The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople [Or, I Was A Teenage Fan Club Secretary]
'Mott The Hoople's what the generation gap's all about.' [Melody Maker - 1971]
Over 35 years ago, Mott The Hoople didn't mess about predicting riots. They started 'em. Nice big ones in places like the Royal Albert Hall. Mott had the longest hair, the loudest amps and wildest stage act seen since Jerry Lee Lewis started turning pianos into matchwood - they were spurred on to greater heights of mayhem and studio psychosis by none other than Guy Stevens, ten years before 'London Calling'. Paradoxically, Mott could wrench out slow songs that took on a soul and majesty rarely seen in any British band. They might have sailed across the glam-scape with David Bowie on an anthem called 'All The Young Dudes' but always stuck the boot into rock's staleness, shallowness and self-indulgence. Predictably, Mott got slagged off, didn't sell records and suffered great internal disorder. That was half their appeal. When the top did come into reach, it all fell apart.
Although there was no way you could call the amiable rock 'n' rollers who made up Mott The Hoople punks [as per catalogue], they were the first UK group to speak to kids on the street in a way which would become de rigueur a couple of years after they split up in '74. They coined the phrase 'Crash Street Kids' just for you. Mott helped pave the way for punk rock in much the same way as the New York Dolls and the Faces.
Hope that pricked your interest - or at the very least interested your prick – you see, Mott The Hoople were a very important group. Here, I got a little secret for ya....
Mott The Hoople evolved from local groups in the Hereford area in the mid-60s. Bassist Peter 'Overend' Watts and drummer Dale 'Buffin' Griffin were in an outfit called the Anchors, singer Stan Tippins and guitarist Mick Ralph were in the Buddies and Verden 'Phally' Allen played keyboards for the Inmates. The five ended up together as the Doc Thomas Group, playing the local village hall/pub circuit through '66-67. They decided to try their luck in London and changed their name to Silence. Through the usually thankless auditions network, they got noticed by Mr Guy Stevens, the already infamous pioneering DJ resident at mod club the Scene, who'd championed the causes of, amongst others, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. He was mates with Pete Townsend and closely involved with Free, Procol Harum and the great Spooky Tooth. Most recently, Guy had been involved in a lysergically-illuminated mob called Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. He was also well in there with the rising Island label due to his A&R-ing for the Sue label.
Guy was looking for a group to mentor after getting out of Wormwood Scrubs where he'd done a stretch for possessing drugs. He was impressed by the toil and tears Silence put in to lugging Phally's huge Hammond organ up a flight of stairs. He already had the group's name - Mott The Hoople - after a book of the same name he'd read by Willard Manus.
When Guy took them under his wing, Stan didn't stick around, preferring to try for success abroad. A Melody Maker ad turned up a struggling songwriter called Ian Hunter, who had previously earned a crust backing veteran rockers like Freddie 'Fingers' Lee and Billy Fury, before moving to Northampton and becoming a council road-digger. Still obsessed with rock 'n' roll, Hunter also moved to London, where he joined the staff of a songwriting-to-order company. After answering the Maker ad, he turned up at the Mott auditions at Regent Street in Denmark Street [where the Stones recorded their first album]. Already sporting the red curls and black shades, he sat down at the piano and played Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone'. Guy stopped him within seconds and told him he was in. He'd spotted some latent talent currently with no direction home to bring it out. 'Guy saved my bacon,' Hunter told Zigzag. 'Without him I don't know what I'd be doing.'
Guy guided the new band, trying to realise his manic vision of a marriage between Dylan and the Stones - with a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis thrown in. After two weeks together, they whacked down their eponymous debut album for Island Records in little more than a day in July '69. [Zigzag actually reported its original title as 'Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Disaster Dylan Blues']. Mott covered a pair of ballads - Sonny Bono's 'Laugh At Me' and Sir Douglas Quintet's 'At The Crossroads' - but also supplied some of their own, including the epic 'Half Moon Bay', which Hunter later said he always considered to be, 'the essence of Mott; it had everything in it...all the jumbled ingredients of those early days, thrown together in one bizarro track!' That's the one Bob Dylan picked up on. Mott would always have their inimitable soul-drenched, moody ballads - but it was the rockers - 'Rock 'N' Roll Queen' and a blazing rendition of the Kinks' 'You Really Got Me' that pointed at their future direction [even if they had used just the backing track]. The similarity has been remarked upon between 'Rock 'N' Roll Queen' and 'Anarchy In The UK'.
Mott started gigging in August, cutting their teeth in Italy before hitting the UK's explosive small club scene with Stan Tippins returning to define the role of tour manager. After a few gigs, they realised they had to do something to stand out from the deluge of denim-clad 30-minute guitar solo outfits then doing the rounds. They weren't confident about just doing their Dylan-flavoured ballads and started getting wilder, being one of the first groups to add a rock 'n' roll medley at the end. Hunter called up his Jerry Lee Lewis fixation and would mount his electric piano while the rest of the group went apeshit. They started extending 'You Really Got Me' into a 20-minute barely controlled explosion. The madder the group, got the madder they noticed the audience got, so they started getting madder.
