Rob Thormeyer recently wrote a paper about Mott as part of his college coursework. His professor gave it an 'A' grade. Rob interviewed a number of people for this, and solicited the views of subscribers to the hunter-mott list. He has now kindly submitted it for publication. I have presented it "as is", with no editorial meddling my me, other than slight formatting changes.
I asked Rob about the background to this paper, and he responded as follows:
Well, the paper really didn't have anything to do with my history class. I was taking Western Civ. II at Mary WAshington College (Fredericksburg, VA), and the big assignment was to write a paper about anything we wanted. He gave us suggestions, like write about our hometown, pick an obscure battle, and even mentioned that some people had written about the Beatles and the history of rap music. A friend who took the class a year before me said he wrote about rag time music. So I figured I'd write about the Clash, because I knew more about them than anyone else. Then I thought that I've always written about the Clash, so I tried something new. I had just subscribed to the Hunter-Mott mailing list so I knew I could get plenty of knowledgable sources. Plus, I had just written a biography about Ian for another class, which is basically a really short version of the paper on your web site. Basically, it was the mailing list that got me to write the paper, and people responded! I couldn't have done it without everyone's help, especially Rory, who hooked me up with Morgan Fisher.
Thats about it. The paper assignment was to write about anything we wanted, as long as it seemed to have some sort of historic merit. My professor, Hamlin Caldwell, a Vietnam vet, had never heard of Mott. After he saw the work I was putting into it (the interviews, questionnaires,...) he gave me the ok, and said "you might be on to something here."
Rob used the following sources when researching the article. Quotes from these sources are indicated in the main text by the given symbol.
"You know all the tales we tell, you know the band so well, And still I feel, somehow, we let you down."
These lyrics penned by Ian Hunter Patterson immortalised an obscure little band from an obscure little town in England, Hereford. The band, Mott the Hoople, went on to record two critically acclaimed albums and became the first rock and roll group to play on Broadway. They revolutionised the music scene and made the world safe for the forthcoming punk explosion of the late 1970s. Mott the Hoople were considered to be glam rock, Dylanesque-folk rock, classic rock, and hard rock all rolled into one band. The band influenced such legendary groups as the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and, most notably, Queen. And although rarely mentioned today, Mott the Hoople continues to be as influential now as they were twenty years ago, creating a lasting power in their music seldom found with other bands.
The band's beginnings were quite auspicious. The soon-to-become-Mott Hereford band Silence had achieved marginal success as a cover band, but the band members were sick of waiting for the "big break" and wanted more action. The band, including lead guitarist Mick Ralphs, vocalist Stan Tippins, bassist Overend Watts, keyboardist Verden Allen, and drummer Dale "Buffin" Griffin, auditioned for Island Records, but celebrated record producer Guy Stevens felt they had the wrong image. Dismayed, Ralphs walked into Stevens' office and wanted another chance. As Ralphs' recalls, "He was so taken aback that he asked me to sit down and we ended up coming to London to audition. Guy loved the band, but he wanted us to get a new singer, because he felt Stan didn't look right."* The booting of Tippins knocked the door wide open for several hungry vocalists, but none of them as hungry as Ian Hunter.
Hunter, born in the small town of Shrewsbury, began his career working construction and writing songs on the side. Some of his material had been recorded by such national acts as Dave Berry, and Hunter played bass backing the popular Billy Fury and Freddie "Fingers" Lee. His songwriting career began to take a backseat to caring for his wife and children, that is until word spread of a sudden opening for a vocalist. "I sang in this odd Dylany voice 'cause I couldn't sing properly. Anyway, Bill Farley rang me up and said, 'You've gotta come down and see this band. They've been trying people out and don't like anyone. But they're weird so they might like you,'" Hunter remembers.*
As drummer Dale "Buffin" Griffin recollects, Silence indeed had been trying out one unsuccessful singer after another, and the band was about to give up all hope. "Six hours of auditions for a new singer/pianist had been grim. Only two hours remained of the time booked at Regent Sound Studios and no one even remotely suitable had shown up. [Silence] trudged grudgingly the few doors up the street back into the studio where Bill Farley offered a faint glimmer of hope. He 'knew a bloke.'"^ Sure enough, that "bloke" was none other than Hunter. And although he didn't quite resemble the rock star he would turn out to be, Guy Stevens saw something in Hunter that he liked and offered him the job. The band, though, took its time in welcoming Hunter into the band. In fact, ironically enough it was Tippins who was the first person who talked to him. However, once Hunter began to shed pounds, let his hair grow out and write songs, the band was excited, and with Guy Stevens taking full control over the band, the rehearsal sessions smoked.
