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The life and times of Mick Ronson, the king of glam rock

Born in Hull, 26th May 1946, Mick Ronson was a legendary guitarist of a generation that no longer exists. In addition to being an iconic axe-man, he was a proficient songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer. He is best known as being the guitarist of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, with whom he achieved great critical and commercial success. Ronson played on five Bowie studio albums: The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Hunky Dory (1971), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), and covers album Pin Ups (1973). He was at the epicentre of Bowie’s iconic early work, and without his sheer brilliance, Bowie’s work would not carry the same weight.

In addition to these dizzying heights, he also worked as a session musician. He recorded four albums with Mott The Hoople frontman Ian Hunter, and showing his pedigree, worked as a touring musician for legends such as Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. In addition to being key to Bowie’s success, Ronson was also key to the glam rock genre. He ballasted Bowie’s glam, and inspired by The Rolling Stones, can be seen as a progenitor of punk and grunge. Moreover, Ronson co-produced Lou Reed’s Transformer, the 1972 album considered the most influential landmark of the transgressive, glam genre. He played lead guitar, piano and wrote string arrangements on the record anchored by Reed’s opus, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ — Ronson did it all.

Apart from being a key player in Bowie and Lou Reed’s careers, he also recorded five solo studio albums, with the most popular, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, reaching number nine in the UK Albums Chart in 1974. Raised a Mormon and so classically trained, Ronson’s iconic guitar playing was characterised by his melodic approach and is often discussed as being one of the greatest of all time. Without him, we would not have been blessed with musical pioneers such as The Ramones, The Smiths or Nirvana. The legendary cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ by Nirvana on MTV Unplugged sums up his brilliance. Furthermore, in 1992, the year before his passing, he produced Morrissey’s third album, Your Arsenal. In the years following his death, Morrissey would recount the honest, brilliant dichotomy inherent to the Hull legend: “He was very shy about picking up a guitar, yet completely unchained once he had.”

Ronson first met Bowie in February 1970. He had played in a number of local Hull bands since 1963 but was always destined for bigger things. These included: The Mariners, The Rats and The Crestas. Indicative of his position as the king of glam rock, in 1970, he even played on an Elton John session for the track ‘Madman Across the Water’. It was meant to be for Tumbleweed Connection but was not released until 1992 with the Elton John compilation Rare Masters.

After leaving The Crestas in 1965, Ronson had briefly moved to London, where he undertook part-time work as a mechanic and had an unsuccessful stint in the band The Voice. This ended abruptly when the rest of the band left him and drummer Dave Bradfield, also formerly of The Crestas, in London to pursue a career in The Bahamas. In 1966 Ronson returned to Hull and joined The Rats.

It was his playing with The Rats that truly set him on his path to greatness. In 1966 he had joined The Rats, then Hull’s most popular band, to play the local circuit added to a few unsuccessful jaunts to London and Paris. The band would record and release a sparse amount of songs before drummer John Cambridge left the band in ’69. Cambridge left the group to join up with his former Hullaballoos bandmate, Mick Wayne, in Junior’s Eyes and left Hull for London. He was replaced by Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, with whom The Rats would record two more tracks before disbanding in November 1969. 

In early 1970, Cambridge would return to Hull in search of Ronson, who, in his characteristically working-class way, was working as Parks Department gardener for Hull City Council. Cambridge found Ronson marking out a rugby pitch and had specifically travelled north to recruit him for David Bowie’s new backing band, The Hype.

Understandably then, Ronson was unsure about Cambridge’s proposal, as his last stint in the capital ended disastrously. Eventually, Ronson acquiesced and accompanied Cambridge to a meeting with Bowie and Ken Scott. Scott was the engineer who worked on the 1969 album David Bowie, which was re-released in 1972 as Space Oddity.

Two days later, on February 5th, Ronson made his debut with Bowie on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show. Following, The Hype played their first gig at the iconic Roundhouse on the 22nd of February. The line-up was Bowie, Ronson, Cambridge, and producer/bassist Tony Visconti. The group dressed up in superhero costumes, with Bowie as Rainbowman, Visconti as Hypeman, Ronson as Gangsterman, and Cambridge as Cowboyman, presenting a clear sign of things to come. Typically, John Cambridge would leave the band in March 1970, replaced again by none other than “Woody” Woodmansey. Subsequently, in April, Ronson, Woodmansey and Visconti set about recording Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold the World, featuring that iconic title track.