One of the earliest gigs where it kicked off for Mott – and yours truly - was on December 8 when they visited the esteemed Friars club in Aylesbury for the first time. Groups like Free, Black Sabbath, the Edgar Broughton Band and, erm, Mandrake Paddle Steamer had already found the Aylesbury crowd welcoming and crazed. Promoter David Stopps was always on the lookout for new groups and booked Mott on the strength of the album. Mott were shocked to be greeted like heroes and responded by pulling out all the stops. Now the ballads detonated monstrous swells of emotion, hitting hammering climaxes. The live hot-wiring of 'You Really Got Me' was the most exciting thing I'd seen on a stage since the Stones and Hendrix. By ten minutes into its raging chaos the group were standing on their amps, hair obscuring their faces, mercilessly thrashing endless, feedback-drenched power-chords. At this point, me and my mates were propelled to leap on to the tiny stage. I hopped on top of a Marshall stack in a frenzied display of what was then known - quite aptly - as 'idiot dancing'. And didn't get dragged off. I was 15 and this was my first encounter with proper rock 'n' roll craziness.
It was also the first time I'd spoken to anybody in a group. Or rather, anybody in a group had spoken to me. Mott were genuinely nice guys with none of the arrogance which seemed to dog some of the other bands who visited the club [Like that self-important little smartarse Phil Collins]. This was the first time I'd felt part of it all. I was never the same again.
Ten days later, I was bowled over to discover that Robin Pike, my chemistry teacher who had been responsible for me seeing the Stones and Hendrix already, had booked Mott to play my annual school dance. I loved the thought of the ludicrously pompous head boy and his stuck-up girlfriend being subjected to Mott the Hoople. The problem was, it was a sixth year dance and I was in the fifth. Not eligible. But I decided to give it a try anyway and wandered down to the school, first popping in the pub opposite for a livener. Sitting in the corner were Mott The Hoople, having a few pre-gig bevvies. Summoning all my bottle, I went over to their table and started burbling on about the Friars gig. They remembered me and Overend Watts bought me a pint. I'd always pictured rock stars to be stuck-up and more concerned with the next line, glass or orifice, but this guy was just so friendly. It was onstage he could be frightening.
I might have been coming over like a gushing young fan but there was no way any of them were just paying me lip service. They asked about school, what music I liked, growing up in Aylesbury and expounded on the workings and philosophy of Mott The Hoople. 'So you coming over to the show then?' asked Ian Hunter. Whereas the others had a general air of laidback amiability, the be-shaded Hunter seemed more intense and serious. I told him I couldn't go because it was sixth form only. He was outraged. When it was time to go over to the gig they bundled me in as a roadie, shielded by Overend and Mick. Once in, I made a beeline for the front and hid under the table supporting the PA stack. Top view, greatest night of my life before they'd played a note. They fired out a similar set to Friars and I noticed the girls getting into it a lot more than the wobble-chinned arse-lollied boyfriends. I had to leave before the end, but as I staggered out from under the table Mick Ralphs pointed at me and said, 'This one's for our mate Kris, who's unfortunately got to go'. Then he counted in 'Rock 'N' Roll Queen'. The usually-smug sixth formers, teachers and that creep of a headmaster, all saw me. I didn't give a shit
From that night I collected everything I read about Mott, caned their album and saw them wherever I could. They returned to Aylesbury the following February and May as well as visiting Friars satellites like Bedford and High Wycombe, all the time getting wilder, louder and more flamboyant. By now the press had singled them out as either wild new hopes or a horrendous din who couldn't play their instruments. That April, there was a dynamite live broadcast on the Sunday evening Radio One show presented by Mr Peel.
Somewhere in South London a young kid called Mick Jones was having the same kind of epiphany. Together with a bunch of mates who were trying to put a group together, Mick was following Mott everywhere. I'd often see him perched in the dressing room, sporting platform boots and Ken Market suede. It's well known how Mott influenced his sound & style - and the fact that Mott took time to talk to him and their fans shaped his attitude to the kids who would follow The Clash in similarly devoted fashion. Musically, he was influenced by the scope and multi-layered intricacy of Mott's arrangements and the ringing, melodic guitar lines. Later in the decade, Mick would produce Hunter's 'Short Back 'N' Sides' album while, even last year, Carbon-Silicon were doing a cover of his 'Original Mixed Up Kid'.
