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.
In 1969 Silence were a band that signed to Island Records for seemingly no better reason than guitar player Mick Ralphs burst into record executive Guy Steven’s office in a rage after being promised a meeting that seemed to get perpetually rescheduled and then Steven’s being impressed at the subsequent effort that the entire band put into getting their organ up several flight of stairs to the audition space. 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. Falling on his sword for the benefit of his band moats, singer Stan Tippins shifted to the role of road manager and occasional backing vocalist, remaining loyal to his former band mates, as they were to him.
It seems that Silence were not so worried about their change of band name (though them allowing Stevens to change it to Mott the Hoople after a Willard Manus novel, can only be put down to how thankful they were to him for signing them to Island), but the recruitment of a replacement for Stan Tippins was considerably more problematic for the band, who struggled to find a suitable vocalist, despite 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.
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…
Here then are six perfectly legitimate reasons to love Mott the Hoople more than you already do.
1 Ian Hunter
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.
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 .
2 Mick Ralphs
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.
Even after Ian Hunter had taken Bowie’s advice and assumed overall lead of the band in late 1972, Ralphs continued to contribute songs like “Ready for Love / After Lights”. Although Ralphs sang many of the songs he penned, it seemed he was utterly frustrated that neither he or Hunter were able to hit the notes his newly written song “Can’t Get Enough” required to do it justice. It wasn’t until, frustrated from having the creative direction of his band wrestled away from him, Ralphs walked away from Mott the Hoople and formed Bad Company with former Free members Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke and former King Crimson bass player Boz Burrell, that “Can’t Get Enough” became the huge global hit it deserved to be. Rodgers was a considerably more accomplished blues shouter than Hunter’s more idiosyncratic vocal style and was able to make the most of Bad Company’s simple and direct songwriting.
Ralphs would enjoy immense success with Bad Company and that band’s global success as hard rocking AOR superstars through the rest of the 70s would easily dwarf that of Mott the Hoople. It is for his work as a founder member of Mott the Hoople that he is most fondly remembered though.
3 The Range
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.
After Bowie donated “All the Young Dudes” to them and they shifted to CBS, Mott the Hoople successfully performed a balancing act between ultra-commercial glam rock singles and hard rocking album tracks that continued to bridge the cultural chasms between hard rock, progressive rock and glam.
During their heyday, few acts outside Bowie and Elton John managed to straddle the pop and album charts in the same way as Mott the Hoople. Despite their post-Dudes glam rock visual trappings, Mott the Hoople never lost track of the fact that their albums had to be fully-rounded artistic statements. Their three albums for CBS boasted such great album tracks as “Sea Diver”, “Violence” and “Marionette”, songs that any early 70s rock band would be proud of.
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. Even during later incarnations of the band, when there was so much more focus on Ian Hunter, guitar player Ariel Bender had an unmistakably frenetic stage presence and organist Morgan Fisher made a striking visual impact.
4 The Influence
Although Mott the Hoople came to glam rock late in the day, they have had a huge influence on a number of acts that became massively influential themselves.
On one of Mott the Hoople’s final tours of the US, they were supported by a young, relatively unknown young band called Queen, who would later namecheck them on their hit single “Now I’m Here”. Listening back to Mott the Hoople’s albums, there’s certainly a few things that Queen would pick up on and make their own. If you listen to Mott’s “Marionette”, it doesn’t take much to extrapolate that out and hear a rough and ready prototype for “Bohemian Rhapsody”. While again, the success of Queen would easily eclipse Mott the Hoople, they would continue to confirm their influence, particularly on their best material of the 70s.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the 70s rock and roll spectrum, a good number of Punk acts would highlight Mott the Hoople as a musical influence, the most vocal being The Clash, whose Mick Jones had spent a great deal of time following the band around and getting into their gigs for free. Such was Mott’s influence on the young and impressionable Jones, that The Clash recruited none other than former Mott the Hoople mastermind Guy Stevens to produce their seminal London Calling album. It wasn’t just The Clash either, as apparently the Sex Pistols would name-checked them as an influence and Ian Hunter would later be in the producer’s chair for Generation X’s Valley of the Dolls.
