Mark Ronson: Born entertainer

He's the best-connected man in music. But now Mark Ronson is getting known for what he does as well as who he knows. Is he the real deal?

Tim Walker@timwalker
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:52

You know that song that seems to be repeated so often on the radio? It begins with a Motown bass-line and the shake of a Supremes tambourine. Then in comes brassy vocals by, perhaps, a diva from the days of northern soul. Except that she sounds like ... no, hang on, it is Amy Winehouse. And no, it's not a golden oldies station you've chanced upon. In fact, by the time Winehouse reaches the chorus, you may recall the indie-rock original by a group called the Zutons. "Valerie" is a musical contortion, and it has Mark Ronson's fingerprints all over it.

Ronson has made a career out of hybrids like this mash-up of Sixties soul music and contemporary rock. Himself an Anglo-American mongrel, as at home in London's Brick Lane as New York's Bowery, Ronson was once a celebrity DJ and the go-to person for Manhattan's most fashionable parties. Now, thanks to Version, his recent collection of covers, he is a producer for well-known rock singers, the man responsible for the best bits of Winehouse and Lily Allen's bestselling albums. Ronson is the first remixer given access to Bob Dylan's master tapes. The result is a lively rendering of Dylan's "Most Likely You'll Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)". On Wednesday, Ronson helped headline the first night of the BBC Electric Proms, accompanied by the 52-piece BBC Concert Orchestra. You might say he's never had it so good. But then, it's not been a tough life.

Ronson was born in London in 1975. His uncle Gerald ruled Heron, the family's business empire, and earned himself six months in jail for his part in the Guinness shares scandal in 1986. His father, Laurence, took a different tack, managing pop acts such as the Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz. His mother, the socialite Ann Dexter-Jones, comes from the family that founded Odeon cinemas, which also makes Ronson a distant relative of the Conservative grandee Malcolm Rifkind. When his parents divorced, Mark went to live in New York with his mother and her new husband, Mick Jones, of the Seventies band Foreigner. There, from the age of eight, Ronson mingled with successful rock musicians.

Apocryphal tales of the Jones-Ronson family life include Bruce Springsteen raiding the fridge (false), Robin Williams tucking young Mark in at night (true), and Paul McCartney rescuing him from a watery grave (also true). Ronson's best friend since childhood is Sean Lennon, who joined him on stage for a couple of songs at his Electric Prom. When he ran away from home as a boy, it was to Sean and his mother Yoko's apartment in the Dakota building. The pair once enjoyed an (innocent) sleepover with Lennon's friend Michael Jackson. Ronson's sisters, twins Charlotte and Samantha, are a fashion designer and musician respectively, with contact books of their own.

With such connections, Ronson naturally gravitated towards the popular music world. Yet reports of his overnight success have been exaggerated in Britain. Almost a decade elapsed between the time he was being praised as fashionable Manhattan society's favourite DJ and the release of Version. He is now 32, and he spent most of his twenties merely on the edge of fame.

As long ago as secondary school, he played guitar in a band, the Whole Earth Mamas, and signed his first, abortive, recording contract with Polygram. When he left university to be a DJ, Ronson's work attracted the attention of the rap singer Jay-Z, among others, and he progressed from working at New York's roughest hip-hop venues to running well-attended nights for the fashion set. He was a part-time model for the Tommy Hilfiger clothing brand. The singer Jennifer Lopez hired him as the DJ for the 29th birthday party thrown by the rapper Sean Combs in 1998.

He had inherited mixed musical tastes from his father, a fan of rap as much as pop, and his success as a DJ stemmed in part from his confident mixing of styles, combining the Strokes with hip-hop sounds, for example. But he made his own success. A New York radio DJ called Funkmaster Flex said: "Anyone who criticises him for being cute and from a famous family is just a player-hater. It doesn't matter who his family is – he knows how to rock a party." At the wedding of the actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Ronson played a remixed version of the theme tune from Cruise's most lucrative success Top Gun followed by "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling". It went down well.

But Ronson became uncomfortable being a celebrity DJ. He wanted to avoid suggestions that he was little more than the sum of his social connections. As a result, he took to the studio. In 2001, he produced an album for the Los Angeles singer Nikka Costa, which promised a lot and delivered little; commercially, it failed. The same might be said of Ronson's own debut, called "Here Comes The Fuzz", which underperformed despite a warm critical reception. It did, however, establish his preference for live playing over processed sounds.

It was only when he returned to Britain that Ronson broke through. Neither he nor the general public knew of Lily Allen when she handed him a CD of her songs at a Notting Hill nightclub, but when he finally listened to it he immediately invited her to New York to cut a record. He suggested Amy Winehouse write "Rehab" after hearing that her manager had demanded she join a recovery programme, then produced half of her album Back to Black to much acclaim. Robbie Williams, another Americanised Briton, hired him for Rudebox. And when Ronson put together a beats-and-brass cover of Radiohead's "Just" for a tribute album in 2006, it gave him the idea for Version.

Like Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, who is a son of the founder of the Elite model agency, or Spike Jonze, the son of a company owner, Ronson has left behind the stereotype of the Manhattan rich kid and turned his teenage tinkering into creative talent. The success of Version may be linked to his celebrity-full address book, but neither Winehouse nor Allen were so in demand until Ronson handled their songs. Few of their fellow collaborators are household names, and Ronson himself professes a preference for working with friends and unknowns. At the Roundhouse venue in Camden, north London, on Wednesday, his guests included Adele, a little-known London soul singer, who sang "Cold Shoulder" from her next album. Ronson was behind the mixing desk when she recorded it.

On stage, he defers to the technical know-how of his guests and his band, despite competently playing a guitar, with an occasional trip to the xylophone. He's also a proficient drummer – The Who's Keith Moon recommended his mother buy him a kit when he was in nappies.

Mark Ellen, editor of The Word magazine, saw Ronson and his band play this week, and likes them. "The sound they produce is extraordinary. He's using the basic funk and soul patterns that James Brown invented, yet it's a very constrained, very taut, rather clinical version, a white intellectual interpretation of the same thing ... Seeing him play made me think differently about songs that I'd heard before and not particularly liked. To see them in that format, with that line-up, was refreshing."

If half of the stories of his childhood are true, they go some way to explaining Ronson's casual attitude towards pop and rock standards. He has had death threats from fans of Morrissey for producing a mischievous cover of a popular Smiths track. He also turned it into a chart success. "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before" proved to be a showcase not only for him, but also for the Australian singer Daniel Merriweather. Merriweather's first album is being guided by Ronson and released on his own label, Allido.

A few argue that Ronson's approach is insolence dressed up as reverence, but it's more likely the reverse. On Version, Robbie Williams covers The Charlatans' "The Only One I Know". At the Electric Prom, Ronson was joined on stage by the song's originator, Tim Burgess, and recounted the story of sneaking out as a boy to see the Charlatans play, telling his mother he was working as a rock critic for his secondary-school newspaper. The songs he covers are dear to him, but a healthy disrespect for tradition leaves him unafraid to take them in unexpected directions.

Not everyone buys Ronson's mannerisms. He once had a row with the actress Charlize Theron after he refused to play her favourite dancehall reggae at a party. Geoff Barrow of the group Portishead said that "Version's signature sound" was "shit-funky supermarket muzak". Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys had nothing but disdain for "that fucking R&B cover of the Smiths". But there is a response to such criticism: former Smiths members Morrissey and Johnny Marr are converts. Like everything else – the looks, cash, connections and tunes – Mark Ronson has it covered.

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