Posts Tagged ‘Mick Ronson’

Parlophone Records will issue what they are calling a ‘companion piece’ to Metrobolist, last year’s Tony Visconti remix of David Bowie‘s 1970 album “The Man Who Sold The World”. This new collection is a two-CD set called “The Width of a Circle” and features a combination of Ryko-era bonus tracks, BBC live recordings and new mixes, all from 1970.

The first CD features 14 tracks performed by David Bowie and The Tony Visconti Trio (a.k.a. The Hype) for John Peel’s “The Sunday Show” in February 1970 (the label are claiming that six of these are unreleased) while the second disc is very much an ‘odds and sods’ collection of material. It includes some bonus material first heard on CD back in 1989/1990 when Rykodisc began their Bowie reissue campaign.

Such tracks include 1970 single A-side ‘Holy Holy’, the single mix of ‘The Prettiest Star’ (although it’s included here in unreleased alternate mix form – “created for promotion in the US market”), both mono and stereo mixes of ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’ and the A and B-side mixes of ‘Memory of A Free Festival’.

In addition, this CD offers five tracks from a play (“The Looking Glass Murders aka Pierrot in Turquoise”) and five 2020 stereo mixes of some of the non-album material remixed by Tony Visconti. Four of those five are also available on a special 10-inch single (also called The Width of a Circle).

Official lyric video for David Bowie’s ‘Holy Holy’ (2020 Mix). Remixed by Tony Visconti and part of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ companion album ‘The Width of a Circle’

Last month saw the 50th anniversary of the original U.K. release of The Man Who Sold The WorldDavid Bowie’s landmark entry into the 1970s. The album began the collaboration with guitarist Mick Ronson that would continue with such classics as Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. The 2020 re-release of The Man Who Sold The World restored the album’s intended title Metrobolist, while featuring a new mix by original producer Tony Visconti. Taking its name from the album’s opening track, which was named after a painting by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, the new two-CD set The Width Of A Circle acts as a complementary piece to that album. Its 21 tracks feature non-album singles, a BBC In Concert session, music for a TV play and further Visconti remixes wrapping up David’s recordings from 1970 and revealing the first sonic steps toward Hunky Dory.

The two-CD set of The Width of a Circle is presented as one of those DVD-sized, hardcover booksets – a format quite likes even if we can’t recall any David Bowie product being issued in this style before. The book contains 104 pages of content.

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There are two ways of remembering the late Mick Ronson. One is as the immortal guitarist/pianist/arranger for David Bowie, before (or after) sprinkling magic across everyone from Ian Hunter to Bob Dylan, from Elton John to Ellen Foley, and so many more that there’s no room to list them.  And the other is as the purveyor of two of the most amazing albums that the 1970s ever birthed, before he decided he really didn’t want to be the star of his own show, and got back to making other people sound astonishing. In 1970, Mick Ronson changed the career of David Bowie and went on to work with Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Morrissey and more.

Although Ronson’s career was defined by his time with Bowie, there was a significant before and after. In the 1960s he played in various Hull groups, including The Mariners, who were advised by Rolling Stone Bill Wyman to change their name to the King Bees at around the time Bowie was also fronting a group called Davie Jones And The King Bees; and The Rats, whose main claim to fame was a 1967 single called The Rise And Fall Of Bernie Gripplestone.

Benny Marshall was The Rats’ lead singer and a close friend of Ronson. “Mick was the best guitarist in Hull, so when he left to head down south and join Bowie, I was pretty upset,” he says. “John Cambridge, our drummer, had played with Bowie on [the album] Space Oddity. He was the bloke who went back to Hull in January 1970 with the brief to find Ronson and bring him to London. He found Mick marking out the lines on the municipal football pitch.”

Cambridge did as instructed and the pair were introduced at the Marquee club, where Bowie was playing on February 3rd, 1970. Two days later Ronson had learned the riffs and song structures well enough to back Bowie, Cambridge and Tony Visconti for a John Peel Radio 1 show live in concert at the Paris Theatre in Lower Regent Street in London. They did 15 songs, including a new number, Width Of A Circle, and plenty of material from Bowie’s recently released self-titled second album. Reaction was positive. This was better than Bowie’s regular gig at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham. Ronson moved into Bowie’s Haddon Hall apartment on Southend Road in Beckenham and became part of the family.

