IT'S STRANGE BEING ON YOUR OWN, Reveals Ronson
by Ron Ross
While Mick Ronson's second solo album had come close to living up to his rocking reputation, he was reluctant to congratulate himself
When Mick Ronson set down his guitar and stepped out of the London studio where he was serving as 'musical director' for Ian Hunter's first solo album, he answered the phone as a solo artist himself. Though the sessions with Hunter were coming along swimmingly, the platinum blond multi-talent with a split musical personality had some reservations about his own new album. While he had tried to follow the advice of his title track--'play don't worry'-- Ronson's second solo album had presented a problem.
'It took quite a while to get it done, really, 'cos when I went into the studio, I didn't know what I was going to do,' the good-natured guitarist admitted to the Circus Magazine correspondent at the other end of the transAtlantic cable. 'I didn't have any numbers really. I just sort of went in.' Ronno's casual attitude toward his solo work seemed a strange contrast to his own concerted effort on behalf of first David Bowie and then, former Mott mouthpiece, Ian Hunter. Play Don't Worry (on RCA) is certainly a much stronger set of solo-songs than Mick's first, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, yet it had failed to provide the flashy and versatile virtuoso with the personal satisfaction he expected would come when he and Bowie first parted ways late in 1973.
As mainman of the Spiders From Mars, Mick Ronson had been an indespensable ingredient in David Bowie's formula for success. While bewildered fans around the world followed David through an amazing series of changes in his image and music, Ronson's guitar artistry, along with his talents as an arranger and producer, remained remarkably consistent. Even those critical of Bowie's anything-to-outrage attitude were quick to acknowledge Ronson as the first superstar guitarist of the Seventies. Musically as stunning as he was visually, Ronson was even more important to Bowie behind the scenes than he was as a foil for the glitter kid onstage.
Living with David: In fact, Ronson went back even further with Bowie than David's ambitious manager Tony DeFries. The two glam rockers first met at a mutual friend's house in the late sixties, when the unpredictable Bowie surprised the bashful blond by asking him to come along and play at a radio show David was doing. After that, the stardust duo became almost inseparable friends and close musical collaborators. Come the new decade, David and Mick were sharing a suburban English house with a would-be producer Tony Visconti. Together the trendy triumvirate forged Bowie's only heavy metal outing, The Man Who Sold The World. Future Spider Mick Woodmansey played drums and Visconti himself played bass, but it was Ronson's scorching Townsend / Page style solos that made Bowie's third album an under-rated classic. Visconti would go on to produce the T. Rex hits, while Bowie, Ronson and Woodmansey prepared to stage a rock revolution.
First came the record that many critics consider to be Bowie's finest artistic achievement, Hunky Dory. While David sang about Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, Mick doubled on guitar and piano. His string arrangements for 'Life On Mars' revealed an oddly classical hidden side of his musicianship. If Hunky Dory did not exactly make Bowie a star overnight, no one who heard it could deny that David was lucky to have Ronno to back-up musically his obscure and provocative lyrics.
Bowie soon realized that live appearances with his own band would be the key to fame and fortune. He renamed Ronson, Woodmansey and bassist Trevor Bolder, 'The Spiders From Mars,' and called himself their leader, 'Ziggy Stardust.' All that summer of 1972, Ziggy and the Spiders played it left hand, but didn't take it too far, and despite his own publicity-reaping controversiality, Bowie appeared to have put together a solid act that would define the rock and roll seventies. Thousands were delighted to learn that Mick Ronson was not merely an anonymous set of fleet fingers, but a stikingly handsome and virile opposite number to David's outer space omnisexuality. The night that Bowie first fell to his knees and applied his knowing mouth to Ronno's instrument, their partnership was sealed in the most sensational fashion possible.
Transformed Lou Reed: With success now firmly in their grasp, the Bowie-Ronson team began to seek new challenges. Together, they resurrected rock legend Lou Reed, and co-produced Transformer. When Bowie saved Mott the Hoople from committing suicide, Ronson arranged strings and brass for 'Sea Diver' on All The Young Dudes. By the time Mick and David came to record Aladdin Sane, Ronson was billed 'co-arranger,' and so confident was David of Mick's production abilities that he left the crucial mix-down process in Ronson's care.
