The late David Bowie sideman, Mick Ronson may not have relished the solo spotlight but he still left behind a trove of rock goodies.
Only After Dark: The Complete MainMan Recordings
29 November 2019
Widely remembered as the blonde, sharp-featured, Thor-like guitarist/singer at David Bowie's side during the era stretching from The Man Who Sold the World (1970) through to Pinups (1973), the exceptionally gifted Mick Ronson was, in fact, much, much more. His solo career, however, supports a particular music business theory. You can have all the talent in the world but if that indefinable something is absent, you might not break through to the big time. Sometimes, we call that indefinable thing "star quality". Mick Ronson did have star quality in buckets when he was someone's foil. Throughout his performing career, he was at his most magnetic when part of a twosome or a group. When he was on his own, however, there was a strange ambivalence about him, as if he wasn't quite sure he wanted to be there.
Ronson was not only uncommonly accomplished, but also more musically educated than most rock 'n' rollers, Bowie included. He just didn't have that extra oomph that can make a solo career explode. It didn't help that in the interviews, gigs, and TV appearances undertaken by him during his solo years, his hesitance comes across loud and clear. Perhaps he just wasn't "me me me" enough. In the folk or singer-songwriter worlds, that might not have mattered. But as a solo act in rock, diffidence doesn't work.
Only After Dark is a very welcome continuation of Cherry Red's raiding of the MainMan/RCA vaults. Half a year ago, they issued What Memories We Make, a three-disc collection gathering up everything that racy singer-songwriter, Dana Gillespie, recorded for the label. It was a tremendous retrospective, particularly given that none of the material had ever made the CD/digital era before. Ronson's two MainMan albums have been reissued before, but here they come with a maxi-trove of extras, including abortive 1976 album sessions, demos, and live tracks.
It's worth remembering that by the time Ronson started pursuing a solo career, he'd accrued vast amounts of experience in a relatively short time. He'd co-produced material by Lou Reed, Lulu, and Dana Gillespie, as well as writing stirring, dramatic arrangements for a string of Bowie albums. He lent each project his notable skills as a pianist and guitarist. Solo success must have seemed inevitable and, indeed, Ronson's first album, Slaughter on 10th Avenue did well, puncturing the UK Top Ten. It's an enjoyable album which, unsurprisingly, has a distinct flavor of Aladdin Sane. The core band is Ronson (guitar/piano), Trevor Bolder (bass/horns), Aynsley Dunbar (drums), and Mike Garson (piano). Ronson is credited as producer, arranger, and conductor. Unlike Aladdin Sane, however, it doesn't benefit from a singular vision. Instead, it's a grab-bag of songs from different pens.
Ronson's songwriting contributions, especially "Only After Dark", a second-division glam classic that deserves a promotion to first, are good enough to make this listener wonder what might have happened had he been pushed to write an entire album. Still, there's no doubting the caliber of the other contributing writers. David Bowie's "Growing Up And I'm Fine", has a bouncy, Hunky Dory-era feel; it's irresistibly vibrant and melodic. The next most significant presence on the album is Annette Peacock. A legend of the experimental jazz/rock worlds, Peacock was also briefly a MainMan/RCA artist, and Ronson had clearly been listening to her 1972 release, I'm the One. His take on "Love Me Tender", slow and portentous, is modeled after Peacock's, and he also tackles a cover of I'm the One's title track. It's another of the album's best moments.
Ronson also deserves praise as a singer. His lean, stretchy, Bowie-esque voice has no trouble wrapping itself around these songs, showing itself off most strikingly on "Music Is Lethal". It's a young, muscular instrument. But whereas Bowie was singing as Ziggy (or Halloween Jack or the Thin White Duke), Ronson didn't have the advantage of a character to hide behind. He was Ronson singing as Ronson, and his performances are slightly more uncertain than those of his erstwhile boss. Sometimes, there's a blankness to his vocals, as attractive and competent as they are.
Just under a year after Slaughter, he came back with Play Don't Worry (1975). Its raunchy Clive Arrowsmith cover-photography indicated that, even if he wasn't always happy in the solo spotlight, he was certainly getting comfortable in front of the camera. It was another solid rather than earth-shattering album. Again, the songs have varying provenances, with Ronson's contributions a little wan this time. There's nothing to compare to "Only After Dark". "Billy Porter" is given a strangely gimmicky arrangement, with studio-treated, munchkin-style backing vocals that border on twee; odd choices given that it's a song about street violence. Better by far are Ronson's excellent interpretations of Pure Prairie League's "Angel No.9", Laurie Heath's "This Is For You" and the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat".
The 1976 sessions are this collection's most exciting revelation, particularly because six of them were written by Ronson alone. Gone, however, is that classic MainMan/up-market glam-rock sound that was starting to evaporate on Play Don't Worry. Without that touch of glitter, songs like "Hard Life" and "Is That Any Way" sound like early Doobie Brothers album tracks. Of course, that will predispose some people in their favor.
By all accounts a delightful, unpretentious guy off-stage, Ronson seemed to have neither the ruthless single-mindedness nor the heft of personality to sustain a solo career and returned, quite happily, to band work and production jobs. Only After Dark concludes with a disc of demos and 1976 live recordings. There are also demos, live cuts and outtakes spread across the bonus sections of the other three discs. Included is a long, formidably well-researched appreciation by compiler David Wells.
Ronson's post-solo years were not wasted. He continued to produce other acts, including vastly underrated Canadian songwriter, Lisa Dalbello, and, of course, Morrissey. His final recordings were issued posthumously as Heaven and Hull. Only After Dark comes in a clamshell box presentation. Each disc is housed in its own mini-LP sleeve – not, alas, Japanese-style. Only After Dark is an absolutely essential purchase for anyone with even a fleeting fondness for Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Annette Peacock, or Dana Gillespie.