Mick Ronson, the best guitarist David Bowie ever had
Mick Ronson’s work with David Bowie in the early 1970s changed the world of popular music forever. Legendary producer Ken Scott was in the room when Mick and David were establishing their remarkable creative mojo – here, he reflects on the contribution of a uniquely talented but often underrated guitar genius.
Ronson wielding his iconic stripped 1968 Les Paul Custom. Image credit: Getty Images
Mick Ronson’s considerable contribution to David Bowie’s canon as a guitarist, arranger and producer is something that’s been given a fresh examination in recent years, and has only intensified since Bowie’s sad passing in January 2016. Indeed, Bowie himself went on record in 2013 to extoll the platinum-haired guitarist’s contribution to his seminal work between 1970 and ’73, the audio of which would be used in the 2017 documentary Beside Bowie, which also included Station To Station player Earl Slick describing Ronno as “the best guitarist David Bowie ever had”.
Another key figure in Bowie’s creative team in the early 1970s was producer and engineer Ken Scott, who had first come aboard for the 1969 David Bowie album (re-released in 1972 as Space Oddity) as an engineer, and was present when the Ronson was plucked from his role as a gardener for Hull City Council to join Bowie’s band, not long before he began recording 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World. With Tony Visconti producing, and Ronson’s former bandmate Woody Woodmansey on drums, Scott came later into the process and was able to see the evolution of Bowie’s studio relationship with the young Les Paul-toting Yorkshireman.
“I did some mixing and overdubbing on The Man Who Sold The World,” Scott recalls. “And while David wrote and sang the songs, everything else seemed to be Tony… and obviously Mick had more to do with it. David had a fair amount of success, then he worked with Tony who was very controlling in the studio and had no success. I think at that point, David felt he had to put his money where his mouth was. If he was going to fail, it would be on his ideas.”
The Man Who Sold The World’s disappointingly modest sales caused Bowie to take a break while he focused on writing songs, leading to Ronson and Woodmansey heading back to Hull, not knowing if or when they’d be asked back. But Bowie’s relationship with Ronson was special – they had a chemistry and understanding that surpassed his relationship with all but a handful of his many collaborators over the years.
After almost a year, Ronson and Woody got the call to come back to London, and with the addition of bassist Trevor Bolder, would form Bowie’s band (later dubbed The Spiders From Mars) for a revolutionary new project – Hunky Dory. With Scott brought on board to co-produce, they headed into London’s Trident Studios in June 1971 and emerged two months later with an album that would become one of Bowie’s most critically acclaimed and influential works. “It was a perfect team for what David wanted to put across at the time,” Scott recalls. “That whole thing of David and Ronno, then Trevor, Woody and myself – we never had to talk about it too much, it was all there.
“I thought David was a good singer and a nice guy. My feeling was, it’ll be a decent album, but no one will ever hear it – I never saw him being a superstar at that point. Then I heard the songs and it was like, ‘Oh fuck; he’s going to be huge,’ and it terrified me. There was a lot going on when we first started to record, because David and I had never produced before. There was a lot of trepidation, but as we were trying things and they began to work, I slowly but surely gained confidence and it was probably the same with the other guys as well.”
Key to this was Ronson’s ability to wear the hats of guitarist, producer and arranger. As someone who had previously worked as an engineer on The Beatles’ extraordinary studio run, it didn’t take long for Scott to pick out that Bowie wasn’t the only exceptional talent in the room. “I think the sum of all the parts was greater than the individual thing,” he affirms. “David or I would start talking about what was required and Mick would immediately say: ‘I know,’ and nail it instantly. Mick was up there with all of them; The Beatles would spend a lot of time getting everything right. Mick got everything right, but he did it lot quicker. He had to, because they had budget and time constraints.”
When it came to gear, Ronson’s famous stripped 1968 Les Paul Custom was unsurprisingly the fulcrum of his tone on tracks such as Life On Mars?. “When it came to his sound, it was always the Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall and the Cry Baby wah,” Scott explains. “Through the Cry Baby is generally how we got his sound, he hardly ever touched the amp. Mick would start at one end of the wah and slowly work down or come up, he’d hit the sound we wanted, leave it there.”