Along with Slade, Mott the Hoople have been name checked as early influences on veterans of various 80s hard rock and metal acts, with Sheffield’s own Def Leppard repeatedly acknowledging the influence that Ian Hunter and Mott the Hoople, and in recent years various band members from both acts have shared a stage and recording studio with each other.
However, it is the least obvious member of Mott the Hoople that helped to indirectly launch the careers of countless young bands. Buffin Griffin would produce albums by the likes of The Cult and Hanoi Rocks, but it is as a semi-regular producer of John Peel sessions for such luminaries as Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Pulp that saw him give young bands such a helpful leg up on the precarious ladder of fame. Griffin is rarely given credit for his work on John Peel’s show, but without him the early career of so many bands that we came to love wouldn’t have sounded quite the same way when Peel broadcast their sessions.
5 Guy Stevens
Even now, the members of Mott the Hoople are quick to agree that without Guy Stevens, there would have been no Mott the Hoople. It was Stevens’ vision that shaped their early albums, that insisted on Stan Tippins being replaced and ran the production of their albums with a wobbly rod of iron.
Despite their collective regard for him, the various members of Mott the Hoople will often recall how unpredictable Stevens was in the studio and even when he was producing London Calling at the end of the 70s, he was reportedly pouring pints of beer into studio pianos to improve the sound.
Stevens gave Mott the Hoople their playfulness and their dynamic energy, one of the keystones of their later success and something which set them apart from their more po-faced contemporaries away from the disposable glam rock scene.
While Stevens doesn’t have the same heavyweight reputation as a svengali as Malcolm Mclaren or Phil Spector, he cut a unique dash during his time at Island Records and without him, Mott the Hoople just wouldn’t have enjoyed the success they ultimately did.
6 They Split Up at the Right Time
Too many bands suffer the long slow slide into mediocrity, releasing albums that simply aren’t as good as those at the start of their career. This just wasn’t the case for Mott the Hoople. Each of their individual seven albums has something to recommend them, from the free-wheeling route-finding of their self-titled debut, to the claustrophobic darkness of Mad Shadows, to the more confident rocking of Brain Capers, to the glitter-daubed Mott.
Despite the regular line-up changes following their first hit single, it was only when Ian Hunter decided to quit that Mott the Hoople effectively ceased to exist, though the rest of the band would reunite a short while later with a new guitar player and vocalist as Mott, which would eventually morph into British Lions.
Mott the Hoople though ended at the right time. Their last studio album, The Hoople, was a dip in quality, but not a drop as such. Hunter was still a great writer, penning both hit singles and more substantial works consistently, and the rest of the band were playing as well as they ever had, but truth be told, they’d achieved all they could as Mott the Hoople. They’d taken the scenic route to fame, never sold themselves short, but always had a realistic view of their position in the rock and roll firmament. They’d been on the brink of calling it a day, before Bowie offered them a shot a redemption, which they took, made the most of, and then comprehensively proved that, while Bowie gave them a helping hand, they were more than capable of making it on their own.
Not only that, but Mott the Hoople didn’t stain their name like so many of their contemporaries by reuniting for a money-spinning tour and the inevitably disappointing reunion album. Indeed, they put off reforming until 2009, where they played a handful of dates at the venerable Hammersmith Apollo. This was a full reunion of the original line up, though Buffin Griffin only drummed during the encore due to illness. The whole thing was pulled off with appropriate dignity, the minimum of pomp and bluster and didn’t leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. Now that takes some achieving.
Pop music history leads us to believe that Mott the Hoople were little more than a third rate rock band that got lucky by temporarily hitching their career to the fastest rising star in the music industry. They weren’t. They were living proof that rock and roll dreams could come true if you’re prepared to put the effort in.