Mott had a problem with their early records. For some reason, gestation was often fraught and difficult while sales weren't great. When they recorded their second album, 'Mad Shadows', they were burnt out from relentless touring, Ian was suffering personal problems and Guy was excelling even his own extreme behavior. Even Stevens described the album's inception as 'a creative nightmare'. 'It was what was going on at the time,' Hunter told Zigzag, who had championed the group from the start. 'The whole album was a scream for help, but everybody was too embarrassed to say it.' It was honest: warts, mistakes 'n' all.
Guy's destruction of furniture inspired the group into spewing out a monstrous work of either frayed chaos ['Threads Of Iron'] or gospel-like spirituality ['I Can Feel']. 'Thunderbuck Ram' was a cavernous roar with off-key singing ['I was pissed out of my head', confessed Hunter]. For the final track, Guy insisted Hunter make it up at the piano as he went along. 'Guy stood in front of me with his eyes wild and screamed "You can do it, you can do it", and he put the red light on and started recording." And I played and sang these words and then listened to the playback; it didn't sound like me. The result was a stark cry of madness called 'When My Mind's Gone'. Amidst all this lunacy and carnage, the album's out-and-out rocker, 'Walking With A Mountain', is like a blast of light. It ends with a mass chant of 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' because Mick 'n' Keef had popped in during the recording.
In truth, 'Mad Shadows' was the nearest Guy ever got to making his own album. 'He had something to get out of system and he did it through us.' 'Mad Shadows' was released in September '70 and only managing to claw into the top 50 despite the group's live success. Mott decided to produce the next one themselves and go for a more musical approach in deference to the country-rock favoured by Mick Ralphs. They also needed to save on the cost of Guy's destructive production methods. The resultant album, 'Wildlife', was fairly bland, apart from a couple of lovely ballads called 'Waterlow' and 'Angel of Eighth Avenue' plus a ten-minute live recording of their riotous rock 'n' roll medley based around Little Richard's 'Keep-A-Knocking'. Here, at least [and at last], the group's formidable live experience was captured. But much of the rest was cleanly presented country-rock. Even Hunter described it as 'sterile', thinking tracks like 'Whiskey Women' should have 'exploded'. The album, released in February '71, was panned before it sank.
Mott continued on the road, where they rarely failed to achieve liftoff. They realised that rock 'n' roll would have to be the ticket for the next album. The need to just kick out the jams was heightened when Mott got themselves banned from London's Royal Albert Hall that July. The fact that the venue, who accused the group of inciting a riot and hit them with a bill for over a grand, was being refurbished at the time was not lost on the band. But you couldn't buy that kind of publicity and their reputation as the wildest group around was cemented. '...the nearest scenes to Beatlemania I've seen this decade,' frothed one review. This was punk-style shock outrage and just what the kids needed in an age when progressive rock was getting uncomfortably dominant. Throughout the set, Hunter sent out declarations to the 3,000-strong crowd, along the lines of, 'These instruments aren't ours, we've got no money at all,' and, 'We don't like intellectuals'. The crowd cheered but those critics now had Mot pinned as raucous punks, and practically ignored the slow songs or the killer version of 'Like A Rolling Stone'. 'Musically it may have been pretty disastrous but for sheer excitement I would defy any of Britain's top bands to rival Mot on this showing,' declared Melody Maker.
Although annoyed at the time that critics were waiting for the riot, Hunter later told Zigzag's Pete Frame that the gig was his favourite Mott moment. 'I mean, that had that element of mass defiance that characterised those early days when we were trying to break through. The press hated us, and everybody else hated us - but we had this strong body of fans who stuck with us...and the Albert Hall gig was the climax of the fans and us making our stand against the rest of the world! It was like a declaration of independence.'
'Brain Capers' was Mott's last chance with Island and saw Guy Stevens back to inject mayhem again. He almost didn't need to, although he did manage to set fire to the studio. Hunter described it as 'the sound of a band freaking out'. The contrast with its predecessor was terrifying. This was the sound of a group about to implode, dark and wired. It's also one of the finest UK rock 'n' roll albums of all time. The demonic opening workout was called 'Death May Be Your Santa Claus'; 'The Moon Upstairs' hijacked an MC5 riff while 'Sweet Angeline' managed to marry that group with the Faces or Dylan. The highlight was another introspective Hunter epic called 'The Journey', which started as a soul-searing ballad before building into brutal, battering cacophony. They turned down a rocker called 'Suffragette City' from a struggling artist called David Bowie, who had been watching and admiring Mott for a while.
The original title was 'AC/DC' - 'because we're just as schizoid as ever' - and the album was dedicated to James Dean. 'Brain Capers' came with a free Zorro mask, German bombers on the inner sleeve and went out with a sheet of white noise and Hunter shouting. It remains one of the greatest high-energy, unhinged testaments of all time. Released in August '71, it didn't sell. Can't think why.
Mot's August appearance at Aylesbury was monumental in its ferocity. Their power had increased, everything had got rawer and no other outfit at that time could touch them. They remained genuine, honest and always great to their fiercely-faithful fans.
