28th June 2018
Mott The Hoople: the fall and rise of the greatest rock’n’roll band of the 70s
Ian Hunter is one of Britain’s greatest rock stars, even though he’d never admit it himself. As frontman with Mott The Hoople from their late 60s inception to his departure in 1974, he was a lightning rod for rockers, poets, freaks and outcasts. His band’s seven albums – from overlooked early classics such as 1970’s Mad Shadows and 1971’s Brain Capers to 1972’s David Bowie-assisted breakthrough All The Young Dudes – chart the dramatic, hilarious, heartbreaking rise and fall of this great British instution.
“I dunno why people liked us,” the ever-modest Hunter tells Ramblin’ Man. “I suppose it’s because we meant it. We were for real. We weren’t posers, we didn’t have hair extensions. We loved it, and I think when people see that, they get off on it. I can tell the difference between a posing band and a band that means it, and Mott meant it.”
Mott return to action as headliners on Ramblin’ Man’s Main Stage on Saturday night. It marks only their third reunion since their 70s heyday – the first, a highly charged run of gigs at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, was one of the great comebacks of all time. This time, Hunter is accompanied by guitarist Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor and keyboard player Morgan Fisher, who played on 1974’s The Hoople album – the first time the trio have played together since that time.
“It’s different from the previous reformations,” says Hunter. “Morgan and Luther never get the shot on the first two get togethers, and that’s why we’re doing it. It’s going to favour the album they both played on. It’s a very strong set.”
We believe him. But before Mott rock up to Mote Park, let’s take a deep dive into their history…
Is this the first time Mott have ever headlined a festival in the UK?
I can remember doing the Oval but that was opening for The Who and The Kinks. I remember doing one up North – I don’t remember what it was called. It was horrible. It was a mudbath. I was standing there looking at it and the wind and the rain was sweeping across there, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m never gonna do this, you could kill yourself.’ And just as I was thinking this, (NME journalist) Charles Shaar Murray comes up to me and says, ‘That’s what I love about you, Ian, you get up there no matter what.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do it now…’
Can you remember the very first gig you played with Mott?
It might have been Letchworth. Letchworth Youth Club. We were playing tiny places. I was stage left, just sitting behind the piano. I remember saying, ‘The lights aren’t on me and I’m the singer.’ And the whole place went, ‘Ooooh,’ I always loved Jerry Lee Lewis, because he was arrogant. I was just practising my arrogance.
Were you an arrogant person?
I thought, having been a fan, I enjoyed people who had it. They controlled the show. They were there to please me. With Jerry Lee, it was like you were lucky just to be in his presence. That’s better than just sitting here begging for a bit of adoration.
Dylan was another big hero of yours. Did you ever meet him?
Oh yeah, I met him. He said, ‘You’re older than me!’ The first time I met him was at The Bitter End in New York. There’d been a bit of a pisstake in Rolling Stone magazine, saying, ‘On his latest record, Bob’s trying to sound like Mott.’ It was just a fun thing, y’know. But he went down the street, one foot on the pavement, one foot on the street going, ‘Mott The Hoople! Mott The Hoople!’ And I’m going, ‘I can’t believe this!’
The early years in Mott have passed into myth as being a struggle. What were they really like?
They were tough. You’re trying to make it, there’s a lot of other people out there trying to make it. We knew the alternative, which was the factory, But the camaraderie within the band was fantastic – we all had great senses of humour, and they were all different sense of humour. It’s kind of like The Rant Band – the personalities gel.
Did it feel like you against the world back then?
It did, but the trouble with Mott was that it was a democracy. It had to be five-nil, so it would take months for any decision to be made. Whereas in the case of Roxy Music or Bowie, they could give their managers a quick answer. Our manager was crazy, which didn’t help. It was a bit of a mess all the way through, but we meant well.
Of those early albums, which one is your favourite?
Brain Capers (Mott’s fourth album, released in 1971). I don’t really remember much about recording it. It was five days of chaos. The producer, Guy Stevens, was running around the studio dressed as a highwayman, him and (engineer) Andy Johns are firing water pistols everywhere, and the studio’s going up in flame, and we’re trying to make a record. I had to ring up (Island records boss and studio owner) Chris Blackwell, and say, ‘Chris, the studio’s on fire.’ And he said, ‘Was it really necessary?’ So I said, ‘I guess it was.’
Who was the culprit?
I don’t remember. It wasn’t me…
You came close to splitting up after Brain Capers, but David Bowie helped resurrect your careers. Where did you meet him?
We actually split up in Switzerland, just temporarily, and Pete (aka Overend Watts, original Mott bassist) rang up Bowie for a gig, and Bowie said, ‘Aren’t you with Mott?’ And he said, ‘No, we’ve just jacked it in’. And David went on this whole crusade: ‘No you can’t do that.’ He brought Suffragette City in and we didn’t think that was right, and then he came back with All The Young Dudes. He’d worked with Tony Visconti, he knew how to use a studio. We didn’t. We’d just go in with Guy Stevens and do a gig. You have to use the studio to your advantage, and that’s what we had to do with David and to a lesser extent Mick Ronson.
How did you make All The Young Dudes your own?
The first time I heard it, he played it on an acoustic guitar. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I’m not a great singer, I’m an odd singer, but that I knew I could do.
You suddenly got roped in with the whole glam rock movement around that time. Did you hate that or were you amused by it?
Pete loved it. He loved dressing up. I don’t think Mick (Ralphs, original Mott guitarist) liked it.
You were supported by Queen and Aerosmith and they went onto to become superstars. Do you wonder why Mott never really reached that level?
I don’t know why. It just wasn’t meant to be. You need to be more analytical about everything if you want to go all the way, but then again we didn’t particularly want to go all the way, mentally or physically. We wanted it but at the same time we didn’t.
What was life in Mott like at the height of your fame, post-All The Young Dudes?
Well, it was hard work. Mick Ralphs left and I was left to do all the music, to write all the stuff. Luther (aka guitarist Ariel Bender) was wonderful, but he wasn’t bringing and songs in. So I was starting to get a bit shaky. It was hard without Ralphs.
But Mott’s last two singles, Foxy Foxy and Saturday Gigs, were two of the best songs you ever did. They don’t sound like the work of a band on the way out…
With Saturday Gigs, I’d reached the end of my tether. They got me to go down to the studio, they said they had a great song, and when I got there they were playing this horrible number, so I wrote Saturday gigs out of desperation. And they said, ‘Gotcha!’ It was a sham – they got me to go down there and do Saturday Gigs, and we’re all sitting there, singing “Goodbye”. Our bodies knew before we did.
Did you write it as a farewell song?
I was just being honest, it was what was on my mind. You write where you’re at, and Saturday gigs was just saying goodbye – not physically, but lyrically.
You reunited for five gigs at Hammersmith in 2009. How do you look back on those gigs now?
Oh, we had a great time. There was a great humour in that band, it wasn’t dumb humour, it was intelligent humour. Mick Ralphs was West Country-dry, and I could sit and listen to Pete all my life. When you met Pete, you knew you were in for something totally different. Then you had Verden (Allen, keyboard player) with that Welsh humour. I loved it, it was hilarious.
There were grown men crying in the audience on the last night. Were you aware of the effect you had on people?
I just thought, ‘We can’t be that bad, surely.’ What they were doing was thinking back to their youth. We were only part of it that night – a lot was to do with their youth.
Would you have done anything differently?
No, on reflection. I was never cut out for the Premiership. I think that’s why I’ve lasted as long as I have.
Will we hear from Mott again after this in the future?
No. No. (Laughing) But then again, you never know.