A Beginners Guide to Ian Hunter & Mott the Hoople

Looking back, Mott the Hoople did it all as a rock band. From cult underground heroes, to chart bothering singles and albums, to glam rock superstars that no less a band than Queen supported.

Formerly Silence, on signing to the Island record label, they were convinced to not only change their name, but replace their frontman, Stan Tippens with the more idiosyncratic Ian Hunter.

While their unappreciated quartet of albums on Island were released to minimal commercial success, Mott the Hoople had simultaneously established a reputation as a white-hot live act. Having a blistering live reputation and a feverishly loyal fanbase, while selling few actual albums, resulted in those first four Mott the Hoople albums belatedly becoming cult favourites.

The lack of commercial success had led to low morale by early 1972, resulting in the band seriously considering calling it a day, and bass player Pete Watts got on the phone to rising star David Bowie, who rather than see one of the finest rock acts of his generation go to the wall, offered to pen them a hit single and try to get them out of their less than stellar record deal. The Bowie penned “All the Young Dudes” became Mott the Hoople’s signature hit, and a deal with CBS saw them release a Bowie-produced album of the same name.

With fortunes revived, Mott the Hoople set about maintaining this new found success by way of a series of hit singles penned by Ian Hunter. This didn’t go down well with everyone though, and key members of the band started to leave. First it was organ player Verden Allen, but arguably it was when co-bandleader and guitarist Mick Ralphs walked away from Mott the Hoople that the writing seemed to be on the wall.

One more album and a not insignificant amount of touring later, Mott the Hoople had acquired chief Spider from Mars Mick Ronson, but hunter was burnt out, resulting in he and Ronson leaving the band.

Legal shenanigans resulted in what was supposed to be a collaboration between Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson being released as a Ian Hunter solo album, though it was still close to the spirit of Mott the Hoople’s two previous albums.

Having started his music career in the late 50s, Hunter continues his solo career to this day, well into his late 70s, and remains a vital force in rock and roll, and one of the of the rock and roll old-guard whose creative drive remains utterly intact.

Here then are five albums and a compilation to familiarise yourself with Ian Hunter’s journey from Mott the Hoople frontman and into his solo career.

(admission – I really, really, wanted to include Mott’s 1971 album Brain Capers on this list, however, as all four of their Island albums are out of print, bids on Ebay can put it out of the price range of the curious, and it’s just a few coins short of £200 on Amazon, so you either have to fall very lucky in your local second hand store, or have very deep pockets indeed. At least you can get their debut and Mad Shadows as a two for one second hand)

Mott the Hoople – Mad Shadows – 1970

Every bit as gloomy and claustrophobic as its artwork and title would suggest, Mad Shadows found Mott the Hoople following up their self-titled debut with a release that pre-occupied itself with skirting the edges of a mental breakdown.

If their debut lacked cohesion due to a lack of definitive direction, then Mad Shadows at least decided that ‘vaguely unsettling’ was an interim decision on where to head, even if it wasn’t necessarily a cheery one. In the grand scheme of their career, Mad Shadows is a tight, tense and utterly dark pencil drawing compared to the more colourful Mott the Hoople albums.

Not that Mad Shadows lacks subtlety, indeed there are many shades of grey featured throughout its 37 and a half minutes, with first side closer “Walkin With a Mountain” being the album’s sole upbeat number. Elsewhere, this is a tense listen, with opener “Thunderbuck Ram” showing that Mick Ralphs could deliver a dark and heavy riff with the best of them. Indeed, the song as a whole yet again underlines exactly how much Ralphs brought to the collective table in Mott the Hoople’s pre-Dudes era, and just how vital he was as a creative counterweight to Ian Hunter.

Listening to Mad Shadows all these years later, you do have to worry about the state of the band’s collective mental health at the time. “No Wheels to Ride” is an absolute downer of a song, and album closer “When My Minds Gone” practically howls with desperation. “Walking With a Mountain” is the one moment of respite throughout the album and saves the listener from being smothered with despair, and even then it’s one of the shortest songs on the album.

