Hitting my teenage years in the early 70s, means I have very strong memories of regularly seeing David Bowie on the family telly around then. Like many others, I was spellbound. This would eventually result in me having a ‘Ziggy’ haircut (Peckham version) and proudly prancing around my junior school playground, being laughed at. Now thinking back, the figure of Mick Ronson also loomed large and he equally looked fantastic, but somehow in a more ’blokey’ way, which is how most of us who adopted our version of the ‘look,’ did back then. ‘Brickies in make-up’ comes to mind.
In recent years, I have watched a couple of documentaries on Mick and now fully realise how much a part he played in the whole Bowie phenomenon of that time, and like any fascinating character, he is definitely worthy of a Speakeasy word or 500.
Born in Kingston upon Hull in 1946, Mick was raised in the Mormon faith in a family consisting of mum Minnie and dad George, along with sister Maggi and brother David. A fervent lover of music from a young age, Mick was classically trained on the piano and violin as well being very proficient in reading music, whilst at school.
Exposure to the guitar sound of Duane Eddy, then led him to then add the guitar to the list of instruments he could play as he joined his first band The Mariners in 1963, aged 17. He then moving onto a another local outfit, The Crestas, who went on to gain a good reputation playing regularly in local pubs, halls and hotels.
1965 saw him travel to London to seek his musical fortune, like countless others before him. There he worked with a band called The Voice and a soul outfit, The Wanted, before moving back home in 1966. Once back in Hull, he teamed up with The Rats who then schlepped around the North and London (again) in search of a break. They’d go on to release the Psych track, ‘The Rise and Fall of Bernie Gripplestone’ in 1967. They recorded further in 1968, joined by drummer Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey in 1969.
Mick played guitar on the Elton John track ‘Madman Across the Water’ in 1970, but making the music game pay was proving a tough task and he went home to a job in the parks department for Hull City Council, marking out the lines for football pitches. Then, ex band mate, John Cambridge, enticed ‘Ronno’ back to London to play in a band called The Hype, who were to back an up and comer called David Bowie.
Tony Visconti – ‘He floored us. When David and I met him, we knew he’d fit in looks-wise, but we had no idea what was coming until he picked up his Les Paul and played for us. He really didn’t have to be taught the few songs we’d already worked up with John Cambridge. Mick watched our hands on the guitar and bass necks and he just knew what to play, but he didn’t say much. We thought he was just a cool, silent type. Later we found out that our apartment in Beckenham was very ‘big time’ for him and he was simply overwhelmed.’
Mick played on a session for John Peel with Bowie two days later and The Hype then played The Roundhouse in Camden, dressed in costumes which were a pointer of things to come. Mick was ‘Gangsterman,’ producer and bassist Visconti ‘Hyperman,’ Cambridge ‘Cowboyman’ and Bowie himself, was’Rainbowman.’ Cambridge then departed, and Woody Woodmansey popped up again and stepped in as recording began on what would become ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ album.
Visconti then stepped down from bass duties, and was replaced by Trevor Bolder. Next up, sessions for ‘Hunky Dory’ with Rick Wakeman playing keyboards and Ronson bringing his classically trained musicianship to the fore, to score the string arrangements, including for the track ‘Life on Mars.’
Ken Scott – producer/engineer – ‘the great orchestral versions that Ronno put together (are) even more brilliant when you consider he had this habit of running out of time. I remember him rushing in ten minutes before the session, running up to the bathroom and locking himself in so he could find the privacy to finish writing. He’d come out with a huge grin and a stack of charts.’
And so began the path to superstardom for Bowie, built on the solid foundation of the Spiders from Mars, as Bolder, Woodmansey and Ronson became known, with Ronno all over the album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,’ where he provided arrangements, played various instruments, including that instantly identifiable ‘crunchy’ guitar sound he conjured up.
Ronson also played on and co-produced Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ album.
Mick – ‘It came out pretty well, though I didn’t know what the hell (Lou) was talking about half the time. He’d say stuff like: ‘Can you make it sound a bit more grey?’
Lou – . ‘Transformer is easily my best-produced album. That has a lot to do with Mick Ronson. His influence was stronger than David’s, but together, as a team, they’re terrific.’
Mick also went on to produce that fantastic version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ by Lulu. Though he would go on to contribute guitar on the albums ‘Pin Ups’ and ‘Aladdin Sane,’ his time as Bowie’s right hand man, was coming to an end however, as the lad from Brixton moved through the gears and from one ‘look’ to another.
Bowie – ‘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 Axel and Slash. Ziggy and Mick were the personification of that rock n roll dualism.’
Ronno then had a go at being a front man with the albums ‘Slaughter on 10th Avenue ‘ and ‘ Ronson’, but in truth, his heart wasn’t really in it and he went on to join Mott The Hoople, becoming lifelong friends with singer Ian Hunter.
Mick married Suzy Fussey in 1974, having met her in 1970 when Suzi worked as Bowies hairdresser. They would go on to have a daughter Lisa.
Suzi – ‘I used to cut David’s mum’s hair, and she was always going on about her son David – but I never really thought anything of it until Angie came along one day and asked me to have a look at David’s hair. That’s how it all started really.’
Over the next few years, Mick would randomly pop up on sessions from a diverse bunch of musicians and songs,
including ‘Jack and Diane from John Mellencamp.
‘I owe Mick Ronson the hit song ‘Jack & Diane’. Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. 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 & Diane’, Mick said ‘Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What 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 had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.’
Ronno also became part of the Bob Dylan ‘Rolling Thunder Revue live set up in 1975/76 and went on to work with the likes of Van Morrison and Roger McQuinn. Sadly, Mick was diagnosed with Cancer in 1991. Mick being Mick however, carried on working, including producing Morrisey’s album ‘Your Arsenal’ in 1992.
Morrisey – ‘Everyone who worked with Mick expresses devotional love for him, whereas people who worked with Bowie express admiration. Mick told me that he alone wrote the main guitar hooks for Starman, The Man Who Sold The World and others – not just hooks, really, but grand choruses in themselves – but a share of publishing wasn’t ever on offer for him. When you consider his solos in ‘Time’ and ‘Moonage Daydream’ then you can guess that they were his own creations. What is remarkable is that he was so overlooked, and he still is! Has Mick ever been on the cover of a major British music magazine? Even when he died? He was by nature extremely humble.’
Mick looked physically weak, when seen on stage in the same year playing at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley, and he died of liver cancer in April 1993, aged just 46.
Ian Hunter – ‘Mick’s thing was always about working and improving, not about making lots of money. His work was of great quality and will stand up long after a lot of people who are flashier players will be forgotten. On a personal level, he was so kind and full of life.’
Writer, Charles Shaar Murray – ‘He was about as ego- less as you can be and still function in the music business’
Last word to the man himself
‘I go to the venue, put on my make-up, play my guitar, take my make-up off and go home.’
The Mumper of SE5
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