Perfect Sound Forever

Mott the Hoople

by John Dougan
(November 2004)

"Glam rock tended to alienate the majority of working-class youth precisely because it breached such basic expectancies. By the mid-70s, the fans were divided into two distinct factions. One was composed almost entirely of teenyboppers who followed the mainstream glitter bands (Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust). The other, consisting of older, more self-conscious teenagers, remained fastidiously devoted to the more esoteric artists (Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy Music) whose extreme foppishness, incipient elitism, and morbid pretensions to art and intellect effectively precluded the growth of a larger mass audience."
Dick Hebdige, Subculture and the Meaning of Style

"The genius of glam was that it was all about stardom. It said flaunt it if you've got it, and if you haven't got it fake it – make it up with make-up, cover your face with stardust, reinvent yourself as a Martian adrogyne. Glam was pre-fab, anti-craft, allied to artifice and the trash aesthetic."
Barney Hoskyns, Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the Glitter Rock Revolution

"One of the boys/ I don't say much/ But I make a big noise."
Ian Hunter and Mick Ralphs, "One of the Boys"

It's quite possible that Dick Hebdige simply forgot to add Mott the Hoople to his brief list of esoteric artists to whom self-conscious teenagers were fastidiously devoted, but they certainly moved in such company. Their foppishness wasn't always extreme (they were too macho for that), but they did exude incipient elitism as well as a calculated pretentiousness. Where Hebdige misses the point entirely is: all three bands he mentions (and Mott too), to varying degrees, reached mass audiences and experienced mainstream success, not to mention that three of them – Bowie, Lou Reed and Mott – were managed by glam rock svengali Tony De Fries's company MainMan. To a cultural theorist like Hebdige with his regimented interpretation of audience response, glam's ultimate triumph was one of style over substance, a phyrric victory that replaced the articulation of working class resentment with a musical culture that he perceived as, to quote critic Hebdige critic Barney Hoskyns, "frivolous, narcissistic [and] politically evasive."

My friends and I called it "fag rock," an appellation that accurately reflected our insular, rural, homophobic, working-class lives, where no one (at least outwardly) dressed like a Martian androgyne, and classist resentment wasn't expressed through dressing like Lauren Bacall. Despite the useful specificity of our sub-genre designation, we didn't hate the music or many of the artists. We played Ziggy Stardust endlessly, along with Lou Reed's Transformer, T-Rex's Electric Warrior, Roxy Music's For Your Pleasure, both New York Dolls LPs, and anything by Slade. Not everything made the grade: Gary Glitter and Sweet sucked, as did Suzi Quatro (who we thought was kind of hot, though almost all of the best-looking glam chicks were guys). We dismissed their lot as crass, hypermarketed shit, palatable to those who moved in less musically sophisticated circles than ours. Truth be told, we never used terms like "hypermarketed" and "palatable," but we were arrogant, and it showed.

No band associated with glam solidified our standing as card-carrying members of the hipoisie, and articulated our non-negotiable heterosexuality, more than Mott the Hoople. In his pungent, funny, and too-brief history of glam rock, Barney Hoskyns convincingly argues that Mott was never really a glam band in that, "their latent homophobia and fundamental chauvinism were only too obvious." Sure, but Mott's dabbling with androgyny reveals a trend-jumping careerist impulse that has fueled Rock ‘n' Roll dreams since forever. It was actually Mott's second act, and its attendant queering of the straight guys, that secured their legacy, courtesy of the imprimatur of glam rock, David Bowie.

Before Mott the Hoople there was Silence; not the absence of sound, but the odd moniker taken by the Hereford, England cover band that supplied Mott with its core lineup: guitarist Mick Ralphs, bassist Pete "Overend" Watts, drummer Dale "Buffin" Griffin, and organist Verden Allen. Stan Tippins was the lead vocalist, but once the band caught the attention of manic, tragic genius producer Guy Stevens, Tippins (in a move remiscent of Ian Stewart's reassignment within the Rolling Stones), was sacked and spent the rest of his career as the band's road manager. Replacing Tippins was Ian Hunter, a singer/songwriter who had been around the block (and then some); as Robert Christgau noted, Hunter had "one freakish specialty – an imitation of the world-weary middle period Dylan." After shaving five years off his age (Hunter was 30 when Mott's first LP was released in 1970), permanently affixing shades to his face, and letting his curly hair grow out into a modified version of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde era afro, Silence, with Hunter front and center, was rechristened Mott the Hoople to overwhelming indifference (Guy Stevens nicked the name from a Willard Manus novel).

Mott's career is neatly divided into two phases: pre- and post-Bowie. The former is represented by the band's first four LPs, released in the U.S. by Atlantic. Taken as a whole they are wildly uneven, a hodgepodge of riff-based hard rock peppered with Hunter's ballads, many exuding a kind of middlebrow gravitas cobbled together from a kit bag of literary sources (e.g., Kerouac, Baudelaire). There are Dylan-isms all over the place, mainly the result of Hunter's voice, which despite being an obvious homage de Zimmerman has a certain creaky, sing-speak charm to it, and is far better at expressing emotion than Mick Ralphs's thin tenor. Of the Atlantic releases, 1972's Brain Capers is the best, but only because it's the most consistent and, at times, perverse (covers of Melanie Safka's "Lay Down," and the Youngblood's "Darkness, Darkness," done without a scintilla of ironic detachment), but when it flopped the band was ready to call it quits.

