Mick Ronson - A Retrospective
by Peter Doggett
Mick Ronson, legendary guitarist, arranger and producer, died in London on 29 April 1993 from cancer of the liver. Ronson, famed for his work with David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter and, more recently, Morrissey, was 45. He leaves a wife, Suzy, and a daughter, Lisa. A church service for Ronson, a Mormon, was held in London on Thursday 6 May, he was buried in his native Hull the next day. 'I shall miss him tremendously' - David Bowie
Some guitar heroes can't be measured in notes-per-second; speed, after all, isn't everything. 'Mick Ronson had incredible feel', remembers his Spiders from Mars band-mate, Trevor Bolder. 'He didn't have to play a lot. He wasn't a flashy guitar player; the simple things he did were incredible. He was a true musician, who put his heart and soul into everything he did'.
Compliments like that are common enough when someone dies in the entertainment industry, but it's tough to find anyone who's ever had a bad word to say about Mick Ronson. David Bowie turned the Jeff Beck worshipping Hull guitarist into his sidekick and fellow star, but Ronson proved to have the staying power beyond the lifetime of Ziggy Stardust.
He hitched his wagon to Mott The Hoople supremo Ian Hunter, for a one-off recording and touring collaboration that lasted more than 15 years. And via Hunter he fell unexpectedly into the L.A. session scene, dragooned into Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, working as producer for ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, and then championing some of the semi-punk songwriters who emerged in New York at the end of the decade.
Two, maybe three years ago, rumours began to circulate that Ronson was seriously ill. His fight against cancer of the liver was confirmed about eighteen months ago before his death, but he enjoyed sufficient remission to produce Morrissey's acclaimed 'Your Arsenal' album, and to make one poignant farewell at the Freddie Mercury Tribute at Wembley in April 1992, alongside old mates Hunter and Bowie.
Back in Hull at the birth of the British R+B boom in 1964, 17-year-old Mick Ronson had few ambitions beyond playing in public and maybe making a record one day. His first pro band was the Rats, who beat out the local competition by getting a recording deal in London. 'Most of the musicians in Hull couldn't get out of town', recalls Trevor Bolder, who was working the same scene, although not yet alongside Ronson. 'They had day jobs and couldn't afford to try their luck in London'. But the Rats sent out their first demo tape at exactly the right moment, when the London labels were hungry to find the new Rolling Stones. Ronson's crew were one of scores of R+B-based bands invited to cut American blues songs for the British audience.
Their deal with Oriole produced just one single, featuring covers of Mose Allinson's 'Parchman Farm' and Arthur Alexander's 'Every Day I Have The Blues'. In search of a more substantial contract, the Rats found their way to the perennial home of UK mid-60s R+B, R G Jones' Studio in Morden. A recently discovered one-sided 45 on Jones' custom label, Oak Records, was presumably used to win the Rats their deal with Columbia. The song it featured was Willie Dixon's 'Spoonful' - exactly the same version which the EMI subsidiary unveiled to the world in February 1965. Columbia issued a follow-up, Chris Andrew's 'I've Gotta See My Baby Everyday', in June; but that proved to be the last the outside would hear of the Rats from Hull.
The Rats slim chance of beat-group stardom certainly weren't increased by the simultaneous appearance of a rival band bearing the same name. The second Rats hailed from Lancashire, and were signed to CBS at the same time Ronson's group moved to Columbia. Columbia's 'Spoonful' beat CBS's 'Sack Of Woe' into the shops by a fortnight, but that wasn't much of an advantage, as it turned out. The controversy did have one useful result, though: early in March 1965, TV pop show 'Thank Your Lucky Stars' featured both bands in a 'battle of the Rats', thereby introducing Mick Ronson and drummer Mick 'Woody' Woodmansey to television for the first, though definitely not the last, time.
Thereafter, Ronson was marooned in Hull, where he quickly acquired a reputation as the town's nearest equivalent to his hero, Jeff Beck. 'We were in rival bands', Trevor Bolder remembers. 'I was playing Muddy Waters type R+B in the Chicago Style Blues Band, while Mick was still with the Rats, who were closer to the Yardbirds or even Cream. Even then, he was known as the best guitar player in town. People would go to gigs just to watch him play: he was doing stuff on the guitar that no-one else in town could do'.
