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Mick Ronson: Hey Ma Get Papa

December 18, 2012

bowie ronson1

Everyone has their own favourite “surprise” Bowie song from beyond the trusted territory of the 1969-1980 albums. Mine doesn’t come from the unpromising expanse the wrong side of Scary Monsters, nor does it come from the sixties period before Space Oddity signaled the start of the seventies Bowie; as I’ve already noted, Bowie did loads of brilliant things in the sixties, so a gem from that period doesn’t seem too rare a discovery.

My own pet non-canonical Bowie song is Hey Ma Get Papa, written by Bowie and performed by Mick Ronson on Ronson’s confused post-Spiders album Slaughter on 10th Avenue. It’s easy to miss this song, since it’s tagged on the end of the fairly dire longer song Pleasure Man, by way of an extended guitar / studio effects transition. I can only find one version on Youtube with just Hey Ma Get Papa; happily, it’s paired with an image of a hammerhead shark.

Hey Ma Get Papa is one of three songs donated by Bowie to Slaughter on 10th Avenue, if you include Music is Lethal, a loose translation of a Lucio Battisti song. These songs apparently stem from Bowie’s infatuation with the streetwise, urban American style of the young Bruce Springsteen (Bowie went on to cover It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City), though of course the Boss’s earnest grit becomes something camper when tried on by the Dame: “Now I take pride in the way I behave, never see me stalking around,” goes Growing Up and I’m Fine, unintentionally funnily. The interest in juvenile delinquency was always present in the golden age of glam, as in Ziggy Stardust’s stolen guitars and Clockwork Orange references, or Mott the Hoople’s supreme teenage tough / queenly mincer duet, Violence. Ronson himself would have a bash at this type of song with Billy Porter, on his next album.

What happens to the tough / camp combination, beyond the break-up of the Spiders, at the effete end of glam, sung by the harder, Hull-ier cast-aside-kick Mick? Ronson sounds like he’s straining to sing it like Bowie or at least Ian Hunter, and I think this is what appeals to me about Hey Ma Get Papa, this weird tale about dubious characters called JJ Dean and Pigsty Paul and a sacrificial-symbolic stabbing in the side with a spike from a fence. There’s an almost comical absence of Humberside in Ronson’s voice. (There is usually something enjoyable about all-powerful guitarists made vulnerable as vocalists; I’ve always enjoyed Rowland S. Howard’s solo material for this same reason.)

The song’s not all Bowie, though. As a studio creation, the track grew from Ronson’s apparent interest in Todd Rundgren-like effects such as the lovely sweep of synthesizer that propels the intro to the song. There’s a highly lovable synth solo. Above all, though, what really nudges the song out of the post-Ziggy rut in which most of Slaughter on 10th… is the deranged background voices that infiltrate the song after the first chorus. These at first add to the same mixed glam/Berlin cabaret atmosphere as featured on Bowie’s Velvet Goldmine, but end up sounding like an out-take from Stockhausen’s Stimmung.


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