Mott The Hoople

Rock and Roll's a loser's game....

Strongest album: Mott
Weakest album: The Hoople

Caught between glam-rock and early heavy metal, Mott the Hoople were both flashy and gritty, melodic and murky, traditionalist and highly influential, literate and primal, a journeyman garage band that infused their whinings of sleazy rock'n'roll roadlife with nobility and glamour. They were one of those bands that you wanted to live for so much that you could forgive their failings of inconsistency and limited musical capabilities, and in fact take those limitations as part of the band's charm. The best band of the early '70s made only one perfect album, but it might be the finest in rock, as I sometimes believe. Their crunchy hard rock blend of Bob Dylan, the Stones, Highway 61 Revisited, the Kinks, and later on Lou Reed, and Blonde On Blonde might have been overlooked in their heyday, but proved an enormous inspiration for the British punk explosion that arrived 3 years after their breakup. While most of their contemporaries lazily indulged in post-hippie narcissism and science fiction fantasies, Mott voiced anger, defeat, and desperation in a way that spoke directly to the down-and-out kids on the street who were the true fans. The principle players were lead singer Ian Hunter, an ex-journalist who always wore shades and like a lot of bright young men of the era suffered a serious Dylan infatuation, and foiled Mick'n'Keith style by guitarist Mick Ralphs, whose brute simplicity in his ax-handling chunkily leavened Hunter's melodramatic lyricism. All of the band members were important, however, providing intense and crucial backing for the songs, a point handily proved by the failure of both Hunter's and Ralphs' post-Mott efforts to come close to the heights of their former band.

Enter the Unofficial Mott the Hoople Page if you're ready for "The Journey" 'round the net.

Mott The Hoople (1969)

Mott was originally brought together by the legendary Guy Stevens, who produced their first four albums and was, by the band's own admission, primarily responsible for the musical vision of this era (the band took its name from a book Stevens read while in jail on drug charges). I don't own this album, but have about half of it on the compilations Walking With A Mountain and the long-deleted mini-LP Rock and Roll Queen. It contains Ralphs' groupie-bashing "Rock and Roll Queen", a killer rocker and perhaps the best song on Mott's first four albums, along with covers of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" (overly long and sounds leadenly dated) and Doug Sahm's "At the Crossroads" (triumphant), along with Sonny Bono's "Laugh At Me", which I haven't heard. From the evidence, it appears to be a respectable, but only so-so beginning, leaning a bit too heavily on their Blonde On Blonde influence.

Mad Shadows (1970)

The band took a harder rocking approach to this effort; as with the debut, I have about half of this available on compilations, and it seems to be a slight step down in quality. The Chuck Berry style rocker "Walking With A Mountain" is fun but not quite as good as "Rock and Roll Queen", and Ralphs' "Thunderbuck Ram" is an interesting, intermittently powerful screeching hunk of black metal. However, the ballad, "No Wheels To Ride" is a barely audible, tuneless mess. I believe all the material was penned by the band this time.

Wildlife (1971)

For the third time at bat, the band reversed course and delved into their softer side (later dubbing it "Mildlife"). The results are pleasant on the ears for the most part, but the album ends with a racous 10-minute live version of Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin'" that unfortunately doesn't make the transition to record successfully. Ralphs' "Whiskey Women" is sexist tripe, foreshadowing his cock-rock Bad Company career, but Hunter's "Waterlow" is lovely and made all the more affecting by the cracked unmusicality of his singing. The half or so I've heard from this effort points towards yet another only so-so album.

Brain Capers (1972) ****

With their career going nowhere and tensions between the Island record label near the breaking point, Mott bashed this out in the studio in one week and ironically came out with a great album. Verdon Allen's murky, droning organ dominates the sonic landscape, and the slight air of medieval rot in his decidely low-tech keyboard befits Mott the Hoople's darkest and most bitter material. Simply put, Mott's heaviest album is one of the great lost classics of heavy metal. It starts off with a choogling hunk of funk entitled "Death May Be Your Santa Claus", which does indeed live up to its title - the first words out of Ian Hunter's mouth are, "How long before you realize you stink?" Dion's confessions-of-an-ex-junkie "Your Own Backyard" has no subtlety whatsoever and is all the more powerful for its in-your-face straightforwardness, perfectly suiting a band whose strengths are likewise. For a breather, Hunter offers the relatively lightweight Dylan-pastiche "Sweet Angeline" right after the band has driven itself to exhaustion on the 9-minute "The Journey". Allen was a great organ player, but not much of a songwriter, so I've never cared for his "Second Love" despite the Spanish horns, and the cover of the Youngbloods' "Darkness, Darkness" doesn't really do a lot for me. Those are the only real low points on this album, however, and the relentless thrust of "The Moon Upstairs" makes up for it. The album's best song, Hunter tries to convey this metaphor of alienation in which he gets busted for nothing and the police lock away his mind but not his body, and so he's roaming the streets headless until he realizes that his "body is my mind", and then a few verses later he's insulting the audience, 'cause nobody's going to laugh at Mott anymore. The band collapses at the end with Hunter cackling this weird, cynical laugh, leading into the final song, "The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception", which is nothing more than a minute and a half audio pastiche that contains the sounds of a party over music repeated from "The Journey". If the album sounds like a band at the end of its rope, it was. Mott the Hoople broke up later in the year, and it took David Bowie to convince them to reform.

