MOTT THE HOOPLE – ” Mott The Hoople “

Posted: February 4, 2018 in MUSIC
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reDiscover ‘Mott The Hoople’

The 1970s heyday of Mott The Hoople is well remembered and reported, and has been in the forefront of their fans’ memories following the sad death of  drummer Dale “Buff” Griffin. Less often recalled are the early albums the band made on the Island Records label, before their departure to CBS, their 1969, self-titled debut LP. Remembered primarily as early 70s rockers that struggled for commercial success until they were saved by David Bowie, who donated to them their most iconic song and convinced them that they could be pop stars if they wanted it enough, the story of Mott the Hoople is considerably more subtle and complex than most realise.

Mott’s geographical origins in Hereford, just 15 miles from the English border with Wales, may have been something of a disadvantage given that the West Country music scene of the mid-1960s was rather less obviously prosperous than those in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

The band came together from the ranks of local outfits the Anchors (Griffin and Peter ‘Overend’ Watts), the Buddies (Mick Ralphs and original vocalist Stan Tippins) and the Inmates (Terence Verden Allen). They coalesced in the Doc Thomas Group, who worked the local clubs in 1966 and ’67 but found more success in Milan, where they even recorded an album for a small label.

Back in the UK, they headed for London and famously auditioned, unsuccessfully, for  The Beatles new Apple label. Then they became the Silence, opened for the still-obscure reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. But some good did come of it, because the Silence were noticed by Guy Stevens, a DJ, A&R man and a flamboyant mover and shaker who was instrumental in the formation of the Island label.

“I was doing eight months for possession of drugs,” Stevens later recalled, “and I read this book called Mott The Hoople by Willard Manus. I wrote to my wife and said ‘Keep the title a secret.’ She wrote back: ‘Are you joking? ‘Mott The Hoople.” That’s ridiculous.”

It may have sounded so, but when he regained his freedom, Stevens managed to persuade the members of the Silence that this would be their new name Although Steven’s signed Silence he had two ultimatums, a change of name for the band, and a change of lead singer in favour of someone with more stage presence. for frontman Tippins, who decamped to Italy to make the best of the band’s popularity there. He returned in the increasingly celebrated and long-lasting role of the later band’s road manager. With extensive auditions. Enter 29 year old Ian Hunter, a veritable veteran of the music scene who’d had a similar lack of luck over the years. He had an odd voice and was perhaps was not what they were looking for visually, but he could write songs and had that undefinable something about him that everyone that they had auditioned before just hadn’t. Stevens signed him up to Mott The Hoople and booked two weeks of studio time in which to produce what became their debut album.

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Released in November 1969 on Island in the UK and Atlantic in the US, it was preceded by the single ‘Rock and Roll Queen.’ Stevens sent Mott back to Italy for their first gig under their new name, then they returned for support dates on a UK college tour by the rising King Crimson.

Mott The Hoople showcased the group’s robust, Rolling Stones-influenced rock sound in which Hunter’s Dylanesque vocals and narratives came to the fore, on his own ‘Backsliding Fearlessly,’ songs by Ralphs and some notable covers. The album opened with an instrumental version of the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and also sported a remake of ‘Laugh At Me,’ the solitary 1965 solo hit by Sonny Bono of Sonny & Cher.

Mott enhanced their reputation with tireless work on the UK live circuit, in venues such as the Roundhouse, the Marquee and local clubs such as the Greyhound in Croydon and Friars in Aylesbury. An extremely modest breakthough was reached when the album spent one week on the chart at No. 66, six months after release, in May 1970.

Far greater recognition would eventually arrive, but Ian Hunter  remembered these as halcyon days. “The buzz was in the air,” he later said. “We were green as grass, not too good, but enthusiastic. It was fun, nothing to lose.”

Hunter was not the only great songwriter that Mott the Hoople had in their ranks. Prior to the Bowie produced “All the Young Dudes” album, guitar player Mick Ralphs was at least co-leader of the band, a capable songwriter in his own right and one of those guitar heroes who stood apart from the rest. Several of the band’s most enduring early rockers were written by Ralphs, with the most impressive being early live favourite “Rock and Roll Queen” from their self-titled debut, and “Thunderbuck Ram” from the band’s dark and moody second album Mad Shadows.

Following the relative failure of Mad Shadows to build on Mott the Hoople’s modest success and a difficult time for Hunter, Ralphs temporarily steered Mott the Hoople away from the influence of Guy Stevens and towards a sound more rooted in country rock for their third album, Wildlife. Despite the evolution of the band’s sound, Wildlife was only just slightly more successful than the band’s first two albums and the standout track was arguably Hunter’s devastatingly emotional “Waterlow”. The failure of Wildlife must have been something of a blow to Ralphs, and follow up album Brain Capers returned Mott the Hoople to the guidance of Guy Stevens and had much more of a collaborative sound and as such returned Hunter once more to the forefront of the band. It still didn’t sell well though.