Island dropped them, but Mott went on to honour their gig-sheet. Arguments escalated until, on the night of March 26, '72, Ian rowed with Buffin onstage at a gig in a disused Zurich gas station. Mott started buckling - before realising they were contracted to play an extravaganza called the Rock And Circus around the UK. Here the group toured in a big top scenario with acrobats, clowns, jugglers and - most strangely - veteran music hall comedian Max Wall [Another great way to lose money]. They were facing the final curtain.
Then came a strange twist - for both Mott The Hoople and yours truly. In September '71, I had gone to see a struggling singer-songwriter with long blonde hair and penchant for female clothes play at Friars. It was David Bowie and he went down a storm. He was so fired up by the reception that afterwards he told me, 'I'm going to become a huge rock star. I really want to come back and play here, but next time you see me I'm going to be totally different. The reaction here has told me how far I can take it.'
One way of putting it. In January '72, that unassuming cross-dressing folkie came back to our local dressed as Ziggy Stardust. In all his carrot-topped, satin-jumpsuited, crotch-hugging, alien glory. One song, 'Five Years', mentioned the Market Square outside the club. 'I told ya!', he crowed with a massive grin as he basked in the dressing room. Nobody could quite believe what Bowie had turned himself into. In the age of denim, this was hallucinogenic beauty from another galaxy, an outrageous future vision and uproarious rock 'n' roll onslaught which gave us our own first idol. And he was our mate! Then his bodyguards wouldn't let me near him for the next few months.
The furor continued and it seemed natural to follow Bowie in the same way that I'd been following Mott. The twist was that Bowie's fan club was being run from a house in Aylesbury by a girl called Hilda. I started helping out, doing things like designing the membership card. Bowie was managed by hotshot Tony DeFries and his Mainman organisation, who were now going to manage Mott The Hoople. After the circus fiasco, Overend had contacted Bowie to see if he knew of any jobs going. Bowie had been a fan and offered to give them a new song and produce it too. That was 'All The Young Dudes'. On the strength of it, DeFries secured a five-year deal with Columbia and Mott found themselves with one of that spangled summer's glam anthems, although they'd managed to work in an underlying Clockwork Orange sensibility with Bowie's backing vocals as well as the old crashing Mott power. Hunter's closing exhortations were inspired by dealing with a heckler. The single reached number three.
At first, Bowie had been scared of Mott. 'Bowie came to see us at a gig once and was trembling with fear, 'cause he had this image of Mott as heavy-duty punks,' said Hunter in the sleeve-notes to an old compilation. ''Maybe that was true in a way, but we were really just ordinary people who would get legitimately upset about things. When David found that out, he was a bit let down.'
The new Mott connection was truly exciting news. My beloved Mott had joined forces with this guy who I'd become fixated by. They were now under the Mainman wing, along with Iggy Pop, although Hunter would never sign a proper contract with the infamous DeFries. Bowie also produced Mott an album of the same name in that activity-rush which also gave birth to Lou Reed's 'Transformer' and would lead to 'Raw Power'. The 'All The Young Dudes' album was rather dry and compressed, but contained some suitably-risque belters like 'Sucker', 'Jerkin' Crocus' and 'One Of The Boys'. They also covered Lou's 'Sweet Jane' and there was another classic Hunter ballad called 'Sea Diver'.
Bowie's '72 shows were incredible. I knew things would never be the same again. Obviously his fan club wasn't going to be operating out of a semi-detached house in Aylesbury for long. It was suggested that I start one for Mott and, within days, I was visiting the group at Top Of The Pops and then Tony DeFries at MainMan. Mott had been the first group I felt involved with and now, for beter or worse, they were getting me started in the music business. I was chuffed when the office gave me a Mainman itinerary for that period, listing the daily activities of Bowie [taking Ziggy around the US and UK], Iggy [finishing recording 'Raw Power'] and Mott [touring the UK]. I invested in black satin jacket and purple velvet strides and we were off.
I wrote a protest letter to NME about Mott's rough ride in the press and, with the help of then- fiancé Karoline, embarked on organizing the club. I called it the Mott the Hoople Seadivers after the album's closing ballad. I designed the membership cards, printed introductory letters and readied merchandise to dish out.
Next time I saw Mott The Hoople was on a different footing [and I don't mean my six-inch platforms]. They were playing Dunstable Civic Hall. Compared to the disillusioned bunch trashing High Wycombe Town hall at the start of the year, it was a different group. Rock 'n' roll stars decked out in audaciously loud new clobber. This was how Mainman wanted them to look and behave. So we had Hunter in a black leather catsuit! With a mammoth, unwieldy H shaped guitar. Overend standing around seven foot tall in leopard-skin boots, hair sprayed platinum and sporting the biggest bass on the planet. The others were simply glammed up. Phally looked uncomfortable. I was once quoted as saying, 'It would be hard to imagine a more butch band than Mott were.' What I meant was these were country boys with attitude, serial shaggers - and hardly describable as pretty. But whereas groups like Sweet looked ridiculous and hammy, Mott had the rock 'n' roll attitude to back up the outfits. For the first time, they were getting the star treatment and makeover, and took to it like ducks.
