Mott The Hoople - Wam Bam Thank U Glam!
That was my rite of passage, Top Of The Pops in the seventies, when people were actually watching the programme, when it was effortless, when the nation was hooked by the ‘Pops’ in the post Beatles years, when it was stuffed full of over dressed, preening rockers playing stomping anthems from all end of the scale from the supa yob rock of Slade to Bolan’s supreme feather boa pop to Bowie’s space cadet schtick...every week it was great.
There I was sat transfixed with my egg soldiers - a daydreaming kid goggle eyed at the mad parade - at the rock n roll catwalk; another show, another great anthem, another stomping workout to get you through another dreary week in the black and white Blackpool of my youth.
And just before everything became glam in 1971, I remember this group turning up on Top Of The Pops. Mott The Hoople were taking a break from their endless gigs on the toilet circuit for a bit of TV with ‘Midnight Lady’ they looked out of place - all lank hair and strange faces - a curious charisma, gate crashers on the grinning pixie party of the Pops, Hunter and the mob had arrived and already they had a presence - and the tune was catchy as fuck.
Of course it wasn't a hit.
Who the hell were this band? When your ten-years-old, the whole concept of an underground music scene is a difficult one to understand. There are big groups and nothing else - you assume that bands will come back a few weeks later with their next hit. But Mott quickly became a distorted memory, a frustrating glimpse of a rock n roll with more bite, more bollocks and a catchy as fuck yob anthem to boot.
I couldn’t find any of their records in the local record shop in Cleveleys, the sleepy town to the north of Blackpool where I was holding court at the time.
Then a year later when ‘Dudes’ broke out for them it was a revelation. Here they were, that mob from last year, Ian Hunter and his droogs - and they were in the top five with a proper hit. A serious hit.
Mott had arrived - and for two years they ruled the seventies for anyone who needed a fix of rabble rousing rock n roll with great lyrics and a no bullshit attitude.
Their trials and tribulations were recorded in song and book by their front-man, the genius Ian Hunter, who from behind his shades documented rock n roll more accurately than anyone before or after - as the band managed the precarious act of balancing between the underground and the big time. This was reports back from the frontline.
Rock stars at last, the Shropshire vocalist and the Hereford boys had finally fulfilled their potential, a potential hinted at by their first four rousing, roughhouse albums of bellowing, clomping rock n roll.
Now they were in the top five, and with Bowie and his management behind them, they were going to hang in there.
And with a new found confidence, Ian Hunter worked out he could write hits, and their mini series of chart smashes were the closest we were going to get to the spirit of punk before punk arrived five years later.
Ian Hunter is the poet laureate of rock n roll, that bruised voice hollering away from behind the ever-present shades and the tumbledown red hair, a charismatic who looked like he had lived a bit. Hunter dominated the mid seventies for anyone who wanted their music guttural and true.
Mott the Hoople were the true precursors of punk rock, glam enough to ride the wam bam thank U glam of the mid seventies - but street enough to make sense to the punks.
Mott had of course been around for years, ignored and unloved by the dumb mainstream, they had been slogging away on the sweaty circuit with a hardcore of devotees who cottoned onto their ramshackle, rabble-rousing, holy racket that glued the best bits of glam and the best bits of the Stones and Dylan - mashed together by their mercurial producer and champion, the amazing Guy Stevens - a wild music obsessive who had guided them through four great albums of clomping rock n roll.
As the band started to fall apart, bass hero Overend Watts, the silver hair sprayed droog of cool, had rung Bowie’s management chasing the then vacant bass player’s job in Bowie’s mob and had unwittingly sparked a remarkable chain of events.
Appalled that Mott were planning to call it a day Bowie offered his assistance. He casually tossed the Mott boys ‘Suffragette City’ - they asked for the classic ‘Drive In Saturday’ - and were given ‘All the Young Dudes’. Not bad for a days work!
It was THE anthem of the pre punk era - a song that utterly summed up the glam era. And Bowie gave it to Mott.