Having tired of the hippie collectivism, Bowie wanted to make a hard rock album. As Visconti said later: “We respected groups like Cream, but we didn’t have that in us. We needed someone to be [that] important element, and that somebody was Mick Ronson.” Everyone loved Ronson’s laconic Northern humour too, especially Bowie, whose father and mother came from Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively. He’d send Ronson up and get just as good back.

Before this auspicious occasion, bass player Rick Kemp had also scouted Ronno to play on fellow Yorkshireman Michael Chapman’s second album, Fully Qualified Survivor. “Michael said his producer Gus Dudgeon didn’t want him to play electric guitar,” says Kemp, “and asked me did I know anybody? I mentioned Ronson, which wasn’t a good career move for me, letting this little runt in. Gus told me to find him. I was driving a Morris 1000 with the wings flapping off and I spotted him working, mowing lawns. I put the question: ‘Do you want to play on an album?’ He replied: ‘What do you mean? One that’s in the shops for sale, like? And I get paid?’ I took him down to London, and within minutes of arriving he’d got the runs for glory.”

Tony Visconti insists that Ronson came to Trident Studio in September 1969, when the David Bowie album was being finalised: “Mick came to the mix of Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud, and was persuaded to play a little guitar line in the middle part and joined in the handclaps on the same section.”

In April, sessions began for The Man Who Sold The World. It was a brilliant album, but another commercial flop. It was so badly received that Bowie was convinced to ditch the band, and Ronson, Visconti, ex-Rat Woody Woodmansey and Marshall took the collective name Ronno and released a single, 4th Hour Of My Sleep/Powers Of Darkness, a freestyle rock-metal affair that showcases Ronno’s blistering Les Paul playing. It sank without trace, although Vertigo Records later included both sides on their Superheavy Vol 1 and 2 compilations.

Later on, Ronson’s crunching heavy metal attack, allied to arcane Wagnerian, dystopian, mind-fuck lyrics, was hailed as a masterpiece. Certainly Ronson’s contributions to Bowie tracks such as She Shook Me Cold, Running Gun Blues and the epic Width Of A Circle cemented his place, leading Bowie to call him, with a smug smile, “my Jeff Beck”.

Bowie’s 1970 album “The Man Who Sold The World” had not been a commercial breakthrough, but it added to Ronson’s confidence. Visconti and Ronson had masterminded the sound, dashing off arrangements in the Minstrel Gallery or the basement at Hedonism Hall while Bowie canoodled with Angie elsewhere, chucking out lyrical fragments in between romps. She Shook Me Cold, the dirtiest song he ever wrote, was directly about Mrs Bowie, but it was Ronson who provided the Jimi Hendrix-style intro and the power trio setting à la Cream. Later, Angie lamented the fact that Ronson didn’t receive the publishing he deserved: “In terms of kudos and feeling that one is valued, it would have been nice for Mick Ronson to have had publishing credits.”

Ronson had already written a mini-score for four recorders, used in the break in All The Madmen. It was a start. “I thought: ‘Well, if you can do that then so can I.’ I went out for dinner with Dana Gillespie, who had tracks that needed strings, and David said: ‘Oh, Mick’ll do that!’ I never had, but it was great. It was all done in your head and then straight to piano and guitar. David pushed me forward. That was his thing. He made stuff happen.”

Bowie was now heavily reliant on Ronson. On Hunky Dory the guitarist finally got his credit, as the arranger of Changes, Life On Mars?, Kooks, Quicksand and Biff Rose’s Fill Your Heart, virtually copied note for note. In retrospect many have noticed how similar the sound of Hunky Dory is to Michael Chapman’s Fully Qualified Survivor, including Chapman himself.

Ronson wasn’t fazed by his burgeoning role, giving the Royal College Of Music-trained Rick Wakeman instruction for the now iconic piano parts on Life On Mars?. On the Ziggy Stardust epic Five Years, his string section whipped up the hysteria. On Suffragette City, it was Ronno who came up with the funky, lurching ARP synthesiser sound that many mistake for saxophones. All those years studying piano and violin and listening to string quartets in Hull paid off.

After the rise comes the fall. On October 20th,1973, Mick Ronson played with David Bowie on stage for the last time in that decade. Only 200 people saw the appearance in the flesh, shot for NBC’s The Midnight Special.  Dubbed The 1980 Floor Show, it was a strange day. Bowie serenaded supposed transsexual Amanda Lear on Sorrow, and he and Marianne Faithfull duetted on Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe. Marianne was wearing a nun’s habit with the back cut out and no knickers, so everyone in the band could see the most sought-after arse of swinging London, although the audience couldn’t.

