People forget that before he met Mick Ronson, David Bowie was struggling to find himself. He was a mime artist, a mod, a pop singer, with one novelty hit single in The Laughing Gnome, and then another with Space Oddity, timed to coincide with the moon landing.
Pre-Ronson, David Bowie was like this:
Meanwhile, 200 miles away in Hull, Mick Ronson was packing out the pubs with no nonsense blue-collar rock music. They called him “Hull’s Jeff Beck”.
After he met Ronson (via Michael Chapman and Junior’s Eyes drummer John Cambridge), David Bowie sounded like this:
Mick’s first album with Bowie was The Man Who Sold The World. Angie Bowie has said that the album was ‘just another project’ to Bowie who was distracted by his home life at the time (understandable, since it resembled a bed-hopping, drug-fuelled, bisexual sex comedy).
Desperate to prove himself, Mick took charge and transformed Bowie from acoustic singer-songwriter to electric rocker. TMWSTW was an album of nightmarish heavy rock that nodded to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Ronson enlisted a mate from Hull, Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey on drums. “We were like anti-folk music,” says Woody. “We liked Zeppelin and Hendrix and Beck and all that, and hated anything that stunk of Bob Dylan. We had to take the songs and go, ‘How can we play this so that we can get on with it?’ A lot of the things we did were first take, and you just went for it, riding that edge all of the time…”
The Man Who Sold The World was not a massive success. Mick went back to Hull, formed a band called Ronno and made a single. These days it sounds like a precursor to Stoner Rock.
Tempted back to the Bowie camp, and bringing-in another Hull mucker in the shape of bassist Trevor Bolder, the band threw themselves into the making of Hunky Dory, where Ronson’s musicality came to the fore. A classically-trained piano player, he was more than just a guitarist and rounded out Bowie’s song sketches.
Ronson arranged Changes, Life On Mars?, Kooks, Quicksand and the cover of Fill Your Heart. His beautiful, weeping guitar solo on Life on Mars was a first take, according to producer Ken Scott.
From the earthy tones of Hunky Dory, the band then went space-age for the follow-up. If he was initally reluctant to wear the make up and outrageous clothes, Ronson was integral to the sound of Ziggy Stardust.
As Bowie insider Tony Zanetta later told Campbell Devine for Classic Rock: “Bowie may have been the brains and the look of Ziggy Stardust but the sound was pure Ronson. Mick’s wailing guitar and rock sensibility provided an aural grittiness that was a perfect foil for the effete aesthetic of David’s fictional rock star. They complemented each other perfectly and together created one of the most memorable moments in rock and roll history.
"Not only supremely talented, Mick was one of the sweetest and kindest people around. He was a great guy and grossly under-credited for his many contributions.”
Check out the solo on Moonage Daydream:
Ronson’s contribution was more than just musical. As the blonde-haired, red-blooded guitar hero to Bowie’s queer spaceman, Mick added balance. Bowie was a mystery: unknowable, other-worldly. Ronson was reassuring, natural. He was the one girls could fancy and the guys could hero-worship. Or fancy, for that matter: The moment that Bowie put his arm around Ronson on Top Of The Pops in 1972 has been called “the moment that jump-started the 20th century (opens in new tab)”, an “unequivocally homoerotic fuck you (opens in new tab)” to the old guard (see 2.18 below):
Around this period Ronson met Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter and quickly knocked up the arrangement for Sea Diver on the “back of a fag packet” for 20 quid for the Bowie-produced All The Young Dudes album. It was the start of a life-long friendship and collaboration with Hunter.
In 1972, Ronson co-produced and played guitar and piano on Lou Reed’s Transformer. The album was Reed’s biggest seller and produced his biggest hit, Walk On The Wild Side as well as Perfect Day, later made famous by the movie Trainspotting.
After Ziggy, Bowie and the Spiders went on the road, recording Aladdin Sane as they went. Bowie roadie Will Palin recalled single The Jean Genie’s birth as an on-the-road chant, jammed up by Ronno and Bowie’s pal George Underwood, Ronno’s riff accompanied by shouts of “Bus, bus, bus, bus, bus, bus, we’re bussin.”
Trevor Bolder: “We regarded it as a rip-off of I’m A Man, which I’d played in bands when I was young. We played it on the bus. [When we recorded it] it was knocked out in an hour on the second or third take.”
Splitting with Bowie after the Pin-Ups album, Ronson attempted a solo career, before joining Mott The Hoople for their last single The Saturday Gigs and then working with Mott frontman Ian Hunter on his debut solo album. It was a match made in heaven, perhaps exemplified by Ronson’s furious solo on The Truth, the Whole Truth, Nuthin But The Truth, which the guitarist played immediately after reading a bad review of his Play Don’t Worry album.
Ian Hunter told Classic Rock: “Just before the session… Mick read a scathing review of Play Don’t Worry which was vicious and personal. He went bright red. We were doing the track and he went out to do the solo. We got it in five minutes flat. If he hadn’t read that review it would have taken us about three days. Mick was positively brilliant both in the booth and the studio.”
Hanging around Greenwich Village one night with Ian Hunter, Ronson watched as Bob Dylan entered and played the entire Desire album in the bar. Mick went back the next night, and the same thing happened again. People started joining in, the show and the band growing night after night, until it became the tour known as The Rolling Thunder Revue (the line-up captured on the Hard Rain album). And Mick was a part.
“The thing was,” laughs Ian Hunter, “that he hated Dylan until then. ‘Fucking Yogi Bear’ he used to call him. When he started the Rolling Thunder tour, I said to him, ‘What’s it like?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s all fuckin’ C, F and G, y’know’.”
In the following years, Ronson played with Kinky Friedman, Roger McGuinn (the Cardiff Rose album), David Cassidy, Michael Chapman, John Mellencamp, Sparks, Roger Daltrey on One Of The Boys and toured with Van Morrison.
He produced Slaughter And The Dogs and Glen Matlock’s post-Sex Pistols band The Rich Kids, worked with Ellen Foley, David Johansen, recorded and toured extensively with Ian Hunter and helped turn a John Mellencamp song into his biggest hit.
Mellencamp: “I owe Mick Ronson the hit song Jack and Diane. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. We were down in Miami and Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for Jack and Diane, Mick said, ‘Johnny – you should put baby rattles on there.’
"I thought ‘What in the fuck does 'put baby rattles on the record' mean?’ So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘Let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing which never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea – and it worked!”
In 1991, Ronson was diagnosed with liver cancer. He continued to work - touring with Graham Parker, producing Morrissey’s Your Arsenal album etc - and his friends rallied: Bowie, Joe Elliott, Mellencamp etc helped pay for treatment.
He was reunited with Bowie on stage, contributed to his Black Tie, White Noise album, and played his final gig at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.
His last recorded work was for The Wildhearts.
Ginger: “Mick turned up at the studio with his guitar case. We expected him to open it and reveal the beautiful Les Paul he was famous for playing, but instead he pulled out this grubby blue Telecaster. We were a little shocked when he told us he didn’t have a Les Paul – not even a Gibson endorsement like we had. We decided that we would all play our solos [on the song My Baby is a Head Fuck] using the same guitar, CJ’s Les Paul Standard.
"Man, Mick made that guitar sound fantastic. He was playing with a bottle neck and wah-wah pedal and made it cry and wail, while we fumbled around with our Chuck Berry licks. With Mick it was impossible not to want to get close to him. He projected nothing but warmth. You just prayed that a little of his beautiful energy would rub off on you.”
It was a blazing end to a life cut far too short.