Friday, December 05, 2008

Panic in Detroit

No, I'm not talking about the Big 3 automakers asking for handouts in Washington.

I'm talking Bowie. 1973. Aladdin Sane.

And I'm talking Mick Ronson.

Was Ronson the most underrated guitarist of rock and roll?

Unnamed Corporate Music Magazine lists him at #40 on their 50 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, with "Panic in Detroit" as his "Most Representative Song."

All I know is that I have to be careful listening to this one on my iPod, because I start singing loudly and leaping into air guitar- no matter where I am.

Love Ronson at the end of the song...

"Panic in Detroit"

He looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a diesel van
Kept his gun in quiet seclusion, such a humble man
The only survivor of the National People's Gang

Panic in Detroit,
Asked for an autograph
Wanted to stay home,
I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
A trickle of strangers were all that were left alive

Panic in Detroit,
I asked for an autograph
He wanted to stay home,
I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit

Putting on some clothes, I made my way to school
And found my teacher crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favourite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights

Having scored a trillion dollars, made a run back home
Found him slumped across the table. A gun and me alone
I ran to the window. Looked for a plane or two

Panic in Detroit,
He'd left me an autograph
"Let me collect dust."
I wish someone would phone
Panic in Detroit
Panic in Detroit
Panic in Detroit


John Schertzer said...

Dig this tune, it's got a great groove, and Mick R is a very capable guitarist. But I have to scratch my head. This is a pretty easy riff, and not exactly earth-shatteringly strange. Kind of straight up.

But MR's done some interesting stuff, no doubt.

cowboyangel said...

I was wondering if they said that because of the ending. Personally, I think his best work may be on "Moonage Daydream."

But I was posting "Panic in Detroit" with or without him.

To me, Ronson has always been more about "the sound" rather than his actual chops. Hard to imagine Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo and many others without his guitar work on Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.

Liam said...

I think you nailed it in your comment -- once again, there are a billion classical & jazz & flamenco (etc.) guitarists with better chops than famous rock guitar players.

As far as unnamed corporate magazine goes, MR is definitely better than Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, IMHO.

cowboyangel said...

Hmm, interesting thesis that one in six human beings on the planet is actually a pretty good classical, jazz or flamenco guitarist. I'd like to see some hard numbers on that. It's not been my personal experience. But I haven't done any real research on it. Did you get that statistic from Wikipedia?

Immediately after posting my comment on the influence of the "Ronson sound," two words popped into my head: Velvet Underground. Or perhaps it should be: Lou Reed. Not the same exactly . . . but hard to imagine Ronson without Lou, no?

And, though I am, admittedly, in a very Kinky mood these days, I think there's at least a plausible argument that this particular (and important) guitar sound - heavy and fuzzy - really goes back to "You Really Got Me." Was anyone pre-1964 creating that kind of sound? Maybe Link Wray?

I think "sound" gets ignored too much when talking about great musicians. Perhaps because music has such a mathematical side, technical skills are regarded more highly?

Ellington wasn't the greatest jazz musician, but he knew how to combine various instruments into an uber-instrument - the orhcestra - and to get amazing and new sounds out of it.

And I think of Hayden Carruth's essay on the importance of "voice" in the work of Ben Webster, which doesn't get recognized enough by jazz musicians. That "voice" in music is just as important as in poetry.

Brian Eno also pops into my head. (Kind of an ugly image, no?) I don't know how good he is as a musician, though I know he refers to himself as a non-musician. But between his early albums and later production work, he was able to create a world of sound that was very, very influential. (For better or worse. If we need to take someone out back and beat them to death for New Age music, Eno would be a good candidate.)

I think contemporary composers and musicians recognize the importance of sound, sound-layers, etc. Maybe "sound" starts to bleed over into composing and arranging?

Which brings this back to Ronson, who was really a producer, arranger, composer AND guitarist helping create that early Bowie sound (as well as working on Transformer).

cowboyangel said...


If you spin by here... I'd love to get your thoughts on "sound" as part of musicianship - if that's even what I'm trying to get at.

