by Kevin Cann / Starzone Magazine
Mick Ronson reflects on all things past, an interview by Kevin Cann.
Just after 6 o’clock on a sweaty August evening, Mick Ronson wandered out from the control room to say hello, my first meeting with him, “Hi, I’m Mick,’ he said, “how are you?”
After a couple of minutes of exchanging pleasantries, like; “You know Mick, you were and still are, one of my all time heroes” etc etc, we journeyed back to the mixing room where ‘One the Juggler’ were listening intently to their days labour – which Mick had produced.
The initial surprise was how well Ronson looked, the long blond locks now shorter and mousey coloured. He looked slim and very healthy, was dressed smart but casual and seemed the most assured and confident in the room. Whereas the rest of the people in the studio seemed to be suffering from notorious studio fatigue, Ronson’s experience seemed to put him a rung up and he seemed as chirpy as if the day was still young. l suppose l had slightiy expected the Mick Ronson image of 1973/74 – the peroxide guitar superstar – the fact was, l was greeted by a very modest, polite and together …. normal guy. All that aside, l still couldn’t escape the fact that he had played on some of my all time favorite LP’s – released two very good solo albums, and simply played with the best names and faces in the business.
Recent work, recording, writing, future….
After listening to an hours worth of playbacks,we all departed to the nearest ale house in Westbourne Grave, but after a couple of drinks decided the noise level was too great to record an interview. Back at Marcus Sound studios in Kensington Gardens, l opened with the obvious, What have you been up to recently?
“Well, what I’ve been doing lately is …. working on this project in New York with this girl called Sandy Dillon – who’s a pianist/singer and I’ve just decided to spend some time back in England, see my parents and just get around back in London again. I want to see what’s going on and see people again – l haven’t been back for such a long time.”
Does this mean, I asked, that he was going to be back for a while now?
“I’d like to, I’d just like to spend more time over here, it all depends on what I set myself out to do.” “I have been writing too, I’ve been writing a lot more just lately, I have my own studio at home and I’ve actually been writing a lot of instrumental stuff.”
So, it sounds as if you have stock-piled a lot of new material then?
I have over a period of time, a lot of it I’ve thrown away. Yes, I’ve quite a lot of material here and there, I just haven’t done much with it. But it’s just for my own personal satisfaction I guess. I would like to put it out on an album one day. Much of the writing I do now is really just for my own interest, it’s not like I set out and write something for an audience. I don’t think of how many people it will reach, I just write it because it is what I want to do. If other people like it, they like it, you know…”
Is that the way you’ve always worked, or did you write the first 2 solo LPs for the public or for yourself?
“Well, those first aubums were just something that I did at the time, nothing else.”
When your second solo LP came out, were you preparing for another one to follow?
“No, no, At that point in time I was ready to forget the whole thing. I didn’t really know why I was doing it. I didn’t have a particular reason why I should be a ‘vocal’ artist, as it were. I’m more of an instrumentalist, more of a musician than I am a singer you see. I can sing one or two songs that I really believe strongly in singing, but to be a singer … I’m not. I’m a musician and that’s what I was really meant to do, and that is what I am best at doing. I don’t want to be a singer and I don’t want to be known as a singer, that has nothing to do with me at all.”
Would you like the material you have stock-piled to be released at all in the future?
“Yes I would, because even though the material may have been written over the past two or three years, it still holds up for me, it sounds as strong as when I did it. It’s sort of timeless, and I think that that is the true test when something is timeless. When something sounds just as good three years on, whereas if you just follow the latest trend it sort of goes out of fashion really, and you’re sort of lumbered with it, and you don’t know what to do with it. I think, the real thing is for it to be playable in any year, and it still sounds valid and really good. So that’s the kind of thing I am after really.”
Are you actually making efforts to do that at all?
I do make an effort now and again, I don’t go out and make a whole concentrated effort – I like doing production too, you see. I have approached one or two record companies in the past about putting out material but they all want the immediate single … and l can’t guarantee them and immediate single, not for what I do.”
Could you ever become part of a group again?
I think I could, but not for ever and a day I think, just for general experience. But the group thing is not what I am searching for, but I would like to play again. I would definitely like to go out and play, as an involvement thing with other people. It’s not like I need to do it for my own ‘trip’ or anything, be my whole personal project, it would be to just get together with other musicians and to produce something people would enjoy listening to.”
If you did become part of a band again, could you do another world tour like the ones you were doing in 1973?
“Oh yeah, sure. If it was good music and something I was really enjoying doing, of course I would.”
It wasn’t too much of a drag for you, that kind of discipline?
“No, not at all, they were enjoyable, real enjoyable.”
the solo tour….
Your first and only solo tour didn’t seem to go too happily for you at the time, what do you think went wrong with it?
