Ronson’s worries could be partly explained by a problem familiar to all producers. As Quincy Jones pointed out when I spoke to him recently, the role of the producer is hard for outsiders to understand—which may be one reason so many producers and artists have quarreled over authorship. Recalling his collaboration with Michael Jackson on 1979’s Off the Wall, Jones said, “Michael, he didn’t know what the hell I did, man. He didn’t understand the process of how I arranged and orchestrated things or had been trained.”
This summer, in an episode reminiscent of that dispute, Winehouse lambasted Ronson on Twitter over a comment he’d made on a BBC music show: “Ronson, you’re dead to me; one album I write and you take half the credit—make a career out of it? Don’t think so BRUV.”
The remark in question had actually been pretty vague: “Amy Winehouse would come to me with just a song on an acoustic guitar,” Ronson had said, “and you’d kind of dream up the rhythm arrangements and track around it, all sorts of things.”
In an earlier conversation, he’d been more specific. When Winehouse showed him a draft of “Rehab,” he told me, “all the chords were very blues-based, because that’s how she writes, and so I decided to make the verse a bit more jangly and Beatles-y by putting a little A-minor to C in there.” Most significantly, he’d hired the Dap-Kings, a Brooklyn band that employs antiquated equipment to re-create the sound of old soul and funk 45s—the sort of records that hip-hop beat-makers had been appropriating since rap’s South Bronx inception. By connecting Winehouse to that legacy, Ronson, the quintessential record nerd, invested the newcomer’s songs with a classic sound.
When Ronson entered the studio last year, he was looking for a way to establish himself as an artist in his own right. The jam sessions went on for months. “I didn’t know what I was trying to do,” Ronson remembers. “I was afraid to do anything really brash that brought attention to myself.” A moment of clarity came when a friend persuaded him to watch a clip of his performance at the Brit Awards from 2008. At the show, he wore a custom-made bright-blue suit and played a double-neck guitar, while Winehouse shimmied next to him in six-inch heels. This was not the performance of someone who was afraid of attracting attention to himself, and it occurred to Ronson that the music he’d recorded for the new album “was a little timid, like I was repressing the side of myself that wanted to go ‘gang gang gang gang gang!’ ” In a burst of self-confidence, Ronson recorded the album’s first single, “Bang Bang Bang,” a brash blast of summer pop.
“Bang Bang Bang” opens with a volley of synthesizer and snare hits and has a beat that slides back and forth between New Orleans and a mosh pit. Featuring performances by both Q-Tip and MNDR—a lovable oddball of a singer-songwriter who just last year was playing Brooklyn basement shows with single-digit attendance figures—it spans the gap between what Ronson calls “progressive shit” and commercial pop. In writing it, Ronson had help from several people, but he provided the initial seed of inspiration, a stuttering chord progression played on a vintage synthesizer. “The chords just wrote themselves,” he told me. “That never happens to me.”
This summer, Ronson played a series of London shows in anticipation of the album’s release. He was so anxious that he temporarily swore off getting drunk. To soothe his nerves, he’d sneak cigarettes between doses of Nicorette. Nothing seemed to help. When he wasn’t touting the album on TV or reminding band members to show up for practice on time, he was checking the iTunes website to see whether “Bang Bang Bang” had climbed from its good but not stellar No. 6 position in the U.K. charts (it hadn’t) or talking to label executives on one of his two cell phones. Once, in the back seat of a hired car, I caught him staring blankly at the screen of his iPhone. “I’d throw it out the window and smash it into a million pieces,” he said, “but my album is on it, and I’m afraid someone will listen to it and be prank-calling Busta Rhymes at the same time.”
Ronson’s first show, at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, was a disaster. The night before, he’d asked Winehouse to make a cameo, and although she’d agreed (this was before the Twitter incident), he only half-expected her to follow through. As it happened, she arrived at the club exactly on time, but instead of waiting for her turn to sing, she ambled onto the stage wearing a sleeveless black top cut so low her entire bra was showing.