It’s hard to pinpoint why I have always loved Mott The Hoople as much as I do. Those newly exposed to them now, divorced from the context of their original time and influence, often can’t see their magic. I get that.
But I first heard of them, as those of a certain age will have too, when they entered orbit around Planet Bowie in 1972.
As a lad about to enter high school, fixated with Bowie, I accepted that anything associated with Bowie’s name, according to fandom logic, must be brilliant and therefore beyond criticism.
Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Dana Gillespie, Cockney Rebel records all subsequently became integral component parts in the soundtrack of my life, due to their first being filtered through the tastes of Bowie, and brought to my, and the wider world’s, appreciation by his musical philanthropy.
And this was also the case with Mott The Hoople – the band who went on to make the greatest and longest-lasting impression upon me.
I purchased my first Mott The Hoople recordings in the most unlikely place – Alice Springs – where, in 1973, amongst the Slim Dusty and Ted Egan discs, I found a cassette copy of their fifth studio album, All The Young Dudes, and a vinyl copy of the Dudes follow up LP, Mott.
Over the next 44 years, Mott has quite possibly been the album I have played the most.
Not long after acquiring these first two albums, I begged my father to shell out the grand sum of a single dollar for the band’s 1969 debut, when I found a stack of the local pressing of that album in a revolving magazine style rack full of discounted records at West Lakes. There must have been twenty or so copies of it there – I wish I had bought them all now!
Soon I had the full set – the debut, the psychologically fraught Mad Shadows; the country rockish Wildlife; the proto-punk Brain Capers; the Rock And Roll Queen compilation; All The Young Dudes; Mott, and the last studio album, The Hoople, as well as the live set and the inevitable greatest hits album. In the ensuing years, I have bought every variation of compilation album they have released, every dodgy live release, a stack of bootlegs and have loyally kept up with the solo career of Ian Hunter and the post-Mott projects of the other members. I have books, sheet music, DVDs and videos. All of their autographs…
What was it about this band that captured my imagination and admiration so completely?
Mott were a mess of contradictions from the outset. They weren’t great musicians or singers, and yet their live performances – vicariously experienced initially through the reviews in NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, and Rock Scene magazines – were exciting, rambunctious, loose, riotous affairs. Live bootlegs (and the one lone official concert album from 1974) were never doctored to edit out the bum notes, the naff banter with the crowd or their frequent missed cues, but they captured a band that had unbridled passion, spirit, and were clearly in the game for all the right reasons.
And they often bared their soul for all to see, self-mythologizing their lives and history in songs, without ever coming off as egocentric narcissists.
They had aspirations to write songs like Dylan and The Stones, but couldn’t quite master the complex universality that those masters could summon up so regularly, and settled instead for writing songs ‘for their people’ capturing small town, and suburban London life in the years before Punk Rock, so concisely, and so authentically.
Sure, a lot of their songs were also about hackneyed topics – life on the road, transient relationships with admiring female fans, and so on, but their albums also contained musical and lyrical vignettes which explored religion and philosophy, self-doubt and human frailty on a scale that kids and ordinary punters could relate to and empathise with.
Paradoxically, they also demonstrated an appreciation for a higher level of art and culture too – album covers featured artwork by M.C. Escher, classical paintings, and quoted poetry by Baudelaire and D.H. Lawrence.
To an impressionable youth, their records were invitations to a wider world of cultural experience – just like Bowie’s, and Lou’s, had been. Mott may have often been dismissed as glam rock band-wagoners after their Bowie flirtation, but they certainly wrote far better songs and with greater substance and much more sophistication than those of Slade, Alvin Stardust or Gary Glitter…
Caught up in the authentic rawness and spirit of Mott in their heyday, were future superstars like Mick Jones, who went on to be a creative force in The Clash; Stephen Morrissey, who went on to front The Smiths; and political rising star, Benazir Bhutto who went on to be the President of Pakistan – all who were rabidly loyal members of the Mott Lot, or of the Sea Divers, the official fan clubs of the band.