Stevens' first move was to change the name of the band to Mott the Hoople, a Willard Manus novel Stevens read while serving jail time. Next, Stevens dictated to Hunter that he was to wear sunglasses 24-7, which Hunter still does today, and the band's music was to sound like Bob Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" period. Following that move, Stevens successfully earned the band a record contract with Island records, and practise was underway for the first album. The new band, with a scant two weeks worth of rehearsal under their belts, recorded their self-titled debut on Island, and hit the road, playing their first show at the Batman Cavern Club in Riccione, Italy. The band debuted in London supporting the extremely popular band King Crimson. And although, as Buffin put it, "[the band] got trounced."^ A few unsuccessful gigs later, the band played a show in Harlow New Towne and suddenly, the audience erupted and raved to the music. Shortly thereafter, the band amassed a huge live following, people came from all over to pack the concert halls and see the band in action. However, with all the live success the band was having, it did not carry over in record sales. Mott the Hoople, even with its classic riffs in songs like Rock and Roll Queen, certainly did not burn up the charts. When the band entered the studio to make Mad Shadows, the band's second effort, Island Records demanded more pure rock and roll. However, Mad Shadows did not live up to its billing and even today the band finds the album hard listening. Hunter is quick to point out its flaws while Ralphs simply admitted that for that album, he was just "along for the ride." Although the band may not have been pleased with the album, certain tracks prove that the album (called "all musical sturm und drang" by one reviewer+) is indeed listenable. Ralphs' brilliant powerhouse Thunderbuck Ram was perhaps his best writing to date while the Hunter penned rocker Walkin' With a Mountain easily recalls images of Chuck Berry. Once again the album did not sell, but the band continued to sell out concerts, confusing both the band and the label. The question "how can a band which sells out shows consistently not sell records" was must have been tossed around the Island Records executive office more than a few times.
All the confusion and pandemonium catapulted the band back into the studio for the band's third, and poorest selling, album Wildlife. The new album contained the softer side of Mott, songs such as Angel of Eighth Avenue and Hunter's overall favorite Waterlow to the country-influenced Ralphs' anti-groupie anthem Whisky Women. The album, dubbed "Mildlife" by the band, was a decent effort, but was marred by too much planning. Guy Stevens was left out of the picture and since he brought out the best in the band, Mott could not recapture his presence. For the first time, though, the band was able to do what they wanted, and Hunter began writing personal songs, developing a personal flair which would stay with him throughout the rest of his recording career. Once again, though, Wildlife did not sell. Hunter and company did not know where to place the blame and the band almost broke up in early 1971. Hunter made his gripes known public in the July '71 issue of Melody Maker magazine. "I am wondering how long we can go without any chart success," Hunter said. *
The lack of chart success also ruined relations with the band's label, Island Records, and Guy Stevens himself. Island could not understand the lack of success because the records were all critically acclaimed and the band sold-out gigs regularly. With rumors abound that Mott was extremely close to being on Island's chopping block, the band reunited with Stevens and recorded in five days Brain Capers, the band's finest yet. From the burning opener Death May be Your Santa Claus to the utterly chaotic closer The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception, Mott was in rare form. The song The Moon Upstairs best illustrates the band's suddenly brash attitude. "Well, I swear to you before we're thru you're gonna feel our ev'ry blow/ We ain't bleeding you we're feeding you but you're too fucking slow/ And for those of you who always laughed, let this be your epitaph..." Also apparent for the first time was Verden Allen's swirling organ. His cascading notes, surrounding each song like a tornado, created a new vibe within the band, and his keyboard playing definitely defined Brain Capers's almost anarchistic sound. Even now, Brain Capers is though of to be the definitive Mott album. Critics upon critics name this album as the one that made the world safe for the forthcoming punk explosion. However, the album sold poorly once again and a frustrated band called it quits in 1972 .
"We were playing in Zurich in a gas tank that had been converted into a club, and we thought 'If this is fame, forget it.' Our self-worth was at an extremely low ebb. We genuinely felt that nobody wanted us," Hunter said*.
