The rain would have been even worse this August were it not for the return of Producer Week! And even worse in Hull, because this time the short season was dedicated to one of the current UK City of Culture’s greatest sons, glam guitarist and power producer Mick Ronson… #RonsonWeek
About that headline, you know it’s tricky to fit Hull into any pun without it looking pretty damn bad on Kingston-upon-Hull. Take Ronson’s, probably slightly better titled, posthumous album, Heaven and Hell… Because this #RonsonWeek wouldn’t have happened if Hull wasn’t this year’s UK’s City of Culture.
Yes, time to head up North for a bit! My previous Producer Weeks have taken in the disco-defining era of Giorgio Moroder and the production powerhouse electronica of Trevor Horn. This Producer Week was our first posthumous retrospective, reaching back to the early, glamorous 1970s when a searing guitar sound fell from Mars.
THE GUITAR OF MICK RONSON.
So, a week of his hits as performer and producer began… With the usual rules – cross the gamut of genres, make the difficult decisions, and respond to the news – sadly that last one knocked Ronson’s interpretation of Richard Rodgers out of contention. Those rules necessarily meant limiting much of his definitive work with David Bowie, between 1970 and 1973 (otherwise known as The Man Who Sold the World to Pin Ups), a stint on the 1980s Glass Spider tour and a brief reunion in the studio for 1993’s Black Tie White Noise.
Yin and Yang
But there’ll be no more famous image etched in the public consciousness of the two, than THAT performance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in April 1972. In spite of the wealth of other work both completed together and apart, the Spiders from Mars will keep them linked in eternity.
As Bowie said in 1994, “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.”
Sure, Bowie would work with many other legendary guitarists who’d complete that aspect of his masterworks. To name a mere two, the bristling confrontation of Earl Slick’s riffs on Station to Station‘s Stay, tussling with some oddly mundane Bowie lyrics, or the haunting slides dreamt up in the mind of the wonderfully crazy Robert Fripp on Heroes.
But it was never more compelling than in those formative years. And with what Adam Buxton rightly calls in his new Bug: David Bowie Special, which I saw last night in warm-up, Ronson’s rock faces. They were special.
For Ronson, those first few years of the 1970s weren’t all Bowie and it wasn’t all guitar. Here were his formative moments of production and composition, from the astonishing string arrangement of Life on Mars to co-producing Lou Reed’s Transformer. It was the start of creative input on guitar and behind the desk that would reach into the 1990s through solo work and collaboration with some of the rock world’s finest.
For #RonsonWeek It all began on 15th August, the Tuesday that a celebration of Mick Ronson began in the legend’s home town of Hull.
What a way to start with this searing Morrissey single, powered by a new glam sound that Mick Ronson fitted brilliantly to Morrisey’s distinctive, eloquent and literary well, Morrisseyness. Astonishing stuff even if Maconie didn’t take to it. But sadly, the producer was fast-approaching the end of his life.
Starman wasn’t just the moment Bowie changed TOTP2 scheduling forever, it was also the big Ronson reveal. #RonsonWeek couldn’t refuse to recognise the big moment for that “Ying and yang”.
Skipping sideways from Starman, it was an easy Thursday choice for #RonsonWeek, in the face of disturbing terror news from the continent. The ever-loving Satellite of Love, but not the original. An extra dance infusion from The Groovefinder “Satellite of Love ’04” mix, pulling out not only a rather simple beat typical of early last decade, but fantastically enhancing Bowie’s backing vocals. 1972’s Transformer was co-produced by Bowie and Ronson.
Fourth song, it had to be another flip to the side and as I put it, “Mott. Just Mott. And Ronson. #RonsonWeek”. Bowie and Ronson’s own version of All the Young Dudes is sublime and formed a key part of the Spiders’ live set throughout 1973, a time when this, the anthem’s most famous version, reached number three in the UK charts.
5/ Bursting from the carcassess of the Spiders from Mars, came Only After Dark from Mick Ronson’s 1974 debut solo album. Oddly, much covered by Sheffield bands (Human League, Def Leppard…), it’s just one of a number of top moments on his Slaughter on 10th Avenue LP. But Ronson was never wholly convinced by himself as a solo front man.
The ’80s Amsterdam blues rock of Fatal Flowers on the brilliantly named TOPPOP. Rock & Roll Star from their Ronson-produced second album Johnny D. Is Back. Talking of Rock ‘n’ Roll Stars…
Mick Ronson’s knack for a string arrangement and his searing glam guitar didn’t only combine once during his years collaborating with David Bowie (Life on Mars?). But do they reach a higher perfection than 15 minutes into the second side of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?
A detour back to Morrissey, and 1992’s I Know it’s Gonna Happen Someday, speedily covered by Bowie when he heard its parody of the Ziggy-closer and just couldn’t resis. When Mozzer earlier noted the same to his producer, Ronson replied, “I wrote that original piece for Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, so they won’t be any legal, comeback.”
Here it is performed by some shell-shocked Spiders, sacked live on stage. Except for oh, keyboardist Mike Garson, and main man Mick Ronson of course. Couldn’t let him go just yet. #RonsonWeek
There was only one way to end #RonsonWeek, with a two-hander that attempted, just slightly, to portray Ronson’s breadth. And there was even a bonus link back to a previous Producer Week. From Ronson’s posthumous album of collaboration and final gems, Heaven and Hull, the reworked Giorgio Moroder tune. And really, it’s he quiet before the storm.
How else could #RonsonWeek end but with the rip-roaringly honest, Beatles-baitingly blistering Wildhearts… It’s a classic track, from a classic album, from an always criminally underated British rock band. This song goes some way to show their raw talent and range… And in the mix there’s Mick Ronson’s final guitar solo.
Too soon, too sad, but what a way to go.