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Jon Ronson
Nine Songs
Jon Ronson

The documentarian, author, filmmaker and one-time member of Frank Sidebottom’s band talks Olivia Swash through the tracks that have accompanied him through the creation of some of the 21st century’s most fascinating storytelling.

19 December 2022, 15:00 | Words by Olivia Swash

Jon Ronson possesses an earnest humility that belies his cult status. In spite of investigating extreme ideologies, fringe groups and culture wars throughout much of his career, it’s testament to his inherently reflective nature that he believes people should be “patient and curious instead of instantly judgmental.”

“Someone said recently that ‘Wet Leg is music for NPR dads who want to feel relevant,’” Jon Ronson tells me mournfully of one of his favourite new discoveries. But, as a consistent groundbreaker in profound human stories, Jon Ronson couldn’t come close to risking irrelevance.

Nearly a decade before the first UK attacks by Islamist suicide bombers - and 13 years before Chris Morris’ Four Lions - Ronson documented his year spent in North London with a fundamentalist jihadist in Tottenham Ayatollah. His film flew in the face of assertions by MI5 that terror plots by Islamic extremist networks were being “greatly exaggerated”.

Ronson was also amongst the first to pull focus to a rise in conspiracy theorists when he trailed the now-infamous far-right wingnut Alex Jones on a quest to infiltrate an elite members’ club - one that Jones speculated was an illuminati party of child sacrifice. “30 years later, they’re still pissed off with me!” Ronson divulges of Bohemian Grove.

Versions of Ronson have been portrayed by Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender in blockbusters The Men Who Stare at Goats and Frank respectively. The former is based on Ronson’s book of the same name, in which he uncovers the implausible-seeming covert experiments carried out by the U.S. military’s "psychic spy unit" and mind control research program. The latter film he co-wrote based on his time in the band of papier-mâché-headed humorist Frank Sidebottom. “I wasn't the right personality type to be in a band, and I'm definitely not a natural musician,” Ronson summarises of his experience. “If I had to play more than C, F and G, I don't think I'd have cut the mustard.”

“Two or three times a year, somebody comes up to me and says, ‘That film changed my life,’” he beams. It’s one of a few times during our extensive conversation where he humbly defines one of his professional achievements through a meaningful remark from the man on the street, rather than dropping industry plaudits or prominent endorsements. He continues, “It's become a film that some people have chosen as a sort of rule book for life. But when I was writing about the communal living of this band, I was thinking, ‘I can't think of anything worse, it's a nightmare!’”

Ronson grew up amongst “a very uncreative family,” his parents a wholesaler and a social worker, so his enthusiasm for music didn’t run in the blood. “My parents didn't play much music at all. My father was into things like Perry Como. I remember trying to bond with him once by playing him ‘Honey Pie’ by The Beatles, which is the gentlest, most Perry Como-ish song ever, it’s like some 1920s tea dance song, and he went, ‘Turn this noise off!’”

When he caught wind of the escapist batcall of punk via X-Ray Spex and The Damned from the confines of his suburban Cardiff bedroom, Ronson was emboldened to seek out music that spoke to him. “Spillers is, to this day, a revered independent record store in Cardiff. We were lucky to have that, so that's where I would go and look through records. I found The Beatles, Tom Waits and Lou Reed. But the TV wasn't giving us that stuff, it was giving us Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet and shit,” he recalls. “In a way, it was a good time to be a teenager because you had to look elsewhere for music. In economics it's called the principle of scarcity, where if you went to a record store and found a Captain Beefheart record, it was like finding a rare jewel.” He gives a memorable example of when a girl at his school got hold of Transformer by Lou Reed, which he recalls being like a “rare jewel in a sea of synth crap.”

Whether unpicking themes of deep societal fractures, examining everyday social anxieties, or attending a UFO conference with Robbie Williams, Ronson filters his stories through a lens of empathy - often with a warmly satirical wink to those who are attuned to his wavelength. It’s no surprise that he cites a track by the “dean of satire”, Randy Newman, as one of his most pivotal songs. “He taught me more than almost anyone about the kind of writer that I wanted to be,” says Ronson. “If Randy Newman can leave things that ambiguous, then so can I. If Randy Newman credits his listeners with that much intelligence, then so do I.”

