‘Mick Ronson: Only After Dark’ reviewed

❉ A definitive, one-stop source of Bowie’s right hand man’s brief period in the solo spotlight.

“Slaughter On Tenth Avenue is a very fine album – one of the last great glam rock albums – that allows us to appreciate Ronson’s previously established talents as a prodigiously gifted guitarist and musical arranger, while revealing the shy sideman as a strong vocalist.”

When Ziggy had to break up the band, MainMan head honcho Tony Defries pushed Bowie’s axeman and bandleader/arranger Mick Ronson into the spotlight, briefly joining El Bowza and muse Dana Gillespie on RCA Records as a ‘MainMan artiste’.

His two albums, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue (1974) and Play Don’t Worry (1975) failed to transform the reluctant solo artist into a crossover teen idol/guitar hero along the lines of Rick Derringer as Defries hoped but since their release have become cult artefacts – Slaughter On Tenth Avenue in particular proved influential with the Bowie/Roxy tribes who led the punk and new wave vanguard, with the tumbling and twirling bump’n’grind of ‘shoulda been a hit’ Only After Dark a favourite of the club nights in Birmingham’s Rum Runner where Duran Duran formed and covered by the original line-up of The Human League on 1980’s Travelogue.

Slaughter On Tenth Avenue is a very fine album – one of the last great glam rock albums – that allows us to appreciate Ronson’s previously established talents as a prodigiously gifted guitarist and musical arranger, while revealing the shy sideman as a strong vocalist. But it’s hard not to view it through a Bowie-centric prism given that the album occupies similar DNA with Bowie’s contemporaneous work: It shares much of its production and personnel with Bowie’s own Pinups, as it was recorded back to back with Bowie’s “foolish little breather” of an album in the same studio (the legendary Chateau D’Heuroville) with the same band, spearheaded by Ronson with silver-sideburned Trevor Bolder locked into a tight rhythm section with the phenomenal brute force of Aynsley Dunbar, decorated with Mike Garson’s  piano flourishes.

In the contentious 1986 biography Alias David Bowie, unreliable narrators Peter & Leni Gillman quote Ava Cherry as saying, “Maybe David felt that Mick had betrayed him as far as he was trying to be the star. But he was very, very upset.” This seems somewhat surprising given that Slaughter From Tenth Avenue boasts three Bowie song-writing credits. David later told Mick Rock: “He asked me if I’d write a couple of songs for him, as writing wasn’t really his forte, to which of course I agreed.”

Bowie contributed lyrics to unique Bowie/Ronson co-write Hey Ma Get Papa, with the increasingly cracked Actor casting a long shadow over proceedings: Its sonic juxtaposition of jaunty McCartney-esque piano based power pop verses and a chorus of jerky, paranoid varispeeded vocals and Weimar-meets-beirkeller oompah casts the song as a direct sequel to Ziggy leftover Velvet Goldmine; lyrically its rogue’s gallery of ne’er do wells JJ, Dean and Pigsty Paul recalls the campy gangland antics of Sweet Head (another Ziggy reject, unearthed in 1990) – not to mention mama-papas appearing in Oh! You Pretty Things and Moonage Daydream.

Elsewhere, Bowie gets his own back on Italian composer Mogol, whose free translation of Space Oddity (Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola) substituted Bowie’s original lyrics for “some bloody love song about some tart in a blouse on a mountain”, as the Dame reputedly fumed afterwards.  In return, Bowie took a liberal approach when penning English lyrics for Mogol and Battisti’s Io vorrei… non vorrei… ma se vuoi for Ronno, melodramatically retitled Music Is Lethal.

This bombastic, breast-beating ballad is almost Bowie by numbers, at a time when his Jacques Brel-inspired ardour for chanson and European torch songs was in the ascdendant (reaching its pinnacle with Wild Is The Wind), with lyrics boasting trace elements of Brel’s Port of Amsterdam (B side to his Autumn 1973 single Sorrow) alongside his own, Brel-influenced showstopper Rock’N’Roll Suicide and telling lyrical references to Bowie’s predilections du jour (“Mulatto hookers, cocaine bookers”).