“Well, it was sort of being bamboozled out of the last David Bowie concert and approached with the offer that I could be the next David Cassidy or whoever it may be, do an album right now and sort of being real impressionable as I am I sort of went with it and I thought it was a real good idea. It’s something that I think everybody would like to do, and I just happened to do it. While I was on the road, and started to play that material, I started to think to myself, is this right for me, why am I doing this? I don’t really feel that comfortable doing this, it’s not really one hundred per cent me. I’m sort of fooling myself, and I’m not only fooling myself, I’m fooling other people too.’ So I found that I was starting to feel very uncomfortable within myself. By that, I knew that other people would spot that in the audience and I didn’t want that, I didn’t want to carry on with that anymore. Because you have to feel very confident in yourself and if you don’t feel that confident in yourself, how are you going to come across to other people. I initially felt that doubt in rehearsals really, l was thinking, ‘Hey,wait a minute, I can’t wait to finish this’. l just couldn’t wait to get it over with, in a way. Everything kind of happened in such a rush, I just got very confused, it just all happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to work it out or why I was doing it. l think the main reason was, why I was doing it, more than what l was doing…”
I think the history books show just how hard you were working at the time, and the fact that your albums that came out of that period show just how well you could handle that kind of situation, because they have lasted well and they are good LPs and don’t sound rushed…
“Well, that’s because I didn’t want to be pushed into putting out bad material. Although that whole period wasn’t such a bad thing, it wasn’t quite right either which wasn’t only my fault or anybody’s fault in particular … it just happened.”
At the time of Bowie’s retirement announcement, all the Spiders seemed generally surprised about it – didn’t you know it was going to happen or did you find out on the night? ”
No, I sort of knew it was happening really. It was just something that had to happen, it was always going to happen. I knew that it would eventually happen anyway.”
Do you remember that Hammersmith show at all, was it memorable for you?
“Yeah, it was memorable, a lot of the shows were memorable but that one was especially because it was the last one in that format. We recorded right after that of course. I mean, I remember other shows well like the Kingston Polytechnic, or the London Polytechnic, Elephant and Castle. I remember the pub up in Birmingham that we played, some really small ones, a few pubs. They were pretty memorable too, I mean, the whole thing was.”
You seem to be generally pleased with what was achieved in the early seventies, it seems to have set a firm foundation for you…
“Oh yeah, you bet. It was great, it was very exciting. I mean I saw the film yesterday, only yesterday (the farewell show), I saw it for the first time and I thought it was really exciting, l thought it was quite something.”
Do you feel that you were good friends with Bowie at the time, or was he distant?
“No, not really, we got on alright …. we got on real good. You have your ups and downs don’t you, everybody does. No, I think we all got on really good together.”
The history of the recording of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is quite interesting in that it is generally known that both you and Tony Visconti helped to save that particular recording due to David’s troubles at the time. Did you feel you were fairly credited?
I don’t know really, I can’t remember. I thought I was treated fairly in a lot of ways.”
Do you remember your very first meeting with him?
“Oh yeah, in his flat, we just sat around in his flat. I picked up a guitar and jammed with him. He said. “Hey, do you wanna come down to this radio show and play with me..” So, we went down to this radio show and I played along with him. After that he said, “Well, how about coming along and playing with me all the time..” So I agreed, and that was pretty much straight after the show. He said something like, “How about going back to Hull, packing your bags and coming down to work with me,” that was about it. So I did and came down to live in Haddon Hall.”
Didn’t you have to rough it on the landing for a while?
“No, we had our own room for a long while. When the house was being decorated and things like that we had to sleep on the landing, but that was alright, a beds a bed isn’t it?”
Were you aware of his work before you came down to meet him?
“No, not really.”
Do you find that things from that period in time become cloudy in your memory?
“Not really, it’s quite clear to me … everything is, I’ve a pretty good memmory.”
The radio show referred to earlier by Mick was a BBC ‘In concert’ for John Peel’s ‘The Sunday Show’. The performance was recorded at the Paris Cinema studio in Lower Regent Street on Febuary 5th 1970 and broadcast on the 8th. Listening back to that show now, it’s amazing to think that Mick had only met David the day before. The set was generally acoustic but it took Ronson only a short time to find his feet and add some familiar guitar accompaniment. The tracks they played on Peel’s show were; ‘Arnsterdam’/’God Knows I’m Good’/ ‘London Bye Ta Ta’/’An Occasional Dream’/’The Width Of A Circle’/’Janine’/’The Wild Eyed Boy From FreecIoud’/’Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ and ‘The Prettiest Star’.
I asked Mick, having only known of David Bowie for just 24 hours, how he managed to accompany him on a concert recording?
