Graded on a Curve:
Mick Ronson,
Slaughter on 10th Avenue

Like many rock genius types David Bowie had a way of cooly disposing of people like used tissues, but he reserved his shabbiest treatment for guitarist Mick Ronson, who during his tenure with the Spiders from Mars came as close as anyone ever would to sharing equal footing on stage with Ziggy Stardust himself.

They were like Mick and Keith, and frankly poor Ronno, who by all accounts was one of the nicest guys to ever pick up an electric guitar or any other instrument for that mater, never got over Bowie’s peremptory and very cold-blooded decision to sweep him (and his fellow Spiders) into the dustbin of history.

One of Bowie’s (and Mainman bad guy/manager Tony Defries’) “cosmetic” reasons for breaking up the Spiders from Mars was (ostensibly) to give Ronson the opportunity to make his mark as a solo artist, but just about anything I’ve ever read on the subject makes clear Ronson was decidedly uncomfortable as a front man and was anything but enthused about the idea. He was a behind the scenes guy, great at arranging songs and a natural second fiddle on stage what with his incredible guitar playing, but singularly uninterested in being in the limelight.

Throw in the fact that he didn’t have the most distinctive voice and wasn’t a prolix songwriter, and you have several good reasons why his 1974 solo debut Slaughter on 10th Avenue, while chock-a-block with impressive moments and some exemplary playing, underwhelms.

The album itself is slight (seven cuts that clock in at around 35 minutes) and despite the impressive arrangements has a half-baked feel to it. Part of its problem is it doesn’t meet expectations; Ronson was a brilliant guitarist and rocker, but the album itself doesn’t rock very hard and Ronson doesn’t exactly come out with six-string razor blazing. And then there’s this: I get the idea that Ronson was a down to earth kind of guy, so how come the camp quotient is even higher than on Bowie’s LPs?

That said, Slaughter on 10th Avenue has lots going for it. Some (but not all) of the arrangements are intriguing, the playing is excellent (in addition to Ronson, pianist Mike Garson and drummer Aynsley Dunbar both shine), and a couple of its songs (particularly the very Spiders-like “Only After Dark” and Bowie cover “Growing Up and I’m Fine”) are real treasures. Ronson wrote the former with Motor City rocker (and SRC lead singer) Scott Richardson and it has both muscle and a great Glitter Rock sheen, while the Bowie cover is a great Glam readymade and has the feel of a real gone Hunky Dory outtake.

But I balk at the histrionic Elvis cover “Love Me Tender” that opens the LP and flinch at the equally overbaked cover of Italian pop singer Lucio Battisti’s “Music Is Lethal,” both of which Bowie might have been able to wrap his malleable tonsils around but which are out of poor Mick’s reach, which isn’t to say the latter doesn’t somehow manage to suck you in through sheer bombast alone.

As for the mucho melodramatic instrumental cover of Richard Rodgers’ “Slaughter on 10th Avenue,” it’s about what you’d expect–a “rock” adaptation of a ballet number that affords both Ronson and Garson ample opportunity to ham it up. But the thing is impossibly stylized and flaccid and neither musician really cuts loose and frankly I’ll take the Ventures’ version any day.

Ransom’s cover of Annette Peacock’s “I’m the One” is over-arranged and could use some tightening up, which isn’t to say Ronson’s guitar playing isn’t whiplash good and Garson doesn’t make the hair on your head stand up with his usual avant jazz shenanigans. But the whole thing is a bit too overwrought for my simple tastes, and sounds to me like a bunch of guy showing off their formidable chops just to prove they have formidable chops, like they’re auditing for ELP or something. And while Bowie didn’t have hand in writing it, it has his fingerprints all over it.

As for “Pleasure Man/Hey Ma Get Papa,” part one is a Ronson/Richardson composition and a direct rip of Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” which I guess means I could turn them over to Captain Fantastic for the reward money, but I won’t because you’ve got to hand it to old Ronno–he knows if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best. And both Ronson and Garson really go to town, engaging in some razzle dazzle on their respective instruments before segueing into Bowie’s short and tres bouncy “Hey Ma Get Papa” segment at the end.

Mick Ronson is proof positive that all the talent in the world doesn’t necessarily make you a great front man, as plenty of other second dogs over the years have shown as well. Fortunately Ronno went on to hook up with legendary first banana Ian Hunter and to make some great music with him. He also went on to do lots of other cool stuff like play with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, record with David Cassidy and Morrissey, and play an instrumental role in arranging John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” which went on to become a big smash hit!

Oh, and I was going to give this baby a B- but I upped it a half-grade on the basis of the David Cassidy connection alone! And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he somehow managed to turn Pure Prairie League’s “Leave My Heart Alone” into a Velvet Underground song!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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