Bowie hated the end results: “shot abysmally”. This was the night Ziggy Stardust truly left the building, which may explain why a smiling Bowie ended each song with an affectionate pat on Ronson’s white satin-clad back. The two men wouldn’t appear on the same stage together again until 1983, when they reunited for a song at a show in Canada on Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour. In 1970, Mick Ronson changed the musical fortunes of David Bowie, a struggling singer-songwriter with two novelty hits behind him. Together, and with their band the Spiders From Mars, they reinvented Bowie musically and created some of rock’s best-loved albums: Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane. Afterwards, Ronson struggled to match that initial success,

If the Ziggy album was a Ronson tour de force, the follow-up, “Aladdin Sane”, was a mixed blessing for him. His contributions were immense, but so were those of recently arrived pianist Mike Garson, whom Ronson had auditioned, later advising him to “make yourself indispensable. That’s what David likes. Don’t just be a session man.”

His work on Lou Reed’s Transformer effectively rescued Reed’s career after his debut solo album had bombed. “It was a good experience for me,” said Ronno. “Lou’s guitar was always out of tune, so I’d kneel in front of him and tune it properly. He didn’t care, cos he was so laid-back.” And without his contribution, Transformer might never have got off the ground. “It came out pretty well,” Ronson said. “Though I didn’t know what the hell [Lou] was talking about half the time. He’d say stuff like: ‘Can you make it sound a bit more grey?’”

Fortunately the album was a roaring success. “Transformer” is easily my best-produced album,” Reed said. “That has a lot to do with Mick Ronson. His influence was stronger than David’s, but together, as a team, they’re terrific.”

In the summer of ’73, having finished his sessions for Bowie’s covers album “Pin Ups”, most of which he’d arranged as usual, Ronson returned to the Château d’Hérouville studios outside Paris and made his solo debut album, “Slaughter On 10th Avenue”Bowie chipped in from a distance, gifting the songs Growing Up And I’m Fine, Pleasure Man/Hey Ma, Get Papa and a rough translation of Lucio Battisti’s ‘Io vorrei, non vorrei, ma se vuoi’, now christened Music Is Lethal. RCA weren’t overjoyed with what they heard, and the album’s release date was put back more than six months to 1974.

This box set focuses on the latter, rounding up 1974’s “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” and the following year’s “Play Don’t Worry”, and then adding two further discs of sessions, out-takes, and live tracks that trace Ronson through 1976… no longer interested in making a new LP, but curious what it might sound like. A lot of these have leaked out over sundry past collections, and once past the thrill of hearing that voice, that guitar. But the two albums that preceded these tapes, the two that were released  in the wake of his departure from Bowie’s band, at a time when it seemed inevitable that Ronno would be rock’s next stellar superstar… they are a different matter entirely.

Slaughter was especially delicious, a combination of covers (Elvis, Annette Peacock, Richard Rodgers), Bowie originals (“Growing Up and I’m Fine” and the co-penned “Hey Ma, Get Papa”), and Ronson’s own work with former SRC frontman Scott Richardson, it stood – and still stands – as perhaps the ultimate statement on glam rock, a collection of songs that could journey from early rock to modern jazz, from dark Europa to vivid glitter, and make the whole lot hang together.

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Other bands on the circuit were playing with each of these elements individually… listen to “Hey Ma,” and there’s the blueprint for what Cockney Rebel would do next. “Only After Dark” was scything rock, “Growing Up and I’m Fine” would have suited Roxy Music. 

But the opening “Love Me Tender” and the closing “Slaughter” itself do more than bookend the party. They offer up their own interpretations of what music could be made to do, the first building slowly until the vocal breaks your heart; the last lifting you so high that nothing could bring you down after hearing it. And live, it was even more stirring.

In 1976, at the height of his cocaine addiction, Bowie had washed his hands of the good old days. “I gave them [his band the Spiders From Mars] more life than I intended,” he said. “And I was also getting honestly bored. There’s only so much you can do with that kind of band. I wanted no more to do with that loud thing. Hurt my ears. Wasn’t pleasing my mind too much either. Since then, poor Mick has completely missed his vocation. From his faulty solo career right on down. I’ve been disappointed. He could have been amazing. I just don’t know. Christ, I haven’t spoken properly with him in years.

