When Mick Ronson Played His First Show With David Bowie
David Bowie played with a lot of great guitarists in his day. But on Feb. 5, 1970, he introduced audiences to the one that arguably ended up outshining them all.
That's the date of Mick Ronson's first show with Bowie's band, which took place at the BBC Studios in London and found them delivering a 14-song set for a John Peel session. Though they performed a handful of cuts from Bowie's recently released Space Oddity LP, which was completed before Ronson joined the lineup, his presence was already helping Bowie move in a new direction.
"Bowie and I finished the Space Oddity album, and we looked at each other and realized it wasn't a rock album," explained producer Tony Visconti. "We wanted to make a rock album. We respected the rock groups around at the time like Cream and such like, but we didn't have it in us! We needed someone to be [that] important element, and that somebody we were introduced to was Mick Ronson."
"Mick was sullen and cautious on the day David and I met him, not really sure of what he was getting himself into," added Visconti in a separate interview. "Soon after, his guitar playing completely captivated us and his northern humor had us in stitches. For me, I expected this man to become a guitar hero."
As many rock fans are well aware, that's precisely what happened. Although Ronson never achieved the level of household-name solo success that he deserved, his leadership in Bowie's Spiders from Mars band helped catapult Bowie to a new level of worldwide fame while creating the musical and visual template for any number of glam bands and androgyny-fueled rock acts over the next several decades. Aside from simply being the rock guitarist Bowie needed to complete his sound, Ronson was a brilliant overall musician, and added immeasurable intangibles to the series of classic LPs they released together over the next several years -- including 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
"If it wasn't for Mick, who knows? There might have been no Ziggy Stardust," said Visconti. "I hate to say things like that because nobody really knows, but he was so important."
Alas, Ronson wasn't too important to dismiss – along with the rest of the Spiders from Mars. Retiring the Ziggy Stardust persona during a summer 1973 concert, Bowie jettisoned drummer Mick Woodmansey for that autumn's Pin Ups LP before putting together a new band for 1974's Diamond Dogs. And although Ronson certainly kept busy in the immediate aftermath, releasing solo albums, serving a short stint in Mott the Hoople, and starting a long creative partnership with Ian Hunter, his post-Bowie career never really took off the way it seemed like it might.
As Ronson himself noted, collaboration came more easily to him than seeking out the spotlight. "I need people to write with and perform with there all the time," he told Circus. "I need that involvement with other musicians because it's a bit strange being on your own. It's nice to have other musicians, because they spur you on with their own ideas."
Ronson would go on to produce and collaborate with a number of other artists, working with an eclectic group that included everyone from John Mellencamp (who later credited Ronson with turning "Jack and Diane" into a hit) to former Smiths frontman Morrissey. And when he sadly succumbed to liver cancer on April 29, 1993, he left behind a singular legacy that impacted every musician he worked with – especially Bowie.
"No matter how you juggle the words, Mick was not replaced in David’s life. None of David’s $20,000-a-day U.S. guitarists had a single grain of Mick’s natural style," Morrissey later told Uncut. "Mick had been David’s lifelong asset – no one else. We’re all thankful for both of them, but especially for both of them combined."