Enter the Thin White Duke. For some reason, Bowie loved these guys, and proved it by writing one of his best songs, "All the Young Dudes," for them. At the time I didn't hear it as a gay anthem (clearly I lived in an uncomplicated, insular world), but the signs are everywhere, most memorably the image of Lucy who dresses like a queen but kicks like a mule. Hunter sounds slightly fey, a queenish Dylan who takes great delight in tongue-kissing certain words and phrases, especially the song's glib flick of the wrist to the Beatles and the Stones ("He never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag/ Too many snags.") What you can't hear in this quote is the pause between drag and snags, or Hunter's faint lisp. But just try singing the song without mimicking him mimicking Marc Bolan. You can't.

The single "All the Young Dudes" went Top 40 in the U.S., and the LP of the same name – released by Columbia within a year of Brain Capers –outperformed the band's four previous releases combined. Hunter chronicled the band's rise and American tour in his diaristic Reflections of a Rock Star. Now wearing makeup and mascara, thigh high vertigo-inducing platform shoes (an Overend Watts specialty), ruffled shirts, and pouting a bit more than before, Mott became inextricably linked with Bowie, Lou Reed (All the Young Dudes contains a cover of the Velvet's "Sweet Jane") and all that was glam (again, all were represented by Tony De Fries and MainMan). What was the price of this "overnight" success? "Instantly," Hunter famously opined, "we were considered fags."

Mott followed Dudes in 1973; it remains the band's best and arguably only essential record. Tasting success later than most (while keeping his real age a secret), Hunter's songs – especially "All the Way From Memphis" and the bitter "Hymn For the Dudes" – were smart and sardonic, fully cognizant and at times openly critical of the wages of fame, while simultaneously luxuriating in the wretched excess of celebrity. They were on top of the world, but it quickly began to unravel. Mick Ralphs left to start Bad Company, and Verden Allen just left. Hunter hired ex-Spooky Tooth guitarist Luther Grosvenor anointed him with the glam nom de plume Ariel Bender (which Hoskyns cites as glam's greatest ever stage name), and soldiered on releasing the so-so The Hoople and Mott the Hoople Live. After a couple of years Bender was fired and replaced by Mick Ronson, but the band collapsed thereafter; Hunter (with Ronson in tow) went off to establish a solo career, and the rest of the band tried to squeeze every last ducat out of Mott the Hoople's legacy.

The live album, which turned out to be the last proper Mott record, should have been a career capstone, but Columbia screwed it up; instead of releasing a comprehensive 2-LP set, they thoughtlessly tossed out a heavily-edited single disc. I bought it, played it a lot, and enjoyed it in spite of its shortcomings (namely the muddy sound, and Bender's mediocre guitar playing). Fast-forward to 2004: upon hearing that a 30th anniversary reissue was in the offing, I became oddly excited, but also thought it was kind of perverse. Why Live? If memory serves, it was a complete flop, the most neglected release of Mott's Columbia era. More perversely, I was looking forward to it.

Was the music better than I remembered? I couldn't listen to my vinyl copy – over thirty years and a number of moves, I'd lost it. Once the release date came I was keen, if not downright obsessed to find out, to find it, and when I did I listened to it constantly. I wasn't simply enjoying Live, I was reveling in it, a fan reborn, despite the caveat whispered by my inner critic, "Is it really that good?"

Yes, it is.

What makes this expanded 2-disc set so exhilarating is that it's everything the studio recordings (from Dudes to The Hoople) aren't: chaotic, unhinged, and gleefully noisy. The performances on Live were culled from a gig at London's Hammersmith Odeon in December 1973, and a weeklong stint on Broadway at the Uris Theater in May 1974. This was Mott at its glammed-up, pretentious peak, strutting onstage in platform heels to a recording of "Jupiter" from Gustav Holst's The Planets Suite, following it with a set of nasty, brutish, and loud Rock 'n' Roll. Glam by association, the songs contain plenty of bonhomie and macho posturing (e.g., the groupie ode "Jerkin' Crocus," and the manic "One of the Boys"), as well as songs reflecting Hunter's serious "writerly" side (the music industry jeremiad "Marionette," the ballads "Rose" and "Rest in Peace").

Sonically, it's less muddy than I remember, no doubt the result of remixing and remastering: the guitars (especially Bender's) frequently cross the arbitrarily-enforced fine line between hard rock and heavy metal (something I've never had a problem with), time signatures are casually ignored – Overend and Buffin were not what you'd call a metronomic rhythm section – and ultimately, "Dudes" sounds terrific with Stan Tippins filling in for Bowie. Hunter's throat sounds raw on much of the Broadway stuff, and Ariel Bender…well, he looks great!

Quibbling over details, however, misses a larger and more important point: this is pure rave up, the kind of energetic showbiz theatricality that separated glam bands from their droogy, earnest hippie counterparts, and on Live the impulse is presented in a manner both gloriously unselfconscious and unrestrained. Is it pretentious and occasionally self-aggrandizing? Sure, but if that's a problem, you were never really a fan of Mott, because in sum, those things simply don't matter. "Don't forget us," Hunter tells the Broadway crowd after a pulverizing version of Brain Capers' "Walking With a Mountain" – "We won't forget you." Thankfully, forgetting this bunch of "fagged"-up working class hetero-s has become a much harder proposition.

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