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 it 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 Hull… 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 glamour of the 1970s when a distinctive, searing lick of guitar 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, respond to the news – sadly that last one knocked Ronson’s interpretation of Richard Rodgers out of contention. Those rules meant necessarily 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 in the 1980s Glass Spider tour, a brief reunion in the studio for 1993’s Black Tie White Noise. Ronno has a claim to being one of Bowie’s greatest collaborators.
Yin and Yang
Ah yes, Ronno and Bowie. There’s no image of the two more etched in the public consciousness than THAT performance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in April 1972. When the Starman landed, changing lives up and down the land. Despite a wealth of other collaborations, it’s the Spiders from Mars that 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.”
Bowie would work with many other legendary guitarists, each adding distinction to his masterworks. To name a mere two, the bristling confrontation of Earl Slick’s riffs on Station to Station‘s Stay, tussling with some decidedly mundane Bowie lyrics, or the haunting slides leaping from the mind of the wonderfully eccentric Robert Fripp on Heroes.
But ‘Bowie and his guitarist’ was never more compelling than in those formative years. Especially what Adam Buxton rightly calls in his new Bug: David Bowie Special, (which I saw last night in warm-up – bloody good), Ronson’s rock faces. They were special.
No Strings Attached
For Ronson, those first few years of the 1970s weren’t all Bowie and they weren’t all guitar. There were his forays into production and composition, from the astonishing string arrangement of Life on Mars to co-producing Lou Reed’s Transformer. It was the start of genre-changing creative input, whether guitar in hand or behind a 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, a Tuesday that saw the start of a celebration of Mick Ronson 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 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. Let’s leap back…
Starman wasn’t just the moment Bowie changed TOTP2 scheduling forever, it was also the big Ronson reveal. #RonsonWeek couldn’t fail 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. The extra dance infusion brought by the Groovefinder “Satellite of Love ’04” mix, highlights the rather simple beat typical of early last decade as well as enhancing Bowie’s backing vocals spectacularly. Oh-oh-oh-Ohhhh. 1972’s Transformer was co-produced by Bowie and Ronson. (Remember this video? It appears that quality uploads don’t!)
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 version of All the Young Dudes is sublime and formed a key part of the Spiders’ live set throughout 1973 as this, the anthem’s most famous version, reached number three in the UK charts.
5/ Bursting from the carcasses 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 highlight from his Slaughter on 10th Avenue LP. But Ronson was never wholly won over by his solo frontman credentials.
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 combine just once during his Bowie years (Life on Mars anyone?). But do they reach a higher than 15 minutes into the second side of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars? I’d say not.
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 resist. 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.” Let’s all be friends.
Here it is performed by some shell-shocked Spiders, sacked live on stage. Except for oh, keyboardist Mike Garson, and main man Ronno of course. Couldn’t let him go just yet. #RonsonWeek
There was only one way to end #RonsonWeek, with a two-hander that attempted to portray Ronson’s breadth- a difficult task. It even came with a bonus link back to an earlier Producer Week. From Ronson’s posthumous album of collaboration and final gems, Heaven and Hull, the reworked Giorgio Moroder tune. It’s the 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 the permanently criminally underrated 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. We were lucky to have Ronno!