The Spider from Mars

By Sergio Ariza

Mick Ronson (May 26, 1946 - April 29, 1993) is one of the most undervalued musicians in history, partly due to the fact that a big part of his best work was working for others, mainly David Bowie, to which he played the right hand man during those lofty years, but also Ian Hunter, Dylan, and Roger McGuinn. He wasn’t just an exceptional guitarist, but a musician, arranger , and a unique producer. The sound of his guitar was one of the  precursors to punk, but with that exquisite technique that would define ‘glam’.  

His friend Trevor Bolder defined his style to perfection saying, “He doesn’t have to play much to be recognised. He’s not a showy guitarist, he makes simple things sound incredible. He was a true musician who put his heart and soul into everything he did”. And this goes far beyond his work as a guitarist, for he was also a solid pianist and wrote excellent arrangements. 

Ronson was born in Hull, England, and as a lad took violin and piano classes, those classical studies would be used to perfection in the future, but in his teens he heard the call of rock & roll and didn’t hesitate a wink to get an electric guitar. A short time after he was known as the ‘Jeff Beck of Hull’, in honour of his favourite guitarist. After a brief, unrewarding stint in London, Ronson joined a local group called The Rats. They became, because of him, a blues/rock band modelled in image and similarities to the Jeff Beck Group, and they recorded various singles. This is where we can begin to see his own style which made him an idol on the local scene.

At the start of the 70s Ronson combined his gig with The Rats with a day job as a gardener, but as luck would have it, that was around the time Michael Chapman was recording the sequel to his acclaimed debut hit Rainbow. He was a singer/songwriter who also played the acoustic guitar but was looking for an electric touch. His record company put him in touch with several guitarists but Chapman quipped “The gardener from my town can play better than those guys”.  After a try-out they could all see he wasn’t lying. Ronson’s work on Fully Qualified Survivor is a gem, worthy examples are Stranger in a Room and Soulful Sally. His guitar - a ’68 Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty” stripped to its natural wood finish— - Chapman’s acoustical work, it's surreal lyrics and the chord arrangements got a jump on the excellent Hunky Dory by Bowie.  

A bit before that, John Cambridge, the ex-drummer of The Rats, had begun to collaborate with Bowie and his producer Tony Visconti. The singer mentioned to Cambridge that he was looking for more of a rock sound, and the drummer didn’t hesitate in recommending his old friend. After another successful audition, Bowie remarked, “ I just found my own Jeff Beck”.  The next day Ronson was playing with Cambridge,  Visconti , and Bowie himself on the legendary John Peel show at the BBC. Bowie put his new guitarist front and center on his next recording.  It was a version of Memory of a Free Festival, a song from his previous album, with an extensive solo by Ronson. Bowie found his new sound and glam rock was born.

Cambridge was replaced on drums by Mick Woodmansey, another friend of Ronson’s. However, the clearest evidence of his new leadership is seen when, on the recording of The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie let Ronson and Visconti write the arrangements on most of the songs. As a result, the sound was a lot harder than usual; the best example being The Width of a Circle, a song built around Ronson’s guitar, and let’s not forget the riffs on the title song All the Madmen, the slide on Running Gun Blues, or the solo in She Shook Me Cold. Ronson made good on this occasion to learn from Visconti all about producing and recording an album.  Before recording had finished he got a call from Elton John (who was a big Chapman fan) wanting him to collaborate on a new song called Madman Across the Water, but, in spite of a great result, it never saw the light of day until 1992. 

After the record crashed, Mick and Woody decided to leave Bowie and go back to Hull to form a band with Tony Visconti on bass. They picked up a singer and released a single, 4th Hour of My Sleep and Power of Darkness. At that time he was called Ronno, the nickname he went by, and his new bassman was Trevor Bolder, another friend from Hull. When Mick got the call from Bowie inviting him to play on his new record, he not only jumped at it, but proposed bringing a new drummer and bassist as well.  

