After a succession of poorly selling albums culminating in Brain Capers in 1971 Mott The Hoople were about to call it a day.
David Bowie, a fan of the band, offered them his composition Suffragette City, which would later appear on his Ziggy Stardust album. Ian Hunter turned it down.
Bowie wrote a new song especially for the band, allegedly sitting cross legged in front of Hunter. That song was All The Young Dudes. The rest, they say, is history!
A reformed Mott with original members Hunter, Aerial Bender and Morgan Fisher brought their 1974 show to Manchester’s Academy last night. John Robb reports back for Louder Than War with photos by Melanie Smith.
The tension of that one note piano line at the beginning of All The Way From Memphis is holding the room.
It’s one of the great rock n roll intros and it brings back flashbacks of classic seventies Top Of The Pops appearances of high healed boots, cascading ginger curls, impenetrable mysterio shades, weird looking droogs who hadn’t ate for weeks and flash glam dandies with a high octane rock brill served up with a music hall showmanship, off kilter musical imagination and lyrics that reported back from the frontline in the smokey dingy seventies when rock n roll was the flash in the middle of the broken down monochrome.
All The Way From Memphis is the first encore tonight and when the song falls in to its glorious thunder I get a shiver up my spine. It’s a moment. It was always such a great song – an on the road epic ripped from the pages of Ian Hunter’s much loved book, Diary Of A Rock n Roll Star, where he detailed the reality of a touring rock n roll band in a down to earth manner for his fans working in the last days of Blighty’s fast fading manufacturing factories where he himself has worked for years before getting the break. For his constituency, though, that glimpse at the warts n all reality in the book and songs somehow managed to make it seem all the more magical, making the book the manifesto of how to be in a band for the likes of the young Mick Jones and Tony James who followed the band up and down the country.
It’s that reality check, surrounded by the glitz and the glam, that is at the core of Mott The Hoople who made the mundane sound magical and sang with such heart and soul that the love for the band remains a deep bond. Despite their unblinking look at the surrounding circus, they themselves, seemed larger than life and despite a career that seemed to have the wheels falling off it it at every turn they have ended up leaving a catalogue of songs and a live reputation that makes them one of the key influential British bands for anyone who really loves rock n roll.
Every band deserves a lap of honour.
And Mott The Hoople deserve one more than most.
This, their third reformed jaunt, after the first line up reconvened for two tours a few years ago sees the three surviving members of the last line up perfectly meshed into the Ian Hunter Rant Band for a celebration of their final 1974 set. This was a year when the band seemed set for the big breakthrough into the super league but decided to grab defeat from the jaws of victory due to bad management and the vastly different and wild personalities in the group before that tantalising last few weeks with Mick Ronson in the band – a line up that fell apart leaving a whole barrage of ‘what ifs’.
80 years old in June, Ian Hunter is quite remarkable. Unflinching and unchanged, somehow he still inhabits these songs with nearly all the force that made the band so special in the seventies and yet adds another layer of wisdom to them. He was always an elder statesman, having lived for 15 years on the outside of showbiz, odd jobbing and dreaming of the big break where most of his contemporaries were ten years younger and got their breaks early. Like anyone who has grown up in a small town like Hunter’s Shrewsbury where he saw Laurel and Hardy play in 1952 or Northampton where he moved to when he was 16 and was electrified by Little Richard playing the local hall, he understands the power of the magic. Mott were never big city cynics bored of culture. They were wild eyed in love with the form. Totally understanding it’s power to this day. They understand the audience tonight, we are the people fired by them, or punk, or Oasis or Britpop or all those British street musics where normal people do wonderful things with art on their own terms and were nearly all fired or inspired by this great band.
Tonight is yet another last stand for this arguably the greatest of all British rock n roll bands and as they play their 1974 set with the surviving members of that near last line up – the gloriously eccentric Morgan Fisher on piano and the even more gloriously eccentric Luther Grosvenor AKA Ariel Bender on guitar and angular madcap shapes. They delve into that moment in time when they were an off kilter mix of rampant Little Richard rock n roll, classic songwriting, British Music Hall madness, show tunes, sensitive ballads, wild noise and yearning beauty, and a romantic and beautiful belief in the power of music to transform and inform and save lives. They are still as full of the intense claustrophobia of small town Britain that made them stand out in the middle of glam rock wars where their salty, rough house, down to earth charm hid their depth and songwriting skill.
