Mick Ronson: Not Just a Sideman
Jim Girard • Scene • 27 March 1975
Many people think of Mick Ronson as a glorified back-up musician, but his qualifications as a 'star' guitarist needn't be examined. His days as David Bowie's lead guitarist, arranger and second vocalist brought him to world-wide attention; and his majestic onstage presence and his superb showmanship have kept him there.
When David Bowie decided he was Frank Sinatra, the final split was made. For when Bowie had every intention of retiring Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey after one of his 'I've stopped touring' periods, Bowie knew Ronson would still be crucial to whatever musical package he would prepare. However, between tours, Ronson [sometime shortly after Pin Ups] had begun work on a solo album - which eventually became Slaughter on 10th Avenue. It was then that Ronson decided that rather than compete against Bowie for what used to be a 'group' spotlight, he'd just take his time and do some solo flights.
During the time that Ronson was working on Play Don't Worry, his second solo album, Mott The Hoople lost lead guitarist Ariel Bender and Ronson [admittedly an opportunist] took his place and thus struck up his old alliance with Mott leader Ian Hunter. Ronson had known Mott for years, having helped produce All The Young Dudes for them when Bowie wrote and produced the title track.
As is recent history, Ronson's days as a member of a shaky Mott The Hoople were numbered. After a few months, Hunter 'collapsed' and decided to pack it up with what had become 'his' band. The remaining members of Mott are now forming their own group, and Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter have formed what could well be the vehicle both experienced rockers have always needed to properly express their music.
In an exclusive interview from his London flat, Mick Ronson - somewhat weary from several hours of rehearsals for The Hunter - Ronson Band's first British tour - explained his present relationship with Ian Hunter, the break-up of Mott, his solo career plans and his days with David Bowie.
SCENE: How does The Hunter - Ronson Band sound? Who is in it?
RONSON: Well, the band is working out incredibly. The rest of the players are just people who I picked up. The drummer is from the band IF and he's great: he reminds me of Aynsley Dunbar quite a lot.
We tried to think of names for the band and we couldn't come up with any. So it's just going to be the Hunter - Ronson Band and that's okay because what we do is Ian plays a lot of his numbers and I play some of me. He's just completed his first solo album, with me helping out, of course. It's just called Ian Hunter. Again, we couldn't think of a better name. Anyway, we've got a great bunch of songs from Ian's album that we're working up.
SCENE: Which of your numbers does the band do?
RONSON: There's about six as of now. We do Play Don't Worry and Slaughter, of course. Then there's Grown Up And I'm Fine and This Is For You. We're not sure about that one, though; there's a lot of harmonies on it and it's such a slow song. Angel No. 9 is definitely in there and we'll do White Light for sure. White Light because it's such a great stage number, such a chunky rock and roll song. But we're working as we go.
SCENE: What's the IAN HUNTER album like?
RONSON: It's not that much like Mott. The music is chunky and quite percussive. You know the track on Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Only After Dark? Well, that's got a Latin-American flavour to it. The music is getting into that type of thing.
SCENE: Is there a lot of production on Hunter's album?
RONSON: It's mostly the band, really. We're using the band as much as possible. We are avoiding all those session people. See, when I did my solo albums I didn't have a band and I had to end up playing most of the instruments myself. But now that we've got a band again, I am just picking up my guitar and getting off playing again. It's helping me get more ideas for writing; my writing now is containing more guitar work. That was the main complaint before, so on Ian's album we decided to just use the band and get a good tight sound.
SCENE: Slaughter on 10th Avenue wasn't received as well as Play Don't Worry. That has a lot to do with the guitar playing you were speaking about.
RONSON: That's right. See, on Slaughter on 10th Avenue I was just finishing up with David and just said to myself, 'You've got to do a solo album, Mick.' So it was like a trial for me; I didn't know really what I wanted to get into. All of a sudden after David I was on my own and pow! I had all this responsibility.
SCENE: Bowie hasn't been the same since you left.
RONSON: I enjoyed the Spiders From Mars as a band. It was a shame, really, David HAS lost something I think, but he's good again in a different way. I guess people still wanted to hear the Spiders From Mars thing from Ziggy Stardust more. People hadn't seen enough of that music when it all changed.
I think it was a bit premature to break up that band. We'd had another major American tour scheduled, when David said he didn't want to perform anymore. So, everyone in the band was left with nothing to do after Pin Ups.
SCENE: You started work on Slaughter on 10th Avenue then?
RONSON: Right. Then David rang me up and said he did want to tour America with a different band and that he was ready to go back on the road. I was tied up doing Slaughter on 10th Avenue and a few other things I'd started. So I figured that David should do his U.S. tour and that I should continue with what I had started.
I've talked to David recently and I suppose that we'll work together again. It would be really nice. It could be quite good actually, but at a much later date ...
SCENE: Mick, your stint with Mott The Hoople was a short and ill-fated thing. I sensed you had a lot to do with the split.
