Twenty-five years after Mick Ronson’s death at the age of 46, a new documentary sheds light on the crucial and creative member of David Bowie’s influential early ’70s band Spiders From Mars. In Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, the shaggy-haired guitarist, a player whose “grit and energy cut through the room” as Bowie observes in the doc, is revealed through interviews with contemporaries and collaborators, including producer Tony Visconti, Lou Reed, singer and publicist Cherry Vanilla, Angie Bowie and Yes’ Rick Wakeman.
Many recent documentaries focus on supporting players — 20 Feet From Stardom, Hired Gun — but Beside Bowie, currently streaming through Amazon Prime, was incited by Bowie’s personal contribution, as director Jon Brewer explains. “When Mick died, [wife] Suzi wanted to do a documentary. But David, I don’t think, was up to be in it at that moment in time,” Brewer says. Instead, of his own volition, Bowie recorded audio memories and praise for Ronson. “[Bowie] said, ‘I’ll give my donation to Suzi Ronson. I’ll give you the guidelines.’ He wrote the chapters for that documentary. That was his gift. That’s a big, big statement.”
While Ronson was a trained pianist and violinist, and is revealed to be an extremely skilled arranger with an interest in scoring, his contributions weren’t always acknowledged with credits — or cash. Brewer feels Bowie’s documentary donation aimed to remedy that. “He possibly should have acknowledged [Ronson’s] songwriting credits — but [the band] were all about being creative. None of them would talk about who’s getting what off what. Nothing reflecting against David, but due to management problems, record company problems, money situations, David would bury his head about a lot of things.”
There are no on-camera interviews from Bowie or Ronson done specifically for the documentary—which was begun after both men had died—and no contributions from his Spiders bandmates, bassist Trevor Bolder (who died in 2013) and drummer Mick Woodmansey. Still, Beside Bowie paints a powerful portrait of a humble man from Hull, England whose appeal and talent was large, varied, and ultimately cut short due to liver cancer. Of the lack of kudos during his lifetime: “Mick was not bitter, more disappointed,” says Suzi Ronson in an interview with Billboard. “I think, later in life, he realized the enormous contribution he made to those five albums and Transformer by Lou Reed. When he was working with Morrissey, the last album he produced, he alluded to Morrissey [that] he had co-written some of those Bowie songs. His musical contribution was enormous to David and Lou; he didn’t get paid what he deserved. They gave him credit for co-producing Transformer [as well as credit for guitar, piano and string arrangement] but no money and no royalty. For a long time Mick was unrecognized for his massive contribution.”
Brewer, an associate and friend of Bowie’s, notably during the Hunky Dory era — and a friend of Ronno’s, as his pals referred to him — wanted to “take out the trumpet and blow it for Mick Ronson.” To that end, the film eschews traditional doc fare of childhood and family background in favor of focusing on Ronno’s seminal time with Bowie on songs such as “Five Years” and “Jean Genie.” There’s also footage of Reed listening to and praising Ronson’s playing (he also plied his trade with Ian Hunter and Bob Dylan). Although a 1974 solo album, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, tried to establish Ronno as a frontman, it was as a collaborator where he shone. As Suzi Ronson told Billboard, “After the final Ziggy show Mick was pushed to the front [by Tony DeFries’ MainMan] before he was ready. David took time off and Mick was in the spotlight. It was more that they had a machine that needed a star. Mick was to be that star. Hindsight is 20/20 and I think now Mick should have waited to see who he was as a solo artist rather than been pushed out alone.”
Beside Bowie has strong footage of the Bowie-Ronson chemistry. Ronson’s live debut with Bowie was a February, 1970 John Peel session at BBC Studios, but it was the rapport between the two on stage that proved iconic and groundbreaking for the time. Legendary concert photos and Top of the Pops clips of Bowie with his arm draped around Ronson titillated audiences, while more incendiary imagery of the frontman on his knees, simulating oral sex on Ronson’s guitar, shocked people. In Beside Bowie, Cherry Vanilla observes that Ronson “made Bowie a rock star” rather than a theater star.
Ronson’s guitar tone, which he discusses in archival interview footage from the BBC, derived especially from his skill and use of the Wah pedal, and he demonstrates how songs like “Jean Genie” owe a debt to the rhythms of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
In an interview with Billboard, Yes’ Rick Wakeman, an uncredited player on Ziggy Stardust, noted that “Mick was around during a period when there were literally hundreds of great guitar players, so you had to be very special to stand out and make a name for yourself and Mick did just that. He was a joy to know, and a joy to play with.”
In the doc, Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter recalls Ronno meeting Bob Dylan at New York club Bitter End, leading to his role in Dylan’s 1975-6 Rolling Thunder Revue band. In 1982, Ronson worked with John Mellencamp on his American Fool album, contributing heavily to the creation of “Jack & Diane.” Tina Turner was likewise interested in working with the multi-faceted musician, though it never came to pass. One of his last big projects was Morrissey’s 1992 album Your Arsenal, where Ronson’s production and playing brought a glam sheen to the singer’s third album.
Brewer, who is currently working on a Chuck Berry doc, dislikes the term “unsung hero,” but he acknowledges it’s apt in Ronno’s case. “This makes people sit up and say, ‘wow, we didn’t know that, because it wasn’t at the forefront of every press release that David Bowie put out.’ I just feel that people should know where that music came from. There’s always been a big problem with writing credits, and there always has been for arrangers, and we know, and musicians will tell you, time and time again: that was Mick Ronson. Don’t get me wrong, David Bowie needed to be there, and he needed to contribute his wonderful performance, but Mick Ronson was that engine behind him.”
For Suzi Ronson, Beside Bowie is bittersweet viewing. “I think none of it would have mattered if Mick had lived. I feel sure he would have worked with David again and it seemed it was finally his turn to be successful. He was only 46, plenty of time for him to make his mark. I have no doubt he would have done that.”