Heaven And Hull
Spitfire Records, 1994
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/20/2011
It’s generally a crapshoot when a well-known guitar player cuts a solo album. If he goes all instrumental, it’s usually entertaining in a flashy way, but doesn’t have the emotional depth that a vocal album does. And if the guitar player tries to sing, it’s often a reminder of why he’s primarily a guitar player.
Mick Ronson stands among the most highly regarded sidemen of his era, having served both as the brilliant guitarist-slash-arranger in David Bowie’s renowned Spiders From Mars unit, and as former Mott The Hoople frontman Ian Hunter’s longtime musical other half / best pal. After the last Hunter/Ronson band tour in 1989, Ronson set to crafting his third solo album, his first since 1975’s Play Don’t Worry. Tragically, while working on the album Ronson was diagnosed with cancer, which he fought through the rest of the recording process until his death at age 46 in April 1993.
The mostly-done album he left behind, lovingly completed and released by his friends Hunter and Joe Elliott (of Def Leppard) under the supervision of his widow Suzi—and featuring notable contributions from friends including The Pretenders’ Martin Chambers and Chrissie Hynde, and John Mellencamp—is notable for what it is and what it isn’t. It is a testament to Ronson as a guitar player, an arranger and a surprisingly listenable singer—and it’s not either flashy or morose. While one song (“Life’s A River”) speaks directly to questions of mortality, the remainder of this disc is simply the album that Ronson set out to make when he began. To his eternal credit, he succeeded, despite the very difficult circumstances that came about while he was working on it.
Opener “Don’t Look Down” is a monster, a bruising hard rock tune in the finest Ronson tradition, riding high on a fat riff, with his lyrics and singing holding up fine alongside. Ten tracks of this would have been a stellar hard rock album… but Ronson was nothing if not eclectic in the musical choices he made on his solo discs. The second track finds him teaming with old friend David Bowie for a thoroughly transformed cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” as he and Ziggy not just electrify but funkify old Mr. Zimmerman’s tune, giving it a fat, bluesy edge. It’s not exactly a masterpiece—Bowie’s yelping lead vocals lack the lived-in huskiness that lent so much character to the original—but it’s an interesting and fun take on the tune that’s definitely worth a listen.
“When The World Falls Down” and “Trouble With Me” (the latter featuring Hynde) are slower, mid-tempo tunes where Ronson, rather than concentrating on heavy riffing or singing, is playing with notes, bending and twisting them and notching sharp little solos. The pleasure here is really in listening to what he does with the guitar rather than anything else about these songs—perhaps to be expected on a guitar player’s solo album.
As noted previously, “Life’s A River” is the one tune here that squarely addresses questions of mortality, and does so with all the vigor and character one could hope for. Over a raging guitar line, Ronson sings that it’s “Funny how we spend our days / Funny how we waste them all away / Most times it's all okay / Don't tell me that you've never been afraid.” It’s a major emotional release, simultaneously venting and celebrating the life he’s had. And it flows nicely into “You And Me,” a very pretty little classical guitar interlude that finds Ronson completely solo, playing both rhythm and lead.
The Big Riff returns for “Colour Me,” a little glammy, but full of muscle; the drive continues with “Take A Long Line,” a storming rocker featuring triple lead vocals by Ronson, Hunter and Elliott (you suspect maybe Ronson hadn’t finished the vocal tracks on that one and the other two stepped in—but however it came together, it’s a great track, with fat, raucous guitars). “Midnight Love” then offers a final interlude, a gentle instrumental piano ballad with Ronson again playing all instruments, before the very special treat that closes out this album.
Ronson’s last public gig came at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, where he led a rendition of “All The Young Dudes,” the Bowie song that Ziggy himself had offered to Mott The Hoople in 1972 as a much-needed lifeline, a tune that Ronson arranged for Mott and helped them turn into a hit. With Ronson on guitar, Hunter and Bowie on vocals, Bowie on sax, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor of Queen as the backing band, and Joe Elliott and Phil Collen from Def Leppard adding to the background vocal chorus, the tune is an all-star jam, but one that works magnificently. It surges and billows and feels just right for the event, capturing a bit of the scene that surrounded both Bowie and Queen over the years, and featuring a group of friends who all loved Freddie and who would soon lose Ronson as well, guys who had known each other and played together many, many times over the years. The sense of brotherhood and affection as they power through the verses and choruses is palpable, and as fitting an epitaph for Ronson as one could ever imagine.
Finishing up Heaven And Hull must have been emotionally difficult for Elliott and Hunter, but they got the job done, and the end result feels like every inch the album Ronson was aiming for—perhaps even more, since who knows if he would have been sentimental enough to include “All The Young Dudes” as the closer, had he been around to make that choice. Rest easy, Mick—you went out a winner.