Like several other acts who arrived from somewhere else but thrived in the fabulous exaggerations of England’s glam era, Mott the Hoople had a strong impact on the new wave scene a few years later. These streetwise blokes voiced a sense of disillusionment and failure instead of indulging in the fantasy and self-aggrandizement typical of so many big-league rockers. Punks saw themselves as fighting against the same climate of unreality and vanity. The tight, driving guitar sound of Mick Ralphs was later appropriated in whole by the Clash, Pistols and, most pointedly, Generation X. Mott‘s “Violence” and The Hoople‘s “Crash Street Kids” both forecast with uncanny accuracy the emergence of a new generation of disaffected, angry kids. Singer Ian Hunter produced Gen X’s second LP, Valley of the Dolls. The late Guy Stevens, who pulled Mott together and produced their first four LPs, produced the Clash’s London Calling. Mick Jones co-produced Hunter’s sixth solo record, Short Back n’ Sides.
Opening with the whiplash triptych of a charged but directionless vocal-less cover of “You Really Got Me” (beating Van Halen to the punch by nearly a decade), an epic version of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s Texas-centric “At the Crossroads” that quickly abandons any pretense at the song’s country feel and Sonny Bono’s maudlin and already dated “Laugh at Me,” Mott the Hoople (the band name came from the title of a novel by Willard Manus, who got it in part from an old cartoon strip character), the band’s debut album revealed nothing clear about its purpose. New arrival Ian Hunter’s voice is semi-buried in the mix, which blurs together Verden Allen’s Blonde on Blonde organ, Ralphs’ guitar work, which ranges from subtle accents to raging full-on rock smoke. The rhythm section of bassist Overend Watts and Buffin (a nickname drummer Dale Griffin later professed to hating) lumbers a bit, but it was 1969, after all, and heavy was certainly one of British rock’s precepts. The album (with its snappy MC Escher cover) is an up-and-down affair which peaks with the ferocious and focused sneer of Ralphs’ “Rock and Roll Queen” and ends in a 90-second fade-in/fade-out chunk of hysterically raucous jamming titled “Wrath and Wroll,” authorship credited to producer Guy Stevens. (A third instrumental, “Rabbit Foot and Toby Time,” is organized enough to be memorable and segues seamlessly into the next track, but it still begs the question why vocals got such short shrift.) Between, Hunter rolls out a strong but overly worshipful pseudo-Dylan ballad, “Backsliding Fearlessly,” and wends his way through eleven glorious minutes of Ralphs’ “Half Moon Bay,” setting a template for the band’s long, winding roads hung on simply repeated chord patterns linked by exploding bridges and then detouring into a different song entirely; in this case, a classical-styled Hunter piano piece.
Mad Shadows retains Stevens (the producer is also credited with “spiritual percussion, psychic piano”) but eschews any non-originals and relies on a pair of Ralphs compositions and five by Hunter. The difference between their writing styles, the decision to let the guitarist sing his own tunes and Stevens’ eccentric influence makes for an uneven and ultimately disappointing second record. Hunter shows his strengths in the pounding surge of “Walkin’ With a Mountain” (which oddly incorporates “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) and the impassioned “When My Mind’s Gone”; his other ballads are listless, meandering and plain. Ralphs blends plaintive singing, atmospheric piano-guitar pairings and a snarling “Green Manalishi” attack in “Thunderbuck Ram,” but that’s as good as it gets. At this point, it was becoming clear that Ralphs fueling Hunter’s vision was the band’s best creative bet, but it’s not likely Ralphs thought so.
Wildlife, recorded in a hodgepodge of overlapping sessions (including a filler 10-minute live take of “Keep a Knockin'”) with Stevens nowhere in evidence, is a dud from one end to the other. While the audio quality is night and day better than on the first two records, the music is quite the opposite, both in imagination and energy. Restraint does nothing to flatter Ralphs’ forgettable songs (especially the mock-country “It Must Be Love”), and Hunter’s are (and fare) little better waterlogged with strings. Amazingly, for all sorts of reasons, the best track on Mott the Hoople’s third album is a fervent rendition of Melanie’s “Lay Down.” A shocking mistake of a record.
The story could have ended there miserably had the group not reunited with Stevens and made the absolutely mad and absolutely great Brain Capers. Throwing all the ingredients in the pot, turning the heat up high, trotting out a couple of weird covers and jamming the brakes on Ralphs’ ego, Stevens put the band back on track in a big, big way. Whatever it took to pull out such brilliantly titled roaring, organ-and-guitar duels (with Hunter wailing right over the top) as the bookends “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” and “Tale of the Quivering Meat Conception,” Stevens and his boys did it up right. There’s a feeling of unity of purpose and a complete lack of restraint that makes the whole thing delirious fun. Along the way, “The Moon Upstairs” and “Sweet Angeline” are rockers happily comparable to “Rock and Roll Queen” (overlooking the points at which a missed cue in the latter leads the band to simply fall apart, audibly noted by Hunter’s chuckle). Ralphs turns Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness” into a moody and pummeling reverie and Hunter is a surefooted balladeer at the start of “The Journey,” which then seethes into soaring rock power and concludes, after nine minutes of searching reflection, in a blaze of guitar squalling. He finds a useful purpose for Dion’s “Your Own Backyard” as well. This should have been the album that brought Mott the Hoople in from the margins, but it wasn’t. Still, it’s the best of the first four and a truly essential souvenir of the era. Rock and Roll Queen is an eight-track distillation that omits “Sweet Angeline” and includes “Keep a Knockin'” but is otherwise a fair sampler of the band’s Atlantic era.