If you’ve always dismissed Mott the Hoople as glam rock journeymen who got lucky when David Bowie offered to pen them a hit single, then you owe it to yourself to seek out Mad Shadows, as it is where the band displays a whole lot more depth than many realise they were capable.

Mott the Hoople – Mott – 1973

The best of Mott the Hoople’s three post-Dudes albums, 1973’s Mott was the moment that the band had to show that they could have hits with songs that weren’t penned by the man behind Ziggy Stardust.

With Bowie having told Ian Hunter that he should take sole leadership of the band, he penned glitter-flecked rock classics like “Honaloochie Boogie” and “All the Way from Memphis”, which demonstrated to those outside their fanbase that Hunter had ‘it’ when it came to songwriting.

Not that Mott was an album that relied solely on the hits to sell it. In “Hymn for the Dudes” and “Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zürich)” they had two self-mythologising mini epics which showed that Mott the Hoople could get behind a storytelling narrative as well, if not better than, any concept loving prog rockers. Elsewhere “Whizz Kid” and “Violence” remind you that Mott the Hoople were a band that more than a few of the key movers and shakers of the punk scene held dear, and the whole thing closes with the singalong “I Wish I was Your Mother”.

Mott was the album that effectively legitimised Mott the Hoople’s career, as it saw them achieve the commercial success they craved without the need of a creative benefactor. That said, it went a long way to finishing them too, with Mick Ralphs so disillusioned with his diminished role in the band that he walked off to form Bad Company.

Ian Hunter – Ian Hunter – 1975

Originally intended as a collaboration between Ian Hunter and former Bowie second banana Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter’s solo album could be seen as the third album of a trifecta, with 1973’s Mott, and 1974’s The Hoople being the previous entries.

With Ronno having briefly served as Mott’s guitar maestro before Hunter handed in his notice, the duo were already familiar enough with each other’s working methods to make Ian Hunter a success.

Opener “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” picks up where Mott the Hoople had left off, and the band had even cut a demo of “Lounge Lizard” prior to Hunter and Ronno handing in their notice. If any evidence was needed that Hunter was the primary creative force in his former band during the post-Dudes phase of their career, then it’s all here on Ian Hunter.

There’s even evidence that Hunter had out-grown his former bandmates, such as on the slightly wonky epic “Boy”. In fact, the material on here is a measure more mature than previously as Hunter evolved beyond the constraints of the band format, to doing what he wanted to do without any restrictions, and with Ronno as perhaps the greatest sounding board in the history of rock music, and able to extract the maximum out of any idea shared with him. you just can’t imagine Mott nailing “The Truth, the Whole Truth, Nuthin’ But the Truth” or “It Ain’t Easy When You Fall / Shades Off” in quite the same way.

Ian Hunter – You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic – 1979

While Ian Hunter’s eponymous solo debut was met with enthusiasm, he must have been a little down-hearted when his next two albums received a lukewarm reception.

Perhaps in an effort to regain some lost ground, he reconnected with Mick Ronson and engaged the services of several members of The E Street Band, some of whom had backed Meat Loaf on the mega-successful Bat Out of Hell.

For many, You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic is the definitive Ian Hunter album, featuring a high concentration of his best songs, from opening crowd pleaser “Just Another Night” , raucous air-puncher “Cleveland Rocks”, “Ships”, a ballad covered to great commercial success by Barry Manilow, and the immense “Standin’ in my Light”. Pathos has always been one of Hunter’s strongest suits, and nowhere more than “Standin’ in my Light”, an anthem for those sick and tired of being overshadowed by lesser individuals who talk a good fight, but never deliver. It’s one of Hunter’s most impassioned performances and an absolute show stopper.

You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic eventually closes with “The Outsider”, another righteous bellow of defiance against an uncaring world, and a show stopping tune of equal magnitude to “Standin’ in my Light”. Hunter’s cracked and beaten, yet still continuing on nevertheless, vocal style comes into its own on tracks like “Standin’ in my Light” and “The Outsider”. No one else could have possibly performed them with such impact, something which once again underlines the fact that, while Hunter may not be the most technically gifted vocalist, almost nobody matches his ability to inhabit their own songs.

