A guitar hero in the term’s truest sense, British axeman Mick Ronson distinguished himself with dazzling riffs for Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Bob Dylan, and others, but it was his early ’70s work with David Bowie that really made Ronson a legend. Over the course of three years and four milestone albums, Ronson and Bowie gave rock ‘n’ roll a radical facelift. When they were finished refashioning the music in their own image, it bore a passing resemblance to its former countenance, but its features were forever changed.
Ronson was Bowie’s right-hand man from the revolutionary art rock of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World to the idiosyncratic songcraft of 1971’s Hunky Dory, the glam-rock glory of 1972’s Ziggy Stardust, and the arch, almost unhinged future-rock of 1973’s Aladdin Sane. It’s no coincidence that those albums form the backbone of Bowie’s legacy—without Ronson on hand for all of those milestone sessions, each of those albums would surely have sounded significantly different. By extension, it’s totally within the realm of possibility that Bowie’s breakthroughs, both artistic and commercial, might never have happened at all if the lad from Hull hadn’t been by his side for them.
Bowie made a big jump from the trippy ballads of Space Oddity to the bristling rock and bruising riffs of The Man Who Sold the World. It’s important to note that Ronson wasn’t just some random session dude wandering in for the date; he and drummer Mick Woodmansey had played together in a band called The Rats and were specifically recruited to be part of Bowie’s new band, as was Rats bassist Trevor Bolder, who would replace Tony Visconti on bass on the next album. Ronson led the charge that brought Bowie into a whole new realm, with not only immortal riffs (like the regal but foreboding one that defines the title track) but also the hard-rocking roar of less-celebrated, equally intense tracks like “Black Country Rock” and “She Shook Me Cold.”
By the time Bowie cut Hunky Dory, with producer/bassist Visconti gone, arrangement chores fell to Ronson on top of his guitar duties. Ronson was more than prepared to help usher Bowie into his next remarkable evolutionary leap. The guitarist’s orchestrations helped make the reflective ballad “Changes” not just touching but transcendent, and gave the dizzying “Life on Mars” just the right air of grandeur, shining a spotlight on Bowie’s increasingly complex compositional powers. And Ronson’s lyrical licks on deeper cuts like “Song for Bob Dylan” showed his nose for nuance.
If the Bowie-Ronson team hadn’t already assured its place in rock history by that point, their status was cemented by 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Not only was it the quintessential guidepost of glam rock, it was one of the primary influences on the next generation of mavericks that peopled the punk and New Wave revolution. Remaining resolutely anti-flash, Ronson propels Bowie’s conceptual tale of an alien rock star with short, sharp blasts of power. “Suffragette City” and the less ubiquitous “Hang On to Yourself” are punk five years ahead of time, attitude-laden bursts of streamlined rock ‘n’ roll stripped to the bone and spoiling for a fight. And Ronson’s simultaneously martial and magisterial riffs on the barnstorming title track remain among rock’s most goosebump-inducing moments.
If Ziggy was the iconoclastic charmer gleefully leading his disciples down a merrily hedonistic path, 1973’s Aladdin Sane was its sociopathic sibling, setting fireworks off in your ear for the sheer twisted joy of it. While the former anticipated punk, the latter, still years ahead of that style, feels like a calling card for post punk. Bowie’s lyrics were at their wildest, and Ronson’s axe matches him step for step, deconstructing rock ‘n’ roll before your very ears on the edgy, off-kilter “Cracked Actor” and giddily reconstructing old-school signifiers like the blues riff at the heart of “The Jean Genie” and the Bo Diddley groove of “Panic in Detroit.” Ronson even works his wild squalls into the arch, postmodern cabaret rock of “Time.”
This astonishing four-album flush of brilliance was obviously far from the last blast of greatness for either Bowie or Ronson. But not counting the arrestingly quirky covers album Pin Ups, it was their final creative surge as partners. All these years later, that partnership still stands as a brightly beaming moment constantly imitated but never even close to equaled.