The band was committed to playing the 1972 Rock N' Roll circus Tour (which Buffin says was one of the most enjoyable the band took) and word had spread about the band's break-up. Bassist Overend Watts called rock star David Bowie to inform him of Mott's sudden demise and a plea for work, but Bowie instead offered the band a song. After refusing his first offer, the band sat stunned when Bowie played All the Young Dudes, and then offered the song to the band--it was an offer the band could not refuse. Tony Defries, Bowie's manager, offered to fill the void of Guy Stevens, who's services became increasingly unnecessary as he dabbled further and further into drugs. Defries immediately wiped Mott free of Island Records and signed them to Columbia. Bowie sat in and produced the band's next album, All the Young Dudes, which threw Mott, for better or for worse, in front of the transsexual glam rock movement. Dudes, more polished than any of the band's Island efforts, sounded cleaner and Bowie's production gave Hunter's songs new life. For instance, the album's closer, Sea Diver, was complete with strings and an orchestra. Dudes, thanks to the high charting single All the Young Dudes, accomplished more than expected. The album hit both the US and UK Top 40 and, of course, the band continued to sell-out concerts. Suddenly in the limelight, things changed for Mott, and Hunter. For once, the band had recorded a hit record. People were finally buying their material, and Hunter's music was finally being heard. However, with the sudden brush of success came the sudden departure of keyboardist Verden Allen. And now that Mott operated as a quartet, Bowie suggested that Hunter take control over the band, diminishing the role of lead guitarist Mick Ralphs. Ralphs, needless to say, did not welcome the change, and as the band entered the studio after the heavily Bowie-influenced Dudes burned up the charts, the band's reputation was in question. Bowie, his manager, and Allen had split and the band was left, for perhaps the first time, on their own. And the result was brilliant.
Mott the Hoople's follow-up to Dudes, simply titled Mott, captured the band at its best. From the classic lead-off track All the Way From Memphis to the closer I Wish I Was Your Mother, the album quickly became a classic. Hunter's songwriting matured immensely, and his songs on Mott are perhaps his best ever-- the band's attempt to shed both Bowie's and Stevens' shadow screamed success. Mott charted higher than Dudes did and things finally seemed to be falling into place. Keyboardist Morgan Fisher aptly filled the shoes of Verden Allen, most notably on Memphis and Honaloochie Boogie. In an interview conducted over the internet, Fisher recalls little, if any, uneasiness in replacing Allen. "I had no qualms about replacing Verden. Also I learned the songs by playing with them and figuring out my own parts rather than listening to what Verden did on the records. I can't ever remember any cries of 'where's Verden?' from the audience so I guess the fans were supportive," Fisher responded. As Mott continued to light up the charts, success once again caused further internal problems within the band. Mick Ralphs, lead guitarist and an indispensable band member, had enough. During the mixing process of Violence, a crucial song on Mott, Hunter and Ralphs had it out. In a drunken rage, Hunter lashed out on Ralphs, and Ralphs left the band soon after the incident. "I was looking for an excuse to leave, I suppose. I'd been thinking about it for a long time. Since the band was becoming more and more Ian's thing, it just wasn't musically satisfying for me any more," said Ralphs* as to why he departed. Ralphs left shortly before the 1973 tour, eventually formed Bad Company with Paul Rodgers and enjoyed enormous commercial success. Hunter and Mott were left to find a replacement.
Enter Luther Grosvenor, re-christened as Ariel Bender, attempted to fill the mighty shoes of Mick Ralphs, a daunting task. And because Ralphs was out, Hunter took complete control. With two new members (Fisher and Bender), Mott entered the studio in late 1974 to record Mott's sequel, the Hoople. For the first time ever, Ian Hunter was completely on his own to write songs. Ralphs, who contributed several of Mott's best songs, left, leaving Hunter as not only the leader of the band, but for all intents and purposes, as the band. "Yeah, but I didn't want to be. Left to my own devices, I'm prone to overkill," Hunter said.* While the The Hoople was a solid album, it by no means matched Mott. Bender contributed little, forcing Hunter (a piano player by trade) to write songs favoring the keyboards. Hunter acknowledged his over-compensation to make up for Ralphs' absence, but the album did boast some typical Hunter masterpieces. Marionette is Hunter's most creative song to date while Crash Street Kidds once again felt the coming of the punk movement. The Hoople was even more commercially successful than Mott, putting the band at the top of the rock and roll pedestal. This new-found standing placed the band in a position to make history, and the band did so on their 1974 summer tour.
Always known for their incredibly live shows, it is appropriate that the band will always be remembered as the first to play Broadway, playing a week-long stint at the celebrated Uris Theatre. Fisher recalls only fond memories. "Without wanted to seem flippant - it was like a week-long party. The first day we did all the setting up and the sound-checking so from then on it was easy-going - just drive every day to the theatre in the white stretch limo with the Union Jack on the front, drinking cocktails in the back seats. Do our gig in a nice, cozy theater, wondering which luminaries were in the audience that night, then meeting them backstage and heading off for a party somewhere," remembered Fisher. The Broadway engagement is partly immortalized on the Live album, which would become Mott's best seller.