Ronson once said he was initially drawn to Newman as they shared a “unique cocktail of personality flaws,” this being a “mixture of self-absorbed and defensive sarcasm, malevolence, social awkwardness and Jewish guilt.” It’s a notion that illustrates a considerable secondary purpose: that Ronson’s refreshing lack of ego makes for an astute and reliable guide in deconstructing the human condition.

Ronson’s Nine Songs picks are reflective of his perceptive nature and openness with his taste - initially sparked by his aspirational teen spirit, along with an adventurous aunt who found herself shipwrecked with opium smugglers. The process was illustrative of his passion and attention to detail: an initial 45 minute Zoom from his New York apartment stretched effortlessly into a two-hour chat, followed by a second meeting to switch out a last-minute choice that had been weighing on his mind ever since. Frank Sidebottom’s manager once told Ronson, “You’re not cut out for the music business. You're going to end up being some kind of writer or something." Well, cheers to that blessing in disguise.

“My Life is Good” by Randy Newman

BEST FIT: At the start of a documentary you made, you said, "Randy Newman is a genius, and in 30 minutes you'll agree with me". I kind of did, until this song fully convinced me. The lyrics! You can imagine exactly who this is.

“I'm so pleased you felt that way. I could go on about this song forever. I thought about it a lot when I was writing So You've Been Publicly Shamed. Justine Sacco’s joke, which was one of the key moments of that book, when she tweets “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDs. Just kidding. I'm white!” That reminds me so much of this song. With Randy Newman, you know he doesn't mean it, he's satirising this privilege. The problem with Justine was that no one knew her - there was no context. But humour-wise, I think she was trying to do the same thing as Randy Newman here, she just didn't do it with as much success.

“With the best satire, the satirist is satirising themselves. Alan Partridge and Steve Coogan aren't that different, and Steve would be the first to admit that. Randy Newman grew up in Hollywood privilege, so aspects of the character in this song are probably too close to home, which is part of the reason it's so good. I think it's one of his funniest songs - when Bruce Springsteen says to him, “Rand I'm tired, how would you like to be The Boss for a while?”

“Something I love about Randy Newman’s songs is the nuance and ambiguity. You read between the lines - you listen a few times before you realise what it’s actually about. I learned a lot about how much to put in and leave out from him. He's been like a guiding principle for me my whole career. There's a pact between the song and the audience: we know that the song is like a mystery to solve. They have this dark edge, like “Sail Away” is about a slave trader trying to entice African people to get on his ship so he can take them to America to be slaves. You wouldn't know that's what it’s about the first few times.

“Randy told me that a lot of his characters have an aggressive arrogance, which is obviously something this song’s character has. His kid's acting like a bully, and you can understand why - because his dad's such an asshole. I've met people like that. When I lived in Islington, my god, these sort of “won’t listen to a word teachers say because they're hedge-fund-people”.

“It's about Randy being an unreliable narrator. You know that he doesn't go to Mexico to pick someone up and exploit them, and he isn't going to act that way towards a teacher. But there's a danger in that he never winks to say “I don’t mean it.” In “Rednecks” he uses the N word, and a black kid told him, "I came to see you perform. I loved the show but then you sang ‘Rednecks’ and you used the N word." Randy reflected on it and said, “This kid's right.” So even for the king of leaving things unsaid, he’s realising when he has to move with the times a bit too. I don't know if he'd write “My Life is Good” today, because the culture is so different. You're not supposed to be that ambiguous.”

BEST FIT: On the same album, “Mikey's” is about racism and the concept of the golden age in older generations, and the wealth gap in “I Love L.A.”

“For the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, they chose “I Love L.A.” as one of the official songs. The audience was singing “I Love L.A. / We love it!" But when you listen to the lyrics: “Look at those mountains, look at those trees / Look at that bum over there, man, he's down on his knees.” It's about the downsides of L.A. too. I love that he names these streets, like Century Boulevard and 6th Street, for people to shout “We love it!” - and they’re just these completely unremarkable streets. He did that deliberately, and I think that's such genius.” [6th Street actually runs through Skid Row - Ed.]

“Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex

“I remember being ten or 11, and all at once there was just this sort of explosion. I remember hearing "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!" and "Shaved Women" by Crass, and Sex Pistols. It felt like this thing coming from London was blowing a hole in my house in Cardiff. The otherworldliness and the excitement, and the fact that it was so different from my life. It's like there was a world just beyond the horizon that was the world I wanted to live in. Incredible looking people who were dressing in really amazing ways and producing this sound, just 200 miles away in London, so it was achievable. It was giving hope about a life beyond what I'd known til that point.

“I remember my older brother and his friends being so excited about punk. My grandparents lived in London so every so often we'd go to London and I'd see punk happening. It was where I wanted to go and the world I wanted to live in. That's what X-Ray Spex evoked to me: that idea of a beacon saying, "Your life could be more exciting."

“I guess I feel the same way about Poly Styrene as I feel about Tom Waits. When I first heard "Underground" and Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits it was a similar thing: a beacon from another land that's not Cardiff, showing me that there were worlds beyond the world I was growing up in. That Tom Waits line - "There's a world going on underground."

BEST FIT: Poly Styrene broke so much ground and was not only one of the most influential women in punk, but maybe in music ever. What's your relationship with feminism?

“My whole life, most of my friends have been women, I've worked mostly with women, all my closest friends are women. I think I feel about alpha males the same way most women feel about alpha males: that they fill up the room in an annoying way. Feminism has always just been a given to me, you know, of course - it's ridiculous to not feel that there should be gender equality.”

“Stoned at the Nail Salon” by Lorde

“I first got to know Lorde's music only about three weeks ago, but I've included her because I'm in that first flush of love. It makes me think that falling in love with a song is kind of like falling in love with a person, right? You catch them in a certain light, and you think, “Oh my God.” That happened to me with "Stoned at the Nail Salon" when I watched her do it at Glastonbury. And since then, I've gone down some rabbit holes. I know people don't really love her new album, but I do. After a while of listening to that over and over, I started to go to her earlier albums and discovered “Homemade Dynamite” and “Green Light”.

“Lorde seems very sure of herself. She's almost like a leader and people follow her. There's something about her positioning herself as this sort of otherworldly popstar - it just works. It's kind of odd because I don't have that confidence in myself so it's not something I could connect to. Wet Leg, for example, are clearly oozing social anxiety - I identify with them as people much more. There's definitely a place for super self-confident otherworldly people in music, and that's what Lorde has, I think.

BEST FIT: On this track, Lorde claims that all of the music you loved at 16, you'll grow out of. Do you agree?

“I don't, I think she's being too cynical in that line. Most of the music I liked at 16 I still really love. I was saying to my son recently that all the music I loved at ten I still love, and the stuff I thought wasn't good at ten, I still don't think is very good. When I was watching Top of The Pops at 12, I think my critical skills were pretty honed. I have real clear memories of when punk hit, and suddenly Top of The Pops had punk bands on. I think I felt the same way about those songs as I do now. Like, The Damned were great but Sham '69 weren't quite as good.

"Guided By Angels" by Amyl and the Sniffers

“They were playing a couple of months ago in New York, but doors were at 8pm and there were two support bands. I thought, “Not a fucking chance! What am I, 20?! They might not be on until 10pm!” I found out about them from watching Glastonbury on the TV. It took me a minute to realise they were Australian, and that really interested me. And they’re working-class - her mother is a cleaner. I know there are other Australian punk bands, like The Chats, but I've never really got into them, so it was like discovering an entirely new genre that just seems so appropriate. It’s like British punk, but filtered through Australian culture - it just felt so right. It makes complete sense, and I love that they've got the mullets that are only acceptable in Australia!

“She (vocalist Amy Taylor) is just brilliant. I recently saw their KEXP session, and it's incredible. She's just mesmerising, and she's so like the real thing. It's genius. The way she screams at the end! Because they’re so prolific right now, I've been watching as their new stuff comes out and you can see that they’re getting better and tighter.

