Overend Watts – a tribute
A mighty long way since the mad shadows of youth and the soundtrack of those teenage years was a glorious life affirming rush so perfectly soundtracked by the 96 decibel freaks – Mott the Hoople.
Mott – the most perfect imperfect band that ever existed. The band who defined the romantic heart of rock n roll, the small town outsiders from Shrewsbury and Hereford who made themselves the most urgent and thrilling band of the mid seventies and paved the way for the Clash and punk rock.
And their bass player was the great Overend Watts – the coolest and droogiest looking lunatic to ever totter around the Top Of The Pops studio. Overend Watts, with his homemade silver hair, sense of mad fun, a natural and gonzoid cool and, as Ian Hunter once sang so perfectly about him, ‘a rock n roll star’.
And a decent, smart and eccentric human being.
When I finally met him 36 years later in 2009 later it was at the after show after the last night of that magnificent run of comeback gigs in London. He was a 100 per cent diamond geezer who wanted to talk about the Monks and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and my band the Membranes with a glint of mad enthusiasm in his eye and his still perfect Hereford accent whilst being charmingly baffled why anyone would love Mott The Hoople like we all did.
Can you get any more English and self deprecating than that?
He was stood on his own at the aftershow whilst Mick Jones was too nervous to speak to the imperious Ian Hunter. I went over wondering if he was was one of those old school awkward sods but he was precisely the opposite. He was wearing nooses as a dedication to the Monks and his white court shoes had ‘I’m A Wanker’ felt tipped on them. He was the funny, mad and fantastically eccentric Pete Watts one hoped for and one cool dude.
We kept in touch over the years on email – I tried to fix a show up at Glastonbury for Mott and emailed Emily Eavis for them. I read his great book ‘the man who hated walking’ about his wanders around the UK and we talked about bass guitars and music and life and trying to get him to do an in conversation about his book. I even planned to try and make a record with him but time got in the way. I’d heard on the grapevine that he had been unwell but I wasn’t sure if that was just one of those rumours and I’m gutted to hear that he as left us.
Tonight we shed a tear for the great man.
Mott The Hoople understood that rock n roll is a sentimental business. They wrote songs steeped in the stuff, full of tears and sweat and ambition and they celebrated the scuzz and the failure and the faded glamour through small towns eyes on the outside looking in. They sounded like they were full of magic and madness.
So much of this was embodied in Pete ‘Overend Watts- their charismatic bassist whose very name is perhaps the greatest name ever in the history of rock roll – and what’s more it is actually his real name – lunatic manager, the late Guy Stevens, ordered him to drop his first name and use his middle name – a genius move – and somehow so Mott The Hoople, so home spun, small town British wrestler homemade glam that made the band so damn magical.
Mott The Hoople were about tears and they were about riots, they were about the joy of rock n roll, they were about that utterly magical place where you yearn for something but can’t quite get there, they were the small town team getting to Wembley only to lose to a last minute goal after dodgy referee had favoured the big clubs yet again, they were Hereford United beating Newcastle on that famously muddy evening back in the fuzzy TV seventies and yet they were totally and utterly genius and were equals to the Bowies and the space junk superheroes etc. Their songs were full of pathos, poetry, tragedy and humour. They were mini operas full of grandeur and music hall madness. They were ballads that could make you cry and rockers that could make you want to riot and had songs like Violence that were punk rock years before it ever happened or the music hall swirl of the glorious All The Way From Memphis and the heartbreak of Saturday Gigs and even if Overend didn’t write them he delivered them. Anyone who understands rock n roll knows that the delivery is as important as the melody – his driving bass was the motor and his stage presence was the totemic shape that almost defined the band.
They sang of the tragedy, the heartbreak, the rollercoaster ride through rock n roll – they were actually and genuinely down with the kids. They were taking us all on their magic carpet ride through the heart of the rock n roll dream – just witness the Mott Lot – the bunch of scraggy 14 year old kids who included Mick Jones from his pre Clash days hopping trains to see the band everywhere and been given hotel floor space by the kind hearted band who hated to see the young fans sleep rough on stations – the precursor of the punk rock staple of looking after da kidz.