After the success of Broadway and another line-up change, this time legendary guitarist Mick Ronson for lovable, but man of little ideas Ariel Bender, it seemed that nothing could stop the power of Mott the Hoople. Hunter explained the move, "I knew Ronson would argue with me. I respected him. I wouldn't get my own way all the time, and that's what I needed."* Ronson was already a star, having lead David Bowie's Spiders From Mars band during the Ziggy Stardust era, and his addition to the band made Mott an unstoppable force. Ronson's arrival suddenly turned the band from respectable to incredible. Ronson was a renowned guitarist-- his edgy solos and knack for arranging music combined with Hunter's natural writing ability could have made Mott the biggest band in history, easily surpassing the Rolling Stones or the Who. However, as is was so many times in Mott's career, success brought disaster one more time. This time, though, it was final. Hunter's band mates became increasingly jealous of the attention Ronson's arrival garnered and after recording two dynamite songs, Saturday Gigs and Lounge Lizard, the band broke up again, this time for good.
Hunter and Ronson subsequently started solo careers and formed the short-lived Hunter-Ronson Band to promote each other's solo albums. However, after an ill-fated tour, the band folded and Hunter continued to release eight solo albums. The rest of Mott the Hoople, Fisher, Buffin, and Watts formed a simplified band, calling themselves Mott and released two unsuccessful albums before emerging again as the British Lions. Ralphs continued to enjoy success in Bad Company, and his band is constantly featured on 70s compilation albums and released a brand new album this past summer. Original producer Guy Stevens produced the Clash's classic London Calling album, which would later be named the Number One album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine. Obviously, Mott the Hoople left a legacy. Morgan Fisher recalls some fond memories, "Ok - it was fun, it was wild, it was exhausting, it was full of drink and sex, but almost no drugs (our choice) and not too much cash, it was dizzying, it made me feel alive. I was so young (as Paul McCartney said recently) and now I realize I could have done it all so much better."
The band's influence is still very much prevalent today, and bands which became huge in the late 1970s owe a great deal of success to Mott the Hoople. Legendary glam-rock band Queen opened for the band on Broadway, while Aerosmith also got their start opening for Mott as well. More than almost anyone else, though, Mott inspired a young Londoner named Mick Jones to pick up a guitar and form the Clash. In another internet interview, Teddy Biaggio (a close friend of Jones') wrote that "Mick loves Ian. He was one of Mick's idols. Mick used to bunk the train to follow Mott around the country." In fact, Jones is quoted in the Clash's Omnibus Visual Documentary as saying "I suppose my main influences are Mott the Hoople, the Kinks, and the Stones."- Furthermore, in the December, 1995 edition of Guitar World, Jones says that "Me and my friends would sneak onto the trains. We'd go to see Mott the Hoople, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Humble Pie--I made up my mind around then that I was going to be in a group."/
Other musicians and bands name Mott as an influence (Tony James of Generation X, Joe Elliot of Def Leppard, John-Cougar Melloncamp), and currently in Japan Morgan Fisher is working on a Mott the Hoople tribute album with several popular Japanese bands, but Fisher is wary of what "influence" truly means. "A lot of bands on the tribute album are telling me that we influenced them - but then I am sure so did a lot of other bands. I mean, a lot of people influenced me - it could even be a single riff on a single song that has stayed with me for decades (e.g Jonathan Richman's Road Runner) and I could easily reel off a few hundred names as my influence list. I guess we figure on a lot of bands' influence lists... Honestly, musicians give very little thought to how much influence they have on other musicians - quite the reverse. I am influenced by new musicians too (Tori Amos, Sarah MacLaghlan, Jane Siberry)." However, in a recent posting to the Ian Hunter-Mott the Hoople Newsgroup on the internet, several fans wrote that Mott the Hoople were one of the main reasons they formed bands. Tom Piros, high ranking officer of Thumbs Up! Production, explains. "Initially I was hooked in by the name and tunes that were played on Spanish rock stations. The first I remember was 'Born Late '58.' I loved the rhythm guitar and [Ariel] Bender's solo in it. I admired the tough edge to their live performances; no kissing up to the audience but rather a mutual admiration (of minds/music). I loved the diversity of the songs which in turn pushed me into playing, joining bands, ...and giving me years of happiness. Even today, I teach children how to play 'rock' and a lot of my licks are Mott influenced."