Ronson doesn't seem to have recorded after that until 1969, when he was called in by another local musician, singer-songwriter Michael Chapman, to add some lead guitar to his Harvest album, 'Fully Qualified Survivor'. Chapman's album was produced by Gus Dudgeon - as was Bowie's 'Space Oddity', and either Dudgeon or Tony Visconti suggested Mick and David should get together. They agreed to meet at the Marquee, where David was playing a show on February 6th 1970. Junior's Eyes backed him that night, but two days later, when Bowie recorded a one-hour show live for the BBC Radio 1's 'The Sunday Show', Mick Ronson was backing him on guitar, alongside Tony Visconti on bass and Junior's Eyes drummer John Cambridge. Ronson already had the confidence to stretch out on 'Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed', a song he'd first heard just two days earlier, but kept closely to Marc Bolan's original guitar line on 'The Prettiest Star', Bowie's latest single at the time.
Having survived that show, Ronson became a full-time member of the Hype, as Bowie christened his band. He worked with Bowie on 'The Man Who Sold The World', inventing hard rock riffs that were less subtle than his preferred style. 'Mick and Woody did that with David', Trevor Bolder recalls, 'but then decided that they didn't want to do that stuff any more. They weren't particularly into that type of music. So they moved back to Hull, and put together this band called Ronno. They signed with Vertigo, and were recording an album, with Tony Visconti producing. Mick had started songwriting by this point, with a guy named Benny Marshall. They were writing bluesy-rock songs, Free-type stuff - the kind of thing that lots of bands were playing then. I was conned into joining the band, in a way, by the singer they were working with at the time. Mick and I knew each other from the Hull circuit - we always used to chat at gigs, but never thought we'd end up playing together. But this singer asked me down for a jam, and before I knew it, I was in the band'.
After a few weeks, David Bowie was on the phone, demanding Mick's presence at his next set of sessions. 'I went down to London with Mick and Woody', Bolder says, 'but I didn't think I was going to be playing on the record. I assumed David was going to use Herbie Flowers on bass. We traveled down on the Sunday, and David had a radio show booked for the Monday. He told me he wanted me to play in the band, so I had to learn the entire set of songs overnight! We did lots of the numbers that ended up on 'Hunky Dory', and then went on to do the album'. That radio show was 'John Peel's Sunday Concert', aired on June 20th 1971, which featured Bowie plus guest vocalists Dana Gillespie, George Underwood and Geoffrey Alexander. The band's arrangements were noticeably heavier than those on 'Hunky Dory', which followed at the end of the year. Ironically, the sound of this album was very similar to Michael Chapman's 'Fully Qualified Survivor' - the record which had alerted Bowie to the guitarist's qualities in the first place.
Once he was back in Bowie's camp, Mick let his Ronno commitments slide. Vertigo issued a one-off single, 'Fourth Hour Of My Sleep' , in 1971, but the Ronno album was never completed. Firmly established as Bowie's right-hand man, Ronson quickly made his influence felt in the studio. Trevor Bolder remembers Mick returning to Hull to take a course in music theory, and then 'diving in the deep end, writing orchestral scores. He could already play piano - I discovered later he'd been taught to play by his grandmother! - and he effectively became the musical arranger. He was always listening out for ideas from other people, like the string arrangements Paul Buckmaster did for Elton John'.
Bolder also confirms Ronson's reputation for thoughtfulness in the midst of near stardom: 'When I joined David, I found it nerve-wracking, as it was my first time in the studio. He would sit down with me and talk about how to deal with it. He had me under his wing the whole time. He was really down to earth. He never changed from leaving Hull; he still smoked his roll-ups and acted the same way, even when he became a star. Actually, he was never into the big star trip, he hated that. When people came up and told him how wonderful he was, I think it just made him nervous. I don't think he ever believed what they were saying'.
Cult reputation become international acclaim for both Bowie and Ronson in 1972, when 'Ziggy Stardust' crowned Bowie and the Spiders From Mars the kings of glam. One of the key glam-rock images is Bowie on his knees in front of Ronson's guitar, half sexual partner, half worshipping slave. While Bowie vamped and camped his way around the stage, Ronson maintained a distant cool. 'I don't think Mick had any choice!', says Trevor Bolder. 'That thing of David kneeling in front of Mick happened by accident one night when David got carried away, and Mick couldn't do anything about it. Then it became part of the show. David was always into shocking people as often as possible'.
