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Mott the Hoople

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For a time between ’72 and ’74 Mott the Hoople was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, combining underlying ’50s Chuck/Little Richard/Jerry Lee impulses, Dylanesque wordplay, massive British Invasion power chords, a glammy pre-punk sensibility, and a compulsion to accurately chronicle the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle with the force of MYTH.

A remastered version, with two bonus tracks, of their ’74 Greatest Hits package has just been released by Legacy, and while it unfortunately doesn’t do the band justice (overemphasizing the band’s pop and ballad side, shortchanging ballsy rock, and with truncated versions of key songs “Sweet Jane” and “One of the Boys”), it does remind us of how great they were, and points us to releases that do fully satisfy.

With the success of the great trilogy of All the Young Dudes, Mott, and The Hoople in ’72, ’73 and ’74 successively, it is easy to forget the band’s muscular, sinewy foundation was hard-won over three long years of slogging the journeyman British rock ‘n’ roll highway, and four promising but spotty albums that drummed up much UK attention but scarce sales.

The band came together in 1968 as Silence in Hereford, England with Mick Ralphs (lead guitar, vocal), Verden Allen (organ), Overend Pete Watts (bass), and Dale “Buffin” Griffin (drums). The band added Stan Tippens as vocalist in early ’69 and signed with Island (Atlantic in the U.S.), recording their first record in London with producer Guy Stevens, whose first move was to change the band’s name to Mott the Hoople after an obscure Willard Manus novel. By summer Ian Hunter had replaced Tippens as vocalist.

This period of occasional gems rising above mediocrity is best represented by the now hard-to-find collection Rock and Roll Queen, which contains Mick Ralph’s two greatest recorded moments as singer-songwriter, the monumental title track, and the unprecedentedly dynamic “Thunderbuck Ram,” which veers between gossamer delicacy and unleashed guitar fury.

Frustrated and on the verge of collapse, Mott met with great fortune in ’72 when fans David Bowie and Mick Ronson, fresh from the buzz of Ziggy Stardust, persuaded them to remain intact and produced their breakthrough album All the Young Dudes.

Bowie and Ronson moved the band’s image just inside the glare of the glam spotlight, sharpened the songwriting – “One of the Boys,” “Ready For Love” – and brought in killer outside material – Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” and Bowie’s own “All the Young Dudes.” “Dudes” became the instant glam anthem, was Mott’s biggest hit single and put the band on the international map. The band did well with Ziggy-style arrangements highlighting Mick Ralph’s clean, but powerful guitars; Verden Allen’s organ, and the contrast between Ralph’s high, thin vocals and Ian Hunter’s grainy bellow.

With their sound and image secured, Ian Hunter suddenly blossomed as a songwriter and the band delivered an album loosely centered on the travails of a traveling rock ‘n’ roll band – a REAL “band on the run” – the airtight classic Mott, which was Rolling Stone mag’s “Album of the Year” for ’73, back when the title meant something.

The excellent 2-CD collection The Ballad of Mott: A Retrospective is a testament to the greatness of the Mott album, including every song but one, but Mott is one of the albums better heard in its long-form glory, as a story told in the exquisite chapters of “All the Way From Memphis” “Whizz Kid” “Hymn for the Dudes” “Honaloochie Boogie” “Violence” “Drivin’ Sister” “Ballad of Mott the Hoople” “I’m a Cadillac/El Camino Dolo Roso” and “I Wish I Was Your Mother.” The album recapitulates not just a band’s history, but rock history up to that point and is a MUST-OWN, period.

Success then rended what failure could not: guitarist Ralphs left the band to form Bad Company (mostly ick) with Paul Rodgers, Luther Grosvenor joined on guitar (changing his name to Ariel Bender in the process), and with the focus now squarely on Hunter’s writing, Mott squeezed out one more album, The Hoople, that is remarkably good in its own right, but inevitably not up to the standards of Mott.

The Hoople somewhat oddly moved in two directions at once away from its punchy riff-rock center: toward a retro pop-rock sound found on the ebullient, Wall of Sound-like “Roll Away the Stone” and “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and toward a less medodic, more angular, severe guitar sound on “Marionette” and “Crash Street Kids.”

And that was basically it: Mick Ronson briefly joined Mott, playing on the song “Saturday Gigs,” but what was supposed to be new beginning was an anticlimactic end. When Mott broke up, Ronson hooked up with Ian Hunter in a partnership that filled a void for both: Ronson missed a lead figure like Bowie, and Hunter missed Mick Ralphs.