Liam said...

Yes, one billion. Although it breaks down in a complicated manner -- I myself am a great classical, jazz, and flamenco guitarist, so I count as three. My cat counts as four, for technical statistical reasons that I don't have space here to explain.

I have heard somewhere that the kinks were the first group to use that sound, I have no idea if that's true. I think the Monks was one of the first groups to use feedback.

Yes, definitely Lou is responsible for Ronson and everyone else worth listening to.

John Schertzer said...

If you want to talk about sound or "voice" while speaking specifically abou Ronson's guitar playing, then I would say that "Space Oddity" does a better job at representing his range, though chops-wise there's very little there. That's really a place where he shines. But what I meant is that the sound of his playing on Panic is not something very hard to get, and is kind of run of the mill. Not that Page and Clapton are my favorite players, but I think they really leave him in the dust. Whole different class of musician. Now if you want to talk about a great player of their caliber, who played with Lou Reed, and I think Bowie as well, that would be Steve Hunter.

cowboyangel said...


My cat counts as four, for technical statistical reasons that I don't have space here to explain.

That might explain your cat's suicidal tendencies. I can only imagine the pressure for a cat to live up to such high expectations.

That also might explain why I keep hearing these amazing jazz runs at 3 am when I've spent the night at your place. I thought I was dreaming, or that there was some great jazz musician in your building. Now I know the cat was just woodshedding in the kitchen.

Speaking of The Monks, did you ever get that review of the movie about them that I sent? Have you seen that?

cowboyangel said...


Hunter is the one on Berlin, no? I remember reading about him on that album in a post(s) at Steve Caratzas' blog. I really don't know anything about him.

Interesting that Ronson's stuff isn't that difficult to play. And more interesting, then, that there didn't seem to be many others doing it before him. Do you know of earlier examples? I can't think of much before that has the cool edge of early Bowie - tied in with his whole sci-fi schtick. As I mentioned before, maybe the Velvets. And as Liam said, the Monks. Then, suddenly, you get the whole glam rock thing. It's that sound which seems to serve as the basis for part of punk and so much afterwards. It's always been a cooler sound to me than what might be called the Hendrix-Clapton-Page line. Were Bowie/Ronson less influenced by the blues? Kinks-Bowie-punk. I hear a line there. I assumed it was something to do with them being British, but then Clapton and Page were British as well.

And Neil Young figures in this discussion, too, I know. Mr. grunge god.

John Schertzer said...

I would say you're right in pointing toward Dave Davies as a Ronson influence, as well as George Harrison and possibly Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues.

A lot guitarists I know think Neil is just a bad guitarist, but I love him. His solo on "Words" (Harvest) is just about the best thing I've ever heard. Starts out sounding like a chimpanzee playing with the strings and just gets better.

cowboyangel said...

Harrison as an influence on Ronson? Could you elaborate? It's not something I can hear on the surface.

Part of this comes down to the old distinction between musicians and people who listen to music. I've always been fascinated by the differences of opinion between the two groups. It makes sense - if you try to play the music, you gain a much better appreciation for what's difficult, what's easy, etc. Whereas, someone like me just hears sound. I suppose I can tell the difference in a few obvious cases, but in general, I'm much more likely to gravitate towards Ronson's guitar work because it sounds different and cool and I can hear how it seems to show up in other groups later on. Same for Neil Young. I really have no idea how good they are as guitarists.

Which is why I'm so hesitant to write about music.

John Schertzer said...

I'm talking Harrison from Rubber Soul - Magical Mystery Tour, not the straight up stuff, but the weirder stuff.

Jeff Beck.

The thing about Ronson's playing that stands out for me is that I think, following Bowie's lead, he was trying to hone a cooler (as opposed to warm or hot) sound to compliment the science fictiony themes of the music they were doing in a theatrical way. They were going for post-human.

I just looked up Ronson on wikipedia and they mention Jeff Beck as an influence, lucky guess. That explains a lot. Strange thing, Beck played with the Yardbirds, which Claptan and Page also played with. At one time Page and Beck played in the band together.