In three action-packed years, Mick Ronson had emerged as one of the most competent musicians of his generation. Pin-Ups would prove him to be one of the most savagely searing rockers of all time. On their last album together, Bowie and Ronson recorded for posterity a studio disc with all the electrifying excitement of their live performances. But even before Bowie's collection of fave raves from the sixties had been released, the Spiders From Mars were no more: Ronno, Mick and Trevor played their last gig with David at London's Hammersmith Odeon in July, 1973, a breaktaking event which D. A. Pennebaker captured on film.
Late in 1973, Ronson returned to the French chateau where Bowie had recorded Pin-Ups. With Mike Garson, Trevor Bolder, and Aynsley Dunbar, Ronno put together Slaughter On Tenth Avenue. The title track was an emotionally moving cover version of Richard Rodger's modern ballet piece. His inexperience notwithstanding, Ronson showed himself to be an adequate vocalist and his self-penned material, such as 'Pleasure Man' and 'Only After Dark,' demonstrated fine potential, even if the Bowie influence seemed somewhat strong. The album's biggest disappointment was its shortage of straight-forward hard rockers.
Victim of hype: Unfortunately, DeFries' company, MainMan, insisted on blowing Ronno's promise as a solo artist out of al proportion, promoting his first tour of England with all the fan-fare due and established star. Trying to be fair to a musician whose previous track record he respected, one British writer commented, 'He's just a figure in a publicity campaign, a guy, who wants a crack at the big pot. He wasn't ready for this big hype and he couldn't sustain it.' MainMan blithely ignored such just criticism and rented one of New York City's most expensive billboards in Times Square to advertise Slaughter On Tenth Avenue with a half-nude likeness of Mick that one guesses was intended to represent the summit of rock sex. Ronno himself would observe, when he finally saw the flaxen-haired Frankenstein, 'It was pretty wierd. I thought it would be an actual photograph, like the album cover, but it was a painting. I looked like a doll or something.'
His artistic integrity a bit compromised by MainMan's insensitive grab at too much too soon, Ronno longed for a permanent group that would be his alone. Always read to rock onstage, Ronno was eager to hit the road on a better second solo tour. So determined was he to make it on his own that he turned down Ian Hunter's first offer to join Mott the Hoople after Mick Ralphs left. For one reason or another, however, his first choice musicians were unavailable. Aynsley Dunbar was too far away, living in Los Angeles, Mike Garson, the scintillating pianist, live in New York and appeared to be committed full-time to future Bowie projects.
Stuck on the French Riviera: By Spring of 1974, Mick explains, 'I'd done a few gigs and I thought I'd better start on a second album. I was still trying to find my way around, and I was a bit stuck really.' So he retreated to the sunny south of France alone and anxious to make good on the potential his fans, his critics, and he himself were all sure he had.
All things considered, Play Don't Worry, begun during that working holiday in France and concluded in England, fulfills a large portion of that potential. As was to be expected, the arrangements and production are masterful. Ronson's original material is much improved, and so is his voice, which has found a comfortable range and become more expressive. Best of all, there is a lot more guitar-laden rock and roll to start a raver's blood rushing, and Ronno rocks on with much less self-consciousness and more obvious enjoyment.
The album opens with perhaps its best number, a Ronson original called 'Billy Porter.' Slightly reminiscent of Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World,' 'Billy Porter' is a 'comical song,' according to Mick, 'about getting mugged in New York. Billy Porter's supposed to be a friend who says, come to New York, you'll make it there, so the singer comes and ends up being robbed.' Ronson plays every instrument but sax and synthesizer himself, and the track is chock full of vocal nuances and sound effects.