Rory Musils, founder of the Hunter-Mott Newsgroup and Vice President of Impact Music, explained the trials and tribulations of creating this newsgroup. "It really started off slow... Then, for some unknown reason subscriptions picked up dramatically. We went from a handful of mostly old hardcore fans to a group of people from wildly varying backgrounds and age groups. I really think the influx of younger fans has made the difference. Mott isn't old news to them... In the last few months I think the list has really taken off. With two of the most knowledgeable collectors/fans, Sven and Justin on board, Morgan [Fisher] participating on a regular basis and a group of old and new fans that keeps growing. I'm really happy with the way its going." With roughly 100 subscribers and new fans joining daily, the Hunter-Mott Newsgroup continues to grow daily, with fans as far West as British Columbia to as far East as Japan. Mott the Hoople has become a global inspiration to many musicians.
The most unique aspect about the band, however, was the fact that anyone could be in their shoes. Fisher explains, "The fact that none of us were virtuosos (a la Clapton, Santana, Hendrix) so the music had a basic quality, easy to relate to. You could say the same thing about our looks and clothes, we were dressing up for fun and had no egotistical cool image (a la Sting, Prince...) - ordinary in a way. Ian talked to the audience often in a quite intimate way." Reviewer Don Snowden summed it up rather proficiently. "But you could be Mott the Hoople - all the fancy-ass glitter/glam trappings couldn't disguise the fact that the dudes were in the game because they loved rock n' roll and never lost the ability to poke fun at their own pretensions. Hunter may have seemed born to play the flash role to the hilt, but he also developed a flair for personal lyrics that consistently dealt with situations you were trying to sort out in your own life."+
In fact, it was Hunter's honesty and the band's own mediocre at best talent, which drove many people to become bands, as the results of the recent questionnaire posted to the Hunter-Mott Newsgroup suggests. David Zientara writes "The appeal of Mott is that they are the ultimate garage band gone big. Ian Hunter himself said that none of them were particularly good; it was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I also think that to a certain extent they have an appeal because of the ir status as cult heroes." Rory Musils adds "While [bands like] Yes, ELP, Uriah Heep etc were writing about Brain Salad Surgeries and Demons and Wizards Hunter was writing more direct, real life stuff. You could relate to 'Marionette' with it's theme of fighting against people trying to pull your strings or 'Through the Looking Glass's' fight against self-doubt or the love for rock 'n roll in 'The Golden Age of Rock 'N Roll.'" Indeed, Mott's music crossed with Hunter's personal and powerful lyrics left quite a mark on music.
Sadly, though, the band is rarely mentioned by the music industry as being the influential band they are. The answer for this is still unclear, but several fans have offered opinions as to why the band is rarely mentioned by the press. Rory Musils offers his reasoning, "Mott's influence on the charts was rather short lived. I think their influence on music as a whole has lasted a lot longer and been a lot deeper than they may have expected back when they were together... They generally get a pretty small mention in most of the history books. A lot of that may be due to their breaking up too soon, before they accomplished that one massive worldwide hit single/album/ tour." Hunter offers his own opinion, "That band could have been the biggest band that there ever was. It was all ass-backwards - it didn't make sense. We had success after we had given up."# However, some fans are just as happy to have Mott as being "their own" band that no one else had ever heard. Steve Weidemann says that "They were 'my' private band. Let others have their mainstream rock and roll bands to follow, but I really liked identifying with a band that no one had heard of." Justin Purrington, publisher of Mott the Hoople fanzine Just A Buzz, summed it up better than perhaps anyone else. "Every write up I see basically says the same thing: they were a great live band, put out a classic LP, broke up at the height of their success, and its a shame that they did. What did they accomplish? They had a big hit, a few smaller ones, and a couple decent showings in the LP charts. Twenty-odd years later, I think history looks upon them quite favorably. Hall of Fame material? Not a chance."
Perhaps one day the music industry will smile upon the band as a whole favorably, but until then, fans will just have to wait. Mick Ralphs continues to smoke across the charts with his enormously successful band Bad Company while Hunter still puts out decent solo material (most recently 1995's Dirty Laundry and a new album scheduled for release this summer). Mick Ronson died in 1993 of liver cancer, posthumously releasing Heaven and Hull in 1994. Keyboardist Fisher writes music for commercials, movie soundtracks, and is overseeing production of the Japanese Mott the Hoople tribute album. The rest of the band, Overend Watts, Buffin, Ariel Bender, and Verden Allen have simply faded from view. The music, however, will never fade. Hunter is still surprised at the music's staying power. "I think the music is worth saving, almost more than anything else from that period. But did that mean it would be remembered? That surprises me." He continues, "We never seemed to get it right somehow. We were always pissing somebody off. Now, people realize that we were innovators. When you work as hard as we did, you appreciate that."*