Mott befriended and encouraged Queen, taking them out on tour with them on the all-conquering U.S. tour of 1974. The New York Dolls cited them as a key influence on their look and primitive rock sound. They have also been cited as seminal influences on a diverse range of artists such as Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, singer-songwriter, Alejandro Escovedo, and Def Leppard frontman, Joe Elliott.
When the original line-up of the band reformed in 2009 to play one week of shows at the Hammersmith Apollo, I just had to go, and hang the expense.
For one week in London, I got to finally see them live in all their ragged, ageing glory – three times! I got to hang out with former Mott keyboardists, Morgan Fisher, Mick Bolton and Blue Weaver. I bought a beer for guitarist, Mick Ralphs. Cracked jokes with British Lions singer, and former Medicine Head frontman, John Fiddler. Conversed with Mott / Bowie tour manager, Leee Black Childers. Attended the Mick Ronson biography book launch. Chatted with Suzy and Lisa Ronson, Mick’s wife (and Ziggy Stardust’s hairdresser) and his daughter. Sat behind Ian Hunter for two hours whilst he watched his kids’ bands play energetic sets at Dingwalls Boat Club in Camden, too awestruck to tap him on the shoulder and say hello. Played air guitar in the aisles at Hammersmith on night two with Georgia Satellites guitarist, Rick Richards. Fought with Uriah Heep guitarist, Mick Box, over who was going to grab the last Mott live box-set from the merchandise stand. Cried with hundreds of other middle aged guys when ailing Mott drummer, Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin was escorted onto the stage to drum in tandem with Martin Chambers (an old Hereford mate on loan from The Pretenders) during the show’s encores – finally completing the full original line-up, and sending the crowd into an emotional frenzy of happiness. Stood moved, but unmoving, singing the ‘goodbye’ refrain from Saturday Gigs along with hundreds of others for at least ten minutes after the concerts had ended.
It was a glorious experience. I am so glad that I finally had the chance to see the band in their element, enjoying the adoration of a sell-out crowd in the same venue that their live album had been recorded in 35 years earlier.
Now, Mott The Hoople are definitely no more – Buffin has passed on, just a few days after the band’s mentor, David Bowie, had died last year; and, today, the crushingly sad news arrived that bassist Pete ‘Overend’ Watts has also gone too, after concealing an illness from fans for the last six years.
The band’s guitarist Mick Ralphs is presently struggling to overcome the crippling effects of a massive stroke he endured late last year, so Mott have effectively been whittled away to just two functioning original members: organist Verden ‘Phally’ Allen; and their seemingly immortal lead singer, Ian Hunter, the oldest guy in the band by some years.
I felt a deep sense of loss today – Overend was the heart of the band. It was he who kept them together back in 1972 by contacting a yet to be mega Bowie and alerting him to their intention to break up the group, prompting him to implore them to stay together and then to offer them what would become their signature anthem as an inducement to do so. It was Overend’s humour and vitality that had played such a huge part in forging the group’s image and character in their heyday.
Ian Hunter once wrote in his song, Michael Picasso – a song of loss after the death of his friend and musical partner, Mick Ronson:
‘How can I put into words / What my heart feels? / It’s the deepest thing / When somebody you love dies…’
And those words sum up my dilemma here.
It really feels like I’ve lost someone from my family. My heart hurts.
Overend, ‘…Thanks for the great trip…’
From Rest In Peace by Mott The Hoople (1973)
‘Oh if my wheel could take another turn,
And if my life replaced itself again,
I wouldn’t want a single thing to change.
Oh it’s been good – though it’s been strange.
And if my dreams were willing to come true,
Oh I would not even try to let them through.
I’m sure there’s things I’ve missed, that others preached.
The goals they reached – they weren’t for me.
Rest in peace,
Even though the worries seem to mount,
Don’t let them count.
Rest in peace.’