Written by Gary Cooper
There were two sorts of guitar heroes in the early 1970s – the superstars (Clapton, Beck, Page and Hendrix) and the rest, who were certainly stars but, somehow, never quite made it to the summit of Mount Olympus. Some of them were every bit as good as the legends and just didn’t get the breaks with the right bands. Others suffered from bad timing, arriving too late on the scene to join the pantheon of Rock gods. Among that latter was the awkwardly contradictory figure of Mick Ronson – contradictory in that he was, by all accounts, as down to earth and ruggedly North of England as you could get (think flinty New Englanders if you’re in the USA) and yet made his name in the most outrageously flamboyant, androgynous, Glam-Rock band of the era – David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars.
Suitably paradoxically, Bowie may have been the worst and also the best thing that happened in Mick Ronson’s career. Playing on the seminal Bowie albums, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane, brought him huge success with music fans and recognition from fellow professional guitarists, who were unfailingly impressed by his ability: but the showbiz elements – the glamour, the make-up, the costumes, the hysteria and the hype (amusingly, the original name of the first Bowie band he was recruited to join) obscured the fact that, stripped of his platform booths and make-up, here was a guitarist of real genius. Sadly, not everyone could see beyond the grease paint.
Born in 1946, in Hull, Yorkshire (about as far as it is possible to get from Glam Rock) Mick Ronson was already a highly rated guitarist by the mid-1960s when he came to London to make his name – almost immediately replacing Miller Anderson (later, of Savoy Brown fame) in a band and starting what should, by rights, have been a huge career. A year later, however, he was back home in Hull, playing with a local outfit. In fact it wasn’t until 1970 that a fellow Hull musician, John Cambridge, came back from London to recruit him for the new band being formed for David Bowie. At that time, Ronson was working for the local council’s parks department and playing in local bands in the evenings.
If this seems like a hugely profligate squandering of talent, well, that’s just how it was back then. There may be any number of technically skilled players around today, but back in the late 1960s and 1970s, while music theory was thin on the ground, raw musical talent and inspiration seems to have been common and Ronson wasn’t alone in being an inspired musician completely overlooked. But all that was about to change.
For Bowie’s landmark 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World, Ronson didn’t just contribute superb guitar parts, he arranged the music in its entirety. The public may have been dazzled by Bowie’s imagery, and the less clueful guitar playing public may have sniffed disdainfully at the glamour, but those who knew fine guitar playing when they heard it were knocked out. As Phil Harris says in our accompanying piece about Ronson: “Forget David Bowie. Forget glam. Listen to the guitar playing!”And talking of Ronson’s role as an arranger, let it not be forgotten that it was David Bowie and Mick Ronson who co-produced Lou Reed’s Transformer and that it was Ronson who provided the string arrangements on Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side. He also played lead guitar and piano on Reed’s Perfect Day. Ronson wasn’t just a hugely gifted guitarist, he was already a fully rounded musician.
It was hard at the time – and may still be hard today – to watch Bowie-era Ronson and strip away the fay artiness and deliberately provocative sexual politics that Bowie was playing with at the time. But if you can, you will hear a guitarist of exceptional ability and very much one of the old school. No pedals (well, not many – just a wah wah, an Echoplex and occasionally an early fuzz box) a Les Paul and a valve Marshall stack. What you heard came out of Ronson’s fingers. And it was every bit as magical as anything Bowie was conjuring up.
It was curious that Ronson found himself in such a role at all. Bowie was quoted in a 1990s interview as saying: “Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character. He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so that what you got was the old- fashioned Yin and Yang thing. As a rock duo, I thought we were every bit as good as Mick and Keith or Axl and Slash. Ziggy and Mick were the personification of that rock n roll dualism.”
Ronson, on the other hand, said with characteristic Yorkshire bluntness: “’I go to the venue, put on my make-up, play my guitar, take my make-up off and go home.”
Infamously Bowie cut the ground from beneath his band’s feet in the mid-1970s when he wound-up the Spiders From Mars. Ronson, not by any means the world’s most natural frontman, went on to release three solo albums, briefly joined Mott The Hoople, then teamed-up with former Mott star Ian Hunter for what became familiarly known (in the UK at least) as the “’oonter Ronson’” band – mimicking the North country dialect.
Ronson was still name among guitarists – indeed, as Wikipedia reminds us, in 1974 the US magazine Creem rated him the world’s number two guitarist, beneath Jimmy Page but above Eric Clapton! That is how highly Mick Ronson was regarded at the time!
But the famously self-effacing Ronson was destined to be a sideman throughout his career. He toured with Bob Dylan, worked with Van Morrison, Roger Daltrey, John Melencamp, Morrisey (he Produced Morrisey’s Your Arsenal), T-Bone Burnett and Roger McGuinn, played the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 and as still a leading and much sought-after guitarist and producer in both the UK and USA.
But he was living on borrowed time, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1991. He died on 29th April 1993, aged 46 – undoubtedly having been hugely exploited by the music industry, loved and revered by his fellow professionals and serious guitarists, but grossly underpaid and much misunderstood by a public that couldn’t see beyond the Bowie-era glitz.
There is a touching website devoted to Mick Ronson by his singer sister, Maggi, which is well worth a visit: