MICK RONSON – Only After Dark: The Complete MainMan Recordings

For many, Mick Ronson needs no introduction. However, for his much celebrated fame with Bowie’s Spiders From Mars, his associations with Mott The Hoople and Lou Reed and having a lifetime champion in Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, there’s one aspect of Ronson’s career that’s sometimes overlooked: his 1970s solo recordings.

Whilst 1974’s ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue’ and 1975’s ‘Play Don’t Worry’ were a success upon release (with ‘Slaughter’ even scoring Mick a top ten hit), they seem to have been sidelined over he passing decades. They’re albums that rarely get mentioned outside of the more obsessive Bowie fan circles. Part of this might have something to do with them both being slightly dated; or maybe, more likely, it’s due to their patchy nature. There is fantastic material to be found on both records, of course, and this four disc box set from Cherry Red – featuring the albums along with a huge selection of bonus materials – should be a handy reminder of that fact.

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THE ALBUMS: Slaughter On 10th Avenue & Play Don’t Worry

1974’s ‘Slaughter On 10th Avenue’ is the stronger of Ronson’s two 70s releases…not that it is in any real hurry to advertise any potential greatness. Beginning, as it does, with a pompous cover of ‘Love Me Tender’. With Ronno warbling against an arrangement that occasionally sounds like a rendition of Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ played badly, it’s easy to imagine some fans wondering if they’d wasted their hard earned cash back in the day. It’s hardly the best way to start your first proper solo venture. It might have scraped some merit as an ironic closer, but it should never have been considered an opening track in a million years. That said, Mick’s choice of lead guitar solo is inspired and his distinctive tones instantly take the listener back to the best bits of those early Bowie albums.

The mood quickly changes with the Bowie penned ‘Growing Up & I’m Fine’, a jaunty workout that’s part glam rock and part oddball music hall. With Trevor Bolder’s bass pushed high in the mix and various rolling piano motifs from the legendary Mike Garson, this plays like the ultimate “lost” Bowie treasure and when tackling a typical Bowie-esque vocal meter from the era, Ronson sounds supremely confident. It’s an absolutely brilliant track. Likewise, the fuzzy glam rock stomp through the self-penned ‘Only After Dark’ bares enough teeth for lovers of the Spiders to glean plenty of enjoyment. Armed with a chopping guitar riff against a steady rhythm, Mick curls his voice in a manner that channels Steve Harley, while his band lock into a great groove throughout. After a couple of storming tracks, the first side then closes with something else of an acquired taste as Mick channels Bowie in full on Euro crooner mode as he wades through an English translation of Lucio Battisti’s Io Vorrei, Non Vorrei, Ma Se Vuoi in a typically grandiose style.

Another essential listen comes via an extremely inventive take on Annette Peacock’s ‘I’m The One’ which moves through several moods in an unsettled manner, with Ronno at first showcasing a heavier guitar tone (as heard throughout Bowie’s ‘Man Who Sold The World’ LP), before leading the band into a busier arrangement with obvious nods to glam, intercut with jazz flourishes and a semi-chaotic samba samba rhythm. This really suits Garson, but the way Mick’s lead guitars cut through everything presents some of the album’s finest playing. Eventually settling into the meat of the song, a slow blues unveils a soulful vocal and eventually becomes the album’s other highlight after ‘Growing Up’…

A nine minute tour de force ‘Pleasure Man / Hey Ma Get Papa’ demonstrates some decent acoustic playing, but some of the more subtle elements of the guitar work are lost to a huge, crooning vocal. Although Ronson has a voice that’s an acquired taste, his performance here comes with a great, voluminous quality…but that’s still no match for the music, with Garson very much revisiting the avant garde style of Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ while Trev bends his bass strings, often giving off the feeling he’d love to cut loose with a funk groove. Moving into the second part of the track, there’s more of a swagger and the band sounds strong. While the vocal is occasionally intrusive, it’s worth hanging in there as the close of the number features some great lead guitar sounds. The least said about ‘Hey Ma…’ with its selection of weird, arty Bowie cast-offs and quirky voices, the better. It’s a case of being a grand idea with poor execution; definitely damaging to the album’s quality as a whole. Thankfully, in closing, there’s another great outing for Ronson’s lead guitar when he takes ‘Slaughter On 10th Avenue’ from the Richard Rodgers 1936 ballet ‘On Your Toes’. With Mick moving between the electric and acoustic guitars, Garson attacking the keys like a classical pianist and the music moving between old musical melodies and a rock ‘n’ roll swing, it’s a terrific shoecase for the band. It’s more than enough to make you forgive the album’s two or three weak tracks.

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Released just eleven months later, the Ronson produced ‘Play Don’t Worry’ takes a similarly eclectic approach, mixing originals with covers and achieving a hit and miss result. For fans of Ronson’s playing, of course, there are a few great moments to be rediscovered.

Standing head and shoulders above the rest of the record, his cover of Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ is storming. Mick had played it regularly with Bowie over the previous few years, of course, but this studio recording adds something great to his own catalogue. Following a neo-theatrical piano from Garson, there’s an absolute thunder of drums before the piano revisits more ‘Aladdin Sane’-esque oddity. As the whole band break into the familiar riff, there’s a feeling of the studio being destroyed by sheer volume. Such intensity continues throughout, especially via Ronson’s angular and angry lead guitar work. A song designed to be played loudly, the rest of ‘Play Don’t Worry’ could be absolute rubbish and it would still be worth owning.

The Bowie inflected glam pop of ‘Hazy Days’ gives the album another enjoyable cut. One of the most 70s sounding things within Ronno’s solo catalogue, fans will hear many echoes from Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’ album in the arrangement – most obviously a dominant piano and bass never sounding a million miles away from the likes of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ – but there’s also a Bowie-ish inflection in Mick’s vocal too, often giving the recording a feeling of something you’ve always known. Turning to a glam rock frenzy, a cover of Little Richard’s ‘Girl Can’t Help It’ finds the whole band going hell for leather on a real stomper. Again, the performance comes with more than a trace of Bowie live shows from the early 70s, but that only makes it more fun. As an aggressive sax and a relentless guitar riff collide, it’s really hard not to feel caught up in the general bluster. Just brilliant.

Changing the mood, the huge twelve stringed guitar sound that drives ‘This Is For You’ is a very cheeky homage to ‘Space Oddity’, but despite its glaringly obvious influence, manages to be another album highlight. Hearing the guitar weave in and out of a more sedate Garson piano line quickly sets up a familiar listen, but during the track’s second half, the way everything builds to include a world of multi-layered vocals shows off Mick’s technical abilities in the studio. If you’ve never heard this album before, this track will more than show you why Ronson was still revered beyond his Bowie associations.

Elsewhere, things fare a little less well, though there’s nothing as bad as the previous album’s ‘Love Me Tender’. Released as a single, ‘Billy Porter’ blends Roxy Music-esque art rock with a vocal that sounds like it’s calling back to music hall. One of those tunes best seen in period context, it surely sounded better in ’75 – especially if you loved Steve Harley – but, decades on, it sounds a little dated; something really not helped by some terrible, novelty backing vocals. ‘Angel #9’ is a reasonable, grandiose rocker that shows a lovely, fuzzy guitar tone and the title track fills five minutes with some solid 70s rock. A strong vocal lifts an otherwise workmanlike tune, but this feels a little more like filler material than something you’d name an album after.

Filling the end of side two, a cover of Pure Prairie League’s ‘Woman’ is fairly generic 70s pop-rock, though very much benefits from a fantastic guitar solo, while an English translation of Claudio Baglioni’s ‘Empty Bed’, although potentially more interesting, suffers a little from feeling like a cut and paste arrangement. It begins with some lovely twin acoustic work, much closer to Mike Oldfield than glam rock (something of a highlight) before dropping into a tune that contrasts a fairly morose torch ballad with some overwrought 70s pompousness. Very much sounding like the combination of a couple of half-formed ideas, it’s perhaps one of the numbers that best sums up the album’s approach of “let’s throw everything out and see what sticks”. It’s one of those tracks that sounds better some days than others, but it’s hard to imagine anyone truly loving it.

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THE BONUS MATERIALS

The good news for those who already own the earlier expanded versions of the albums is that all bonus tracks have been ported over to this box set. That means you get the jaunty knees-up rendition of Bowie’s ‘Soul Love’ from the ‘Play Don’t Worry’ extras, the excellent b-sides from the 2009 edition of ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue’ and a few other essentials.

Being a four disc set, ‘Only After Dark’ rounds up a lot of extra demo and live material. Fans will already have most of this on the posthumous ‘Showtime’ and ‘Just Like This’ releases – the third album sessions and seven live tracks from the 1976 Buffalo show have pride of place here – but there are also a couple of genuine rarities to be found. An interview with Teen Magazine is appended to disc one (originally from a 1974 flexi-disc) and is of interest to the more die hard fan, while a couple of live tracks from 1979 have a much broader appeal. A take on ‘Angel #9′ brings out more great guitar work and a cover of The Shadows’ classic ‘FBI’ shows Mick and the band really stretching out. The recording of this is from an obvious bootleg source and the finer points sound a little underwater, but it’s nice to hear the band giving the familiar tune a tough upgrade and putting it through its paces.

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With ‘Slaughter On 10th Avenue’ not always being readily available and a selection of great live cuts featured here, that’s more than enough to make this box set an important release. In keeping with the occasionally ragged nature of the two released albums, ‘The Mainman Recordings’ can seem like a somewhat hit and miss set, but for Bowie completists and Ronson admirers, the good will certainly outweigh the bad. Huge Ronson fans won’t find much that’s new, but for those people who’ve somehow never got around to buying ‘Slaughter’ or ‘Play Don’t Worry’, this four disc anthology represents superb value.

October 2019