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The Rockologist: Ian Hunter’s Journey From Rock Star To All-Starr

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Ian Hunter has a new solo album coming out next week, and I couldn't be more delighted.

Chances are you don't know Ian Hunter by name, but you do know his songs. Although he never sold quite as many records as his most obvious influences—Dylan, the Stones, and David Bowie—or for that matter, even as his one-time Mott The Hoople bandmate Mick Ralphs did with Bad Company—Hunter's songs occupy a unique and permanent place in rock history.

The group Great White, for example, made a career out of covering Hunter tunes like "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" in the eighties (much the same way as their metal comrades Quiet Riot did with Slade songs like "Cum On Feel The Noize"). Even Barry Manilow hopped on the Ian Hunter bandwagon at one point, when he had a hit with a cover of the rare Hunter ballad "Ships." Latter-day fans like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones have also cited Mott The Hoople as a primary influence on the Clash.

But for those of us who love the man behind the curls and the shades, Ian Hunter's greatest days remain those he spent as frontman and primary songwriter for the great unsung seventies rock band Mott The Hoople. I once wrote a review of their great album Mott, where I described them as how Dylan might sound if he were backed by the Rolling Stones. The review so inspired a few members of my Journalism 101 class, that they formed an ad hoc fanclub called "Friends Of Mott The Hoople." Funny shit.

Later, when I was writing for another school paper in college, I got a chance to meet Hunter when I heard that area DJ Norm Gregory would be interviewing him for the afternoon show on local rock station KZOK. I immediately phoned Gregory and asked if I could come down and hang out, to which he agreed.

When Gregory was done with him, I sat Ian Hunter down in the lobby at the station and did my own interview. My greatest recollection of this was the way that Hunter chain-smoked throughout our conversation, and stacked his butts up end to end on the table (there was no ashtray). He also never once removed those trademark shades of his.

I also saw Ian Hunter play live twice, once with Mott The Hoople, and another time on a solo tour fronting the Hunter/Ronson Band with former David Bowie guitarist, the late, great Mick Ronson.

Due to their association with Bowie on the album (and titular hit single) All The Young Dudes, Mott were at the time being pegged as part of the seventies glitter-rock movement. And although the label wasn't necessarily an accurate one — as I said their sound was equal parts Stones swagger and Dylanesque poetry in motion (thanks to Hunter's voice and lyrics) — they definitely relished the role of glam boys in concert.

Bassist Overend "Pete" Watts was known as much for the knee-high platform boots he wore onstage as he was for his bass playing. As for Hunter, he played a variety of really cool looking guitars, including one that was shaped like a giant "H" and another that looked like a Maltese cross.

When I saw Mott the Hoople in concert, Hunter wasn't afraid to run head first into the crowd either. At one point in the show I saw, he even ran up the middle aisle with that Maltese cross guitar of his, plunked himself into a seat next to some poor unfortunate female, and barked "Move over you fucking slut!" into the mike. This was all in good fun, of course, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if the female fan left with the band after the show.

Most importantly, though, Mott the Hoople made some really great records, and Ian Hunter's introspective song lyrics pondering life as a rock star were often the centerpiece of them. Case in point would be "The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople" from the classic album Mott. "All The Way From Memphis" may have been the hit single from that record, but "Ballad" was its heart and soul. Hunter's lyrics lamented the life of the rock star, while at the same time poking some good-natured, self-deprecating fun both at his band and at himself.

Much of Hunter's best work, both then and now, has that unique sort of autobiographical sense to it. In his book Diary Of A Rock Star, Hunter takes this even further as he spares no details in telling the wild story of his life on the road with a Mott The Hoople tour in the seventies. The book has been called by some the best self-written account of both the glamour and the drudgery of the rock and roll life ever.

Although Ian Hunter keeps a bit of a lower profile these days, he still gets out for the occasional solo tour. Hunter is also a regular fixture on Ringo Starr's annual All-Starr Band shows. Still wearing those ever-present shades, Hunter is always good for a version of "All The Young Dudes" or "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" at those shows, right alongside the likes of people like Joe Walsh, Grand Funk's Mark Farner, or Men At Work's Colin Hay.

Ian Hunter also still makes records, though, and on his new one Man Overboard, he sounds as sharp as he ever has. Hunter's voice, which has always had that Dylan sort of rasp to it, has become even raspier with age. But, as with Dylan's most recent work, it suits him very well and there are still few singers who can match his way with a phrase.

As for the songs themselves? From what I can tell here, the man hasn't lost a single step in that department either. As he did with Mott The Hoople and on his early solo albums, Ian Hunter's lyrics ride a delicate balance between introspection, the occasional touch of melancholy, and an always self-deprecating sense of humor.

But the eleven songs on Man Overboard are a different bag than Hunter's early solo work or with Mott The Hoople to be sure. The guy's gotten a bit older, and it shows. The thing is, where those albums he made with Mott were characterized by their dirty sound and sense of reckless abandon, the sound here is cleaner and a bit more refined. That sort of thing comes with age and experience I guess.

Still, Hunter has lost of none of his edge, nor his gift for a phrase or sense of sardonic wit in the lyric department. The music here runs the gamut from the Stonesy blues-based stomp of "Babylon Blues" to "The Great Escape," which recalls the sort of mandolin-heavy funk of Pete Townshend and Ronnie Laine's sadly overlooked classic Rough Mix.

But more than anything else, Ian Hunter remains that rare songwriter who has a gift both for weaving a great story, while adding just enough touches of both humor and — when called upon — sadness, to make you know these are songs that probably come from personal experience. On "The Great Escape," Hunter recalls playing in a pub on his 21st birthday and narrowly escaping a bar fight because "you gotta' get away, especially if the guy is bigger than you."

On "Girl From The Office," Hunter puts himself in the shoes of every working stiff who ever wanted to nail the stand-offish office girl friday. He imagines both "what a hero I would be, if the girl from the office went out with me" and in the chorus considers how his co-workers would ask "what's she like, what's she like, what's she like in bed." Stuff most of us working class folk can relate to, right guys?

On the title track, a ballad which considers the flip side of his romantic ballad "Ships," Hunter is a "man overboard, waves washing over me, hard times in a perilous sea" who finds his ultimate comfort in drink. "The twelve steps to heaven never worked for me," Hunter sings, while declaring he'd rather be "drunk and disorderly."

But perhaps the best line on the album comes during "Babylon Blues" where Hunter declares "when I'm gone, remember that you can't take the alley outta' these cats."

Yup, dude's still got it.

Ian Hunter's Man Overboard will be in stores this Tuesday July 21 from New West Records.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.