RONSON: I had always thought Mott The Hoople were a together band. I knew them a little bit from when I worked with David on their record of Dudes. But the truth was when I got into the band I discovered it wasn't so.
The truth about the situation is that some of the people in Mott weren't going in a forward direction. When some people get to a certain level in this business they want to hold onto what they've got and never gamble to get any bigger. What happened was Mott knew they could sell this town or sell-out that town and sell this many records with each album; they didn't want to lose any money or gamble money to get bigger or spread to new areas where they weren't popular.
SCENE: Was Mott fun to be with onstage?
RONSON: I enjoyed the gigs but when we came offstage everyone went their separate ways. After gigs everyone went to their rooms and there was no social life between members anymore. There was no communication between us and I didn't think the group should be like that.
SCENE: Was that the only problem?
RONSON: Like I said, some people in Mott wanted to stay where they were and some wanted to get bigger. Ian and myself wanted to get bigger. So the people in the band who just wanted to hold onto their houses or cars got left behind. Ian got so depressed and when he got to New York, he just said 'No more, that's it.' See, Mott always did a lot of tours. The main reason they toured was to pay wages.
We were going to do a tour before Christmas. The only reason we were going to tour was so everyone would have money for Christmas. To me that was stupid.
I told Ian when he decided to pack it in that we could get another band together and he could do his solo album, finally. That seemed to bring him back to spirits quickly and that's where we are as of now.
SCENE: You broke up that band then?
RONSON: I may have lit the spark, but it was bad before that. I knew Mott was a big group and a lot of people had respect for them, but I don't think they could've gotten any bigger than they were. I knew they were in a ridiculous situation. There was no majority vote in the band; if one member didn't like something that was to be done, it wasn't done. I thought they could only go downhill. I sure didn't want to be in a band that was going downhill.
SCENE: With the Hunter - Ronson Band and all your plans, is there going to be another solo Mick Ronson album?
RONSON: Yes, in July I'll go and begin recording. See, we begin touring April 9 and we'll tour through June 8. After that I'll take two or three weeks off and prepare the next album. But all the time we're on the road I want to be preparing material for it. The band will help this time. Having a band helps. Like I said, that was the problem before. I'll use the band for my album, too, so the sound will be harder than on Play Don't Worry or Slaughter on 10th Avenue.
SCENE: Billy Porter seems to be a popular track from Play Don't Worry. You wrote that, right?
RONSON: Yes, it was the first time I had written lyrics for one of my own songs. David had written some lyrics for songs on Slaughter and I decided that I had to learn to write my own sooner or later. As it was, Billy Porter is a sort of a joke song. We'd had this friend named Billy and he told a lot of jokes, so the song was originally a joke song. But then I was thinking about Lou Reed in New York – because I'd just been talking to Lou before that. So, the lyrics came out of me thinking about things Lou had told me about getting mugged in New York and the joke parts I'd already written.
My lyrics should get much better in future songs though; this was like a start.
SCENE: Play Don't Worry also had two songs written by Pure Prairie League for whom you once arranged strings. Why did you choose two songs that have a country feel?
RONSON: I've always liked that sort of country-heavy sound. I've had a soft spot for Pure Prairie League numbers anyway. Angel No. 9 is something I'd wanted to do for some time. See, when I'd gone to do the Play Don't Worry album, I didn't have any material because I'd been producing and doing other things. So while I worked in one song, I was thinking of what the next song could be. Woman was thrown in at the last minute and it came out a bit messy. I just never got it to sound the way wanted.
SCENE: What are the other old Spiders From Mars doing? You've used Trevor for your bassist on your solo albums, but what about Woody?
RONSON: Trevor and Woody are getting a contract together and they've formed a group of sorts. They've asked me to help them and I told them I would if they let me know in advance when they needed me. They are still good mates.
SCENE: Weren't the Spiders supposed to do an album when Bowie went on his own?
RONSON: Well, yes. But what happened was David hadn't used Woody for Pin Ups. There were hard feelings there. But when we talked about a Spiders album, which was before I did Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Woody wanted as much say about what was written and recorded as I was gonna have. I didn't think that was fair because Woody didn't know the technical or production side of music and so I just told them 'It's not on.' So I told them they should do their own things and I went and did Slaughter on 10th Avenue. I used Trevor on the albums and on my solo gigs, but I had another drummer. When I joined Mott, Trevor got back with Woody more because Ian and I had gotten other people for our band. But we are much better friends now that they're going into their own band.
SCENE: The Spiders and David were once a group in the real sense. But when Bowie became the star, you still stood up there with him. Was that the problem with the others?
RONSON: Tony Defries was David's manager, but not necessarily the group's manager. He kept pushing David up front and the band backwards. What I did was manage to stay up there in the spotlight; I was always on the ball about that. I wasn't going to be just a sideman.