All The Young Dudes (1972) ***1/2

Mott switched labels and ditched Guy Stevens for David Bowie as producer, and it shows. The band is tighter and less anarchic under Bowie's tutelage; as the members have stated, for the first time they realized that they had to work harder in the studio instead of just spewing the music out like at a gig. The problem is that Bowie's production is a tad bit too dry, sucking the energy out of some of the tunes. Also, fans of Brain Capers will miss Verden Allen's organ, which is all but buried in the mix (after this album, he was fired by the band, to be replaced by Morgan Fisher). Nevertheless, the band learned a lot from these sessions, opening up the second phase of their career by achieving a bonafide hit: "All The Young Dudes", a gracious gift from Bowie that summed up the entire glam movement and took its place as one of rock's timeless anthems. Nothing else here comes close to that standard (how could it?), but the cover of "Sweet Jane" is definitive, Hunter's closing ballad "Sea Diver" is bittersweet and triumphant, and the band rocks throughout. I always hated Bad Company's "Ready For Love" (actually, I've always hated everything by Bad Company), but the Mott the Hoople version is something else. The band is still noticably short on melody and lacks a bit of focus, though; the first five albums, though not lacking in great to good moments, where just a warmup for....

Mott (1973) *****

From the opening piano chords of "All the Way From Memphis" to the fadeout on the icy ballad "I Wish I Was Your Mother", Mott's sixth album is nothing short of a masterpiece, and one of - if not the - greatest albums in rock and roll. Producing the album themselves, it's such a quantum leap in quality from their previous releases that one wonders why they held back. Actually, the real question is what took them so long; after years of slogging it out, Mott have finally discovered how to marshall their forces and enable their killer riffs and hooks to emerge, instead of burying them underneath a sludgy murk. Hunter comes into his own as a songwriter, penning his strongest melodies and lyrics as the band offers sturdy power behind his ruminations. Mostly he's bitching about life on the road and the failure of a rock and roll band to achieve success, and in lesser hands such material would sound as self-pitying and whiny as you'd expect; but here the failure reads as tragedy, hitting the listener's emotions with a bittersweet poignancy. Evenly split between crunching rockers and dramatic ballads, the band finds room for giddy pop ("Honaloochie Boogie" - "My hair gets longer as the beat gets stronger/Going to tell Chuck Berry my news"), snarling Clockwork Orange social commentary ("Violence"), only faltering with the flamenco-style instrumental near the end of the record. It's hard to tell which is the most poignant track. In "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople", Hunter recounts the story of how Mott broke up after playing in a converted gas tank in Zurich, mentioning all his bandmates by name, and admitting that playing music for a living is a chump's game but he can't quit. "I Wish I Was Your Mother", which closes out the album, begins prettily but turns into a bitter tale of alienation, as Hunter plays the role of a damaged punk who aches for tenderness and belonging but is too cynical and wounded to find either, and it's tearing him apart. It's an unforgettable end to a masterful album.

The Hoople (1974) ***

As soon as they scaled the heights, Mott came crashing down. Mick Ralphs, frustrated by Hunter's increasing prominence and his subsequent decline in input, quit to form Bad Company. Minus Ralph's guitar work, Mott the Hoople were a much less powerful band (replacement guitarist Ariel Bender just couldn't fill Ralph's shoes). Hunter tries to compensate with horns and lots of keyboards, resulting in an overblown and overproduced mess. The best song is the simplest: bassist Overend Watts' ode to jailbait "Born Late '58", which suggested a great future for the band without either Hunter or Ralphs that didn't happen. There are a few other good tunes, like the punk presaging "Crash Street Kids" (undoubtedly inspired by watching a few too many '30s Dead End Kids movies) and the classic "Roll Away the Stone" (better in its single version, which featured Ralphs on guitar). All in all, it's not a bad album, but it's a huge letdown from the previous one.

The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople (1993) ****1/2

There are several compilations of this great band, but this is the best and the easiest to find, aside from 1976's skimpy Greatest Hits (which it isn't because it only focuses on the three Columbia albums and with half of its songs coming from Mott, there is too much overlap). This two-disc compilation is the closest the band has to a box set, and it contains just about all the Mott a casual fan will ever need to hear. Essentially, it consists of nearly everything they released on Columbia, which means all but two songs from All the Young Dudes, one from Mott, and three M.I.A. from The Hoople. For the hardcore fans there are a number of B-sides and rarities, only one of which, "Rose", is worth hearing I.M.H.O. In other words, purchasing this two disc set basically saves you the trouble of buying the three albums I mentioned above, since only Mott's "I'm a Cadillac" is a needless deletion. This is a far from complete retrospective, since it only contains one song apiece from the Island albums Mott the Hoople, Mad Shadows, Wildlife, and Brain Capers - for a decent overview of that era, both 1990's Walkin' With a Mountain and 1994's Backsliding Fearlessly are good single-disc compilations, and quite generous ones.