Evidently Bowie’s cage was rattled by Ronson’s comment: “David needs someone around him to say: ‘Fuck off, you’re stupid.’ He needs one person who won’t bow to him.” Bowie’s reply was: “I’ve got God. Who’s Mick got?”. “There was certainly a time when David relied on Mick,” says singer Dana Gillespie, a fellow MainMan artist and mutual friend, “but he’d drop all communication with you. Mick was badly hurt when David never returned his phone calls.”

In fairness, Bowie became more charitable later. “Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character,” he said. “He was very much a salt-of-the-earth type, the blunt northerner with a defiantly masculine personality, so what you got was the old-fashioned yin and yang thing. As a rock duo I thought we were as good as Mick and Keith.”

Within months Ronson was back in another band, joining Mott The Hoople for what would be their final single, Saturday Gigs. Ronson and frontman Ian Hunter had bonded back when Mick had knocked up a string arrangement for Mott’s Sea Diver, but the other Mott guys resented the arrival of this ‘rock star’ in their midst, with MainMan and RCA sending limos for their boy while Mott travelled together in a bus. Tired of the conflict, Hunter split the band.

Ronson went back to his solo career. Bowie didn’t take part in follow-up album Play Don’t Worry either, but allowed Ronson to use the backing track from the cover of the Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat considered for the American attempt at a Pin Ups album but soon discarded.

Play Don’t Worry was excellent in parts. Not a natural songwriter, Ronson did himself proud on the opening Billy Porter, his take on Claudio Baglioni’s ‘Io me ne Andrei’, translated into Empty Bed, and versions of two songs by Pure Prairie League, whose 1972 album Bustin’ Out featured his guitar and strings.

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“Play Don’t Worry” was a more straightforward collection… the opening “Billy Porter” could have made it onto Slaughter without disturbing that album’s perfect equilibrium, but “Angel #9” looked back to Ronson’s work with the Pure Prairie League in the early Bowie days; “Girl Can’t Help It” was an excuse for him and Ian Hunter to go full-bore Little Richard on our ears; and “White Light White Heat” was an out-take from Bowie’s Pin Ups sessions, with Ronno’s vocal instead of the other guy’s.

It’s still a great album, hanging together with consummate ease, and hitting all the right spots – the solo that dominates “Angel #9” is one of his finest ever, and the self-penned title track shows what  cracking songwriter he was, just as  “This Is For You” illustrates what a great, and expressive, voice he had. Still it’s a shame that one of the finest performances on the session, a gentle piano-led cover of another Annette Peacock number, “Seven Days,” only made it out as a b-side, but it’s also one of nine bonus tracks appended to the album, so that’s alright then. (Eight join Slaughter.)

Ronson returned to the studio with Bowie to create demos for future Diamond Dogs tracks 1984 and Dodo. His work wouldn’t appear on the finished album, a creepy, avant-garde affair, but his trademark guitar style did in the shape of Rebel Rebel, almost a Spiders From Mars pastiche riff, played now by Bowie, Ronno’s platinum-coated spectre was fading into the background.

After Bowie and Lou, where do you go? Ronson produced and played on Ian Hunter’s magnificent debut solo album, with that signature opening flash of epic genius, “Once Bitten Twice Shy”, and Hunter inspiring one of Ronson’s most fearsome solos by showing him a bad review for Play Don’t Worry before he went in to lay down a guitar part on The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nuthin’ But The Truth.

In 1975 Ronson moved to New York, rented a place on Hudson Street near the Meatpacking District and enjoyed the city with his best friend Hunter, who had provided safe haven via Mott The Hoople, Mott and the Hunter Ronson Band.

This is where they met Bob Dylan, who invited Ronson to join his band of gypsies, the Rolling Thunder Revue, after a meet engineered by Dylan’s main fixer, Bob Neuwirth. That evening began at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street. “We weren’t Dylan fans at all,” .“Mick thought he sounded like Yogi Bear. But Ian took us anyway. And Dylan played the Desire album and he was mesmerising, Ronno was soon back with Hunter, appearing on You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic and Welcome To The Club. With his solo career on hold, he became a full-time producer. He worked with Van Morrison, John Mellencamp and Roger McGuinn, and there was production work with artists as varied as David Cassidy, Slaughter And The Dogs and the Rich Kids.