Ronson played on and/or produced several Hunter albums including his exceptional first album (“Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” “I Get So Excited”) featuring Mick’s best guitar work away from Bowie, and You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic, with the hits “Cleveland Rocks” (now the theme of The Drew Carey Show) and “Ships” (later covered by Barry Manilow).

What then to buy? For a single collection, The Ballad of Mott is the way to go. Fans might go with Rock and Roll Queen, All the Young Dudes, Mott (Dudes and Mott together for only $19.96 at Amazon!!), The Hoople, Hunter’s eponymous first solo album and You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic (together at Amazon for only $21.96!!). Rock out.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    thanks a lot eric.

    i’ve been trying to be good….savin’ up money before i go on vacation.

    now i’ve gotta stop by the danged store on the way home!

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Mark, I am pleased to hear that I suck in this manner.

  • Marty Thau

    I usually agree with Eric’s readings but in this case I’m sorry to say I don’t. Mott were a ‘nice’ band but that’s about it. To call them the greatest band in the world for a period of time is off the mark. Eric, if you feel this way, you must like Queen, too.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    hey, wait…I like Queen!! 😉

  • Eric Olsen

    Marty, Marty, Marty, Mott the Hoople was the anti-Queen: totally unpretentious, organic, working class but literate, centered on songs not sonics, rock ‘n’ roll not arena rock, MUCH more like the Dolls than like Queen.

  • Marty Thau

    Eric, Eric, Eric — I didn’t say Mott were anything musically like Queen. Aside from a few great songs, Mott were basically a pretty boring live group. Queen were beyond boring. I don’t think that when people think back and refelct on the great bands of that era that either one stands out.

  • Eric Olsen

    My favorites from that era (’72-’74) are Roxy Music, Stones, Dolls, Bowie, Springsteen, Mott the Hoople – I think they hold up extremely well.

  • Eric Olsen

    I like the first Queen album a lot, but it was downhill from there.

  • Marty Thau

    I agree for the most part but this all started when you wrote that Mott were the greatest band in the world for a period of time between ’72 & ’74. Sorry, but I don’t buy that. Like I said, they were a ‘nice’ band. That’s as far as I can go. Great bands must be great ‘live’, too. Mott weren’t.

  • http://www.mobiusstreet.blogspot.com Hazy Dave

    To this music consumer, a band’s records are far more important in judgment of their greatness than their live show.

    My chances of seeing a band in concert anywhere near their peak are a lot smaller than somebody who lives in NYC or LA in any case. (And even a Springsteen concert seen from the back half of an arena is a lot less impressive than the raves written by occupants of the VIP seats would lead one to believe.)

    It’d take me some research to find another rock and roll band that (arguably) put out their three best albums between 1972 and 1974. Slade? Black Sabbath? Heh.

    BTW, I’d recommend “Backsliding Fearlessly” on Rhino as a superior collection of songs from Mott’s four Atlantic (Island UK) LP’s. Good as they are, nothing on the Columbia albums can match cranking “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” up to eleven.

  • Eric Olsen

    I like that one too, Dave, no beating that title – it’s also on Rock and Roll Queen

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Eric, I totally agree that Mott is a great album that holds up to limitless re-listens, mainly because the songs were all over the map — and that’s a good thing. It’s a very diverse album that is never about one thing. “All the Way to Memphis” and “Ballad of Mott the Hoople” are, of course, personal songs about the bands travels and travails, but “Whizz Kid,” “Violence,” and “Hymn for the Dudes” are all tuned in to some other vibe, and then there’s that blissful and beautiful closer “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” which perfectly capsulizes a certain kind of obsessive relationship. It seems, with that list of songs, one should be complaining about incoherence or lack of focus; instead, the picture you get is of a band with a great batch of songs and loads of talent to burn. Easily one of the very great albums of the 1970s.

  • Eric Olsen

    Glad you agree Rodney, I see it as the center of this great trilogy that frays a bit on either end but is without flaw in the middle. After thinking so much about this yesterday, I had dreams about Mott songs all night last night – talk about ear worms.

  • http://www.kalyr.com/weblog Tim Hall

    It’d take me some research to find another rock and roll band that (arguably) put out their three best albums between 1972 and 1974. Slade? Black Sabbath? Heh.

    Uriah Heep?

    Although I thought the early 70s were the golden age of rock (before Punk ruined everything), I’m hard pressed to name many bands whose best years were 72 to 74. Led Zep peaked in ’71, Deep Purple’s best years were ’70 to ’72, other bands like Thin Lizzy didn’t hit their stride till about ’75.

