I’ve been in a Bowie mood. Yesterday I discussed Bowie’s “plastic soul” period – today it’s Bowie’s extremely fruitful musical partnership with the great guitarist Mick Ronson.
Ronson was born in 1947 and grew up in Hull in the north of England. As a child Ronson played violin, recorder, harmonium and guitar. Outwardly reserved, Ronson practiced guitar-hero poses in the privacy of his own room as he slashed out Jeff Beck riffs. Many a young guitarist would likewise emulate him in the ’70s.
In the ’60s Ronson played with local groups Voice, and Wanted, before hooking up the Rats, yet another Anglo R&B group in the tradition of Pretty Things, Them, the early Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds. The young guitarist made his recording debut behind British folk singer Michael Chapman on the 1969 album Fully Qualified Survivor. After a few singles and a tour of France with the Rats, a disillusioned Ronson returned to Hull and the quiet life of a gardener.
Horticulture’s loss was music’s gain as Ronson was summoned to London in 1970 to work with David Bowie on the follow-up to his first hit single, “Space Oddity.” Bowie and bassist/producer Tony Visconti were assembling a hard rock band to blow away Bowie’s frouffy, flower power image. With the addition of ex-Rat Woody Woodmansey on drums, The Man Who Sold the World lineup was complete.
Man rocks with an authority that startles even today. While the material is uneven and Visconti’s production is somewhat pinched, Man is Bowie’s first classic album. Ronson’s guitar propels the opus “Width of a Circle”; he riffs viciously like Jimmy Page and solos on the twang bar with a Jeff Beck-like intensity. “All the Madmen” is one of the most successful examples of Bowie’s career-long fascination with the Outsider. The title track is driven by Ronson’s melodic lines and a spunky Latin beat.
After Man, Bowie returned to songwriting, and Ronson returned to Hull, where he recorded a single under the name “Ronno,” “The Fourth Hour of My Sleep.” When Bowie was through writing Hunky Dory, Ronson, Woodmansey and another ex-Rat, bassist Trevor Bolder, answered the call to London.
This time Ronson acted as band leader and arranger as his electric guitar flash was subsumed within a delicate mix of piano, strings and acoustic guitar. Ronson helped bring Bowie’s melodic gifts to the fore with brilliant arrangements of Bowie’s career-theme “Changes,” the lush “Life On Mars,” the wistful and affecting “Kooks,” and Bowie’s evocation of spiritual impotence, “Quicksand.” Ronson’s bowel shaking electric guitar returns to give “Queen Bitch” the edge it demands, giving a foretaste of the glory that was to be the Spiders From Mars.
Bowie”s next album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, defined an era as completely as “Rock Around the Clock,” Elvis’s Sun Sessions, or the Beatles’ first album. Bowie and the Spiders created a compelling, dangerous and mythic world of glittering cosmic androgyny powered by rock ‘n’ roll.
The greatness of the Spiders band emboldened Bowie to envision himself as a superstar, although he hadn’t come close to attaining that status in real life yet. Bowie’s risk was backed up by the music on the album, which is the most consistent, tuneful and least self-indulgent of his career. Ziggy is also Ronson’s greatest musical moment as he played guitars and keyboards, and co-arranged the album with Bowie.
“Soul Love” is a perfect example of the contrast that Ronson seemed to be able to bring out in Bowie’s music. The “baby” background vocals that Ronson and Bowie share have an otherworldly lightness, while Bowie’s soul sax swings gently, and Ronson’s fuzzy Les Paul gooses the song with heaviness at the right moments.
“Lady Stardust” introduces the Ziggy character in all of his decadent glory with makeup, long black hair and “animal grace,” as Ronson’s piano and Bowie’s longing vocals lend the song an elegiac flavor. Ronson’s guitar line on the title track is a study is melodic economy. “Suffragette City” rocks with Ronson’s pounding piano and driving Les Paul. The stomping chorus and the immortal line “Wham bam thank you ma’am” contribute to make it Bowie and Ronson’s most memorable song.
Ronson and the Spiders continued with Bowie for two more albums, Aladdin Sane, and Pinups. Sane yielded two more classics, “Panic In Detroit” and “The Jean Genie,” as well as Ronson’s hardest guitar on record, the crunching and squealing “Cracked Actor.”
Pinups is a collection of covers songs that was received with mixed enthusiasm, and this response coupled with Bowie’s natural restlessness led to the breakup of the band. Neither Bowie nor Ronson was ever again to find as symbiotic or successful a partnership.