The creative partnership of David Bowie and Mick Ronson, which in four years had produced The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Transformer, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane (Pin Ups is a footnote), withered and died in the last months of 1973.
The “Starman” performance on Top of the Pops that had made Bowie a UK pop star had also spotlit Ronson, who was regarded as Bowie’s rock & roll straight man (in various senses). Ronson’s reputation grew during the ’72 and ’73 tours: he was doing 10-minute guitar solos while Bowie went off to change costumes, and was getting as nearly as much fan mail as Bowie. Stories circulated that most of Bowie’s records were Ronson’s doing, with Bowie sometimes depicted as the studio creation of Ronson and producer Ken Scott. (Bowie arguably recorded much of Diamond Dogs alone in part to kill these rumors.)
Also, Bowie’s manager Tony Defries started grooming Ronson as a solo act, in part as insurance against Bowie becoming a commercial has-been (Marc Bolan’s singles were barely cracking the top 40 by late ’73). If glam had reached its sell-by date, Defries’ MainMan would have a rock guitar god ready for the shops. “They told me I could be the next David Cassidy,” Ronson later said. MainMan would have Ronson’s face plastered on billboards in LA and Times Square.
Finally, Bowie felt he needed to clean house, and acted swiftly and brutally. He had already dropped Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder, was about to end his relationship with Ken Scott, and was considering leaving his wife; he moved out of his longtime home Haddon Hall and, in March 1974, left England for good. So Ronson, despite his past and his potential (you can imagine Ronson on Station to Station or Low), was consigned to Bowie’s discarded life.
Ronson began recording his solo record, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, in August 1973. It’s unclear whether Defries prodded Bowie to provide some new material for it, or whether Bowie volunteered some songs (Bowie did suggest that Ronson cover Richard Rodgers, which became the title track). Relations between the two hadn’t deteriorated yet. That said, where Bowie, in a more fruitful era, was content to give away “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “All the Young Dudes,” his Ronson contributions were a cut below his regular work.
“Music is Lethal” is Bowie’s return to translation (see “Pancho” or “Even a Fool Learns to Love”), providing English lyrics for Lucio Battisti’s 1972 “Io vorrei…non vorrei…ma se vuoi.” Bowie combined Jacques Brel’s waterfront with his own developing Hunger City, with Ronson wandering through a cityscape full of “mulatto hookers/cocaine bookers, troubled husbands.” (A shame Bowie and Ronson didn’t choose to cover Battisti’s “Ma é un canto Brasilero,” instead.)
“Hey Ma, Get Papa” is mainly Bowie’s words fitted to Ronson’s music, with Ronson seemingly inventing Queen in the process. The best of the lot was Bowie’s only sole composition on the record, “Growing Up and I’m Fine,” which in retrospect seems like Bowie’s farewell note and blessing to a man who was once, to quote Charlie Parker on Dizzy Gillespie, his worthy constituent.
Top: Mick Rock, “David Bowie and Mick Ronson, lunch on train, 1973.”