I didn’t know anything, none of the material, I just sat and watched his fingers. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I suppose it came across OK, I don’t know? Maybe it sounded horrible, I really don’t know. Everybody seemed to like it though, I’ll have to listen to your cassette of it, I’d love to hear that.”
Was that treated as an audition, the radio performance?
I don’t know if it was an audition or not, I never really thought of it like that. I was just playing, it was a normal thing for me … It probably was an audition, who knows?”
Did you feel at the time that David Bowie was rather weird?
“Not at all, I thought he was a very nice gentleman”.
At this point, I got out a copy of Ken Pitt’s book to read Mick the passage of Ken’s account of Mick’s first meeting with David (page 198). John Cambridge’s account to Ken was very concise and exacting and Mick regularly retorted, ‘That’s right..’ after each sentence. The piece about meeting David first at the Marquee did rather confuse him as he, as has been stated already, thought the first meeting came at Haddon Hall, Mick continues;
“Well, that could have been right. I do remember the Marquee, but I thought that came after … that may well be right. I was all a bit confused then simply because I was too busy worrying what I was going to do for the show. The broadcast recording was in front of a live audience too, so it was just like a regular show, and I just had to play…”
John Cambridge was obviously quite instrumental with your introduction to Bowie, do you still keep in touch with him now?
“No, l haven’t seen him for a long, long time. He’s a funny lad though, real comical. He used to make me laugh all the time, a really nice bloke.”
Incidentally, what did you think of them ripping down Haddon Hall?
I didn’t know they had ripped it down. I drove passed there a lot and l didn’t even notice. It was a nice place that … £7.10 a week that place was, it stayed at that rate until I moved out, great.”
Did you work much in the basement studio?
“Well, the basement was sort of put up a little later on, we didn’t use it much. It was just too small. You had to go down these dark tiny stairs into this little basement, to this tiny tiny room. We didn’t use it much, we started rehearsing upstairs … the piano was up there, the amps were set up there.”
So much of David’s most important early material was thought out and written there, you must have felt quite a part of it all…
“I did, it was all very important to me, it was what I wanted to do. It was a really interesting period for me. I was just learning so much in so little time, all at once. There was all this stuff that I had never been exposed to before that was all brand new to me. It was really enjoyable, fantastic. l was lucky because I was allowed to do what I wanted, which I thought was really good of David. He gave me a lot of freedom which gave me chance to express myself as well. That was all good for me … that was a good quality he had.”
Did you get to know Tony Visconti well at that time?
“Yes I did, very well. I don’t see him now. I used to go to the studio and watch him working. He used to let me watch him mixing and working out arrangements, I used to think it was amazing what he used to do. I used to help him and copy out pieces, it was great for learning.”
Didn’t you do the strings for tracks like ‘Life On Mars?’ and what-have-you?
“Yes, that’s right.”
Did that come about from watching Tony Visconti working?
“That’s right. I thought that if he could do it, then I could do it too. I can read and write music, after playing classical piano, violin and everything, it was just an extension of that. Learning classical music for me was a great help in that area, but at the same time l felt that it also hindered me a bit too. In classical music everything has to be relative, for example, the relative minor to a C chord is A minor and when you are brought up on classical rules you tend to follow them. You end up playing by the rules because they are so strict and forced into you. So, in some ways, classical training was a very good thing for me to go through, but in other ways I wish I had never known anything about classical music at all. It still affects the way I think now.”
Do you remember when David used to collect antiques, did that interest you?
“He used to say, Let’s go out and look at some antique shops, ‘which really didn’t interest me. I was never interested in antiques myself. He never used to do all that too much, just now and again shop for them. He used to come back and say, ‘Look at this I’ve just bought, isn’t it wonderful..’ I used to think that it looked like a piece of garbage to me, all bleak and rusty. l don’t appreciate antiques too much myself.”
Mick Ronson – family and home
Home for Mick these days has generally been New York, where he has a house which is complete with it’s own studio. His wife, Sue Ronson, is the lady who used to do the hair for David and the Spiders in 1973. They have a 7 year old daughter called Lisa, who Mick informed me is
“very much a New Yorker, she was born there and has an American passport. I really want her to travel about a lot more. She is off school right now and has just got back from Greece with her mother and they’re off again on Sunday down to the Italian Riviera on a cruise. It’s good for her, it’s good for anyone to travel. I want to see a lot more of the world, start traveling again, I haven’t done enough of it…”
Mott The Hoople- lan Hunter…
“Mott The Hoople was really just something else to do, but I like Ian, really more than l liked the band. It was Ian that I did it for, the band talked me into joining them, which was just for about three weeks. I got disillusioned real fast, which was partly my fault I suppose, it just didn’t gell. Ian was also getting tired of that situation too, so it was a good excuse to work together. He asked me if I would do an album with him if he left Mott and I said, ‘Sure’ and that was it. We did ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’ and that turned out real good. He really wanted to be a solo artist and there was a lot of things he could do as a solo artist he couldn’t with a group. lan is still a good mate, we’re best of friends, we will still work together now and again but not all the time. lt’s the same for both of us, it would get stale otherwise. We always hang around a lot together in New York, we’ve remained good friends, He’s a lovely bloke is lan, he really is.”