With recording quickly completed, Bowie warned Scott: “I don’t think you are going to like the next one; it’s a lot more rock ’n’ roll”. While the producer admittedly hadn’t heard The Stooges or The Velvet Underground at that point, he was raised on Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, and took to it like a duck to water. “It was perfect for me; I loved rock ’n’ roll,” Ken enthuses. “We recorded Ziggy Stardust… very quickly after Hunky Dory: when people talk about the difference between the two records, I say listen to Queen Bitch – it could have fitted perfectly, it was a continuation from there, really.”
Ronson’s intuitive riffs could hit as hard as a knockout punch, while retaining a characteristically clean delivery. Aladdin Sane is Ronno at his most effective, the likes of Panic In Detroit and Cracked Actor are under his charge, with the energy palpably rising out of the grooves. The work remains as striking as it did in 1973. “Even when Ronno tried to play nasty, there was still a purity to his playing,” explains Scott.
“Mick was one of the nicest guys and that came through in the playing, because it was him. With Cracked Actor, we were after the nastiest sound we could get from the guitar and harmonica. David started to play it straight acoustically and it sounded so weak compared to everything else, so we fed it though Mick’s Marshall and cranked it. We wanted it as nasty as we could get it. That was a tough one for Woody – we were after that Bo Diddley thing, we wanted it to swing. With English drummers, it’s very meat-and-potatoes. When I saw David play the song with American musicians live much later, it had more swing, it had a certain feel.”
Various tales from the period have Bowie humming ideas for solos that Ronson would transform into iconic solos on the likes of Time and Moonage Daydream, but Scott is quick to pour cold water on these notions. “I don’t recall David ever humming anything, it might have been that David was humming in Mick’s head!” he exclaims. “Mick would always come up with what we expected. We had expectations of what he would give us and he came through every time, normally on the first or second take. It’s that horrible thing of, yes Mick’s solo’s are amazing… but they were expected, so they didn’t seem as amazing to us at the time.”
As well as the perfect guitar player for Bowie’s early 70s transformation into a cosmic pop icon, Ronson’s remarkable gift for arrangement further lifted songs such as Life On Mars? above the typical singer-songwriter fare. “The orchestra didn’t like longhairs conducting them,” Scott chuckles.
“He would arrive 10 minutes before the orchestra was due at Trident and would run up stairs to the first-floor toilet and later come back down with a huge grin on his face. One of my favourite memories of Mick was when the phone rang randomly the one and only time we were halfway through a take of Life On Mars?.
“Ronno was really pissed off and we couldn’t use that, obviously, so we recorded it again. We’d forgotten all about it until we got the master and started overdubbing strings. On the sustained bit at the end as it fades out, we suddenly heard piano and the phone ringing, we knew we had to keep it in, but we also had Ronno shouting: ‘Oh, fucking bastard!’ It’s very funny when you hear it on the multitrack.
“But he was an incredible arranger. Mick tried things that other people wouldn’t. Another great example is Walk On The Wild Side from [Lou Reed’s] Transformer; it was amazing what Mick wrote for that and whatever he did just worked.”
In summer, 1973, Bowie dramatically announced the end of The Spiders From Mars live on stage – much to the surprise of the Spiders themselves. This also signalled the end of the Bowie/Ronson creative partnership. Aside from the covers album Pin Ups, they would not work together in the studio together again for 20 years. Significantly, the duo would pick up the thread from where they left off recording a version of Cream’s I Feel Free.
Ziggy and the Spiders had performed a version of the track at Kingston Polytechnic in May 1972, and Bowie had considered a studio version for Pin Ups as Jack Bruce had originally been slated to play bass on the album. The version recorded for Black Tie White Noise would be released just weeks before Ronson’s death from liver cancer aged just 46 in April 1993. “David would not have been as big as he was without Ronno,” Scott reflects.
“I don’t think David gave him enough credit. Ronno had served his purpose. The last thing I did in the studio with David was 1984/Dodo, which was two songs put together as a composite for Diamond Dogs. When we were mixing it, he kept referencing Barry White. At that point after Pin Ups, he was looking for that American sound. Ronno would not have fitted in with that.”
While some harsh words were exchanged between Bowie and Ronson in the aftermath of the Spiders split, both softened as time went on, and perhaps it was Bowie who summed up their wonderful creative partnership best. “As a rock duo, I thought we were every bit as good as Mick and Keith, or Axl and Slash,” the great man insisted. “Ziggy and Mick were the personification of that rock ’n’ roll dualism.”
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