At the time, and in the cynical Yorkshire way, Ronson wasn’t overly impressed by Bowie and, meeting his expectations, The Man Who Sold the World sold modestly. Indeed, Ronson regarded Bowie as a “nice guy” that he had creative chemistry with, but he wasn’t sure whether he’d be invited back to record the follow-up and certainly, at this point, never saw Bowie as the superstar he’d go on to be.

However, it all changed with Bowie’s next album, 1971’s Hunky Dory. Upon hearing the songs, Ronson had a light bulb moment: “oh fuck; he’s going to be huge”. Furthermore, Visconti left the band to be replaced by fellow Hullite Trevor Bolder on bass, and legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman entered the fold.

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Visconti’s departure paved the way for the first true convergence of Ronson and Bowie. Their partnership in composition and production marked the album as the start of something truly fantastic. Aside from what would become his signature guitar sound, Ronson’s emotive and inventive compositional tricks made the album. His dense piano and string arrangements augment many of the standouts from the album such as ‘Changes’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. Furthermore, the iconic ‘Life on Mars?’ with its glissandos, careful accenting and use of the piano’s wide range, mark the majesty of the track. At the end of the song Ronson can be heard yelling “fucking bastard!” as a telephone call to the studio interrupts a strong take.

His guitar work particularly stands out on ‘Queen Bitch’. His gritty, muscly sound places him in the proto-punk/grunge category as the influence from The Velvet Underground and Iggy and The Stooges are clear. This sound would also characterise Bowie’s next album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, carrying on the upwards trajectory of Bowie and Co. In between touring Spiders from Mars and recording the follow-up is when Bowie and Ronson co-produced Lou Reed’s Transformer. Remarkably, this was done amidst newfound drug addictions and being generally burnt out. Subsequently, Ronson’s mark would be felt on the Spiders from Mars follow-up, Aladdin Sane. The sinister, avant-garde album would close the book on this chapter of Bowie and Ronson’s careers.

There exists a host of memorable live footage from this era, and sometimes Bowie would simulate fellatio on Ronson’s guitar on stage. Regardless of this closeness, the band and Bowie would part in 1973. In 1994 Bowie reflected: “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.”

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Whilst people may regard Bowie, Lou Reed or Marc Bolan as the glam rock royalty, there can be no doubt it was actually Mick Ronson who sat on the throne. His sound and style had a massive impact on the ‘70s glam scene, and consequently, punk. In typical Ronson style, he stripped all the paint off his 1968 Gibson Les Paul believing it gave his sound more resonance. Showing his “blunt”, hard-rocking status, he always ran through a Marshall stack, and used Marshall Major heads. He got the majority of his gain from the amp itself, and as the heads were 200-watt, this really gave him an ear-piercing ferocity that was unmatched at the time, paving the way for the harder rocking acts of the years to come.

In contrast to the era, in true proto-punk style, he used few effects pedals. Although, he did use a Sola Sound Tone Bender MK1, an early fuzz pedal, and the iconic Dunlop Cry Baby Wah. Showing him to be truly a sonic pioneer, one of his main tricks was to “cock” the Wah pedal. This gave him his signature gritty tone.

Instead of revolving the pedal dynamically as most users did and do, he would leave the Wah at a certain position. Getting slightly technical, the “cocked” Wah sound boosts the high-mid frequencies emitted by the guitar, resulting in that aggressive tone we associate with Ronson. The influence of this on the “buzzsaw” guitar sounds of punks such as The Ramones and The Saints is clear. Furthermore, sonic pioneers such as Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine and countless others would also utilise this technique.

His direct, right-hand picking technique also influenced punks, as did his personality. In accordance with Bowie’s assertions, it is understandable that his personality can be regarded as punk. His defiant, salt of the earth character made him stick out from the glam scene amongst all the starry-eyed leads.

Ronson would carry on producing and writing until his tragic death from liver cancer in 1993. His post-Bowie credits include The Payolas, John Mellencamp and Roger McGuinn. In 1991 he produced the Swedish cult band The Leather Nun’s album, Nun Permanent, wherein he added backing vocals and guitars on several tracks. Following the conclusion of the project, he visited his sister in London where he was diagnosed with cancer. Trudging on, in 1992 he produced Morrissey’s Your Arsenal. His last live performance came that same year. Fittingly, it was at Wembley Stadium for The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. He played ‘All the Young Dudes’ and ‘Heroes’ with Bowie

Mick Ronson’s stature in music is huge. Not only did he provide the perfect foil for David Bowie, propelling him to stardom, he also played key roles in other profound parts of the ‘70s and the wider timeline of music, culminating in his more than deserved status as The King of Glam rock.

Watch live footage of Bowie, Ronson and Co. performing ‘The Jean Genie’, below.

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