They swaggered through the new songs, a few oldies, and the rock 'n' roll eruption near the end. 'All the Young Dudes' was already an anthem. For the first time, I didn't feel like a star-struck fan or a ligger. I was there for a purpose and duly composed the first newsletter with the group, got them to sign photos and planned a big push at the up-coming big gig at London's Rainbow Theatre the following month.
That was a first taste of the Big London Gig scenario. Mainman wanted to turn it into An Event and everyone agreed it would be a great place to push the Seadivers. I was further surprised when I was enlisted by Bowie's missus, Angie, to throw balloons into the crowd from the balcony. We had passes for the backstage bar and ran into a bedraggled and pissed Guy Stevens, who seemed blurrily disdainful of his former protégés' sudden good fortune. They were certainly a far cry from the humble bunch he'd kicked into the world. After the gig, we continued whooping it up at the Chelsea office from where DeFries directed Mainman operations. News was coming in that Bowie had taken New York by storm. Hunter was comparing Defries to Elvis's Colonel Parker. Igg was falling in the Raw Power leather. A different world, which, as it happened, I wouldn't get to see that often [with this group, anyway]. From then on, my time was spent more addressing envelopes.
The club expanded to a few hundred members. Most famously, these included one Steven Morrissey from Stretford, Manchester. He wrote constantly and we developed some kind of rock 'n' roll pen-pal relationship as he talked of his obsession with Mott and later the New York Dolls, while also outlining plans to form his own group one day. He sounded lonely and lived for Mott. The groupie letters from the US were always fun too.
There was a bizarre incident when another Seadiver turned up on the doorstep of my parents' house, from where I ran the club. A pleasant Asian girl who was studying at the posh Lady Margaret's Hall at Oxford. She had driven over with her friend to see the home of Mott's fan club and, as she'd written a few times, I knew the name. Benazir Bhuto, number 262, who later went on to become Prime Minister of Pakistan.
In some ways, doing the club was a thankless task. I would write the newsletters, do the artwork, reply to fan mail and address those envelopes - for a pittance. In fact, it cost me money to do it [yet alone the college time]. But I was a gushing, devoted fan. Through Mott, I saw rock 'n' roll first hand at an early age. Through naive, gob-smacked specs. Now it all makes sense. If it had been a few years later I would have kept that fucking group together! Back in the summer of 1972, it was enough for this 18-year-old to choose a different path from heroin or whisky [for a few years anyway].
Mott's time with Mainman fizzled as Bowie's star rose. He'd taken them on when he was still climbing and collecting artists he regarded in a mixture of fear and admiration. In the trophy booth were Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and even the great Wayne County. By '73, Ziggy was huge and Bowie would kill the monster to become Aladdin Sane. Mott never signed with Mainman and, while Bowie was flitting on to his next persona, the relationship with DeFries obviously couldn't continue. But the experience had made Hunter strong so they moved to the next stage with the Columbia deal and new-found fame on the back of 'Dudes'. In the process, they lost Verden Allen, who'd never been at home in sparkly codpieces.
For the follow-up to 'Dudes', Mott, who'd lost Bowie's 'Drive-In Saturday' during the collapse of the Mainman relationship, did it themselves. They went to Abbey Road to translate the new lyrics which Hunter had drawn out of the whirlwind of the previous months, working with a sympathetic engineer called Bill Price [another Mott associate who would go on to work with The Clash]. They turned out what probably now stands as their classic album. It was certainly the one which consolidated and catapulted Mott out of all the holes and setbacks.
We went to Air Studios, off Oxford Circus, to hear the first full playback of 'Mott' from start to finish. They knew they'd cracked it from the distinctive opening piano rev-up of 'All The Way From Memphis'. Like its predecessors, much of 'Mott' was autobiographical. I'm puzzled why they got derided in some quarters for writing about their lives - which this time included the group's '72 breakup and all the time on tour. 'Memphis' is one of the great road songs from its first line, 'Forgot my six-string razor, hit the sky.' And nowhere else had Hunter perfectly captured more the chaos and extremities of life in Mott the Hoople than with the line, 'You climb up the mountains, and you fall down the holes.' The accompanying music was an air-punching boogie-beast. 'Hymn For The Dudes' was a dynamic, dramatic ballad which reflected on the transience of stardom. 'The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople [Zurich 1972]' was Hunter's most delicate moment, an acoustic reflection on the split.