Just like in 1974 they start with a plaintive take on Don Maclean’s American Pie, a song at the time that seemed so full of yearning nostalgia effort an era that was all of 15 years before – ancient times for my generation and yet now is singing about a period nearly 60 years ago which adds to its weight. Of course it’s a prelude to Hunter’s own take on the same subject matter – the barrelhouse explosion of The Golden Age Of Rock n Roll – the last top twenty of the band’s great hit singles that punctured the mid seventies. It’s also a song that features one of the greatest guitar solo ever from Ariel Bender – a thing of wonder and joy and madcap invention just like the scampering, gurning guitar player himself as it zig zags across the song, adding a future dayglo to the rock n roll riot honking sax groove. A slice of guitar sci fi that peered into the future and should be cherished and captures, in music, the guitar player’s nickname that was given to him instead of its original owner – Mick Ralphs. The song itself is welcomed like an old friend and remains a celebratory manifesto and sets the stall for tonight’s show.
The 1974 set list unfurls and reminds you of a band that was at the top of its game and staring the big time in the eye just before they imploded. There is so much drama and light and shade in these songs, so many moods and lyrical twists of perfection. Mott were never a simple band. There was a complexity and brilliance at play and they could deal out moments of touching sensitivity amongst the raucous chaos. There was the suffocating small town violence in proto punk songs like Crash Street Kids and the testosterone fuelled, Violence, there were songs of defiance like Marionette that saw Hunter make his stand in a complex piece of many styles and mood changes that must have influenced their 1974 support band Queen in their own vaulting ambition.
Yet there are also the poignant, slower anthems like Rest in Peace or Ballad Of Mott or the simply beautiful last single Saturdays Gigs – a song that captures that youthful flicker of optimism and live forever moment of freaky youth and high octane dreaming but with a perfect Hunter twist of melancholy as you know the moment will never last with its goodbye refrain becoming more and more poignant as the years role by. It was a song that was written about the early Mott who had a huge following but seemed destined to failure until a young songwriter called David Bowie, who only had one hit at the time and that was three years before, gifted them the extraordinary All The Young Dudes which they dutifully turned into the greatest cover version of all time – totally owning the song and recording the anthem of the then coming glam era.
Much has been made of why Bowie loved Mott. Maybe for the same reason he loved the Spiders – maybe he buzzed on these rough ‘provincials’, instinctive creatures, who played rock n roll like their lives depended on it maybe he saw beyond the front and felt the talents behind the smokescreen that he embraced as equals like Ian Hunter or Mick Ronson or maybe he saw the charisma of Overend Watts the home made rock n roll star who was seven foot tall with or without his high healed boots and had asked to join the Spiders but was given Dudes instead.
Of course tonight we are missing the great charismtaron looning of Watts, friend of LTW and DIY style icon with his hair and chest sprayed with silver car paint. The wonderful bassist and his school buddy and rhythm section partner Dale Griffin are the two sadly departed Motts and were also in this late line up but Ian Hunter’s Rant Band ably cover their backs with a faultless display. We also give a nod to Mick Ralphs whose heart attack has taken him off the road but at least we get to embrace, Ariel and Morgan, the two later day players who were such a key part of the band’s end period and didn’t get their chance to shine in the last reformations.
The songs keep piling up – Roll Away The Stone, intro by Hunter as contrary to popular belief ‘this is the biggest selling song we ever had!’ hammers along on that glorious pounding piano boogie, Walking With A Mountain is reprised from the early years, the Mott medley shows both their love of quoting songs and their stunning tightness as a band, Lounge Lizard is a glorious groove, Sucker is a cowbell driven raucous treat, I Wish I Was Your Mother is a thing of beauty, Alice is full of drama and good times whilst their cover of Sweet Jane is clipped and dramatic and, of course, the climactic set ending All The Young Dudes brings down the house and should be getting played at Glastonbury main stage on a early Saturday evening and creating the perfect Glastonbury moment with thousands singing along.
Where will this all end? With Ian Hunter there is no telling, a new solo album is being worked on but you can’t rule out Mott – something this alive continuing around festivals. Mott The Hoople may be playing songs that are decades old but they play them with a verve and intensity that it makes them feel current. The 74 set list was a band peaking, making sense of its odd soupçon of styles and about to plunder a future and creating a seamless whole before an abrupt full stop an maybe the ‘what ifs’ has been answered by these shows.
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