“They're just the most authentic and best punk band in decades. They do it in a completely new and fresh way. Can you think of a better front person since punk? Since Johnny Rotten and Debbie Harry and stuff. I was also watching IDLES' Tiny Desk concert recently - that's authentic, it's incredible. If somebody reads this and goes and watches that, then that will have been an achievement.”

“Rock and Roll Suicide” by David Bowie

“My Auntie Mavis had an incredible life. She died when she was in her 40s, but she was a photographer. She went round the world, photographed the Dalai Lama, got involved with opium smugglers and got shipwrecked. She came back to London and wrote a book about her trip called We Never Meant to Go So Far. By the time I was born, she was back in London doing rock photographs, but she would send music to Cardiff. When I was three or four she sent me a cassette of Life On Mars, so that's how I first heard of Bowie.

“I've got such a memory of me and my friend Dick Johns aged about 14, walking down the road and singing "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" at the top of our voices: "Oh no love, you're not alone!" Sharon Horgan once said she felt like Bowie was singing that line straight to her, but I don't feel that, I feel he's singing it to someone else. But there's something about just yelling it out at the top of our voices in Cardiff. Again, it was trying to find things that weren't my childhood - things to aspire towards, and that was Bowie.

“Everything about him, the way he looked… It's funny, I'm not really interested in aesthetics, but I was really interested in the way Bowie looked. He just looked so incredible. There’s a book called Starlust by Fred Vermorel which was a pornographic book about people’s sexual fantasies about musicians, but they were mostly about Bowie. There was something about him - unlocking all this stuff inside of people.

“I never identified with Bowie, I don't think he's someone you identify with. He's somebody you put on a pedestal at a distance and idolise. But in interviews he was all so normal and sort of blokey, which is slightly at odds with the Bowie we want, which is this otherworldly god.”

“Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen

“All my early music - Tom Waits, X-Ray Spex and Bowie - was all about, "When I get old enough I'm gonna get out of Cardiff and start to have adventures." This Leonard Cohen song reminds me of when I did start to have adventures. One of the first things I did was go to New York, to the Chelsea Hotel. I asked them if I could see the room where Leonard Cohen had sex with Janis Joplin, and they took me up. Arthur C. Clarke would talk about how he was inspired to write 2001: A Space Odyssey because of the alieny, martiany people you would meet in the elevator at the Chelsea Hotel, and then there was this Leonard Cohen song about it. So it really evokes me first going to New York and having adventures and going to odd places and meeting odd people. I stayed in the Chelsea Hotel a few times, all because of that song.

“There's a line in the song that almost always makes me tear up, which is that line when Janis Joplin says, “Clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty / You fixed yourself, you said ‘Well never mind, we are ugly but we have the music.’" It’s something about that last line, “We are ugly but we have the music.” It’s like, "Fuck 'em, they can't take that away from us."

BEST FIT: He later said, "She wasn’t looking for me, she was looking for Kris Kristofferson; I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot. But we fell into each other’s arms through some process of elimination.”

“Yeah it's a little bit of a humble brag cos they both were good looking. For that line in the song to work better, they should've been a bit uglier! There’s also that line at the end of the song that just knocks you for six, when he’s sung this beautiful love story - then at the end he says, "And I don't think of you that often." It's like, it's not even something that's in his mind very much.”

“Drivin’ on 9” by The Breeders

“My wife said that when she first knew me, I talked about Kim Deal all the time. Kim Deal was like my hero in the ‘90s. She was such an important part of my life for like ten years. I was living in squats and it was pretty grim with all the grunge music. I really enjoyed that part of my life, but it was all like The Fall and Wire, and in the middle of all those people was this really smiley person who was a brilliant musician but also brought warmth. You can hear the smile in her voice when she sings, and “Drivin’ on 9” is generally quite a sweet song about driving and freedom.