Lean and melodic, with a cutting edge that heightened the playful tension of Bowie's songs, Ronson's guitar lines played a central part role on 'Ziggy Stardust' and 'Aladdin Sane' albums, while Bowie's retro collection, 'Pin Ups', allowed Mick to revisit his days as a Jeff Beck disciple. Bowie and Ronson also combined to revitalise the career of Lou reed - Ronson's string arrangements to the fore - while Dana Gillespie was another artist from the same management stable to benefit from Bowie / Ronson production credits (two tracks on her 'Weren't Born A Man' album).
Bowie dissolved the Spiders From Mars in July 1973 - though the group name was retained by Bolder and Woodmansey for a subsequent LP, for which Ronson contributed lead guitar to one track that was left off and remains unreleased. By then, Ronson had been persuaded to launch a solo career, very much with Bowie's blessing. 'I think Mick would like to have a frontman', Trevor Bolder reckons, 'but I don't know if he had the same strength David did, to stand up in front of an audience and take all that responsibility. When he went and played solo, he realised that it was a different job altogether to standing next to somebody. Mick was too nervous to carry the show'.
Ronson the soloist was born with an eerie cover of Elvis Presley's 'Love Me Tender', issued as a single at the start of 1974. Two months later came the album, 'Slaughter on 10th Avenue'. Bowie contributed a trademark melody and lyrics for 'Growing Up And I'm Fine', and also collaborated on the 'Pleasure Man / Hey Ma Get Papa' medley. Using the 'Pin Ups' line-up of Aynsley Dunbar, Mike Garson and Trevor Bolder, with Mick's sister Margaret adding vocal harmonies, Mick produced an album that was more idiosyncratic than Bowie's work, but still commercial enough to make the UK Top 10 - outpacing, for example, John Lennon's recently released 'Mind Games' LP.
Pulling the title track off as a single, Ronson took a big band - brass and female vocalists - on a cross-country tour of the UK in the spring of 1974. RCA and management company, MainMan combined to promote the venture, issuing two press kits with promo posters, stickers, posters and the rest - one for the provincial dates ('On Tour') which included a red flexidisc of 'Love Me Tender', another for London ('At The Rainbow') with a black flexi of the same song. The Rainbow date was memorable for a another reason: Ronson's 'Ziggy Stardust' showcase, 'Moonage Daydream' was the climax of his set, and at the Finsbury Park venue, David Bowie was waiting unannounced in the wings, ready to stride on-stage and revive his partnership with Mick. No-one told the Rainbow security men, though, and Bowie was physically restrained from stepping out into the spotlight, while the band played on unawares.
The first album sold well enough to demand a follow-up, and Ronson duly began work on the aptly-titled 'Play Don't Worry'. In September 1974, with the album almost complete, though, he received a phone call from Mott The Hoople frontman Ian Hunter, who'd met Ronson during the making of the Bowie-produced 'All The Young Dudes' album in 1972. Mott guitarist Luther 'Ariel Bender' Grosvenor had quit on the verge of rehearsals for a European tour, and Ronson was offered the vacancy. He accepted, not realising that Mott were in the final stages of decay.
One of his first duties with the band was to record what proved to be their last single, the bitter 'Saturday Gigs'. Some of the band were unwilling to accept Ronson as anything more than a hired hand, however, and the tour rehearsals capsized before the end of 1974. So did Mott The Hoople, and when the band divided - Hunter for a solo career, others to from the irrelevant Mott - Ronson opted to follow Hunter.
