Director Jon Brewer’s new documentary examines the musical legacy of guitarist Mick Ronson, who stood Beside Bowie.

Interview

Tony Sokol

Feb 8, 2018

In any given period of rock music, there are at least five famous Micks, but there is only one Ronno. Guitarist, arranger and songwriter Mick Ronson, who died in 1993 of liver cancer, is best known as David Bowie’s guitarist from the Spiders from Mars band, but he is a major factor in how Bowie went from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust, and beyond. Bowie’s mix of avant garde and rock would still have blasted him into the musical stratosphere, but Ronson established ground control. The documentary Beside Bowie, directed by former Main Man manager Jon Brewer, spotlights the immense influence the guitarist had on the shape of the music, and the sound of the theatrics.

Director Jon Brewer was a rock manager before turning his camera on the players, including both Ronson and Bowie. “Managing artists is probably one of the most difficult things in the world,” Brewer tells Den of Geek. “At the end of the day, I played my role. I got them onstage, got them offstage, got them from hotel to hotel. When they OD’d, I was there. When they were accepting their awards, I was there. I know how to deal with them.”

Brewer was intimately involved in the Bowie’s development during his most star-making period.

“I did Hunky Dory,” he says. “That period. I was part of GEM, which was Lawrence Meyers, Tony Defries and myself.”

David Bowie had a career-defining hit, “Space Oddity,” and a growing following, but hadn’t solidified himself into one artistic purpose. His performance playground was something akin to Andy Warhol’s The Factory, but the actor/musician was still searching the debris of evolution and revolution when management helped him get his act together.

“As they got more mature, we managed to break through and guide them, as much as I could do,” Brewer says. “That’s what happened. Whether I played an instrument or not really didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Brewer who produced and published Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” says he strums “a little bit, but I’m not a player. I just understand musicians.” The thing Brewer does best as a manager is put the artist first.

The documentary is a loving look at the period Brewer knew the man. The film begins voiceover from Bowie about how the two met. It doesn’t get very involved in Ronson’s boyhood, but gives an overview of the musical journey. Hull is a port town in the northeast of England. Ronson, who’s day job was landscaping, spent his nights as its answer to Jeff Beck.

“He really was a working class person,” Brewer says. “He just was a musician. He trained and he went in did whatever he needed to do to improve his musicianship.”

Brooklyn-born multi-instrumentalist Tony Visconti, who worked with Bowie throughout his career, unlocked Ronson’s natural musical curiosity. “Mick was a trained pianist and he studied violin when he was a kid,” Visconti says in the documentary. “He noticed that I had scored an arrangement for something on The Man Who Sold the World, and he said, ‘Can you teach me how you score?’ Because he could read and write music.”

Ronson “went back to school in the break, while Bowie had written and was getting ready to make Hunky Dory, and learned how to write music,” Brewer says. “He came back and he could do everything.” Ronson “became slightly like more like Visconti, who could read music. So he went out and taught himself. That sums it all up.”

Ronson turned Bowie’s acoustic demos into rock songs, but he didn’t just bring loud guitars distorted by an open Wah-wah peddle. He shaped the structure of the songs, arranged the sweet, lush strings, and set the soundscapes. Ronson may not have written eyeball-to-eyeball with Bowie, but in the eighteen months that The Spiders from Mars lasted, Ronson and Bowie were a compositional team. Ronson was a McCartney to a Lennon, a Richards to a Jagger, a King to a Goffin and a queen for a day and over a thousand nights on the road. The Spiders from Mars were together a year and a half but they changed the sound and look of rock music, creating the entire Glam genre before moving to another universe.

Ronson “was very important,” Brewer explains. “He was the man who was in the studio with David. He was best to deal with the arrangements. Probably wrote the majority of those songs with David.”

In the documentary, Ronson’s widow Suzi, says the five records and the tours were a full collaboration, comparing Mick and David to “Keith and Mick or The Who.”

“The thing is, you look at the other things that he did, like Transformer, they worked together as a team,” Brewer says of Ronson and Bowie’s work with Lou Reed during the period. “He was involved to do those arrangements, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘Perfect Day.’  It just got real unreal.”

Suzi Ronson points out that Ronson never got songwriting or arranging credit on the album sleeves. Even Bowie regrets that. This is one of the things Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story attempts to remedy.

“I made the film because of Mick Ronson, the unsung hero,” Brewer says. “But I also made if for David because he struggled with that all his life.”

The most intimate revelations of Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story come when the musicians are sitting at their instruments, Brewer also helped orchestrate Chris Squire, Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Alan White and Rick Wakeman into the reformation of prog rock band Yes. Wakeman played piano on the Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” and one of the high points of  the film is his recollection of the session.

“I said look, don’t just talk about it,” Brewer says, “why don’t you show us? He had a concert that night and went through the story.”

Breaking down the structure of “Life on Mars,” Rick Wakeman shows how a simple chord transposition and a chromatic run transform the piece. When he puts the parts together, the whole song takes on depth, and it was Ronno who scored it.