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Again, there’s nothing here that hasn’t seen the light of day before, but having them all in the same place is definitely a bonus, and there are some glorious inclusions, including a cover of Bowie’s “Soul Love” that Ronson retitles “Stone Love,” and decidedly NOT a cover of “Life on Mars,” which is the song he performed during his solo spot on the Rolling Thunder Revue.

A handful of tracks from a projected Ronson live album include another b-side, “Leave My Heart Alone,” which is also another Pure Prairie League track;  there’s some jams and alternate versions, and even an interview recorded for Teen magazine in 1974, and given away free as a flexidisc.  Oddly, and completely out of place, there are also two numbers recorded on the 1979 Hunter-Ronson tour, but both fit in perfectly… a tremendous version “Angel #9,” and the show’s traditional opening number, the Shadows’ “FBI.”

The accompanying booklet tells Ronson’s story well, and pulls some great images from the archive, and with his own seventies catalogue now neatly corralled, maybe we can start to dream about the other box set Ronson deserves, documenting his life as a sideman. Morrissey has the fondest memories. “Everyone who worked with Mick expresses devotional love for him, whereas people who worked with Bowie express admiration. Mick told me that he alone wrote the main guitar hooks for Starman, The Man Who Sold The World and others – not just hooks, really, but grand choruses in themselves.

Ronson played guitar on Your Arsenal but didn’t want a credit. “Again this was Mick’s unaffected Cinderella aspect, which I later saw in Jeff Beck when I worked with him on my Years Of Refusal album,” Morrissey recalls. “Jeff and Mick were identical in the way that they would quietly pick up their guitars without fanfare, and as they sat in the corner they’d plug into the desk and a tingling earthquake would erupt without any discourse. And they both made their guitars sound like grand pianos.”

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In the late 1980s, Ronson’s health began to cause concern. He was diagnosed with liver cancer, something he neither made a secret of nor chose to acknowledge as a threat. Instead he threw himself into projects such as Morrissey’s Your Arsenal and Bowie’s Black Tie White Noise. He also kicked off a fine version of All The Young Dudes with Bowie and Hunter at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium on Easter Monday, 1992, which was the last time his fans saw him on stage.

On Ronson’s posthumously released Heaven And Hull, he wrenched out some of his finest ever work, particularly on Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, with Bowie’s astounding vocal inspiring the guitarist to take the song to another planet. And he still had enough time to play on The Wildhearts’ My Baby Is A Headfuck, recorded weeks before his death on April 29th, 1993. He spent his last hours in the company of Hunter, Suzi and sister Maggi at Tony Defries’s house on Hasker Street in West London.

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A 4-CD set, “Only After Dark” chronicles Mick Ronson’s peripatetic solo work during the rest of the seventies after his split with Bowie, with his two albums “Slaughter On 10th Avenue” and “Play Don’t Worry” joined by B-sides, alternative versions, outtakes and a plethora of unissued-at-the-time studio recordings (including a handful with Guam, the backing band for Bob Dylan’s legendary 1975 Rolling Thunder tour) and various highlights from his live shows. Featuring some rare photos and a lengthy new essay on his Seventies career, Only After Dark is the most comprehensive anthology to date of a major talent.

Though it lasted only a few months in 1975 and 1976 and played mostly in tertiary-market venues, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue occupies a mythic place in the history of rock tours. Featuring 148 tracks (more than 100 of those previously unreleased), Bob Dylan’s The Rolling Thunder Review: The 1975 Live Recordings is a foray into the iconic first leg of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. With live rehearsals and dynamic live performances of favorites like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “It Ain’t Me Babe,” the album showcases the artistry and poetic lyricism that made Dylan the legend he is today. The live album also accompanies the Martin Scorsese Netflix documentary about Dylan.

Bob Dylan, The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings

The 14-CD disc box set The Rolling Thunder Revue: The 1975 Live Recordings comes out June 7 viaLegacy Recordings.

It was an experiment on a conceptually grand scale to create music on an intimate scale – in spaces far smaller than those Dylan customarily played. It was a wildcat reboot of the rock concert ritual, with shows announced days before they happened, and cameramen darting around to document every smidgen of the (miraculously casual) experience. It involved a caravan of 70 artists including beloved longtime collaborators (Joan Baez), poets (Allen Ginsberg), prophets (Joni Mitchell), a playwright (Sam Shepard) and a former Spider from Mars (the entrancing guitarist Mick Ronson).

