Ronson’s sound is as identifiable as any of the artists with whom he played.
The trouble—if you can call it that—with being a sideman to a star is that you will always be just that. Regardless of your musical and artistic contributions to the overall sound, it will be the name on the marquee getting the lion’s share of the credit. And while it’s certainly warranted in the majority of cases, the fact of the matter remains that, without their backing bands and sidemen, artists like Elton John, James Brown and, in this case, David Bowie, would not necessarily possess the same sound we immediately recognize as theirs. It would be difficult to imagine Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie sounding as he did without the aid of guitarist Mick Ronson.
As shown on the soundtrack to the film examining his career, Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, Ronson’s sound is as identifiable as any of the artists with whom he played. And while his time with Bowie was certainly his most prominent commercial exposure, he worked with a number of other artists, including Elton John (“Madman Across the Water”), Michael Chapman (“Soulful Lady”) and Ian Hunter (“Once Bitten, Twice Shy”). The unifying sound across all of these tracks is Ronson’s muscularly slashing guitar work that stands as its own singular voice. On “Soulful Lady,” a track recorded two years before Ziggy Stardust, you can already hear that same iconic guitar tone on full display. It comes as little surprise that Ronson’s work here led to his gig with Bowie, given how little changed tonally in the intervening years.
Similarly, his gritty, post-apocalyptic work on “Madman Across the Water” renders the guitar something more than an instrument, something capable of sounds well ahead of his peers. Augmenting Paul Buckmaster’s slashing string arrangements, Ronson’s guitar dips and dives within the track, alternately a blistering fuzz and beefy low-end growl. This latter combination is fully compressed into the striking opening chords of “Moonage Daydream,” creating a sound so jarring it seems to suck the air out of everything else in the room, leaving a disorienting vacuum within which we are left wondering where this music might be coming from.
“Cracked Actor” is all swaggering rock ‘n’ roll bravado cranked to the max, Ronson’s guitar work scorching the track and giving Bowie’s vocals a run for their money in terms of unhinged-ness. Similarly, his squalling, almost atonal solo on the music hall pastiche “Time” is likely one of the most avant-garde guitar solos to be found on a mainstream rock release. His leading of the song’s outro melody helps to further illustrate Ronson’s creative versatility, in the process further cementing his role in the sound and feel of Bowie’s glam period.
As a solo artist, Ronson can’t help but sound like a pale imitation given his unquestionable role in cultivating the sound most closely associated with Bowie (check the “Ziggy Stardust” allusion in “Hard Life”). It’s both a blessing and a curse; it assured his place as an icon of ‘70s rock guitar, but it also prevented him from being seen as anything more than derivative of his time with his former employer. Which is a shame because his solo work is certainly well worth consideration for fans of glam-era Bowie and, hell, glam-era rock ‘n’ roll, period. With any luck, both the film and accompanying soundtrack will help make the case for a deeper reassessment of Ronson’s contributions to the sound of rock guitar through his inimitable tone and style. Far from comprehensive in scope, it will likely serve as a fine appetizer for those looking to gain a greater appreciation for the undeniable talent of Mick Ronson.