You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic pretty much resurrected Ian Hunter’s career, and it is arguably his most consistently pleasing studio album. It remains his finest hour, with or without Mott the Hoople.

Ian Hunter – Welcome to the Club – 1980

By 1980, Ian Hunter’s career was on the upswing, primarily thanks to 1979’s You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic. While many of his peers had been dismissed by Punk’s movers and shakers as irrelevant has beens, the likes of The Clash’s Mick Jones had expressed a fondness for Mott the Hoople’s proto-punk racket, and by extension, Ian Hunter himself. Hunter’s status was therefore at its highest point since his Mott the Hoople days when the live Welcome to the Club was released in 1980, and the fact that he had Ronno back by his side only added to the sense of occasion.

One of the things about Hunter’s idiosyncratic vocals, is that no amount of studio polish can make them sound anything other than utterly live. Of course, the flip-side of this is that live, he sounds phenomenal, and with Ronno by his side, he raises his game just a little bit higher.

Of course, as unique a vocalist as Hunter was and still is, he’s just as celebrated for his songwriting, and Welcome to the Club is a whistle-stop tour of his greatest moments to date. From big Mott hits like “All the Way From Memphis”, to earlier Mott classics like the full-on rock tilt of “Angeline” and “Walking With a Mountain”, to the more contemporary solo work like the heart breaking “Irene Wilde”, the indignant “Standin’ in my Light” and the anthemic “Cleveland Rocks”, Hunter’s deft way with a lyric is celebrated, as is his way of covering the songs of others and making them his own.

As heavyweight as Ian Hunter’s reputation as one of rock and roll’s timeless greats is, you only really gain full appreciation of what a unique and special talent he is on the live stage, and if you’re not lucky enough to witness the man himself in the flesh, then the three live sides of Welcome to the Club are all the evidence you need that he deserves to be celebrated up there with the very biggest names in rock music.

Ian Hunter & Mott the Hoople – The Journey – 2006

There have been many attempts to pull together a satisfying compilation from Mott the Hoople’s output, but to date, none have been able to get the right balance between their pre-“All the Young Dudes” rocking, and the material they recorded after they enjoyed their first and biggest hit single.

It should be easy.

Two CDs. CD one their Pre-Dudes material, CD two, their post-Dudes material. That way everyone is happy.

The Journey is another compromise, but an understandable one. This time it’s three CDs, but instead of just covering Mott the Hoople, it follows Mott main man Ian Hunter’s career arc, from joining Mott the Hoople in the late 60s, to the early years of the new millennium. As this is Hunter’s story, this three CD set omits early Mick Ralphs-penned material like “Rock and Roll Queen” and the blistering “Thunderbuck Ram”, but that means there’s more room for deep cuts like “Road to Birmingham” and “The Journey”.

The Mott the Hoople stuff does exactly what so many other compilations do – a whistle-stop tour of early highlights, then a selection of big commercial hit singles and choice album cuts. By and large, as long as you don’t mind the odd commercial glam rock tune scattered liberally among more mature and heavyweight material, it’s great stuff.

With much of Hunter’s solo work being recorded with Ronno as an on again / off again sparring partner until his sad death in the early 90s, his eulogy for Ronson, “Michael Picasso”, is a lump in the throat moment of rare poignancy. Elsewhere there are rockers, ballads and the inevitable slump in the 80s, but generally there are still the sort of songs that you could only imagine Hunter singing. Through The Journey we hear Hunter go from being vocalist in a mercurial rock band, to having his career saved by David Bowie, to writing genius-level pop fluff, to becoming a credible rocker, lose his way and ultimately rediscovering his muse with the much celebrated Rant album at the start of the new millennium.

There are better Mott the Hoople collections. There are probably even better Ian Hunter compilations. The Journey however is a consummate exercise in recording a career arc through its highs, lows and permanently in place sunglasses.

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