The album also included 'Violence', which commented on the hard reality of life in the early 70s. 'Violence, violence, it's the only thing that'll make you see sense,' intoned Hunter with the new, vaguely camp, theatricality which had crept into his voice since the Bowie period. Screeching, screaming and bellowed, it was Mott's most blatant hot-wire so far to the nerve-ends of UK punk rock which would be twitching the following year.
My address was on the back of the elaborate sleeve and we got a deluge of new members. 'Honaloochie Boogie' was released as first single in May, reaching number 12. This time, they let me come along to their Top Of The Pops recording [in which I could be seen lurking behind the group on the broadcast!]. The album emerged in July and made the UK top ten, as opposed to its predecessor stalling just outside the 20. This made it Mott's most successful album to date. 'Memphis' would raid the top ten as the next single in August.
Overend got one of his tracks on the album - the lascivious car-analogy romp, 'Drivin' Sister'. He was happy, but Mick Ralphs wasn't so keen on his relegation to one track per album. He now felt reduced in role and went off to form the more conventional Bad Company with Free's Paul Rodgers, rewriting 'One Of The Boys' for their first single, 'Can't Get Enough'. His last gigs with Mott were their breakthrough August '73 US tour [where they were supported by the New York Dolls on some shows].
In less than a month, Mott were due to play another US tour. A replacement came along in the shape of Luthor Grovsenor, who'd previously distinguished himself in late 60s blues outfit Spooky Tooth. He'd been signed to Island so, for contractual reasons, had to change his name. Wispy chanteuse Lynsey De Paul is said to have suggested the Ariel Bender tag, although the group liked to blame an obsession with bending back car aerials. Bender was a total contrast to Ralphs. Whereas Mick had been a quiet, pleasant sort of chap, it was almost as if Ariel Bender had adopted a persona to go with the name as the loudest, maddest embodiment of rock 'n' roll exhibitionism and extremism. His look was more New York Dolls, his guitar-playing demented and banshee-like high energy. His onstage demeanor mainly involved running full-pelt from one side of the stage to the other. But he was larger than life, totally flash and his guitar-playing oozed blues power.
There was a keyboard player to replace too. In came Morgan Fisher, who'd been in the Love Affair of 'Everlasting Love' fame. For a while, Blue Weaver, who'd come from Amen Corner but would go on to collaborate with the BeeGees in their disco phase, handled the organ, but it was Morgan who had the character, creativity and personality to become a full-fledged Mott member. He clicked with both nutters [Bender, Watts] and musos [Buffin, Hunter] - although both would overlap. Above all. Morgan's elegant flourishes and R&B chops were the icing on Mott's bulging cake.
Obviously, Mott's gigs now moved up several notches and they started to crack America. Big league now. After the lengthy US jaunt with Bender, they played a triumphant UK outing. It was funny seeing that group I'd first witnessed four years earlier at that tiny club in Aylesbury now coming on with full, big rock show treatment. The show at Hammersmith Odeon on December 14, 1973, ranked as one of the best times I saw them [out of around a hundred]. They stormed it and simply refused to leave the stage. By the end of the traditional home-stretch rock-out, Hunter and Ariel Bender were blasting away on the catwalk in front of the stage. Meanwhile, Morgan Fisher had lodged the venue's grand piano in a suitable position to deflect the safety curtain the management were trying to lower to curtail the show. Classic moment of two-fingered rock'n'roll carnage.
This is one of the gigs which made up the late '74 'Mott The Hoople Live' album [the other was one of their Broadway shows the following May]. To celebrate the 30th anniversary, a double-CD set was released by Columbia which saw a bunch of unreleased tracks and the requisite technology-enhanced sound. A lot of it's here and it's possible to appreciate the power, energy and majesty running riot through this bunch [I'd kill anyone for a recording of their merciless pillaging of 'You Really got Me', though].
In early '74, Mott signed with new American managers, who also looked after Lou Reed. One of the first things Fred Heller did was get a deal for Ian's first book. During the '72 tour of America, he had kept a journal which would emerge as 'Diary Of A Rock 'N' Roll Star' – long recognised as one of the most honest and realistic accounts of the on-the-road lifestyle. The main difference for me was, I now got paid.
They also had to follow up 'Mott' - and recorded 'The Hoople' in January and February. Another first, as I was invited along to the studio to witness the group at work. Everyone was getting pissed as they watched Morgan lay down some rolling piano and swirling Hammond on a mid-tempo ditty called 'Alice' and Bender bring his inimitable brand of chaos to a new Hunter masterwork called 'Marionette'. Decked out in the satin and tat he'd wear on stage, Bender slashed power-chords on the track which would become the album's tour-de-force. A drama-ridden comment on the music business and its helpless puppets, it was the most ambitious thing Mott would ever attempt. Bellowing horror-voices, mad violins and a guitar solo I saw unfold that night which sounded like an enraged mule being castrated. Halfway through doing his thing at around three in the morning, Bender stopped playing, leaned his guitar against the amp and nonchalantly took a piss. Phew, rock 'n' roll! I ended up drinking back at Morgan's flat. First time I'd stayed up all night with a group.