A screeching siren leads directly into Mick's magnificent introduction to a Pure Prairie League tune, 'Angel No. 9.' Ronson helped Pure Prairie League with arrangements for their second RCA album, and performed two of their songs live on the English tour. They had been audience favorites then, so Ronno included studio renditions on Play Don't Worry. Ronson's guitar breathes fire on 'Angel No. 9,' while the vocals prove that he s getting to feel quite at home with a melodramatic ballad.
Unreleased 'Pin-Ups': 'This Is For You' has the acoustic moodiness of much of Hunky Dory, and Side One closes with a special bonus. Ronson's revamp of Lou Reed's 'White Light / White Heat' was recorded during a break in the Pin-Ups sessions, and the cut burns like pure methedrine through the combined efforts of Mick, Dunbar, Bolder and Garson. Ironically, the vocal is probably Ronson's best on the entire album, although 'White Light / White Heat' was Bowie's own special tribute to Reed, as performed on the first Spiders' tours.
The title track expresses a typically Ronsonian optimism and faith in friendship. With a very hunky dory sax featured along with Ronno's guitar, the tune is a co-composition between Mick and Bob Sargeant, whose first, as yet unreleased, album he produced last summer. 'Hazy Days' is another Ronson penning, with an irresistable and unforgettable melody, followed by a raucous rave-up on Little Richard's 'This Girl Can't Help It.' Ronson sets up a wall of overdubbed guitars between the two stereo speakers, and Ian Hunter helps out on backing vocals. ''The Girl Can't Help It' is just a straight rocker, but I really like to play it and I may do it on Ian's tour,' Ronno predicted. 'Tony Newman played drums on the album version, and I played bass. 'The Microns' who're singing with Ian are some young ladies who were sitting around the studio at the time.'
Play Don't Worry ends on a romantic note, with Ronson's adaptation of an Italian melody and Pure Prairie League's 'Woman.' 'The Empty Bed' imposes Ronson's English lyrics over a predominantly acoustic arrangement, and the overall feeling is like a serious and sexy Jacques Brel song. 'Woman' has a catchy chorus and finishes the album with Ronno repeating the refrain enthusiastically. Indeed, if Ronson himself didn't make such a point of it, one would never suspect that Play Don't Worry was recorded in three different studios under pressure with a variety of session men.
'Some of the album turned out really nice,' Ronson concluded, 'but I still ended up with this problem of the lyrics and the music being inconsistent. It was all a bit of a mixture, you know, like Slaughter. It was a bit of a mistake not having more planned before I went into the studio. I was anxious to go out on the road, and I wanted to have an album out when I did. As individual tracks, I think they all came out well. But I really need to get into a regular style of playing that's consistent for a whole album. I'm a guitar player really, and I've got to get back to playing guitar and writing guitar-type songs.'
Help from his friends: Pin-pointing his solo problems more specifically, Ronno reasoned, 'If the same musicians had played on the entire album, it would have turned out better. To get into writing properly, I need other people around me. I was never a writer before, and I'm just starting to do my own lyrics. I need other people as inspiration. I do need practice singing as well, but that's getting better all the time.'
Shortly after the completion of Play Don't Worry, Ronson agreed to join Mott the Hoople, and part of the arrangement was that Mott (or Ian now, as matters turned out) would contribute to Mick's future solo albums. Ronson thinks that will solve his previous predicament. 'I need people to write with and perform with there all the time,' he's realized. 'I need that involvement with other musicians because they spur you on with their own ideas. When there's no one around, you can get lazy, and you don't have enough input. Sometimes people will play little licks that really don't seem much to them, but it can sound great to you. You work around those things, you pick all the good things out and mold them. Then the music comes out in one style.'
With a newly formed band behind them, Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter appear ready to repeat rock history. If Ronno's stint with Bowie is any example, both his own music and Hunter's should benefit enormously from the alliance. Meanwhile, Ronson is looking forward to the challenge of his next solo album. 'I definitely think my third will be the one I want to be judged on as a solo performer,' Mick confirmed. 'I guess it takes anybody a couple of albums to get into his own style. It never just happens, does it?'