Every time one of these genuine stars, these glimmers from our youth leaves it knocks the stuffing out of you – these people were part of the joy of life growing up. Their music, their clothes, their madness, their wildness their joy du vivre was there to promise that there was multi colour in the monochromatic reality of the seventies. Mott The Hoople were a splash of colour in the decayed UK – that is the magic of rock n roll. They seemed so modern and yet so small town England – and that was part of their magic – they were the first band I can remember who genuinely looked and sounded like outsiders and I could identify with that being a scrawny kid in a tatty seaside town.
I remember them from the early pre fame seventies, seeing their album covers in a magazine at a youthful time when you didn’t realise that bands existed beyond the top 30. They looked fantastically odd – skeletal, hollow cheeks, insanely long hair, standing around in forests in great coats with hollowed out faces and strange faraway looks on their sallow faces – they looked dangerous! I remember early single, Midnight Lady on Top Of The Pops and its tune stuck in my had for what seemed like years as I tried to work out who the fuck it was in that pre internet blink of an eye chance you had to work out what the quicksilver magic was – only to finally discover them with All the Young Dudes – the most perfect of moments when the best band in the country and the best song was at the top of the pile- it was the grand opening of the glam rock bazaar announced by the band hastily and perfectly glamming themselves up from their previous incarnation of long hair Croydon greatest live band in the country underground rut.
That’s the rock n roll dream. Mott the Hoople made you feel like a giant – their music was huge and anthemic – Ian Hunter has always written great songs and delivered them and to his stage right there was Overend Watts doing the home spun, home made rock n roll star thing – a physical manifestation of those great songs that made you feel like a giant – he was a genuine folk hero and the small clutch of glam freaks at school loved him an much as Ian Hunter.
Maybe Mott were not nasty enough to get to the top of the greasy pole but very few bands could fill a room with their warmth and sheer joy of their most unlikely of careers. Their comeback in 2009 was magical – grown men were in tears and it was powerful and emotional. Mott meant so much to those that knew – the faithful who understood rock n roll and knew that they were the most magical of British rock n roll bands – they had their big hits of course and nearly broke America but the should have been the Stones.
And all the time there was Overend – the genuinely 100 per cent English eccentric, who was a damn good bass payer to boot with his wonky, weird way and the natural charisma.
Mott The Hoople are scoured into my teenage mind and have stayed there for ever.
Mott The Hoople on Top Of The Pops – the ultimate droog rock n roll band dealing out the ultimate glam anthem, All the Young Dudes, they looked like rock n roll stars dealing out one of the most perfect anthems ever written. The singer was a cascade of curls and impenetrable shades and the bass player was a silver haired lunatic who was copping all the perfect poses whilst tottering around on insane heals. The band looked tough and cool, they also looked oddly home made and they looked unintentionally weird – like some super sci bunch of droogs.
They may not have had the outta space cool of Ziggy but they had their own cool – Bowie knew that when he handed them the song – one of his greatest creations – when Overend Watts came a knocking, looking for the bass playing job he had heard was going spare at the Ziggy HQ. Bowie was appalled and persuaded them to stick together and handed over what is perhaps the greatest gift in the history of rock n roll and which they made their own. Bowie loved his down to earth, chipper, rough arsed bands – he could spot the diamonds in the swill – the rough guys with hearts of gold. Mott transcended all this – they may have come over small town heroes but they dripped talent.
The charismatic Overend Watts dressed to kill on top Of The pops. The long silver hair, the lunatic outfits, those high high heel boots, that sarcastic smirk, the sheer joy, the iconic Gibson Thunderbird – Overend Watts was the perfect 1970s rock roll star. Of course you have Bowie and you had Marc but Overend was a self made rock n roll star – someone who had somehow created his own home made glam look – the rumour was that his silver hair was done by car spray and that’s what made him so great.