Mick Ronson: Ronno Returns
14 December 1990
by Danny McCue
Mick Ronson debuted officially as a David Bowie sideman in February, 1970. At the time a member of Hype, the embryonic prelude to what would become the Spiders From Mars, and the band's first gig was at the Round House, in London. And though the original line-up included producer Tony Visconti on bass and John Cambridge on drums, by the time the band released its first U.K. single, 'Memory Of A Free Festival,' a song Bowie had cut earlier by himself, Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey, drummer in Ronno's former band the Rats, would be providing the backseat.
Bowie's first album with this line-up, The Man Who Sold The World, released in the U.S. in November 1970, marked a complete contrast to the singer's previous works, the Donovan-like strumming of the past being replaced by the heavier guitar work of Ronson. Coinciding with the April 1971 release of The Man Who Sold The World, with its soon withdrawn Bowie-in-drag picture sleeve, another of Ronson's Rats, Trevor Bolder, replaced Visconti on bass. In February 1972, at the Lancaster Arts Festival, the band that once was the Rats, then Hype, became the Spiders.
What Ronson lent Bowie's often self-absorbed and pessimistic music of this period, besides musicians to play it, was an approach to making a sound on the guitar that was the antithesis of the 'art-rock' that was a major component of glam-rock. Through such pivitol albums as Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane and Pin-Ups, Ronson's was the touch that was always audaciously stripped down to basics. He didn't so much play licks to such songs as 'Suffragette City' and 'The Jean Genie' as punch them out, providing a gritty balance to Bowie's taste for glitz and sexual ambiguity--in the process becoming the man who put the 'Wham' before the 'Bam, Thank You Ma'am.'
In 1972, the year that David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust broke world-wide, Ronson teamed with Bowie to co-produce two other pivitol albums of the period, Mott The Hoople's All The Young Dudes and Lou Reed's Transformer. Then, in 1973, Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust and, after making Pin-Ups, the collection of covers on which Ronson gets to work out on such songs as the Who's 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,' and the Kinks' 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone,' he retired the Spiders too.
Ronson's first solo album, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, arrived during this break, in 1974. Ronson then joined Mott The Hoople for a brief stint, lasting from September to December 1974, and next teamed with Mott's enigmatic lead vocalist, Ian Hunter in the Hunter - Ronson Band, the idea being to have one band promote the solo LPs upon which both were working. Ronson's fittingly titled, Play Don't Worry, released in March 1975 (the same year Ronson joined Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour), quickly disappeared, but 'Once Bitten, Twice Shy,' a single from Hunter's self-titled debut, featuring Ronson on guitar, was destined to be the biggest hit of both their solo careers.
Since the mid-'70s the Hunter - Ronson Band has been a sporadic collaboration. Ronson plays on Hunter's 1979 album You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic--announcing his return to the Hunter fold by providing a big slab of chords to 'Cleveland Rocks'-- and the subsequent live release Welcome To The Club, recorded during a record-breaking seven night sell-out at The Roxy in Los Angeles. Short Band And Sides, which he co-produced with the Clash's Mick Jones, followed in 1981, and All Of The Good Ones Are Taken in '83. In 1982, Ronson also both arranged and played acoustic guitar on John Cougar Mellencamp's smash hit single 'Jack And Diane.' (Ronson had worked with Mellencamp back in 1977 on the latter's Chestnut Street Incident LP.)
Though he'd lay low as a musician for the rest of the decade, Mick Ronson was no stranger in the '80s to the role of globe-trotting record producer, cutting sides in Canada, Europe and Nashville with such artists as the Payolas, Lisa Dalbello, Ian Thomas and David Lynn Jones, not all of which were released [reference is made to the discography in the article which is not included here].
The most recent Hunter - Ronson album, their first in nearly seven years and first to be so billed, was recorded during the summer of 1989. Called YUI Orta, it is a Poly-Gram Records release.
Goldmine: How did you start playing music?
Mick Ronson: Well, the first instrument I played was the accordian. From there I moved on to piano, and then I played the violin and recorder. I played the violin, but I didn't want to; I wanted to play cello, but because of the teaching methods in England at the time, they wouldn't teach you cello unless you learned violin first. Eventually I got fed up, and that's when I started playing guitar, I played everything on the bass strings. I always played low melodies, probably because it was the nearest thing to the cello, I suppose.
Goldmine: When did you start playing in bands?
Mick Ronson: When I was 17. At the time the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were already out and I used to watch those people and think, This is what I want to do. Actually, it was before the Beatles and Stones came out, about the time I first heard Little Eva's 'Loco- motion.' I used to listen to alot of the American records that were on the British charts, and then when the Stones and the Yardbirds came out, before I had even been in a band really, that was it.
