it big-time he could do anything he wanted, and could take as much time as he liked or change his mind as often as he wanted. So I was sitting around waiting and I eventually started to think, 'I've had enough of this; I'm getting older and older here.' It took him two years to make that album but I was out of there after only a couple of months!'
'Then I happened to be talking to Ian on the phone. Me and Ian have always stayed friends and I said to him, 'Ian, I'm getting pissed off down here, I've got to get out and maybe come to New York. I've got to get out playing again.' So Ian said, 'I've got a couple of really good songs here and I want to go to Canada and check out some new material. Do you want to come?' I said, 'yeah' and that's how this whole thing started up again. And that, in a nutshell, is what I've been doing over the last few years. I've actually stayed very busy, working all the time, but it's just that a lot of people aren't aware of what I've been doing.'
Did Nashville have an effect on your playing style?
'It was more the other way round actually, because I played some really simple things and they couldn't believe it. It was like, 'Wow! One note? Fancy that...' They just couldn't believe it. They thought I was the best thing since sliced bread; everybody was raving about it. But what actually happened was I was seeing all these fancy guitar players and thinking 'I've got to do something different on this track, and that's not it and that's not it.' So, in the end it was like 'watch this' and I'd just go 'dong' - just like a one note kind of thing. You know, I can't compete with those players - I mean why would I pick up a guitar and start trying to play like them? Those people are better, so I just had to think of another way to play it.'
'That's when I started to get really interested in the guitar again, because in Nashville it's just all guitar players. So I decided that's what I do, so I'd better get out and do it. I was also getting frustrated by working in the studio all the time, getting tired of making all these albums and nothing really happening to them. That was tiring! I'm thinking, 'I'm putting a lot of work in and not really getting any thanks for it' and that really pissed me off. That was partly what started me playing again, because I think if you don't want to be in the business then you should get out of it.'
'It's great because, before now, when I've gone out and played it's been like two months and I'm fed up again. But Ian and I have been out playing for quite a while now - in fact it's the longest we've ever been together - and I'm having a ball. We're even planning some new stuff for another album.'
How have the audiences been receiving the show?
'Good, and we still play some of the older songs because a lot of people would be disappointed if we didn't.'
What's your personal feeling about that?
'Well, I actually enjoy playing some of it now. See, ten years ago I didn't think like that because it felt like I was standing still, and I didn't want to be seen playing old things. But it is part of your history after all, so now I don't feel bad about it at all. You can only do what you feel is right for you.'
Can you remember when you first got into music and your first guitar?
'I can't remember my first guitar, but the reason I wanted to play in the first place was because I didn't want a regular job.'
But it can certainly seem like that a lot of the time...
'That's true, and when the music does start to get like a regular job it can get pretty boring. I'm sure a lot of people get into that and they're happy with it, but I can't face it. I know when I started playing that getting into music wasn't a regular thing to do, it was a different kind of lifestyle, a much freer way of life.'
'I actually used to play the violin when I was really young. I got into music because it inspired me so much that I just needed to play it. And also, when I was playing it I didn't have to talk to anybody. My mother used to go out to work and my father was a really strct man, and I think I got into music because I couldn't talk to him, you know?'
Has your classical training stayed with you?
'Yeah. I think any early influences, things that make you start playing, you're always going to keep; you don't get rid of them. So the classical thing will always be with me.'
Did it help you in the early days?
'Somewhat, yeah, although I regret having classical training in some ways. When you're taught classical music you're all taught the same way...but then again great classical players do have their own feel. The trouble was, when I was learning classical music I never practised what I was supposed to be practising. I just couldn't do it because I found it so boring. I'd do anything except what I was supposed to do, and I think the same attitude carried on when I started playing the guitar. I'm not exactly what you'd call a technically brilliant guitar player, but I do tend to like to twist things around a bit.'
Do you try to rearrange the songs you're doing now, for instance when you play them on stage?
'Well, I wish we'd played all the songs live before we recorded them. Some we did, but some of the others we'd never really played before.'
You've always been very melodic...
'Well, where I can I like to defy convention. I always seem to include a lot of melody and I think that comes from the classical background - rather than just playing, I've got to have a reason to play it. So I listen to the song and try to feel like part of it. Maybe a lot of other people just play away...'
What does the new Hunter Ronson line-up consist of?
'It's just a straight line-up - me and Ian, bass, drums and keyboards. Ian plays a bit of piano but we keep everything simple. We don't use massive samples or anything; we don't get into that. It's just a straight rock and roll band. I'm using the Telecaster on stage - it's not that old, somewhere around 1962 I think - then for slide guitar parts I use something that Larry DiMarzio had as a prototype guitar, it's like a Strat kind of shape. I used to have a Les Paul but I flogged it to Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.'
I remember you using Les Pauls in the early days with Bowie.
'Les Pauls are good through a Marshall amp but lately I've been using a Boogie. In fact, I've just tried using the Marshall amps with the Telecaster and it's really good. But when I used the Boogie head with a Les Paul I found it was a more distorted sound, but not only that, it's less bright. So I found that I could never get enough top, and in the end I couldn't play it.'
With all your producing, recording and playing, are you going to have time to fit everything in?
'Well, it feels like the album we've just done is stage one, a beginning. Bands that spend a year in the studio and then go out and play the songs live must feel pretty tired of them, so I'm staying with the 'fast in and out, tour and produce' approach - just keeping busy. But at the moment this all feels new, and for me that's good.'