Bowie’s magpie eye also glistens on track three, Growing Up And I’m Fine, an affectionate homage (or rip-off, for the less charitable) of Growin’ Up by Bruce Springsteen, whose first album Bowie was then-currently obsessed with.

Lipstick traces of the Dame’s influence on this solo platter can also be found on the album’s two most esoteric, least rockcentric cover versions. The album’s title track – a Richard Rodgers composition from Broadway musical On Your Toes – was gifted to Ronson by Bowie during the 1973 tour as he became aware of Ronno’s solo aspirations and Defries looked to consolidating the MainMan empire ahead of the far-from-spontaneous ‘retirement’ gig. Bowie later wrote, in Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream: “I bought him an album containing it and he spent some time taking it apart and arranging it for himself while alone in hotel rooms.”

Elsewhere, side two’s opening cut – Annette Peacock’s I’m The One – was a track both Bowie and Ronson were familiar with, as it was through fellow RCA labelmate Peacock that the pair first encountered pianist Mike Garson, who plays on both versions. Bowie obsessives may also note that Something In The Air from Bowie’s 1999 album, hours…, is something of a homage to Peacock’s original, white-noised drenched recording.

In many ways Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, with its Broadway-inspired theatrical setting, decadent romantic vibe and Mike Garson and Aynsley Dunbar garnishing the sonic palette throughout, anticipates Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, released concurrently with Slaughter.

Sounds like a bit of a reach, right? Let’s look a bit closer. Taking its cue from Rodgers & Hart’s self-contained musical ballet, the album’s songs are loosely linked by a vaguely conceptual arc (in Slaughter’s case, a boy-meets-girl love story that ends in tragedy – or so Ronson told readers of Teen Beat on a giveaway flexidisc that’s a bonus track here), with side two set in a twilight demi-monde of dodgy backstreets populated by shady characters, an ambience not unlike Bowie’s mini-drama Sweet Thing/Candidate that’s the centrepiece of Bowie’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece and speaks most directly to Bowie’s ambitions to realise the album as the rock equivalent of Broadway theatre. Furthermore, Diamond Dogs opens with Bowie’s own wonky take on Rodgers’ torch song Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered as the musical bed of curtain-raiser Future Legend.

As Mick Jagger was to ruefully ruminate after Bowie poached the services of airbrush artist Guy Peelleart for Diamond Dogs after seeing a proof of the sleeve art for It’s Only Rock’n’Roll, “Never wear a new pair of shoes in front of David.”

While Ronson proved himself gifted at helping craft others’ albums to perfection with his inspired arrangements – Lou Reed’s Transformer and Bowie’s Aladdin Sane are as much the work of Ronson as the King of New York and the Dame of Beckenham – he had less to offer as an original songsmith, and follow-up platter Play, Don’t Worry lacks the cohesive mood of Slaughter On Tenth Avenue’s dime-store rock opera, consisting almost entirely of cover versions.

There’s no arguing with the immediate first impression it makes with its opening one-two punch of Ronson original Billy Porter and Ronno’s incendiary cover of alt-country rockers Pure Praire League’s Angel No.9, whose RCA album Ronson had helped out with. Billy Porter is a deliriously dotty glam number reminiscent of early Sparks, inspired by a conversation with Lou Reed, whose cacophonous outro segues directly into the paint-stripping opening guitar salvo of Angel No.9, a blistering rock ballad that perfectly showcases Ronson’s ability to commingle a gift for melody & harmony with turbo-charged guitar heroics, particularly as it lets rip with an urgent, relentless guitar solo raiding every trick in Ronno’s guitar arsenal without descending into self-indulgent, tune-free fret-wanking bombast. (We’ll leave aside the monumental racket that was the Spiders-era live version of The Width of A Circle, a number whose seemingly endless solo allowed the Dame to nip backstage for a fag and a costume change).

