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Mick Ronson Only After Dark – The Complete MainMan Recordings reviewed

Rotund Welsh cult James Gent puts on the Cherry Red light and places Mick Ronson’s Mainman years under review.

This one has been a long time coming… When Ziggy had to break up the band, MainMan head honcho Tony Defries pushed David 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 subsequently covered by the original line-up of Sheffield’s finest, The Human League on 1980’s Travelogue. This is them.

Slaughter On Tenth Avenue is a very fine album – one of the last great glam rock records – that allows the audience 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 the record through a Bowie-centric prism given that it shares much of its DNA with the Thin White Dame’s contemporaneous work.

Slaughter also shares much of its production and personnel with Bowie’s own Pinups, as it was recorded back to back with that slapdash Sixties covers project in the same studio (the legendary honky Château d’Hérouville near Paris) with the same band, spearheaded by Ronson with silver-sideburned Trevor Bolder, forever locked into a tight rhythm section with the phenomenal brute force of Aynsley Dunbar and Mike Garson’s decorative piano flourishes. 

In the contentious 1986 biography Alias David Bowie, slightly 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 songwriting credits, about which he was later quoted as saying: “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.”

The Bromley boy 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 1971’s delicious 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 leftover, unearthed by Rykodisc 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. (Bowie had history in this area, most famously with his abandoned effort at an English lyric for French chanson Comme D’Habitude, rejected by the English publishers for Paul Anka’s own effort, Frank Sinatra’s signature song My Way).

Back to the plot before we disappear down the rabbit-hole of the complicated world of trans-continental rewrites… Bowie took a liberal approach when penning English lyrics for Mogol and Battisti’s Io vorrei… non vorrei… ma se vuoi for Ronno, melodramatically retitling it 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 began to resurface (reaching its pinnacle with Wild Is The Wind), with lyrics boasting trace elements of the Belgian icon’s Port of Amsterdam (B-side to late 1973 single Sorrow) alongside his own, Brel-influenced showstopper Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide and telling lyrical references to the Thin White one’s then-current predilections (“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 Greetings From Asbury Park 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 while Defries looked to consolidating the MainMan empire ahead of the far-from-spontaneous ‘retirement’ gig. Bowie later wrote, in Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream book: “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. And talking of white noise…

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 of 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 welcome 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 the Dame’s ambitions to realise the album as the rock equivalent of Broadway theatre.

DB: “You can never have enough hats, gloves or shoes.” MJ: “Piss off, fang face.”

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

Perhaps demonstrating that 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 – 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 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 and apparently 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 Mick’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 fretwanking 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, chinwag and 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 future Mott The Hoople bandmate Ian Hunter on backing vocals) and a studio version of Bowie and the Spiders’ live favourite, the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, which David and Mick cut during the Pinups sessions. Indeed, it’s alleged DB’s vocals were wiped from the master in order to donate the track to Ronson’s album. Bowie biographer Dave Thompson’s claims that the original vocal version 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 releases reaches 2023…

Ronson the balladeer also proves affecting on the poignant, haunting This Is For You, with a beautiful vocal complemented by the Hull icon 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 he arranged for The New Seekers’ Laurie Heath’s band Milkwood, Mick’s version of this track is a personal favourite of Def Leppard frontman, glam afficionado and Ronno cheerleader Joe Elliot, 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 radio show, when Carlton P. Sandercock’s label Trident Music International temporarily had the keys to the ‘Golden Years’ of the MainMan vault, appearing with a handful of live and studio bonus tracks as double disc-er Only After Dark.

The albums resurfaced separately in 1997, with Sandercock this time operating as New Millennium Communications, with additional outtakes. With admirable persistence, 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 – the intriguing 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, 2019’s 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 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. 

Only After Dark is all you need and more. 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 and de facto musical director for others, from the warm camaraderie with brother-in-arms Ian Hunter to a chilly throwdown on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and on to better things with .John Cougar Mellencamp and Morrissey. As Rick Wakeman recalled, “He was a tremendous human being with oodles of talent”.

A well-presented four-disc curio for Bowie fans, perhaps, but also a fascinating insight into what makes (or doesn’t) a rock star.

James Gent

James Gent is the founder of We Are Cult. He rocks

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