Ronson wasn’t only instrumental to the instrumentation. The guitarist was involved in the stage craft. Bowie’s androgynous image played into the rising tides of gay revolution, following riots starting with the police harassment at Stonewall, a popular Greenwich Village club. A photograph from the Spiders from Mars Tour captured the rupture of acceptance in one flash still. Bowie on his knees giving oral satisfaction to Ronson’s strings that Keith never got from Mick. The “guitar fellatio” shot, as the documentary dubs it, went across the wires ahead of the tour.

The changing attitudes were met enthusiastically in the cities, but in America’s heartland, there was some blowback. The documentary picks out a particular story of a radio interview in Texas where the station got gun threats and the management envisioned Bowie running from it with his dress hiked up. Ronson’s working class background might have given the guitarist the same pause, but he worked through it.

“Well, you gotta know Hull, and you’ve gotta know the King’s Road and they’re quite opposite,” Brewer points out. The glitter of the most fashionable district of London doesn’t have quite the same allure on the docks, but the job wasn’t that much of a grind for a professional, especially after he saw how the women in the audience responded to the men in the makeup. Then the band put it on with trowels. In the documentary, Bowie’s ex-wife Angie says Ronson simply realized the importance of the theatrics and put the same efforts into the stage act as his studio works, going the extra inch.

“Mick gave it his all,” Brewer says. “He was so the opposite of any of that. He tried to do something because, Bowie being an actor, he wanted to get along with that. And it worked. They just played to an audience. They were actors.”

The documentary also hints at some of the more cut-throat tactics that were prevalent throughout the music industry. Veering into Tony Defries’ desire to pack his stable with prominent artists, Brewer’s narrative finds GEM Productions came up against Motown. The powerful industry giant might have snatched Stevie Wonder’s mom just to keep the musical genius at the label.

“Well something like that,” Brewer says. “That’s a long story. Defries wanted to become the new Colonel Parker. He thought that was the way to do it, to get stars. Stevie Wonder was there. He wasn’t represented. When he signed a contract he was 14 years of age.”

The documentary shows Main Man becoming an international player, taking offices in New York. While Wonder was in London, “They thought they could steal him away from Motown. Motown reacted in that way,” Brewer says, referring to his documentary’s recount of Wonder getting a phone call alerting him that his mother was kidnapped. 

The Main Man main man understands why the Motown former child star got so uptight. I’m sure if they stole your mum,”  he says,  the situation would have gone the same way. “Lawrence knew, and that’s why he backed out of it. Tony thought we could steal him, but really it was just pushing the price up for Motown to renew a lifetime contract with Stevie Wonder,” Brewer concludes.

Bowie broke up the Spiders From Mars on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon at the end of his British tour on July 3rd, 1973. It was as much a surprise to most of the band as it was to the audience, though Ronson was given personal warning from Visconti and Bowie. Main Man wasted no time on turning its machine to the task of making Ronson a star. Ronson recorded the solo albums Slaughter on 10th Avenue in 1974, and Play Don’t Worry in 1975, but neither established the musician on the international stage. Ronson had no Ronson of his own.

While the Spiders from Mars sold out arena, Ronson pulled in about 100 pounds a week, and Mick lived gig-to-gig after his solo career fizzled. He took jobs with an enthusiastic “yeah, sure” attitude. At one point Ronson, who admits in the documentary he wasn’t a big fan of Bob Dylan’s music, joined the folk-rock legend on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975/76. He also took on other projects, including turning a song John Mellencamp had lying around for years, “Jack and Diane,” into a number one hit.  The modest guitarist also begged off babysitting for his sister to produce Morrissey’s album Your Arsenal?

But Ronson’s best known post-Bowie collaboration with was Ian Hunter, both with the band Mott the Hoople, who scored a generational anthem with Bowie’s song “All the Young Dudes,” and as a solo artist. Hunter could even make Cleveland rock with Ronson’s help. Hunter is heavily featued in the documentary, as his story is entangled with Ronson’s from his very beginning. 

The documentary also talks with Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, who appeared with Bowie and Ronson at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness. Elliot explains the musical comradery that surrounded the former Spider. Ronson found out he had terminal liver cancer in the early 1990s, while he was working on his solo album Heaven and Hull. Every musician he knew, and some he didn’t know, wanted to play their parts on it. Ronson reunited with Bowie for the album and for Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise from 1993.

For all the influence Ronson had on music with his production, he is still best remembered for his fretworks.

“He had this special rock guitar feel that was individual,” Brewer says. “He made such a great job of it. It’s amazing now, but when you talk to guitarists, how great they talk about him being. He had this tremendous rock sound.”

Ronson “was one of the nicest men that I’ve ever met,” Brewer remembers. “And probably one of the greatest guitarists, and I’ve managed a few of them, that we’ve had the privilege to know.”

Brewer directed the music documentaries B.B. King: The Life of Riley, Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark and Jimi Hendrix: The Guitar Hero. Brewer also directed a feature TV documentary on Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and The Classic Artists Series, chronicling the careers of Cream, The Moody Blues, Yes and Jimi Hendrix. His upcoming 3-part docuseries Monochrome: Black, White & Blue tells the story of American blues, from its deepest roots. The documentary features Morgan Freeman, Chuck Berry, Bill Wyman, B.B. King, Jake Bugg, Carlos Santana, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, and Robert Cray. It will be available on Amazon Prime release on Feb 12th.