What Mott did to the song is breathtaking, if you’ve heard Bowie’s version you know its a great tune but when Hunter got his mangled vocals onto it he turned it into perfection, it sounds like the last ditch assault from someone who knows how good they are but are frustrated by the public’s ignorance of the fact, its played with a gusto and its production is everything and the kitchen sink - its grand, its smart and its funny and moving and powerful. Ian Hunter grabs the drama from Bowie’s super-smart lyrics and makes them sound like he wrote them himself. It’s celebratory and declamatory, it sounds snide and sussed and anguished - it sounds like a call out to the glam kidz - an anthem for every post sixties kid growing up in the battered seventies - the chorus is pure terrace anthem and it sings out to everybody - and lets face it - Hunter was better placed to embrace the glam droogs than the more erudite Bowie. Hunter was a true man of the people and he made ‘Dudes’ their anthem.
Of course it was a massive hit, pretty well heralding the glam takeover, even if Mott were not strictly glam themselves - Mott finally had their anthem and the public were interested. Bowie was in the studio with them, recording the album - an odd hotch-potch of songs - including their half assed romp through ‘Sweet Jane’ - a song that didn't suit the Hereford booze crew - more of a new York street hassle tune than the sort of street life that Hunter understood. But lets face it - even if Lou Reed is more critically acclaimed than our Ian - he never wrote songs as great as ‘All The Way From Memphis’ or ‘Honaloochie Boogie’ - two upcoming Hunter masterpieces that were massive hits and caught the optimistic mood of 1974 - two pre-punk street anthems that told you straight - just like Hunter's great book ‘Diary Of A Rock n Roll Star’ - which Mick Jones has described as his ‘bible’... “it told me how to be a rock n roll star”, Jones told me.
Mott were fast proving the template for the punk rock generation, Mick was one of the Mott Lot - a ragbag crew of glam kids who hit the road bunking trains following Mott up and down the country - getting to doss out on their heroes’ hotel room floors as the big hearted Hoople looked after da kidz with a touching respect that would become prerequisite for the punk generation.
Meanwhile up in Manchester, a lonely teenager called Morrissey championed them.
Mott were chart perennials in the mid seventies, they had the looks and the home-made glamour that was perfect for the time. If Hunter’s appeal was in his unlikely cool, Overend Watts was a total natural with his elfin face and silver spray hair and huge clomping stack heeled boots and glam smirk - he was the natural star of the band - a band that tore it up live. Those years on the road before they hit the big time had not been wasted.
There were a couple more classic albums - ‘Mott’ and ‘the Hoople’ - where the band was in full swing. Great songwriting and some really imaginative arrangements that saw the multifaceted ‘Marionette’ sit next to the uber-punk ‘Violence’ - as well as the gentle ‘I Wish I Was Your Mother’ alongside Overend Watts’ superb ‘Born Late ‘58’ - a two chord stomp recorded whilst Hunter was away on a press trip and a song that the generous vocalist insisted should be a single in its own right - even if it didn't quite get that accolade.
Mott were in their pomp, they were tearing it up across Europe, going top 40 in the States, enough to satisfy any rock n roll fan - but frustrated by their perceived lack of success compared to their ex-support band Queen, who were well on the way to becoming superstars - Mott fell apart.
Off course it was too good too last. A group grafted like Mott was always going to have problems. When Guy Stevens had placed Hunter at the front of the band five years earlier, it was always as an uneasy alliance. They had got on, made a good fist of it - but after going through a couple of guitar players the situation was getting more fraught, more difficult to hold together. Hunter drafted in Ronson - but he never seemed to fit with the rest of the gang - and the damage was done.
Mott split asunder and Hunter/Ronson forged an alliance that would survive on and off post Mott.
Mott made a last stand. After the relative flop of ‘Foxy Foxy’ the band’s last single, 'Saturdays Gigs’, summed up their career in a poignant lament - and then it was all over.
Ian Hunter went on to have a relatively successful solo career, getting off to a terrific start with his first solo album and the drop dead classic ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’ - a huge hit. He still comes round every year or so on tour and still belts out the songs like his life depends on them. He’s still got the caustic wit on stage and he still writes great songs (check out the last solo album ‘Rant’). The rest of the band became simply Mott - then the British Lions - and then disappeared into the real world.
And all we are left with a series of what ifs: what if Mott had managed to make an album with Mick Ronson - would they have road the storm of punk rock? They may have looked a little old generation but Hunter's passionate honesty and street poetry would surely have won him more than the role of honorary elder statesman. His solo career was intermittently successful - but he never eclipsed the legend that was Mott: the most British of bands - loved by those that really know their rock n roll.
'Punk Rock - The Oral History Of Punk' (512 pages)
by John Robb - out Feb 20th – 2006 – order now from the link below:
John Robb – tMx 23 – 02/06