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.