Goldmine: How did you go from being that guy to one of the Spiders From Mars?
Mick Ronson: It just came about because I was at David's house one day and I wasn't really at all familiar with what he did at the time. We just sort of sat around and played and...he had a radio show to go play and he asked if I'd like to go along and play. So that's what I did and we just sort of stayed together from there. It was an accident. In fact, everything I've done is by accident. But that's a good way to be, I think.
Goldmine: Would you say that the Spiders From Mars was a pretty equal partnership?
Mick Ronson: We were his band. It was just a band, really, but it was obviously David's band. He was the leader. David and I would work things out and I'd run the musicians through [the material] and take care of the musician's side of it, basically.
Goldmine: How did the band's manager, Tony DeFries, interact with the musicians?
Mick Ronson: We used to see him all the time. He was real good. But basically David was his boy. And he used to take care of me a lot because I was the main one there with David. It was like, me and him, and then it became me and him and the band. That's how it started to go. And that's what people saw onstage too. It was very sort of visual, really, the two of us.
Goldmine: Did Tony DeFries really play the Svengali role attributed to him?
Mick Ronson: No, I'm not really sure he did. It could've been him; it could've been Angela [Bowie] too. She had a big part in all that. I think it was just, people start talking and, you know how it is, they get ideas together, and the whole thing just sort of came about just like that. But Tony was very good at making suggestions. He was very good at seeing where things would go, how things should be, what kind of performance you should put on and what kind of places to play, what kind of impact it would make. He was very good in that way. He's a smart man.
Goldmine: What would you say your overall approach to David Bowie's music was?
Mick Ronson: Basically, I was playing to the song. Whatever it was that I was playing, I wanted to put the part to the song. That's how I thought about music then and still do. I always try to find a reason to play what I'm playing. I can't play something if I don't feel it. So a lot of times, before I'd play what I played on those records, I wouldn't play a note. I'd just sort of think about what I was going to play and how I would approach it.
Goldmine: And generally it seems, with David Bowie, you went with hard and expressive chords and incidental hooks?
Mick Ronson: Yeah, I like that with chords. I feel that if you're going to play chords, hit the guitar. I mean, you see a lot of guitarists who hit the chords, 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. That's what you hear on, I hope, all the records I've been on. I got that from Pete Townshend. To me he's one of the best rhythm guitarists in the world. A great chord guitar player; wonderful stuff. So it was like, See how he plays guitar? Well that's how you play chords. If you're playing rock music, play it.
Goldmine: How much of a role did you and the other Spiders From Mars play in the conception of Ziggy Stardust?
Mick Ronson: That was really David and Angela [Bowie's] idea.
Goldmine: And it was based on a real musician?
Mick Ronson: Some people say Jimi Hendrix.
Goldmine: By Hunky Dory David Bowie and Ken Scott were producing David's albums. What legacy did producer Tony Visconti leave?
Mick Ronson: I just watched him. I thought he was really good. He used to make a lot of suggestions, because he's a very musical person. So he'd have something to say about this kind of song, that kind of song. Is it feeling right? Is it going in the right direction?
Goldmine: What do you remember about recording 'Suffragette City?'
Mick Ronson: Not a lot. It was done so fast. We just sort of played it and it was done. Fine. Finished.
Goldmine: What took the most time when recording the Ziggy Stardust album?
Mick Ronson: Nothing, really. We were pretty sharp and that's how records were made back then. Records were done very quickly. I mean, when David and I produced Lou Reed's Transformer, we recorded the whole thing in 10 days, six hours a day. We recorded the whole thing in 60 hours and it was mixed and that was it.
Goldmine: How'd it end up that you wrote the string arrangements for Ziggy Stardust?
Mick Ronson: How come? Probably because they couldn't find anybody else. No, probably simply because I was there at the time. I was playing, and I just started writing arrangements down. I loved it. I wouldn't say I'm a great arranger either. It's just that I kind of know different instruments and I know how to work things. I'll know if the bass played something different, it would change the whole tone of the song, or if a keyboard part did this...because I know how to play all those instruments. It's a matter of having the violin play one melody, the viola another, and the cello something else. It's putting one thing against another 'til the song comes together.
Goldmine: People say Aladdin Sane is a subdued record when compared to those David Bowie records preceding it. What do you think?
Mick Ronson: I thought it was good. I thought there was some good stuff on there.
Goldmine: So you'd say it stil had the fire of the ohers?
Mick Ronson: You know, I don't know, cause I've never heard it. I really have no idea because I don't listen to the records I've been on. It's not like I finish a record and then listen to it some months later. When a record's done, it's done.
Goldmine: Did you feel the same way making it as you did about earlier projects?