“There's something so lovable about Kim Deal, particularly at that time when everything was about anguish. I remember squatting in Highbury one time - there were rats and some guy came in off the street and everyone was too scared to ask him to leave. If you got involved in the squatters network, you could be living for free - some people were squatting in the Libyan embassy! The down side was you had to move on every three months, and quite often the places were decrepit. I had this mental image of Kim Deal like in The Wizard of Oz when the good witch comes down in the glowing light. I feel the same way about Jonathan Richman actually, they were like the good witch: warmth and sunlight.”

“Cool for Cats” by Squeeze

“The first time I ever bought records was at Spillers in Cardiff. "Cool For Cats" by Squeeze was the first record I ever bought, on pink vinyl, and "Into The Valley" by The Skids. And that's what I was talking about, how Lorde is wrong when she says the music you loved at 16 you'll grow out of. Frankly, at that age, I knew that "Cool For Cats" was a great song and I knew that "Into The Valley" was a pretty bad song, and 40 years later I still feel exactly the same way.

“I think I was between ten and 12 when this song came out. I remember it so clearly, it was partly to do with the pink vinyl, but it was very much also to do with the song. To this day I love "Cool For Cats" as much as I did back then. I bought it for my son on pink vinyl when he was about ten. He's very musical - he makes beats and scores podcasts and stuff. His taste is a lot more eclectic than mine, but there's a lot of things that we both like. He introduced me to a lot of people, like I first heard of Stormzy through Joel - he played me “Shut Up”. He introduced me to A$AP Rocky and all of that crowd. He's agreed to go with me to see Bruce Springsteen, but I've got a feeling he's going to be dreading it!”

“Madame George” by Van Morrison

“I didn't know much Van Morrison, then on Bruce Springsteen's Desert Island Discs he chose “Madame George” and it was just like falling in love. It just clicked. The funny thing is, because I was completely new to him, I was like, "Do people know about Astral Weeks?!" I was in such a bubble! Not long ago I was in Dublin with Dolly Alderton, and she started doing impressions of Van Morrison singing “Caravan” on The Last Waltz, and I was like, "God, other people know these songs!" I felt like I'd just discovered this new artist who’s just brought out this new album called Astral Weeks, and no one else has heard it!

“I went down a three or four month rabbit hole when I did a speaking tour of Britain and I rented a car. The whole time I listened to nothing but Van Morrison - the early stuff. I haven't yet delved into his "take your mask off! Don't get vaxxed!" stuff yet. Driving in my car from Birmingham to Bristol, it was profound. I was thinking, “This is unbelievable, this is one song of genius after another.” It's one of the greatest musical discoveries of my life, learning about those Van Morrison albums. It's funny, I never thought I'd say that, because I never really had much interest in him. But my god, I can completely see why he's pissed off that Springsteen stole so much of his act.

BEST FIT: Your Randy Newman pick really roots you in the now through his sceptical lyrics, whereas this one’s almost the opposite - Van Morrison described it as “a spiritual feeling” and “a stream of consciousness.” He even said the lyrics don't really mean anything.

“I feel very much like Van Morrison is leading me to a place I don't understand, and I'm very happy to go along for the ride with him. I've never been consciously interested in being spiritually moved. I don't really listen to gospel or soul much, so I don't tend to listen to people with really good voices. I've only been listening to nerdy people with bad voices: Randy Newman and Jonathan Richman, or cerebral people like Paul Simon and Fiona Apple. Suddenly I discovered not only this person, but this whole way of singing! Of trying to get you to some kind of spiritual place. Most of the people that I really like aren't trying to take you to an altered state of consciousness, and that's almost what it feels Van Morrison is trying to do. It's totally new to me, and I love it. Finally I love someone who doesn't sound like the sort of dweeb that I would hang out with in lower sixth!

“My wife can't believe that I'm suddenly listening to things like Van Morrison. She's really into soul and disco - good-time stuff. I like feel-bad music, not feel-good music! Or maybe feel-ambivalent. She tells me, "There are so many black artists you should be listening to!" - I agree. There's not only the Van Morrison rabbit hole but also everything he’s into - like Jackie Wilson and Jelly Roll Morton. I think it's going to be a doorway into new genres for me.”

Jon Ronson’s podcasts So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Things Fell Apart are available on BBC Sounds, and The Last Days of August is on Apple Podcasts.
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