“Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story” describes the glam rock guitar hero
In the already crowded field of rock docs, producers are always looking for new ways to approach musicians whose stories are already well known, sometimes focusing on a particular album or era in an artist’s career. . In the two years since David Bowie left Earth for the stars above, at least two documentaries have been made about him. I should know that. I have reviewed them. The 2017 documentary Alongside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, currently available to stream on Amazon Prime and Hulu adds a new angle; Chronicle of the life of guitarist Mick Ronson, who played Bowie’s career in making albums in the early 1970s.
Mick Ronson, known to his friends as âRonnoâ, is an interesting case study. As a guitarist his stature has only grown since his untimely death from liver cancer at the age of 46 in 1993. With his singular tone and memorable playing style, both melody and muscle , he’s a guitarist guitarist; admired by other players, but little known to the general public. The funny thing is that Ronno was a star and has performed on some of the greatest and most important rock albums of all time.
As the title suggests, Next to Bowie is less of an in-depth documentary about Mick Ronson, and more specifically about those years when he was David Bowie’s musical foil, both on stage and in the recording studio. From 1970 to 1973, Ronson’s stunning guitar work and musical arrangements anchored Bowie’s albums, helping him move from arty folk-rock to hard rock and, ultimately, glam. Ronson’s nasal, bawling guitar sound not only defined Bowie’s sound, but became one of the sonic signifiers of glam, influencing the likes of heavy metal hero Randy Rhoads to alternative rocker Billy Duffy of The Cult.
Ronson grew up in the working class of the port city of Hull in the northeast of England. He was a classically trained pianist and violinist, but began playing solo guitar as a teenager. In 1970 he was recruited into The Hype, a short-lived group that included David Bowie on vocals, future Bowie producer Tony Visconti on bass, and drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. Bowie was immediately impressed with Ronson’s “energy and courage”, and while the band won’t last, the three musicians will be supporting the singer-songwriter on his 1970 album, The man who sold the world.
With a true guitar hero by his side, Bowie could now present himself as a legitimate rock musician, and not just a prodigy with a penchant for the theater. “He rocked David,” said friend and BBC DJ Bob Harris. Along with bassist Trevor Bolder, Ronson and Woodmansey formed The Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s famous backing band who performed on his groundbreaking albums; Honky Dory (1971), The rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the spiders of Mars (1972) and Aladdin SanÃ© (1973).
Not only was Ronson’s guitar prominent on albums, but he also contributed to string arrangements, piano parts, and backing vocals. Performing together on stage, Bowie and Ronson were a classic singer / guitarist duo, shaped like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones or Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, the effeminate frontman and macho musician. There was some truth to the stereotype. While Bowie was cultured and sophisticated, he described Ronson as “a self-sufficient man” who didn’t need much except “his cigarettes, his guitar, and a sturdy pair of shoes.” Bowie struck provocative poses next to the guitarist, mocking him during guitar solos or throwing an affectionate arm over the shoulder. To many, the couple seemed natural collaborators; however, despite all of his influence and arrangements, Ronson never received co-writing credit on any David Bowie song.
Although the Spiders From Mars helped lay the foundation for David Bowie’s success, they never received more than 50 pounds a week, even after being fat in the United States. After asking for a raise, Bolder and Woodmansey were laid off while Ronson was groomed to become a solo star by Bowie and his management team. Unfortunately, Ronson’s gifts were as a sideman, not as a leader, and his solo career quickly faltered. He has performed with Mott The Hoople, Bob Dylan and Ian Hunter over the years and helped organize John Mellencamp’s hit “Jack and Diane”, but has typically lived from gig to gig, paycheck to paycheck. .
Bowie and Ronson reunited at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992. By that time, Ronson had been diagnosed with liver cancer and was told he had three months to live. In the end, it was 20 years old, and while his production work on Morrissey’s Your Arsenal album offered some financial security, it was too little too late. As Earl Slick, who replaced him in Bowie’s group, puts it, “He didn’t get his due, he wasn’t credited.”
Ironically, while Alongside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story intends to set the record straight on the guitarist’s important musical contributions, in the end it looks as much like a Bowie documentary as a Ronson documentary. While done well, with new interviews with Joe Elliott and Ian Hunter of Def Leppard alongside archival interviews with Lou Reed, Ronson and Bowie, it seems too specialized a topic for anyone except Bowie fans. Maybe it works best as an uplifting story. Rock n ‘roll is a dirty game, and the fate of Mick Ronson is just one of many bad luck stories that have befallen talented musicians over the years.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHsmithNYC.
To concern Next to Bowie on Hulu
To concern Next to Bowie on Amazon Prime Video