Mick Ronson: Yeah. Earlier we had done Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and Man Who Sold The World. You know, I thought there was some good energy on Pin-Ups. I thought that was a good album.
Goldmine: It was during that time that you kind of had the English guitar hero mantle thrust upon you. What did you bring to that image?
Mick Ronson: Well, when I was with David Bowie, I played guitar for all it was worth. That's how all that 'guitar hero' stuff came about. I was playing the thing seriously. I wasn't messing about. I wasn't trying to be clever on those records either. I was trying to make a point of playing the guitar. Plus, when we were onstage together, the adrenalin was flowing and it wouldn't have been right if I just stood there and played every little thing nicely. I just couldn't do that. I just wasn't that kind of person somehow.
When we were onstage, I was sort of scared, so it was bang, hit the guitar, bend the strings up, whatever it might be. Maybe subconsciously it had to do with the nerves. Also, because of what we had to play through at the time, it was hard to get the sustain I needd to reproduce the sound of our records, so I really bashed the thing to compensate and get the point across.
Goldmine: Do you think it was that approach that enabled you to stand out despite the fact you were backing this master showman?
Mick Ronson: Well I think it was rare for people to see someone of whom they could say 'Oh, that's how he does it. That sounds easy enough.' If you listen to those records, I played a lot of simple things in the interest of being direct. I think that connected me with an influenced a lot of people. I mean, if you get sort of fancy and cluttered on records, it's kind of hard for people to pick up on it. You've baffled them with science.
Goldmine: How did the relationships within the band change over time?
Mick Ronson: I think it got down to more of a feeling that maybe it was just a band after all, and then there were some personal problems with members of the band.
Goldmine: Why did the Spiders From Mars disband?
Mick Ronson: It was a management decision, really.
Goldmine: There wasn't any individual incident that precipitated it?
Mick Ronson: No, it was a plan. They really wanted it to be remembered as...going on the road and plugging Ziggy Stardust to death...They kind of wanted to end it there and then. Let the myth build, that sort of thing. Which it did.
Goldmine: When you were playing with David Bowie, were you writing your own stuff as well?
Mick Ronson: No, I never really thought of myself as a songwriter. I do a little bit more now, but really I'm not sort of a craftsman in that way. The basic songs are the basic songs and I wouldn't go so far as saying 'Well, I'm a songwriter, put that one here, this one there, the other one there...' I'm not really like that.
Goldmine: So why did you eventually begin to write?
Mick Ronson: Well, I just think it's a good exercise. I like writing, even stuff that's more geared to some movie things and some instrumental stuff. I've found that I can do that pretty well. But I'm not really good with lyrics and stuff like that and I'm not really a singer but I try. Though it's not really my forte.
Goldmine: Did your approach to making records change when you went from playing with David Bowie to Ian Hunter?
Mick Ronson: No, same guitar player, y'know. I just continued to try to play to what the song was. Trying to come up with hook lines that people would remember. That's why I like George Harrison. His [work with the Beatles] are some of the best solos I ever heard. They were the type of things you could whistle walking down the street. The solo on the record was as important as the song or, even whent it wasn't a solo it could be a hook line in a chorus--you remembered the guitar lines and that to me is great. And I try to do that.
Going back to some of the things I played on Hunky Dory or Aladdin Sane, I tried to play them so that people would go, 'Oh, wow, isn't that great and isn't it simple?' I grew up on melody, 'cause that's what it was in them days, so I guess I'm real melody-conscious.
Goldmine: Tell me about writing 'Once Bitten, Twice Shy?'
Mick Ronson: That was written in my apartment in London about the time Ian [Hunter] started talking about doing his first solo album. We were just sort of sitting around playing and came up with the chorus. So I switched on a drum machine and the rest was written right quick.
Goldmine: It almost seems like the overriding theme of your career has been 'the best way to work is quickly...'
Mick Ronson: It is, if you can. I mean, Ian [Hunter] is sort of more the writer, so sometimes he probably lives all the songs. I think that's true of most writers more often than not and some of the things that happen instantly are the more catchy ones, too. Sometimes if you work on something for a long time, you sort of disappear inside yourself.
Goldmine: We'd probably be remiss if we didn't mention your involvement with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975.
Mick Ronson: I didn't know any of the Dylan material. I didn't know any of that sort of stuff. So I was kind of lost there 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 break a bit longer than it's supposed to be--you never knew where you were--but I loved it when he did that sort of thing.
It was just hard to keep up. I could probably handle it a lot better now than I did then, but that to me is--you ought to listen and you ought to watch all the time. But there were so many musicians playing onstage that there were sounds and stuff coming from everywhere. It was just what he was doing that made it challenging.
Goldmine: What's the ideal definition of the relationship between a singer and a guitarist when both are prominent in the band?