  • Eric Olsen

    Bowie was about at his best then

  • Dennis Lockhart

    It’s difficult to believe no one has had anything to say about Mott here for over two years. Mott, along with Status Quo and Free, are my favorites. Never saw Free or Mott, but I saw Status Quo supporting Slade–whom they sliced and diced–at Santa Monica Civic in l973. Mott and Free both had dreary early albums, with noted exceptions: Tnunderbuck Ram–why doesn’t some symphony orchestra blow down the walls with a version of this?–and Walking with A Mountain make Mad Shadows worthwhile. Rock and Roll Queen is an essential album. One of the Boys is monstrous, but their Sweet Jane owes more to Andy Williams than Lou Reed. Hard to believe they’re on the same album.I miss Mott, Status and Free….where have all the good ones gone, indeed.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Dennis! I agree almost completely with your assessments of Mott and Free and love them both still – I really like Mott’s “Sweet Jane” even though it’s so different. I think Free’s Heartbreaker is a real underrated classic, by the way. And I still can’t believe what Mick Ralphs turned into – astonishing

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I must be getting old. As soon as I saw the title of this article in the Comments section, I clicked on it, read it enthusiastically, and was compiling in my head a list of nice things to say about Eric Olsen’s wonderful dual abilitities for cohesive history and cogent commentary, and my own abiding love for the masterpiece that is Mott. Then I find out I already commented, because I read it two years ago and forgot. Oh well. As I think Richard Wagner once said of Natalie Wood, Still a great piece, even on the second go-round.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Rodney, I forget things from two months ago, let alone two years!

    Wagner got some hot babes for an opera dude, or do you mean Robert?

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Yes, dammit, I mean Robert. That makes two examples of forgetting today. And it isn’t even 9 a.m.

  • Eric Olsen

    “What kind of Wood doesn’t float?” and all of that

  • Vern Halen

    Now we got something to talk about. Free & Mott – two of the all time great lost English classic rockers (Badfinger completes the triple crown). Heartbreaker is indeed the greatest forgotten classic bar none, with Brain Capers running a close second.

    Hoople has a CD reissue of Two Miles from Heaven, their rarities compilation for if you can’t afford the box set. And Mott the Hoople Live has been reissued as a 2 CD set, with the complete New YOrk & HAmmersmith shows. It’s great to hear Ariel Bender go mental on Walking with a Mountain while the Hammersmith staff attempts to lower the curtain on the encore. A must have!

  • Eric Olsen

    great recommendations Vern, thanks! And I’m glad you agree about Heartbreaker

  • Bennett

    Thanks to whoever brought this back to the front row. I was a HS freshman when these guys started rocking the west coast, and we loved every minute of it.

    I can still hear Ian’s depressed/sardonic verses in my head from All The Young Dudes, and the tragedy of All The Way From Memphis is still every guitar player’s bad dream.

    Thanks for this EO, kudos two years after!

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    I discovered Mott the Hoople backwards;

    In 1981 I saw Ian Hunter do a great set with Mick Ronson on Midnight Special, loaded with songs from his then-current Short Back ‘n’ Sides album. That led me to check out Ian Hunter, the solo debut, and Welcome to the Club a live double with a lott of Mott the Hoople songs on it.

    That’s the one that got me interested in All The Young Dudes, Mott, and The Hoople.

    I loved all three, particularly Mott, which I became obsessed with.

    Then I went to the local dusty used-record basement shop and picked up the then-out-of-print Mad Shadows, Brain Capers, and Wild Life.

    They sure did have a lot of great songs; it’s a pity the radio only bothers with “All the Young Dudes” which isn’t even their song. What about “All The Way From Memphis” or “Drivin’ Sister” or “Ballad of Mott” or “Crash Kids” or “Violence” or “Roll Away The Stone”? Those could have been hitworthy too, given a chance.

    Side note: I like to collect very offbeat cover versions of songs; one I’ve always thought was a peculiar choice was Mott the Hoople’s version of Melanie’s “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”. Not a masterpiece, but points for unlikeliness.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Just a question: is there a hotter, wilder, crazier sax solo on any Top 40 record in history than the one on “All the Way From Memphis”? There are other great ones, sure, but I can’t think of another one that pushes it like that.

  • http://www.utopia2000.org Barry Stoller

    I always thought the first side of the first album was amazing. Covering Bono long before irony and so-bad-it’s-great became mainstream. Funny, Bono failed to mention hearing it in his autobio…

  • Eric Olsen

    it does my heart good to hear so many of the cognoscenti dig the Mott as hard as I did/do: between All the Young Dudes, Mott, The Hoople, and the Rock and Roll Queen catch-up collection coming out within a couple of years, I was agape and in awe