As potent a force as Stevens was for Mott, the missing ingredient, it turned out, was David Bowie, who liked the group and, in 1972, reversing a turn from disillusion to dissolution, agreed to produce a final album, thoughtfully tossing a quintessentially brilliant teen-tribe solidarity anthem, “All the Young Dudes,” and his distinctive saxophone toots into the bargain. Their resulting album, which begins with a brisk, clean, tight take on the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane,” complete with a thoughtful humdinger of a Ralphs solo, is a glam rock landmark, a gimmicky, stylish, compressed and dry declaration of cultural inclusion (“One of the Boys,” “All the Young Dudes”), abounding with odd characters (“Sucker,” “Momma’s Little Jewel,” “Sweet Jane,” “Jerkin’ Crocus”), cutting guitar music and Hunter’s over-the-top theatricality. Ralphs earns his spotlight here, weakly vocalizing the stirring “Ready for Love/After Lights,” which, minus the guitar solo coda, would become a durable BadCo crowd-pleaser. Even Allen gets a look-in, inadvisably singing the organ showcase “Soft Ground.” The lone ballad, “Sea Diver,” although it gave a name to the band’s fan club, is overproduced piffle. Ultimately, for all its impact, All the Young Dudes was less substantial than it seemed at the time, a blinding flash which left spots but little vision. Imagine if Bowie had handed over “Rebel Rebel” instead. (The reissue adds single sides, demos, a live “Jane” and Bowie’s ungainly but fascinating guide vocal for “Dudes.”)
The self-produced Mott proves how well they learned their lessons from the Thin White Duke: bolstered by newfound commercial confidence, Mott made an album with a warmer tone, obsessive self-awareness and a great set of songs, reconsidered with the singles chart in mind. Too smart and mature (he was already in his mid-30s) not to be ironically amused and at least a little removed from the fantasy exhilaration of success, Hunter ruminates on the story so far in the rambunctious “All the Way From Memphis” (and how horrible does the word “spade” now sound?), the grandiose but grateful “Hymn for the Dudes” and the album’s monumental centerpiece, the solemn, haunting “Ballad of Mott the Hoople (March 26, 1972 – Zurich).” “Honaloochie Boogie” is a perfect formulaic glam single: killer hook, big chorus, easy singalong, vocal gimmickry, a catch phrase or three (“My hair gets longer as the beat gets stronger / Wanna tell Chuck Berry my news”). Ralphs comes up with another two-part winner, the handsome “I’m a Cadillac/El Camino Dolo Roso.” The curtain finally drops with the eyebrow-raising romance of “I Wish I Was Your Mother.” (The reissue adds a DOA slow demo of “Honaloochie Boogie,” a dutiful B-side and two other cuts.)
That was the end of the original band. Ralphs left to partner with Paul Rodgers, and he was followed in the lineup by onetime Spooky Tooth guitarslinger Luther Grosvenor, calling himself Ariel Bender, and then Mick Ronson, who continued on with Hunter after the band was finally put out of its misery.
The Hoople, a hodgepodge studio affair with Grosvenor in place and the mustachioed dandy Morgan Fisher taking over from Verden Allen on keyboards (but with Ralphs on a couple of tracks and sessionfolk adding horns, strings and vocals), leans heavily on an oldies sound with horns and pumpin’ piano. (How glam managed to seem modern while embracing ’50s rock and roll is one of life’s great mysteries.) The band’s leftover spirit and momentum gets it over the hump of losing a creative mainstay, but the album peters out too quickly to make everything alright. One swell single (“Roll Away the Stone”), its inferior follow-up, the overtly Wizzard-like “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (has any other band of any repute cited the phrase in lyrics as frequently?) and the gimmicky/theatrical “Marionette” aren’t enough to make up for a Watts lead vocal (“Born Late ’58”), an overblown power ballad (“Through the Looking Glass”) and the filler that otherwise occupies the album.
The live album, recorded half in London (December 14, 1973) and half six months later in New York (May 9, 1974), is mostly godawful. I recall the New York gig, a multi-night Broadway engagement with those glammy upstarts Queen as Mott’s opening act, fondly, but the documentation here spits on that memory. Lost in the muddy sound, Hunter’s singing is alternately campy and cavalier but consistently off-pitch. His entreaties in “All the Young Dudes,” which felt so messianic at the time, are revealed to be just rote stagecraft. Grosvenor proves himself a wanker of the second magnitude, replacing Ralphs’ subtlety and eloquence with showy excess. (Don’t even bring up the drum solo…) The London side is noticeably better, with the self-appointed leader of the gang in a chatty mood; the band is limber enough to drive out of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Queen,” through the Beatles’ “Get Back,” a few bars of the Peter Gunn theme and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” before revving up “Violence.” Say goodnight, everyone.