Bob Dylan – The Rolling Thunder Revue…
I just met him in a bar one night. I had just moved into New York. I was just down in the village and Bob Dylan was just sitting in this bar playing a guitar with all these people crowded in. I sort of squeezed my way in but this bar tender kept picking on me, telling me to move out of the way. So anyway, he threw me out and I got pretty mad at that point and I threatened to go through the window and there was a whole commotion. Then Bob Dylan came out to see what was happening and said, ‘Hey, do you wanna come with me for a drink. ‘so I said, ‘alright’ and we went off…” (At this point, Ray Stevenson chipped in…. “It sounds like a joke … Bob Dylan comes out and says, ‘Do you wanna come for a drink…” much laughter abounds from those gathered nearby at the incredulity of the situation … ) Mick quickly continued the story… “It’s true, he did. So we went down to this club and he just said, ‘Right, do you want to come on the road with me?’ So l said, ‘Sure’. I went home thinking, ‘Great, I’m going on the road with Bob Dylan’. Then 6 months passed and l thought he had been having me on. Suddenly l get a phone call, about 6 months later from him and he said, ‘Right, we start rehearsing on Sunday! and that was like Friday! l actually knew very little about Bob Dylan. The whole set up with that tour was very loose, it was chaotic. Arlo Guthrie came up and sang his songs, as did Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – l was playing with all these people. The Dylan thing was really layed back, you just strolled on and off playing songs. l never knew what l was doing from night to night, what songs or even what key they would be in. One night ‘Blowing in the Wind’ would be in C, the next night it was in F! Not only that, he would play it twice as fast. Then he used to stop in the middle of a number suddenly, then start again suddenly and you really had to watch him all the time. He was amazing, the whole thing was incredible.”
What about the film they made at the time’ Renaldo and Clara’ the Dylan/Baez thing?
I wasn’t really aware of the filming at all, l don’t think that I’ve seen it…”
You really have worked with the best, is there anyone around today who you would like to play with?
“Roy Harper is my hero, I’ve always wanted to work with him. I’ve got all his albums, it would be great to get together with him.”
The reunion … Mick Ronson and David Bowie in 1983…
I was working in Toronto at the time and l found out that David was playing there. l just called up Corinne Schwab and got some tickets and went along to the show. David said to me, ‘Why don’t you play?’. So l said, No, no, l can’t play. l don’t want to do that.’ So, later on, after the show he said, why don’t l come and play tomorrow night. l said l couldn’t because l was working, l was in the studio. Anyway, the following night came along and we had been working all afternoon and l thought, ‘sod it, let’s go down to the show.’ So we all went down to the show and he said, ‘Well, are you going to play tonight?’ and l said, ‘alright, I’ll play’. We did ‘Jean Genie’ l think. l did enjoy it, it was great. I was playing through an amp l didn’t know though and the stage was very big. I was playing Slick’s guitar and l couldn’t hear where my sound was coming from. l had heard Slick play solos all night so l decided not to play solos and l just went out and thrashed the guitar. I really thrashed the guitar, l was waving the quitar above my head and all sorts of things. It was funny afterwards because David said, (talking about Earl Slick) ‘You should have seen his face…’ meaning he looked petrified. l had his prize guitar and I was swinging it around my head and Slicks going ‘Waaaa..watch my guitar’, you know. I was banging into it, and it was going round my head. Poor Slick. l mean, l didn’t know it was his special guitar, l just thought it was a guitar, a lump of wood with 6 strings. Later on l found it was his special guitar. l didn’t damage it or anything, l didn’t even damage a string … it was very funny at the time. “Anyway, we had a good chat, it was the first time l had seen him for a real long time…”
It is at times likes that when you hope that the interview can continue for at least another 6 hours, but it was at that point that we got turfed out of the studio as it was closing.
We parted, promising to meet up again to finish off the hundred thousand other questions l never asked, Mick heading for Bromley where he is temporarily staying. At this point, l must extend my thanks to my mate Mick Rossi for helping to arrange things for me. Mick Ronson in the future, will be producing Mick Rossi’s band, ‘The Duellists’ – a group of no small stature who can often be seen, packing pubs and clubs in London. We will keep you informed of Mick Ronson’s future activities and possible live appearances in the LIK.