Thus was Mott the Hoople formed. Over the next five years they would record four studio albums for Island, three for CBS, as well as a live album. They became one of the UK’s most in demand live acts, boasted a dedicated fan base, but for the first few years, that didn’t translate into record sales until the band effectively broke up and bass player Peter ‘Overend’ Watts made a fateful phone call to a rising star known as David Bowie

Joining Mott the Hoople in 1969 in his late 20s was something of a last chance for Ian Hunter to make it in the music industry. He’d been in various bands since the late 50s, but none had delivered the level of success he deserved. On joining Mott the Hoople Guy Stevens advised Hunter to never remove his sunglasses and since then photos of Hunter without sunglasses have been few and far between as they became a trademark that Hunter has retained to this day. Stevens also encouraged Hunter to develop as a songwriter, something which he launched himself into with great relish. Initially stuck behind a piano at the side of the stage, Hunter eventually emerged center stage to become Mott the Hoople’s iconic frontman and one of its primary songwriters, writing some of the band’s greatest songs on their first four albums like “Backsliding Fearlessly”, “Walking With a Mountain” and “The Journey”.

Hunter’s voice has always been an immediately recognisable rasp, part Bob Dylan, part Sonny Bono. Although not a note-perfect vocalist, Hunter could always write a song which suited his vocal style, that you just couldn’t imagine anyone else singing. It was this approach which gave Hunter’s songs an oddly authentic common touch and depth of emotional character – he didn’t seem to come across as your usual unrelatable rock and roll star, he was just a normal guy who happened to be the singer in a rock band. That was Hunter’s great strength and perhaps one of the reasons why, when punk came along Mott the Hoople was one of the few old bands that the British punks would sing the praises of.

When Bowie offered Mott the Hoople “All the Young Dudes”, he also offered to get his manager to lever them out of their record deal with Island, away from the influence of Guy Stevens and produce their next album, which would ultimately be named after their first hit single. Perhaps even more crucially Bowie encouraged Hunter to take sole control over the direction of Mott the Hoople.

Bowie and his management left Mott the Hoople to their own devices having guided them through the transition from becoming hard trying rockers to a more fashionable glam rock sound and Hunter took it upon himself to cement the band’s future and prove that the success of “All the Young Dudes” wasn’t down to Bowie’s involvement alone. Rising to the challenge Hunter wrote a string of glam rock hit singles that became staples of the genre, as well as writing more mature material for the band’s albums.

Mott single

Having finally obtained the success he had craved for so long in his early 30s, it had an interesting effect on Ian Hunter. He didn’t seem to get as easily distracted by the trappings of rock and roll stardom as many of his rock star contemporaries were being, perhaps partly down to the fact that success for him came slightly later in life, so not only did he maybe appreciate it a little bit more, but he was also more wary of the downside of success. As a reaction to it he wrote the rock memoir Diary of a Rock and Roll Star, which recorded life at the rock and roll coal face in often hilariously mundane detail.

After the departure of guitar player Mick Ralphs from the band after the “Mott” album, the pressure was on Hunter as the primary songwriter in the band. Other band members sometimes shared co-writing credits, and sometimes whole songs (Overend Watts’ punky “Born Late 58” being the best), but the spotlight was very much on Hunter and such was the pressure that following the well received The Hoople album, the cracks started to show. Ralph’s replacement Ariel Bender was shown the door in favour of former Spider from Mars Mick Ronson. With the rest of the band having only recently re-calibrated their expectations around Ian Hunter being the creative fulcrum of the band, Ronson’s arrival in the band caused waves and following the brilliant, but only modestly commercially successful “Saturday Gigs”, Hunter quit Mott the Hoople.

Hunter went on to forge a solo career with occasional assistance from Mick Ronson, releasing great albums like his self-titled debut and You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic. Hunter had a relatively quiet 1980s, though Barry Manilow’s cover of his song “Ships” did big business. Both Hunter and Ronson were featured as part of the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992, however Hunter wouldn’t remerge again until after Ronson’s sad passing in 1993, first with his Dirty Laundry album in 1995 and then more notably with The Artful Dodger in 1999, which features Hunter’s heartbreaking eulogy to Ronson, “Michael Picasso”.

Since the start of this century, Hunter has re-established himself as a significant creative force, at first with his well received 2001 album Rant, then with 2007’s Shrunken Heads, 2009’s Man Overboard and 2012’s When I’m President. Hunter remains a well respected and much loved veteran of rock music well into his 70s .

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A Mott The Hoople concert poster from late 1969

Mott enhanced their reputation with tireless work on the UK live circuit, in venues such as the Roundhouse, the Marquee and local clubs such as the Greyhound in Croydon and Friars in Aylesbury. An extremely modest breakthough was reached when the album spent one week on the chart at No. 66, six months after release, in May 1970.

Far greater recognition would eventually arrive, but Hunter  remembered these as halcyon days. “The buzz was in the air,” he later said. “We were green as grass, not too good, but enthusiastic. It was fun, nothing to lose.”

For their first four albums, Mott the Hoople were a great rock band trying to find their way, but that’s not to mean that they didn’t produce any good material during this period of their career. There’s an embarrassment of riches on their Island albums and it is not for want of trying that they failed to connect with a large audience. From driving hard rock riffs and extended jams, to beautifully reflective acoustic ballads and country rock, Mott the Hoople were a curiously flexible and adaptable act that pleased their live audience, but for whatever reason they just didn’t sell the amount of albums that they deserved to.

 

While their commercial fortunes swung dramatically throughout Mott the Hoople’s career, their reputation as a crowd-pleasing live act remained throughout. While on album and single, the listener could be forgiven for assuming that drummer Buffin Griffin, organ player Verden Allen and Overend Watts were little more than talented sidesmen, on the live stage there was no arguing with the fact that on the live stage, each member of the band were given space to make their mark on their audience.

mott-trees

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