The album's first single, 'Roll Away The Stone, appeared in November, going top ten. Although showed that Mott's sound had become more sophisticated in an episodic, not-a-minute-wasted perfect-pop style. Girlie backing vocals, spoken interjection, widescreen sound and ambition. A Phil Spector fixation was emerging. This was continued on 'The Golden Age Of Rock 'N' Roll', a roaring, sax-driven belter which stood loud and proud in celebration of its subject mater. It stalled at 16 in March '74, but Mott still seemed unstoppable that month as 'The Hoople' was released. It also showed that, even if the singles were compact and chart-friendly, and Ian still loved a ballad, Mott were still intent on slipping in some social comment. Of course, there was 'Marionette', but 'Crash Street Kids' was the spitting, snarling gang in 'Violence' meeting 'The Terminator' in a dark alley, ending with a dalek-voiced Hunter screaming 'Now you're dead!' Blimey [At one point, 'Crash Street Kids' was going to be the album's title].
Unexpectedly, the group popped up in June with their most pure pop outing to date in 'Foxy Foxy'. It was the fullest realisation yet of that Spector obsession. This time they'd gone the whole hog - the beat, the girl group and orchestral backdrop. Odd to hear Hunter wailing in somewhat strangled fashion over the top. They thought they were on to hit but it didn't make the top 30. Mott themselves were on another US marathon and the constant roadwork was leading to arguments again. Three months on the road in a big group was a volatile hotbed of temptations to hurl at Ariel Bender, who was in line to be sacked Mott returned to play the Buxton Festival in July.
The day after the festival, Mott The Hoople played their last ever UK gig at the unlikely location of the Palace Lido, Douglas, on the Isle Of Man. I didn't know it at the time, but July 6, 1974, would be the last time I would ever see them play under that name. As Bowie said, five years, that's all you've got.
Ironically, this was the first time I'd actually traveled with the group to a gig [and my first time on a plane]. Bender was in the bar when we arrived at Heathrow but I had no idea he would be departing from the band. He was more loud and out-of-it than usual. The rest of the group were gents. We went out to dinner before the show and it was another case of 'this is the life'. Unfortunately, it turned out to be possibly the worst time I saw Mott the Hoople. There was tension crackling on the stage like electricity but, where this can sometimes make for a great gig, it robbed the show of its usual warmth, spontaneity and spirit. When Hunter did his customary intro from Don McClean's 'American Pie', he put the emphasis on 'the day the music died' line before they burst into 'The Golden Age Of Rock 'N' Roll'.
Back in London, Hunter hung out with Bowie's former guitarist Mick Ronson, and sang backing vocals on his 'Play Don't Worry' album. Ian had a new song he'd written called 'Saturday Gigs', which charted the story of Mott: a real nostalgia-fest as he namedropped the Roundhouse and Croydon [He claimed Aylesbury didn't fit!]. With Bender gone, he probably thought a new chapter was about to begin so sealed up the past with an anthem. Ronson contributed a typically histrionic solo and, to all intents and purposes, was now a member of Mott The Hoople. There were still tours to fulfill and, anyway, the addition of Ziggy Stardust's former right-hand man could only be a good thing. 'Saturday Gigs' turned out to be Mott's swan-song.
The song ranks among Mott's most ambitious: a grandiose, poignant ballad with full orchestration and classical interlude. It sounded huge when I went along to Trident Studios for a preview while it was being mastered. Monstrous, especially the end coda, where they're just singing 'goodbye' over and over. Shoulda known then, but the next time I saw Hunter and Ronson was when they invited me down to watch the new Mott rehearsing on a sound stage in Fulham.
This would be the only time this lineup of Mott ever played on British soil - to an audience of one! They sounded astonishing though. The meaty power and groin-level thrust of Ronson's guitar perfected during the Bowie years gave the songs another dimension. If they'd have carried on, maybe they would've gained a new female audience! They seriously could've taken the world.
The other striking thing was that the group, obviously wanting to make a totally new start, had all had short haircuts. Fair enough, but a bit of a shock on the previously platinum-maned Overend and quite frightening on Hunter, who now sported short, tight curls. Who cared what they looked like though?
In September, I excitedly announced the new Mott The Hoople to the Seadivers, acquired a wodge of tour programmes for the upcoming jaunt and waited as the group did a three week jaunt around Europe. 'Saturday Gigs' was released - and bombed outside the top 40. Mott returned on November 4 after playing their last show in Holland. If everybody was shocked and disappointed by the single's failure, Hunter was devastated. There was to be a week off before the UK tour was due to start. Hunter went to New York to sort out moving to the US. He suffered a nervous breakdown. Now the tour was cancelled. I had some explaining to do. At first, the official reason was illness, as Ian lay in hospital. Then, it became apparent that Mott the Hoople were no more.