Billed as a Revue, the tour featured Dylan as ringmaster-troubadour in mime-style white face paint and a gaucho hat, leading his ad-hoc accidental masterpiece of a band through rousing, irreverent versions of songs from his catalog. These were followed by ferocious dramatic renditions of songs that likely few in his audience knew – yarns like “Joey” and “Isis” from Desire, which was released after the first leg of the tour. Listen to the audience react during any of the unfamiliar selections; it’s clear that Dylan has the whole house with him, they’re following his gestures. And they stay on the train as it swerves and rattles and nearly jumps the tracks.

This 14-disc trove of music from the first leg of Rolling Thunder offers several entire discs of intermittently revealing rehearsal snippets (among them a gorgeous “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”), full audio from the six shows that were professionally recorded, and another disc of “rare” material, including a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.” Coming right behind that is a Netflix-distributed Martin Scorsese film – described in a press release as part documentary, part concert movie, and part “fever dream.” (The film has new interviews, but is built around the 80 hours of footage shot in 1975, some of it seen previously in Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara.)

Together, the two releases make it possible to undertake a deep binge-dive into a singularly radiant moment of Dylan legend – a time when he took his thoughtful and philosophical songs for wild, impulsive cliff-diving lunges. Just to see what might ring true under experiential scrutiny.

Check Dylan getting breathless and swept up as he recounts the hard life of Hattie Carroll, or tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer who was framed for murder. He tells the stories in sweeping gestures, and the musicians, particularly violinist Scarlet Rivera, respond to his energy with furtive jabs and evasive dancing maneuvers. At a show in Montreal, Dylan ramps up the intensity of the final verse of “Isis” line by blistering line – his voice tightening with each shout in a conversational volley. By the end of the story, Dylan is full-out bellowing, and the band matches his urgency with a deliciously destabilized weather system conjured completely out of guitar chords.

Of course, lots of Dylan tours are remembered for wild, peaking, high-intensity musical moments like these. Few, though, capture the man at stage center working in such an overtly theatrical way. Those who’ve seen him in his taciturn recent years, at shows where he never interacts with his audience, will be surprised by his gregariousness, his openness, his desire to connect. The masks and other visual devices are one thing; he was also singing with precision, in clear and resolute tones. These things suggest he was thinking differently about how to engage listeners, how to involve an audience in a “happening” that held elements of a carnival and elements of a church service.

The lyricist and theater director Jacques Levy, who co-wrote “Isis” and several other songs during this period, believes that Dylan’s embrace of showmanship during Rolling Thunder is related to the material. In Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s book On the Road with Bob Dylan, he observes: “One of the things about [these songs] that’s so wonderful is that they give [Dylan] a chance to do some acting.” That required more than just hamming for the camera – throughout these performances, Dylan pulls the songs apart by putting some of himself in them, phrasing to convey real sensitivity, even vulnerability. He’s expansive, and generous in ways he hasn’t always been since.

It’s folly to speculate on exactly what Bob Dylan’s intentions are for anything – especially something like this tour. In Scorsese’s film, Dylan jokes that the tour “happened so long ago I wasn’t even born.” The tapes, nicely cleaned up for this release, suggest otherwise. He was there. Presiding. Possibly even having fun. Discovering, and then discarding, all kinds of ways to engage innocent bystanders in his grand, abstract, truth-telling tales.

Sleeve for Lou Reed's Transformer

Commercial success and critical acclaim together or apart are not really the true measure of an artist’s work. History and public acceptance can ‘transform’ the perspective and create a re-evaluation, or revisionist history towards how the art is viewed. No other work quite typifies this more than Lou Reed with his second solo effort “Transformer”.

Transformer is an incarnation of Reed at his most tuneful and accessible, just right for an almost-teenager. Just wrong, you might say. If the swooping basslines and whooping choruses drew me in, the lyrics kept me riveted and puzzling. “Shaved her legs and then he was a she” I could work out. But what was the “Up-all-oh”? “Angel dust”? “Giving head”? What about “hustler”? Oh, how Google would have helped me then

With the Velvet Underground, Reed became a beacon to the outsider experience and while album sales were low, critics and musicians had found a kind of anti-hero on whom to heap praise. Once the Velvets had broken up, Reed continued his stories and of counter-culture misfits but to a more commercialized effect on Transformer. Produced by David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson, Transformer would be heavily influenced by Bowie’s then ‘glam’ movement and blur the same androgynous lines can be heard singing backing vocals (his falsetto seems obvious on Satellite of Love, . However, Reed would use his own brand of wry observation and deadpan delivery to create characters that lived with and amongst his crowd as opposed to embodying the characters space as Bowie did with Ziggy and Aladdin Sane.

