Mark Ronson: “George Michael was one of pop’s all-time greats”

It was the great meeting of pop minds that never was. Pioneering producer Mark Ronson on how he came within touching distance of working with his hero George Michael

It’s been almost a year since George Michael’s shock death in the early hours of Christmas Day – an impossibly tragic end to the story of a star synonymous with the festive season. The singer had been a loyal friend to The Big Issue over the years, breaking a six-year media silence in an exclusive 1996 interview with us as a publication he trusted (below), and returning to speak to the magazine a few years later.

As Big Issue Editor-in-Chief John Bird said in our George Michael tribute edition in January: “He was a man who could understand what we are trying to do in our work among the homeless, the defeated and broken struggling to get back on their feet.”

Among the millions of fans who mourned him was fellow genius of pop Mark Ronson. The British-American musician and producer – the man behind massive hits Uptown Funk featuring Bruno Mars and Amy Winehouse’s album Back To Black – last year shared on social media that Michael had been a boyhood idol who shaped his taste in music. As it turns out, Ronson had been agonisingly close to working with his hero, a talent he rates among the all-time greats.

Ronson only ever spoke directly with Michael twice, both times by phone. On the first occasion he was on holiday in the Dominican Republic just after Christmas in 2007, at a time when his stock was running sky high following Back To Black’s enormous global success.

“It was all so surreal,” Ronson recalls. “I remember desperately trying to find a spot where there was cell phone reception. He said he had a couple of songs that he had left off of the Faith album that were ballads in the vein of One More Try and would I like to work on them. All the while I was in disbelief that I was actually on the phone with George Michael.

“He sent me one of the songs,” Ronson says. “It was flooring. It was as good as anything that was on the record ballad-wise. And I said, ‘Yeah I’d like to work on it.’”

He sent me one of the songs. It was flooring

For reasons he still can’t fathom it never came together. But years later, in 2016, Michael called again, this time to ask if Ronson might be interested in producing a revised version of an old B-side called Fantasy – a track which, roughly a year later, was to become Michael’s first posthumous single, as produced by Nile Rodgers.

“I thought the song was great but I was in the depths of trying to finish Lady Gaga’s album,” Ronson explains. “I do regret it. But I also think that Nile did a great job on it.”

The Big Issue 207 with a George Michael exclusive
The November '96 Big Issue with the George Michael exclusive

But instead of dwelling on what wasn’t, Ronson prefers to focus on the great wealth of material Michael did leave. This month, for instance, there’s a major reissue of his iconic second solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.

“That stereotypical troubled follow-up, the album that’s like ‘how do I  follow this giant pop phenomenon that I’ve unleashed?’” is how the producer describes a record he bought the day it came out in September 1990 – Ronson’s 15th birthday. As the follow-up to Faith – Michael’s 20 million-selling debut 1987 solo album – Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 sold a mere eight million copies, but is widely recognised as a classic.

George Michael in the documentary Freedom
George Michael in the documentary Freedom

Recently screened for the first time is a Channel 4 documentary which Michael had been working on in the months before his death. Freedom is all about his remarkable life and career and the troubled making of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Narrated by Michael, and featuring new personal footage and interviews with stars including Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Liam Gallagher, Tony Bennett, Mary J Blige and Ronson – all speaking when Michael was still alive – it’s a comforting chance to hear his talent exalted in the present tense.

That love for soul music was the running thread through everything he did

All good reasons then to celebrate rather than commemorate one of the true great pop stars of the late 20th century – a man Ronson puts up there with the likes of Michael Jackson and Prince in the ’80s pop icon stakes. “His genius was in a shorter burst,” says Ronson. “But the records that he made, the succession from the end of Wham! through to Faith and Listen Without Prejudice was certainly some of the really all-time great contributions to pop culture.”

He’s full of praise for Michael’s skills as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, composer, lyricist, producer and musical visionary. But more than anything, his genius comes down to one simple quality for Ronson: the boy had soul. “For me especially, that love for soul music was the running thread through everything he did,” he says.

Ronson says George Michael prepared him for an appreciation of artists like Stevie Wonder, such was his immersion in classic soul. “The first song from Listen Without Prejudice, Praying For Time,” he says, of a song still so evocative to Ronson that he can picture the yellow walls of his teenage bedroom when he hears it, “that was almost like a gateway to Stevie Wonder for me.

“A lot of the baroque chords that Stevie brought to light on Talking Book and all these classic albums, that was probably when I first heard them, on that George Michael album. His love and attention to detail and the musicianship and the arrangements of black music was incredible.”

The song Freedom ’90 (above), the second track on Listen Without Prejudice, Ronson describes as a “funk groove masterpiece” and “the Mona Lisa”. “When you can combine an incredible song with a flawless groove and wonderful music and vocal performances,” he elaborates, “that’s when you win the lottery, that’s when you’re making Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, that’s when you’re making Prince’s Kiss, that’s when you’re doing George Michael Freedom.”

“It’s one thing to just like a style of music and be able to copy it well, and it’s another thing to be effortlessly soulful in what you do,” Ronson sums up of George Michael’s blue-eyed soul genius. “That’s real talent and that’s something that you’re just kind of born with.”

George Michael: Freedom is available on All4