April 29 should go down in British history as a day for national reflection. Not over that royal wedding nonsense… but as the date that, 18 years ago, we lost Mick Ronson to cancer.
Anybody who cares about rock’n’roll (and who is of a certain age) will remember where they were on that day in 1993, and what they were doing. I was at a record fair in Hereford, trying to flog off a pile of unwanted Britpop promo CDs that I’d been sent for my old fanzine. The sad news came over the radio, Johnny Walker played Mick’s version of ‘Love Me Tender’, and the lump grew in my throat. That most evil of diseases had claimed an undeserving victim, and one of the greatest guitarists the world had ever seen was lost to us.
Like most people, my entry point into Ronno’s genius was through David Bowie. I’m pretty certain the eight-year-old me would have seen Bowie put his arm around Mick’s shoulder while performing ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops, but his crackling, supercharged style of playing only sank in properly when I bought my first second hand copy of ‘Hunky Dory’ from Catapilla Records in Exeter and allowed that extraordinary riff from ‘Queen Bitch’ to turn a light on in my head.
Of course, a lot more Ronson followed. It’s entirely fair to say that he invented a totally new language for the electric guitar (and probably did more to popularise the Les Paul Custom guitar than any other axeman).
The entire ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album, ‘Aladdin Sane’, the live ‘Santa Monica’ and ‘Hammersmith Odeon’ CDs are all testament to a truly visionary and gifted player. His classical approach to fretwork, combined with a brutal ‘crank it and spank it’ riffing style, brought excitement, adventure and sexiness to the concert stages of 1972 and 1973. Ask anybody who attended one of those Ziggy-era shows and they’ll all tell you: it was about Bowie and Ronson. In equal measure. The influence on the soon-to-appear punk set was enormous. The Clash, Sex Pistols, Siouxsie… all that lot were clearly inspired by the magical Ronson.
Bowie is often criticised for not giving Mick enough recognition for his work. But I think that viewpoint is wholly unfair. David was clearly very fond of his mate, the former Rat from Hull turned Spider from Mars, and adored his work. I’m certain he feels the pain of his loss more than most of us.
After Bowie, of course, Mick made a couple of fantastic solo albums and went on to work with Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter, Mr Bob Dylan, The Rich Kids and many more. His staggeringly long list of career achievements could fill a book: in fact, they do. ‘The Spider With Platinum Hair’ by Weird And Gilly is an eye-opening account of a driven, hard-working, talented guitarist, producer and arranger who did the very best that he could… whether that was for David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, Morrissey or, er, The Toll.
I had the personal pleasure of meeting Mick Ronson by chance once. Perhaps oddly, it was outside a Tin Machine gig in Brixton, London, in 1991. He was already quite ill by then, but he signed autographs and chatted to a handful of us fans. We were delighted with this immense opportunity to meet such a revered man. But his down-to-earth demeanour and rolling Hull accent put us instantly at ease. He was a genius, but one of the boys. Warm, friendly and open. That’s something you hear about Ronno a lot.
I only saw Mick play live once, at the Freddie Mercury memorial show in Wembley Stadium. I fought my way to the front and watched transfixed as he led Bowie, Hunter, Joe Elliot and Queen through the seventies anthem ‘All The Young Dudes’. It was no doubt a mere shadow of those exciting early seventies nights, but for someone too young to have seen Ziggy in action it was immensely exciting.
So, in future years when people ask me where I was and what I was doing on April 29 2011, I’ll know exactly what to say. I might have been keeping a lazy eye on the royal circus playing out on telly, but my internal jukebox was spinning the magical riff from ‘Moonage Daydream’ again and again in my head.
Mick Ronson: husband, father, musician, artist. Sadly missed.
Love on ya Ronno! x