As with its predecessor Lou Reed, Transformer contains songs Reed composed while still in the Velvet Underground (here, four out of ten). “Andy’s Chest” was first recorded by the band in 1969 and “Satellite of Love” demoed in 1970; these versions were released on VU and Peel Slowly and See, respectively. For Transformer, the original up-tempo pace of these songs was slowed down.

“New York Telephone Conversation” and “Goodnight Ladies” are known to have been played live during the band’s summer 1970 residency at Max’s Kansas City; the latter takes its title refrain from the last line of the second section (“A Game of Chess”) of T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land: “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.”, which is itself a quote from Ophelia in Hamlet.

As in Reed’s Velvet Underground days, the connection to artist Andy Warhol remained strong. According to Reed, Warhol told him he should write a song about someone vicious. When Reed asked what he meant by vicious, Warhol replied, “Oh, you know, like I hit you with a flower”,resulting in the song “Vicious”.

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Oddly, it was “Walk On The Wild Side” a song that spoke of transsexuality, oral sex and drug use that propelled the album to heights neither seen by the Velvet Underground or Reed himself in previous efforts. It wouldn’t be until the 1990’s that “Perfect Day” would become an underground hit. The supposed ode to his drug habit, Perfect Day, only works because, no matter who the song is dedicated to, it is a beautiful ballad. Then there is the epic, neon-drenched goodbye to his association with Andy Warhol and his factory acolytes,

On its release in 1972, Transformer was given mixed reviews by critics who claimed it was overly “art-y” and overly sexual. History of course has shed new light and Transformer has made just about every magazines ‘Best All-Time’ list. There was a BBC documentary devoted entirely to Walk on the Wild Side. My questions were answered. There was Holly, who did indeed “come from Miami FLA”. It turned out “Up-all-oh” was the Apollo theatre in Harlem, and “Sugar Plum fairy” a drug dealer. Though Candy and Jackie had departed this world, Joe Dallesandro was there, wistfully contemplating wasted opportunities. And then there was Lou – decked out in leather jacket and leathery skin – complaining about people using Walk on the Wild Side without permission.

Despite, or maybe due to its recognition, finding vinyl editions of Transformer is pretty easy, but figuring out what works best for you might get a little more difficult. You can find used copies pretty much anywhere. I’m sure a lot of people who bought Transformer to get similar material to “Walk On The Wild Side” only to find that it wasn’t like that. As for new, eight official vinyl editions have come out since 2004 with four in just the last three years. On RSD 2012 a straight re-issue was put out in record stores, and is still the most common new copy you will find. In 2013 – 2014 unofficial green and blue versions were released in the UK. Finally, a few weeks ago Newbury Comics put out a Limited Edition half black and half gold version. There were 1200 copies printed and each was gold stamp numbered.

Due to the sheer amount of what is available, you can get most copies of Transformer for less than $30.00 (including the unofficial UK copies). Only the Newbury edition is commanding high prices on the resale market, and that’s pretty damn silly, because you can still get a copy from Newbury for less than $30.00. The split colour looks awesome and indeed sounds great.

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You can get it here. Anyway, with his recent induction into the “Rock Hall of fame” you can expect some renewed interest and copies of Transformer may begin to disappear. You might want to give that some thought this time if you’ve been sitting on the fence.

Last November, on the 45th anniversary of Lou Reed’s legendary Transformer album, photographer Mick Rock joined Rolling Stone editor David Fricke in a conversation for readers at the New York Public Library. Marking the anniversary, Mick kindly signed 45 bookplates specially for readers around the globe. Accordingly, 45 Collector copies are now available, each additionally including:

  • The new 24-page booklet with an essay by Mick Rock and 50 previously unpublished photographs
  • The looseleaf ‘Rock and Roll Heart’ facsimile handwritten lyric sheet
  • The commemorative New York Public Library bookplate signed by Mick Rock on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Transformer
  • Transformer book bag and publishing prospectus

Transformer

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Those who love Mott The Hoople love Mott The Hoople with all their might. This film is for them. Chris Hall and Mike Kerry’s documentary takes us back to the time before there was a Mott, describing how The Buddies and The Soulents merged to create a new entity, how the group came to the attention of mercurial producer Guy Stevens and how the rest became the ballad of Mott The Hoople.

