Mick Rock • Music Scene • September 1973
Of all the new rock guitarists to come to the fore in the '70s, it is David Bowie's partner in moonage decadence, Mick Ronson, who excites the most. In a way he's hardly even begun to explore his potential. He doesn't see himself as a great solo performer - "I'd rather leave that to the Jeff Becks and the Jimmy Pages. There are a lot of good guitarists around, but they mostly sound the same to me."
From the audience reactions and the amount of fan mail he is gathering, it is evident that a lot of people believe he's being very modest. "That's nice to know. I mean, I know I've improved a lot, and I want to keep on getting better and better. I'm very ambitious about my music."
These days Ronno, as he's popularly called (he once had a band in which he sang and played lead guitar, of the same name) loves the life of the superstar; plush hotels, big cars and the attention of avid groupies. He's got it made, but he knows how much in debt he is to one Mr Bowie.
"I mean, it's David's gig: he got it all together. But I did help. We work really well together, on stage and in the studio. We're good for each other." David himself acknowledges Mick's contribution fully. "Mick's a great technician. He reads music and he can organise the arrangements. I tell him what I want, and he knows how to relay this message to the other technicians." This is why he has been given the title of Bowie's Music Director.
We met at London's famous Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge between Bowie's last tour and the recording of the new Bowie album at the famous French studios in Fontainebleau. Mick was looking forward to the excursion: "It'll be like a holiday after all the work we've done over the last eighteen months," he says in his broad Yorkshire accent. "Cause they've got a swimming pool, and I hear it’s set in a beautiful area. We can get out in the sun in the day, and record all night." Not a bad life for a lad who less than three years ago was digging gardens, he was making so little money from his music.
Mick started off as a blues guitarist in Hull. He used to have a band called the Rats: "We were into all-night blues sessions. Jeff Beck was my idol. I used to copy everything he did. That's why I was so knocked out when he agreed to come and play on the last couple of numbers at out Hammersmith gig." Woody Woodmansey was in the Rats with Ronno, and, later on, Trevor Bolder joined.
Mick's first meeting with Bowie has a history all of its own. Rick Kemp, now Steeleye Span bassist, used to play in Ronno's very first group. "When I first came to London, I couldn't get enough musical work to support myself. One day I was mowing a lawn, when Rick came along. He was on his way to play on Mike Chapman's Fully Qualified Survivor album. Anyway, he took me with him and it was on that session that Tony Visconti first heard me."
Visconti is of course an old friend of Bowie's and the producer of the Space Oddity and Man Who Sold The World albums. He introduced Ronno to Bowie. David had been using all different musicians to back him and at the time was thinking about a more permanent line-up. "One day I was round at Dave's and John Peel called up to ask him to do his show. Dave asked me if I felt like helping out. I didn't know any of the numbers ‘cause I'd never played with him before. I just filled in around what Dave was doing. And we kept working together on and off until the Spiders were formed."
Visually as well as musically, Mick is very exciting on stage; he looks good, moves well and strikes all the classic rock guitarist poses. The fact that he is more than capable of holding his own alongside Bowie's monster stage charisma is a measure of how good a performer he is.
He admits that the sparkling clothes and makeup, the dyed hair (no natural blonde this!), the general theatricality of the Bowie presentation was not something he immediately related to. Which is understandable since few people did when the Bowie circus first hit the general public. "It felt funny at first dressing up and all that, then gradually it became part of me."
Bowie and Ronno are a team: Bowie may run the show, but he needs the able support and talent of his first lieutenant. Mick does any complex arrangements on the albums, especially the string sections - and he is in great demand as an arranger, though he's so tied up working with Bowie at the moment that he has little chance to explore any outside possibilities. "I'd love to do more producing," he says.
He shared the production credit with Bowie on Lou Reed's hit album Transformer, which includes the classic song, Walk On The Wild Side. Lou himself has always been lavish in his praise of both of them for their work on the album. "Jeff Beck would be good to work with. A lot of things happen when he gets in the studio." Ronno stretches that broad grin across his face. "I know I've got a lot more to learn, but I'm determined to get there."
Mick has some formal training in music - but only at school. He learnt how to read and write it. "I was always musical. When I was very little I started playing piano, then later, I learnt the violin." And it gave him a good basic background to build on: which he did during the years of struggle, playing in part-time bands in and around Hull.
With Bowie's decision to quit touring for good, it's only natural to speculate on Mick's future plans with regards to live performances. "Oh, obviously I shall keep playing. I'm much more of a straight musician than Dave. I need to. I'm a bit confused at the moment exactly how and when I'll get it together. I'll have to wait till after we've cut the album before I can begin to sort it out properly, he'll organise tours for me. I mean, I'll be there always to help David when he wants to record or whatever, but I'll also pursue a separate career on my own."
It's only comparatively recently that the No. 1 Spider has come to public notice: one wonders how long his talent might have lain buried in some suburban club or pub if he hadn't stumbled into the Bowie whirlwind at the time he did.
I don't know. Certainly Dave's helped a hell of a lot. He's helped give me more direction and I really enjoy working with him. At the moment people are beginning to recognise me as more than just Dave's lead guitarist. Maybe soon, they'll see me as an artist in my own right. I don't mind. Whatever, I'll always play with Dave whenever he needs me. He's such an incredible performer and has so many great ideas."