One evening, I was having tea with my mum and dad when the phone went. It was Hunter. He never called me! But he had something to pass on to those loyal bastards like Steven Morrissey who forked out their 50 pence to find out what their heroes were up to. 'I've left the group...we've split up'. The words went through me like a knife. He went on to explain that he'd had it. Internal ructions with some members, desire to move on and all-round touring burnout had prodded Ian to make the decision to move to America and start a new project with Ronson. There was no way the UK tour, or a three-month US outing booked for the following April, would be rescheduled. 'I just sat down and decided I couldn't do it,' he said. 'Tell the fans, I'm so sorry.'
The flopping of 'Saturday Gigs' was the deciding factor. As Ian later told Mott's constant champion Pete Frame, '...the failure of "Saturday Gigs" was the clincher that confirmed it...it was time for a quick exit. I mean, I thought that was the best single we ever did, and it frightened the life out of me when it didn't make it...just wrecked me completely because I was so sure of it. All the eagerness drained out of my being, and I went to pieces...ended up sitting on a bed talking to a doctor, as if he were the only friend I had in the world....I just had a sort of nervous breakdown - couldn't see what I was doing, couldn't sort out my thoughts...and I just poured out my whole life to this doctor. Great bloke he was...I'd initially gone over to New York to sign the deeds of my house, and I just collapsed...it was purely a mental condition, but it laid me out. There was a sold-out tour about to start, and I simply couldn't pull myself together to do it...it was entirely beyond my control. I justy sat there blubbering to this doctor...and he said that if I didn't get away from it and rethink my life, I'd be on the way to an early grave. He was emphatic that I left the group – and my whole being knew he was right...and I had several days of complete solitude in this cold New Jersey hospital to sort myself out. I know that if I'd have done the tour, I'd have freaked uncontrollably.'
It's not often that the front man has to quit his group under doctor's orders, but Hunter did just that. He knew Mott were set to make all the graft of the previous five years pay off. For example, a few nights at Madison Square Gardens had been set for the cancelled US tour. But he followed his own philosophy on life. 'When I used to leave the stage at every gig I used to say, "Think for yourselves". That was my whole trip. Still is. I hate the herd syndrome. Too many people spend too many years in a herd. Eventually, if you want to make anything of yourself whatsoever, you've just gotta rely on your fuckin' instincts.'.
That October, CBS hopefully kept the pot boiling by releasing the 'Live' album, which turned out to be Mott's epitath. It's a shame the new CD has pruned off Morgan's gorgeous classical intro to 'Rose' from the original Hammersmith recording. The first time I heard it I broke down myself. Mott The Hoople, the soundtrack to my adolescence, were no more. Time to grow up...
After a period of recuperation, Ian formed the Hunter-Ronson Band to get back in the swing and play the new songs he'd written in hospital before embarking on a solo career which is worth a feature in itself. 1975's 'Once Bitten, Twice Shy' was a satisfying comeback. The rest carried on as just Mott and were quite a laugh. I continued doing their fan club - Hott Motts - for a while, because Overend, Buffin and Morgan had been good to me. But ultimately nothing could ever get near the heights and danger of the original lineup at their peak. It was one of those magic combinations that don't come along very often. The compilations and this new live CD set give a clue, but it's a shame nobody filmed the gigs or there isn't a live album from '70-'71. That was when, quite often, both chaos and beauty managed to soar hand in hand [before shagging each other senseless and smashing the seats].
I've quoted Zigzag founder Pete Frame throughout this feature as he was Mott's first and most fervent supporter [He's also the bloke who let me turn Zigzag over to punk rock in '77]. Frame's scribblings were what got me into Mott and serious underground music in the late 60s-early-70s. He was set apart from the other Rock Writers – for reasons like this passage from '71 I want to end with - cos I think it says it all:
'Let me tell you about the other Saturday. I went to Hyde Park to see the Jack Bruce, Roy Harper thing, and they had this fence separating the fans from the enclosure containing film cameramen, agents, press, musicians, hangers on, etc. It wasn't just a fence...it seemed like a fucking great chasm - with the fans on one side and the people whose living depended on the fans on the other....it was more like a betting shop scene - iron bars between the customers and the guys who run the place. That is not where rock music is supposed to be at, and I must confess that I found the whole afternoon a pain in the arse.
'That same evening I went to see Mott; and it was just like old times. The music had improved no end, but as people and performers they're exactly the same bunch of friendly fuckers that we used to know and love at Friars; the ones who physically allowed no barriers or fences or attitudes of disdain between them and the audience, who were one with us, who ranted with us, who swore with us, who played their hearts out for the world on those ill-paid, sweaty Monday evenings...I do go on, don't I...but if you don't like Mott, tough shit, that's your problem.'
Kris Needs – tMx 23 – 02/06