During the time they were apart Bowie had written some spectacular numbers, and had a new focus, in search of a leaner sound. Spiders on Mars in the end recorded one of the greatest masterpieces of rock music, without even knowing at the time  that they would be called that. As it says in Changes, “ Changes are taking the places I am going through”. Behind the hardest sounds of The Man Who Sold the World, with Hunky Dory, they open their range of sounds. Among their most popular songs is the immortal Life on Mars? (with an incredible guitar arrangement by Ronson), Changes, Oh You Pretty Things, Quicksand and Queen Bitch, which would bring forward  the sound of the persona that would carry him to the top.   

Bowie had been talking for some time about creating the perfect pop star, a mix of two of his heroes Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. The result should be a character who “appears to have just  arrived from Mars”. The final impulse to create this was the great success his friend Marc Bolan had had as the frontman of T.Rex, building the  emergence of the glam scene. That’s how Ziggy Stardust and his band Spiders of Mars came to be. During Live performances, Bowie would share the spotlight with his guitarist, making him the lead man on the long instrumental rips (take a look at Moonage Dream). When it became a habitual gesture to kneel before  his guitarist and make it look like felatio, the world figured they were seeing their new guitar hero. And to top it off, the very same year, Ronson had a leading role on the recording of another masterpiece, Transformer, by Lou Reed, a record produced partly by Bowie and where he played the guitar (see Vicious and I’m So Free), the piano (Perfect Day) and wrote various arrangements as in Walk on the Wild Side.  

Aladdin Sane was something like ‘Ziggy goes to America’ and it put Spiders on Mars on top of the world. Nobody saw Bowie’s disappearance coming. On July 3 1973, Ziggy declared that this would be the last time he would play with the Spiders of Mars. The only member of the band Bowie had told about it was Ronson. And neither could he figure out the ‘why’ behind breaking up one of the most successful groups in rock history.    

Anyway, Bowie’s leaving glam left a hole in the scene and many thought it could be filled by Ronson. The guitarist put out his first solo record, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, and it was among the most sold in the U.K. But when it came to playing live, he couldn’t  feel good in his new role and chose to get back to his secondary role, despite Creem magazine having named him the #2 guitarist of the year behind Jimmy Page and in front of Clapton

In 1972 he had arranged a song for the legendary All the Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople and ended up making inroads with their singer Ian Hunter. So when he called him to join the band he didn’t think twice. He only had  time to record Saturday Gigs (where his Les Paul Custom leaves its mark) before he and Hunter go off to form a duo. After the release of his second solo record, Play Don’t Worry, which didn’t sell as well as the first, he devoted himself to his collaboration with Hunter, and was  the debut’s protagonist . But after a quarrel, they split up. 

He was taken out of these times by the least expected person, Bob Dylan. He was planning his tour of the Rolling Thunder Review  with a few friends and after seeing Ronson in a bar said, “you should come with us”. Ronson thought it was a joke but, after getting a call from Dylan, he was on the road before long. In his time with Dylan he made new friends, playing in and producing Roger McGuinn’s best solo record , Cardiff Rose, where on the magnificent Rock and Roll Time, he was able to make the ex-Byrds member sound like the Clash, a year before they formed a band. It was no surprise, the punk crowd idolised him and Johnny Rotten, with his hair dyed red, and Steve jones on his Les Paul were the ‘no future’ version of Ziggy and Ronson. 

In ‘79 he got back to recording with Hunter on You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic with a wonderful response. They went on tour together and made the impressive Welcome to the Club to show for it. In the 80s and 90s he kept playing with the most diverse bands, producing records such as Your Arsenal by Morrissey. But the most desired get together was on April 20, !992, when in a tribute to Freddie Mercury, Mick Ronson and David Bowie played together again. Millions of people watched the concert live on TV but few knew Ronson had cancer.   

Shortly after he got back to the studio and the 2 main figures in his career, Ian Hunter and David Bowie did not hesitate to sign on, but he didn’t get time to finish his 3rd album before dying. Among other things, Ronson never said no to other musicians who asked for his services. A few days before his death, he played an explosive solo on an old Telecaster in My Baby is a Headfuck, the debut of The Wildhearts; he never sounded better.  In a world of inflated rock egos, Ronno didn’t care much for the spotlight, he knew that success had nothing to do with the music, as he said to his friend Ian Hunter days before he passed away, “ I love to tour, because you just get better as a musician”. There aren’t many better than him in rock.