I was chatting with fellow blogger Cincinnati Babyhead when Ian Hunter’s name came up, I think not for the first time. That led me to listening to some of Hunter’s stuff then Mott’s stuff, etc. And so I said to myself – “post.”
If you look at a map of England, Herefordshire is way over to the west, just on the border with Wales. It is largely agricultural and has two “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.” It has also managed to produce a few rockers notably Mike Oldfield, Albert Lee, James Honeyman-Scott, Pete Farndon, Martin Chambers (all Pretenders), and of course, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 🙂
Oh yeah, and Mick Ralphs. Ralphs had been playing guitar in various local bands since 1964. According to his bio, “Mick was something of a late-comer to music, learning guitar when he was eighteen years of age. His musical influences included Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson (‘mainly for the guitar playing of James Burton’), Buffalo Springfield and Mountain guitarist Leslie West.”
Some of the guys who would become Mott the Hoople came together in 1966 as the Doc Thomas group, later changing their name to the ironic Silence. Silence had all the members of what would become Mott minus Ian Hunter.
Enter Guy Stevens.* Stevens was one of those pivotal behind-the-scenes figures in British music. He used to run an R&B night in a Soho club in the early ’60’s that attracted the London-based rock and blues bands. He also wrote for the now-defunct Record Mirror, a sort of NME wannabe.
Stevens ultimately landed a job with Island records. Silence auditioned for Stevens who liked everybody but the singer. An ad was placed for a singer who must be “image-minded and hungry” and they found Ian Hunter. Stevens named the band after a novel that, if you’re so inclined, you can still buy off of Amazon.
Mott released their first album Mott the Hoople in late 1969. It’s got some good stuff but it didn’t really hit with a great impact, at least not here in the States. Some of the tunes meet Stevens’ odd dictum to “create an album that would suggest Bob Dylan singing with the Rolling Stones.”
The best songs on the album for my money are their instrumental version of “You Really Got Me” and a Ralphs tune, “Rock and Roll Queen.” (Hunter noted later that the Stones’ song “Bitch” sounded suspiciously like this song’s intro.)
About a year later the band came out with an album called Mad Shadows. in going back to listen to it now it just seems like these guys hadn’t yet figured out their identity. Hunter wrote most of the tunes and while they’re performed competently enough there’s really nothing that sets this band apart at this point.
Of the album, AllMusic said, “If Mott the Hoople’s debut album cheerfully careened all over the place, their second, Mad Shadows, has one direction — downward into dense murk. Cutting out most of their humor and ratcheting up the volume, the group turns out seven songs that alternate between thundering rockers and sludgy introspection.” Ouch.
They released a couple more albums, slowly building up a following but getting no real love from the masses. But their 1971 album Brain Capers produced a Hunter/Ralphs song called “The Moon Upstairs” that captures more of the essence of Mott:
And at this point according to Wikipedia, “the group decided to split following a depressing concert in a disused gas holder in Switzerland.” Yes, yes, even Spinal Tap never played in a disused gas holder.
But then fate intervened in the form of one of their biggest fans, a bloke named David Bowie who at that point, had not yet released Ziggy Stardust. He did not want them to break up and offered them “Suffragette City” which they turned down. Are you fucking kidding me?
So Bowie sat down – supposedly in front of Hunter – and wrote “All The Young Dudes.” According to Bowie, in the song, the boys are carrying the same news that the newscaster was carrying in the song “Five Years” from Ziggy Stardust, the news being the fact that the Earth had only five years left to live. Bowie explains: “‘All the Young Dudes’ is a song about this news. It’s no hymn to the youth, as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”
It’s not too much to say that “Dudes” saved Mott. A worldwide hit – and seen as somewhat of a glam anthem – Rolling Stone lists it as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock. We all went out and bought the Bowie-produced album of the same name which, interestingly, has the first version of “Ready for Love,” a song that Ralphs would take with him to Bad Company. (He met Paul Rodgers when the latter was touring with another band.)
Mott were on the map and by 1972 were a well-established unit with a reputation as a great live band. (And one that, for some reason, I never saw.) In 1973, the band came out with an album called Mott which produced a cool song called “All The Way From Memphis” about the weariness of life on the road.**
Mott was the last album they did with Mick Ralphs who left to form Bad Company. Given that the guys have occasionally reunited over the years, the split seems amicable. Ralphs’ web site says, “Various public explanations were given for Ralphs’ departure including lack of recognition and his fear of flying, but Mick admits he really left Mott The Hoople because fundamentally he felt the group had changed.
‘We’d struggled all these years to have a hit and Ian was on a roll writing hit singles, but I’d started writing songs and didn’t think they would fit in the vehicle known as Mott The Hoople. Also, as much as we were having success, the success was because we were writing songs like ‘Honaloochie Boogie’ and we’d lost a bit of the wildness.’
Mott toured and became good friends with the guys from Queen often playing together and name-checking each other. Mott had another hit called “Roll Away the Stone” with Ralphs on guitar. Ralphs was replaced with a guy with the pseudonym of Ariel Bender and then by Mick Ronson.
But the heyday was pretty much over. Ronson and Hunter split to form a duet. The band put out a few more albums but by 1976 it was all over but the shouting.
The band reunited a few times most notably in 2009. They were supposed to have done a brief tour this year but I can’t tell if that actually ever happened. Ian Hunter actually appeared here at City Winery a few months ago. Sadly, Mick Ralphs has had a stroke and is unable to play. The only other surviving member of the band is keyboardist Verden Allen.
- Ian Hunter – lead vocals, piano, rhythm guitar
- Mick Ralphs – lead guitar, backing and lead vocals
- Verden Allen – organ, backing vocals
- Pete “Overend” Watts – bass, backing vocals
- Dale “Buffin” Griffin – drums, backing vocals
Sources: Wikipedia; Mick Ralphs web site; documentary The Ballad of Mott the Hoople.
*Stevens was also Procol Harum’s original manager and co-produced the Clash’s London Calling. He died on 28 August 1981, at the age of 38, having overdosed on the prescription drugs he was taking to reduce his alcohol dependency
**Ian Hunter wrote an autobio of life on the road called Diary of a Rock ‘n Roll Star. This was written during their 1972 tour and was published in 1974. I have not read it but it sounds less like the sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll thing and more like the drudgery of getting your laundry done.