For the next 15 years, the two men supported each other's projects, without demanding anything like eternal fidelity. At a New York club gig in the summer of 1975, for instance, Hunter introduced Ronson to Bob Dylan, who snatched Mick away for the first Rolling Thunder Tour at the end of the year. Before then, Mick also played some sessions for country-rockers Pure Prairie League, delighted to find his reputation as a guitarist now extended beyond the shores of Britain. Between October 1975 and May 1976, Ronson was (in theory, at least) a full-time member of Dylan's touring party. As such, he was sucked into the making of Dylan's sprawling film, 'Renaldo + Clara', appearing not just in the on-stage footage but also in memorable sequence, doubling as a back-stage security man and gatekeeper to the portals of the afterlife. It was, after all, that kind of film. Ronson never quite knew what Dylan wanted from him: he admitted towards the end of his life that he hadn't been familiar with any but the most famous of Dylan's songs, which he gave his guitar playing with the Rolling Thunder Revue a healthily improvised quality. And by the time the tour had broken for Christmas, and then resumed for it's ill-fated second leg in 1976, Dylan's interest in Ronson seems to have waned. 'Ronson was frozen out of the 76 tour', Dylan sideman Rob Stoner recalled, 'He was on the bus but they never let him play. Dylan had lead-itis then'. But Ronson is still visible on the 'Hard Rain' TV special which documented the final stages of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and audible on the accompanying live album (notably on 'Maggie's Farm'). The creative nerve of Dylan's venture spawned a kind of solidarity amongst those who'd made the trip - not including Dylan, of course. Ronson was one of the Rolling Thunder veterans who appeared on Kinky Friedman's 'Lasso From El Paso' album in 1976, and more importantly also produced the excellent 'Cardiff Rose' LP for another tour survivor, Roger McGuinn.
Through the late 70s, Ronson skills as a producer were in constant demand. After working with MainMan's John Cougar on the 'Chestnut Street Incident' album, he returned to Britain to record with Michael Chapman once again on 'The Man Who Hated Mornings' and 'Lived Here', before overseeing the one and only album by new wave supergroup the Rich Kids, 'Ghosts Of Princes In Towers', and also producing Dead Fingers Talk's 'Storm The Reality Studios'. Maintaining his new wave links, he and his sister Margaret toured with Phillip Rambow, before Mick added guitar to Slaughter + The Dogs rare 'Do it Dog Style' LP. Moving from extreme to another, he worked with jazz experimentalist Annette Peacock on her 'X dreams' album (having covered her 'Seven Days' in 1974). Between 1979 and 1981, the Hunter-Ronson partnership took precedence over everything else. Finishing work on David Johansen's 'In Style' LP, Ronson produced Hunter's 'You're Never Alone A Schizophrenic', played on and produced 'Live: Welcome To The Club', and then shared production duties with the Clash's Mick Jones on Hunter's 1981 studio set 'Short Back + Sides'. He'd met Jones while guesting on Ellen Folley's 'Night Out' LP in 1979; a year later, he struck up a brief partnership with American band the Iron City Houserockers, producing their 'Get Out Alive' album.
Solo stardom had long since been forgotten, and through the 80s Ronson was apparently happy to support other artists. He produced two albums for US power-poppers the Payolas, one for East L.A. latin rockers Los Illegals, and guested with such diverse artists as Dal Bello and T-Bone Burnett. But by the mid-80s, he, like Hunter, was virtually a forgotten figure on the British rock scene. There were occasional collaborations on record and in concert, but nothing to suggest that Ronson was anything more than a distant name from an equally distant era. The first and last Hunter-Ronson album finally appeared to lukewarm reviews in 1990. Long-time fans enjoyed 'U U I Orta', but felt that neither partner was offering anything that hadn't been heard before. The Hunter-Ronson toured to promote the record, but soon afterwards, rumours began to spread that Ronson was seriously ill.
In the last year of his life, when fans were checking the obituary columns rather than the new releases, Ronson made his final, perhaps most surprising, return. Morrissey's love for the sound and vision of 70s glam-rock was well-documented, but his decision to ask Ronson to produce 'Your Arsenal' proved to be inspired. Despite copious press coverage of his solo career, Morrissey had, by general agreement, produced little to rival his work with the Smiths. 'Your Arsenal' provoked the usual heated debate over the man's lyrical intentions, but no-one could fault the stripped-down, vibrant sound of Ronson's production.
After his unexpected cameo at the Freddie Mercury Tribute, Mick added some guitar to David Bowie's latest album ' Black Tie White Noise', but otherwise devoted his last energies on his third solo album. Capitalising for the first time in his life on the goodwill he'd earned over nearly 30 years, Ronson called in friends and colleagues from throughout his career - Bowie, Hunter, Chrissie Hyde, ex-Spiders. The album remained unfinished when Ronson died on April 29th 1993.
'Mick really just lived for the music', Trevor Bolder concludes.
That enthusiasm and commitment - plus his generosity of spirit - made Mick Ronson one of rock's most respected musicians. Via his collaboration with David Bowie in the early 70s, he also became one of the icons of the glam-rock era - as much a star, despite shunning the limelight, as Bowie himself.