It was Stevens who suggested that then-vocalist Stan Tippins get the ol’ heave-ho. Enter Ian Hunter (a few years older than the other lads) and enter one of the most interesting eras in British rock music. Stevens, more a cheerleader and catalyst than an actual producer, oversaw the sessions for several of the band’s early albums, including the dark Mad Shadows (1970) and the 1971 classic Brain Capers, and the memories shared of him her mostly carry a waft of kindness that the passing of time often brings.

But the studio was not really where the band thrived. The place to really hear Mott The Hoople was the stage (Clash guitarist Mick Jones was an early convert, and he testifies with enthusiasm to Hunter and Co.’s live prowess). The group’s records sold slowly and no one could really seem to settle on a direction early on. By early 1972 the group decided to pack it in.

Enter David Bowie who convinced the band that they should soldier on; he also gave the band its biggest hit, “All The Young Dudes”, and produced the 1972 album of the same name. Success saw a rift grow in the ranks resulting in the departure of Mick Ralphs (who went on to form Bad Company) and Hunter’s ascent to leader of the band.

From there, the end came rather quickly, amid the strains of touring and band politics; no one seemed a good fit after Ralphs (ex-Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson apparently refused to speak to other members of the band) and thus the end came perhaps sooner than anyone expected. What isn’t told in the film is how the group attempted to soldier on without Hunter under the name Mott, then as British Lions.

A beautiful documentary about a beautiful guy.

There will be no doubt left in anyone’s mind after spending 90 minutes with this film that the original Spiders from Mars guitarist was an overlooked and underappreciated player in the rise to prominence of David Bowie. The Hull, U.K. born and bred musician was a classically trained arranger and pianist as well as a phenomenally talented guitarist. His contributions to not only Bowie’s early efforts through Pin Ups, but Lou Reed’s Transformer album and work from artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Elton John, Ian Hunter and Morrissey are generally undervalued, a fact attested to by a litany of talking heads.

Fascinating and often rare footage, along with testimonials from family, friends and associates, paint a remarkably vivid picture of a talent who was best at supporting others. When his management tried to make him a frontman after the dissolution of the Spiders, it failed miserably. No, Ronno (as his friends nicknamed him) was the ultimate sideman, the Keith to someone else’s Mick, and it was in that role that he felt most comfortable.

As the movie’s title suggests, the bulk (about an hour) of the film follows his association with David Bowie. But the final 30 minutes is just as important, and often unnerving. For all his musical talents, Ronson was horrible at managing money, and even during his short 18-month Spiders from Mars stint with Bowie that found the band graduating from clubs to arenas and worldwide fame, he was never compensated appropriately for his substantial, and ultimately historical, artistic contributions. That continued until the end of his life, cut short in 1993 at 47 by liver cancer, as he often lived paycheck to paycheck, eventually leading to his wife asking others for financial assistance.

The milestones and specifics of his relatively brief career can be found online, but this film succeeds because of the loving tributes from the people that knew him best, and most importantly by two fascinating interviews with Ronson interspersed into the timeline. Anecdotes from his management, Lou Reed and not surprisingly David Bowie, along with Bowie’s ex-wife Angie, help paint a colorful portrait of a guy who never achieved the fame or respect he clearly deserved. And while there are extensive interviews with producer Tony Visconti, Ian Hunter and pianist Mike Garson (Ronson hired him for Bowie’s band), his association with Bob Dylan with whom he toured as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue, is practically ignored. And his work with Roger McGuinn (Ronson produced 1976’s Cardiff Rose) is completely snubbed. It would also have been helpful to hear from Morrissey, whose Your Arsenal release Ronson produced, but he too is MIA.

While this might be a few decades too late in appearing, we’ll add it to the better-late-than-never bin. We can now rejoice in a lovingly-constructed documentary on a guy who, despite being in the right place at the right time, hasn’t been given the reverence, nor financial rewards, his significant contributions to Bowie and others should have provided.