Mick Ronson: Well, it's like with me and Ian [Hunter]. When Ian stops singing, I start playing. And when I stop playing, Ian sings.
Goldmine: Besides your long-term relationships, with David Bowie, with Ian Hunter, and considering the length of your career, you pop up on surprisingly few records as a session player.
Mick Ronson: I have done one or two things like that, but I've never been home and had the phone ring and have somebody ask me down to a session. The one time it did happen was an Al Stewart session. I went down with my Les Paul and my amp and we played through a song, but Al Stewart isn't saying much, just sort of whispering to his producer. His producer says, 'Mick, how about if we get you a Fender amp?' I said, 'Yeah, alright. Fine.' We go through the song again. Stewart says something to the producer and it's like, 'Mick, do you think you could play a Fender guitar, a Fender Strat?' I say, 'Well, I don't normally play a Fender, but sure, get me a Fender Strat.' So now I've got all this stuff.
The next thing is--there's this guitar player named Tim Renwick who does most of Al Stewart's records and he played a Fender Strat through a Fender amp. So we go through the song again and all the musicians are sitting around wondering what's happening with all these 20 minute breaks. Finally the producer comes over and says, 'Do you think you can play like Time Renwick?' So I said, 'I'll tell you what, he lives down the road. Here's his phone number,' and I was out of there. I've never done a session since. I play like me, not somebody else, and to ask me to do so is a complete insult. Don't ask me to come down if you don't want me.
Goldmine: And yet you did play acoustic guitar on John Cougar Mellencamp's 'Jack And Diane' in 1981.
Mick Ronson: I was helping him with the arrangement of the song and I keep hearing [mimics the heavy acoustic chord riff that dominates the song] in my head. I thought, That sounds good. Let's put it on. I played it on a real cheapo guitar, but it sounded good, and again, consistent with the other records I've been on, it was sort of that one note thing.
Goldmine: What happened to you between 1983 and 1989?
Mick Ronson: I was in Canada and produced the Payolas, who were real successful up there. Then I went to England and did some producing there, so I was doing a lot of things, it's just that I was doing it outside the United States. What really finished the U.S. for me was, I was in the studio and a record company guy was telling me to change parts, and I suddenly felt I was working at a job in the music business. Which, I mean, I got into this business because I didn't want to think of what I do as a job. I never wanted to say I've got to do this next bit of playing or producing because it's my job. I'll only play guitar if I want to; I won't play because somebody expects me to. And if I don't like that way I feel about playing, I'll put that thing down and won't play it again. That's what happened.
Goldmine: What enticed you to come back in 1989?
Mick Ronson: Well, I wanted to get out and play guitar again, because I got tired of seeing all these guys on the telly playing a million notes a minute for no reason at all. I thought that trend would last a while, but it's been going on for years. I got fed up with it. And I got fed up with all these computers you hear on records these days. I haven't wanted to play the guitar for a long time, but those things are the last straw.
Goldmine: How long had it been since you played on a record or with somebody in a live situation?
Mick Ronson: I didn't play guitar at all for six years. Boy, I was rusty for awhile. I tell you, you forget things.
Goldmine: You immediately got back together with Ian Hunter. Who called whom?
Mick Ronson: We called each other. I think he called me and I said I wanted to get out on the road, get out and play guitar. I wanted to do that real bad. So Ian said, 'Let's go out and do a couple of gigs.'
Goldmine: The ultimate result being the most recent Hunter/Ronson album, YUI Orta.
Mick Ronson: We went in and played and left. One, two takes, done. Because we hadn't done an album in so long we could've been ploughing through it and analyzing it to death. But [our producer] Bernard Edwards was great because he handled the whole thing and, at the same time, he was as impatient as us, so it got done quick, without interfering.
Goldmine: To date, have you ever truly gotten the sound you wanted on record with the Hunter/Ronson band?
Mick Ronson: No, but I think we've sort of touched on it here and there. I think we've gotten closer to it. And I think that sound is real straight-ahead, no messin', no fancy stuff, just plug in and play hard. On the new album [YUI Orta] there's a couple that are like that, like 'Beg A Little Love.' That's pretty close to it. That's a pretty rock 'n' roll sound. I'd like to capture a sound with more of that kind of attitude.
Goldmine: How do you feel about [the Ian Hunter album] You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic at this point?
Mick Ronson: There was some good stuff on there, 'though it sounds a little tame. When they play 'Just Another Night' in discos or on the radio it sounds alright. Only I think the guitars could have been a bit heavier. I was playing kind of quietly in them days.
Goldmine: Would you like to re-do those tunes if you could?
Mick Ronson: Well, yeah, I would. Yeah. Why not?