“Beside Bowie”: An often bittersweet celebration of Mick Ronson’s life & musical contributions

By on April 26, 2019

Jon Brewer’s 2017 UK documentary Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story — the occasionally underrated guitarist, songwriter, arranger and producer Mick “Ronno” Ronson, one of the key players in David Bowie‘s Spiders from Mars band in the early ’70s as Bowie was transitioning from “Major Tom” to “Ziggy Stardust” and beyond — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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The documentary’s voiceover narration by David Bowie — recorded prior to his death in January 2016 — really helps set the tone for this often bittersweet celebration of Ronson’s life and musical contributions.

Bowie’s contributions and those from several others — like the great Lou Reed, who died in 2013 — are all the more touching considering that so many the film’s participants are no longer with us (Ronson died from liver cancer in 1993).

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Ronson was chiefly responsible for Bowie’s gloriously androgynous glam sound, circa 1969-1974.

He played guitar on Bowie’s first real “rock” album, The Man Who Sold The World, and then did the majority of the arrangements on Bowie’s celebrated Hunky Dory (featuring the brilliant songs “Changes,” “Life On Mars,” and “Oh! You Pretty Things”) and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars albums.

Part of the focus here, however, was to highlight some of Ronno’s later work, post-Bowie, which deserves consideration too.

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Through the use of vintage interviews, film footage and still photos (and Claymation figures too!), we learn about his time as a touring guitarist with Bob Dylan (he played in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue), Van Morrison, John Mellencamp (that’s Ronson’s arrangement you hear in “Jack and Diane”) and others.

We also hear about his many collaborations with a diverse group of recording artists that include Ian Hunter, Lulu, Morrissey (Ronson produced his “Your Arsenal” album), Dana Gillespie and many more.

One of the highlights of Beside Bowie is how Lou Reed opines on how Ronson almost single-handedly helped him achieve the sounds producer Bowie had wanted for Reed’s second solo album, Transformer.

Reed lovingly describes how Ronson’s string arrangement and piano playing on “Perfect Day” were, indeed, perfection.

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There are many more interviews here too with individuals who worked with Ronson in one capacity or another, including producer Tony Visconti; photographer Mick Rock (who talks about his famous “fellatio” photograph of Bowie and Ronson); Ronson’s widow Suzi Ronson; Bowie’s former wife and hairdresser Angie Bowie (she designed Bowie’s legendary Ziggy Stardust orange space mullet); Bowie’s ex-girlfriend, Mary Finnigan; the late UK deejay John Peel; Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman (who played piano on Hunky Dory); the Sex Pistols‘ & Rich Kids’ Glen Matlock; Queen‘s Roger Taylor; Def Leppard‘s Joe Elliott; Mott the Hoople‘s Ian Hunter, and many, many more.

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Ronson, in fact, joined Hunter’s Mott the Hoople after playing with Bowie, playing on their All the Young Dudes album and elevating their status considerably.

Hunter later paid tribute to Ronno during his solo career with his song “Michael Picasso.”

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Read more about Beside Bowie below.

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Director Jon Brewer (sometimes spelled as “John”) is a well-known music industry insider with more than four decades of experience in Music, Film and TV.

Brewer originally worked at Bowie’s Main Man management, managing the careers of Bowie, Ronson, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, Alvin Lee (Ten Years After), Gene Clark, Yes, and Gerry Rafferty, among others.

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He later segued into music publishing and then the burgeoning music video industry.

After that, he had a long career in film production, producing several studio pictures that went on to be big earners, leading his career completely into film and television.

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After turning to filmmaking full-time, he began directing music documentaries like B.B. King: The Life of Riley and that film’s success led the Nat “King” Cole Estate to commission him to direct Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark.

Because Brewer actually worked directly with both Bowie and Ronson during Bowie’s hugely-influential glam rock years, his expertise on the subject of his film really shines through, from Ronno’s beginnings in the countryside of Hull, England, to New York City (particularly Andy Warhol‘s Factory scene) and beyond.

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Along the way we learn how, despite the fact that he also recorded several solo albums — including Slaughter on 10th Avenue, which reached #9 on the UK Albums chart — Ronson apparently struggled financially, living paycheck to paycheck while waiting on royalty payments that were allegedly owed but never actually paid during his lifetime.

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It wasn’t until Ronson worked with Morrissey that he earned enough money to live comfortably, a sad truth, perhaps, and one of many sad truths about a legendary guitarist who is certainly deserving of more praise than he’s received since his death. This documentary certainly adds to his considerable legacy.

Bowie — who later replaced Ronno with Earl Slick (who shows up here too) after the recording of his Pin-Ups album — had already shocked the music world on July 3rd, 1973, by announcing that his band Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars would never play together again.

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Bowie eventually did reunite with Ronson the early ’90s when he was invited to play on Bowie’s 1993 album Black Tie White Noise.

They were, according to Brewer, “going to do all sorts of things together during the rest of that decade, but they just ran out of time.”

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Mick Ronson — born on May 26, 1946, in Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, England — died less than a month shy of his forty-seventh birthday on April 29, 1993.

Watch Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.