Fans of Ronson’s rockier side are also well served by a frenetic whoop-up of Little Richard’s The Girl Can’t Help It (with Ian Hunter on backing vocals) and a studio version of Bowie and the Spiders’ live favourite White Light/White Heat – indeed, the backing track is allegedly all that survives of the version Bowie cut during the Pinups sessions when Bowie stripped his lead vocals from the master to donate the track to Ronson’s album. Bowie biographer Dave Thompson’s claims that the original version, with DB vocals, appeared on certain pressings of 1976’s Changesonebowie appear to be unfounded – this, of course, could all change when Parlophone’s current programme of ‘copyright dump’ Bowie releases reaches 2023…

Ronson the balladeer also proves affecting on the poignant, haunting This Is For You, with a beautiful vocal complemented by Ronson accompanying himself on multi-tracked harmonies and Mike Garson giving it some serious Lady Grinning Soul on the ivories.

As with Angel No.9, This Is For You came to Ronson’s attention while moonlighting on arranging duties. One of three tracks Ronno arranged for The New Seekers’ Laurie Heath’s band Milkwood,  Ronson’s version of this track is a personal favourite of Def Leppard frontman, glam afficionado and Ronno cheerleader Joe Elliott, who later cut a faithful re-recording of the song for the soundtrack of acclaimed documentary Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, with an accompanying promo video shot by Mick Rock.

After years in the wilderness, Slaughter On Tenth Avenue and Play Don’t Worry first made a welcome appearance on CD in 1994, alongside Bowie and the Spiders’ much-bootlegged Santa Monica ’72, when Carlton P. Sandercock’s label Trident/Golden Years temporarily had the keys to the MainMan vault, appearing with a handful of live & studio bonus tracks as double disc-er Only After Dark. The albums resurfaced separately in 1997, with Sandercock this time operating as Red Snapper/NMC, with additional outtakes. At the turn of the century, Sandercock had moved on to Burning Airlines, who gave a belated release for Mick’s unreleased, third RCA album, Just Like This. Highlights included the self-penned I’d Give Anything To See You and two contributions from ex-Flames turned mid-period Beach Boys Rikki Fataar and Blondie Chaplin – I’m Just A Junkie For Your Love and Crazy Love, respectively.

Two decades later, dedicated reissue label Cherry Red Records are now the custodians of the MainMan empire’s non-Bowie archive, and Only After Dark: The Complete MainMan Recordings gathers up all this extant material alongside live highlights, all under one affordable, attractively packaged roof.

Earlier this year, Cherry Red and MainMan did fellow MainMan artiste Dana Gillespie proud with a fulsome treasure chest of the pulchritudinous performer’s complete early ‘70s recordings, What Memories we Make, in an attractive package complete with extensive liner notes from Dana and vintage photos. Only After Dark: The Complete MainMan Recordings follows suit, and although Mick Ronson’s death in 1993 deprives us of a similar contemporary commentary – although as the taciturn Yorkshireman was modest and self-effacing to a fault about his own work, totally unfazed and cynical about the music business and preferred to let the music speak for itself, it might have been a slim booklet – Cherry Red have applied their customary care and attention to detail to the overall product, offering a comprehensive overview of Ronno’s short-lived solo career from David Wells, bolstered by press quotes and liberally illustrated with press clippings and publicity photos that should be more than enough to satiate Mick’s legion of admirers.

Whether you’ve purchased all these tracks separately over the years or not, Only After Dark supplants all previous efforts as a definitive, one-stop source of Bowie’s right hand man’s brief period in the solo spotlight before returning to the role he was most comfortable in, and most suited towards, as an effective foil for others, from his brother-in-arms Ian Hunter to John Cougar Mellencamp and Morrissey. As Rick Wakeman recalled, “He was a tremendous human being with oodles of talent”.

❉ ‘Mick Ronson: Only After Dark – The Complete Mainman Recordings’ (CRCDBOX85) is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £19.99. 

❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of ‘Me and the Starman’, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK

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