All The Young Dudes (1998)

Well, it turns out that like nearly every other band, Mott has been given the box-set treatment. This three-disc set mainly focuses on the Columbia years ('72-'74), with the third disc devoted to rarities such as pre-Mott efforts by the various band members. I haven't got this, and it's doubtlessly a redundant purchase for me since most of the great stuff I already own. However, if you trust me when I rave about what a great band Mott were and feel ready to dive in, then this looks like the place to start.


Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter (1975) ***1/2

After Mott the Hoople broke up in 1974, Hunter lost no time in starting his solo career, aided and abetted by ex-Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson (the rest of the band continued as Mott and released a pair of long out of print dud albums in the late '70s). Solo, Hunter doesn't sound substantially different from his old band, only a bit less powerful and compelling. His debut is spotty, but the best ranks right there with the very best of Mott the Hoople: "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" which I'm sure you all know from the inferior Great White version; and "I Get So Excited", a power pop onslaught. In between these two bookends are lesser songs, some of which are quite good (the ballad "It Ain't Easy When You Fall") and some of which aren't (the torturously long ballad "Boy"). Probably his best solo album, it's inconsistent, but most fans won't be disappointed.

All-American Alien Boy (1976) **1/2

Hunter's second solo album finds him softer and more unfocused; I wrote this off as a complete bore the first time I heard it, but after several listens I discovered a few gems: "Irene Wilde", about the girl next door; "Apathy 83" - "'Cause there ain't no rock and roll no more/Just the music of the young"; "God (Take 1)" a rambling Dylanesque number in which the Creator of the Universe spews a lot of nonsense doggerel. I kind of like this record, but I can't in good conscience recommend it to anybody except for hardcore fans. The title track, celebrating Hunter's move to New York is really mid-'70s Lennon-y in subject matter and intrusive horns, which makes sense since they both moved to New York around the same time, goes on too long and sounds pretty dated. When for a change of pace Hunter goes for a loud guitar rocker, "Restless Youth", it's numbingly repetitive noise.

Overnight Angels (1977) **1/2

Hunter disliked this album enough to deny its release in America, but it's really not all that bad; it's not really all that good, either. He seems to be aiming for the mainstream a little too eagerly, and this sucker is way overproduced. The rockers are overblown to melodramatic proportions and aren't very good at all; oddly enough, Hunter's overblown melodrama is just what the ballads need to soar, making them enjoyable for the most part. However, none of this is really memorable, except for "Miss Silverdime", a neo-classic buried on side two. It's about rock and roll, of course: what else does Hunter sing about so passionately?

You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic (1979) ***

A big improvement over the last two albums, this one kicks off with a piano intro that ever so slyly recycles "All the Way From Memphis" as Hunter updates his sound with synthesizers and more mainstream production (not overproduction). Most of the songs sound slight and the musical backing can sound dated, but mostly this is a pretty good return to form. The highlight is "Cleveland Rocks" which currently enjoys a revival thanks to the Drew Carrey Show. The midtempo "When the Daylight Comes" is another keeper. The big hit, however, was "Ships". It wasn't a hit for Hunter, though - it was covered by, of all people, Barry Manilow. Hunter still can't come up with enough good material for a beginning to end consistent album, but for the most part this is a worthwhile effort.

Short Back'n'Sides (1981)

Hunter had made himself something of a godfather figure to the late '70s British punk movement, producing Generation X and working with the Clash. The Clash's Mick Jones produced and played guitar on this album, and from what I can tell the results aren't very good. Since I've only heard 5 of the 10 songs here (on the compilation Shades of Ian Hunter), I can't really rate this, but I can say that of those 5 songs only one, "Central Park'n'West" is any good. The rest has some nifty guitar effects from Jones but the songwriting just isn't up to par.

All the Good Ones Are Taken (1983)

A long out of print mid-'80s album that most people were barely aware existed. I've never seen a copy anywhere.

Shades Of Ian Hunter (1988) ***

This compilation consists of six songs from Schizophrenic and 5 songs from Short, along with 4 live cuts. It's extraneous if you already own the two original Chrysalis albums, and I'm only mentioning it because it's much more widely available than either, which means that newcomers will likely see this CD in the bins. It's not a bad reader's digest version of the previous two albums, but don't be mislead into thinking that this is a best-of.

with Mick Ronson: YUI Orta (1990)

A comeback album for both, recorded before Ronson was diagnosed with cancer, from which he died in 1991. I've got this and so far I think it's noisy and overblown, the tired work of has-beens.

The Artful Dodger (1997)

After a long layoff, Hunter has recently released a new solo album.

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