Mott the Hoople
Mott the Hoople
They didn’t last long, and they started to break up the moment they experienced their greatest success, but Mott the Hoople created a legacy that influenced the sound of heavy metal and punk rock bands during the decades that followed. They may have started out as working-class hard rockers in 1969, but they became stars by developing the more polished glam rock sound of the early 1970s. Soon, though, the members most closely identified with the band began to leave: first guitarist Mick Ralphs, then vocalist Ian Hunter. By 1975 the group had lost their original songwriters, dropped “the Hoople” from their name, and after two ill-received albums, ceased to exist.
At the outset, Mott the Hoople’s prospects didn’t look bright. They even had to change their line-up and their name before they could get a recording contract. The group formed as Silence in 1968 in Hereford, England with Pete “Overend” Watts on bass, Verden Allen on organ, Dale Griffin on drums, Ralphs on guitar, and Stan Tippens as their lead singer. The group quickly attracted attention, especially that of producer Guy Stevens, who worked for Island Records. He offered to sign the band to his label, provided they met two conditions. First, he wanted them to take the same name as a contemporary novel by Willard Manus, so the group agreed to become Mott the Hoople. Next, Stevens wanted to replace Tippens as the band’s front man. Tippens accepted the condition, moving into the role of the group’s manager.
Then the question remained of who would replace Tippens. An ad placed in Melody Maker magazine brought Ian Hunter into the band. With his long curls and perpetual sun-glasses, Hunter gave the rock & roll look that Stevens wanted for the band. But Hunter brought more than an image and a voice. He would become the main songwriter for Mott, his lyrics and voice, along with Ralphs’ guitar, coming to define the group’s sound. With their first album, 1969’s Mott the Hoople, that sound drew attention from reviewers for its mix of Bob Dylan—mostly due to Hunter’s nasal vocals—and hard rock. Most reviewers approved of the debut album.
Still, the praise of the press didn’t translate into sales for the album. The group’s stage shows in support of it, though, gave them a reputation as a first-rate live act. But all the touring didn’t help their second album, Mad Shadows, which received lukewarm reviews and sales. Mott the Hoople then changed direction for their next album, Wildlife, in 1971, turning to country-rock for almost all the songs. This departure from their previous work also didn’t go over well at all. The last cut, though, broke the mold of the rest of the album. A live version of Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’, “it showed off their power as hard rockers and live performers, described
For the Record…
Members included Verden “Phally” Allen (born on May 26, 1944, in Hereford, England; left group, 1973), organ; Ariel Bender (born Luther James Grosvenor on December 23, 1949, in Evesham, England; member, 1973-74), lead guitar; Morgan Fisher (joined group, 1973), keyboards; Dale “Buf-fin” Griffin (born on October 24, 1948, in Ross-on-Wye, England), drums; Ian Hunter (born on June 3, 1946, in Shrewsbury, England; left group, 1974), lead vocals, piano, guitar; Mick Ralphs (born on May 31, 1944, in Hereford, England; left group, 1973), lead guitar; Mick Ronson (born c. 1946, in Hull, England, died April 30, 1993; member, 1974), lead guitar; Pete “Overend” Watts (born on May 13, 1947, in Birmingham, England), bass.
Formed in Hereford, England, 1968; signed recording deal and released first album, Mott the Hoople, 1969; riot at concert at Albert Hall in London, 1971; group nearly disbanded, 1972; worked with David Bowie, released All the Young Dudes, 1972; Ralphs quit band, 1973; Hunter left band suffering from exhaustion, 1974; remaining members changed band’s name to Mott, 1975.
by James Chrispell of All Music Guide as “not afraid of a bit of sloppy playing as long as the spirit is there.” That spirit could get so rowdy that a riot at a 1971 Mott the Hoople show at London’s Albert Hall led the venue to ban rock concerts.
Including “Keep A-Knockin’, “on this country-flavored album was an act of desperation. The track had originally been part of a live album project, which got scrapped after Mott had already put money in it. They needed to salvage at least some of their investment because the group was in financial trouble. Island Records, dissatisfied with sales of the first three albums, indicated that they would probably lose interest after the fourth and final album of the deal made with Stevens. With nothing to lose, the band return to their hard rocking ways in the studio with their fourth album, Brain Capers. With song titles such as “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” and “Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception, “the album had an edge to it. In retrospect, Hunter saw that edge as early punk, similar to the sound of England’s first big punk band, the Sex Pistols. In an interview with Richard Cromelin of the Los Angeles Times, he mentioned one specific song from the album: “If you listen to ’Moon Upstairs, ’ it’s kinda like listening to the Pistols before it ever happened.”
Brain Capers, like the earlier albums, failed to find a large audience, and Island followed through on their threat to drop Mott. To the group’s members, this looked like the end of the line, and they prepared to disband. Looking for other work, Watts sent a letter to David Bowie inquiring about the possibility of playing with him. Bowie, whose star was on the rise as a leading light of the new glam rock movement, urged them to stay together, offered to produce their next album, and gave them a song that he had written. The group accepted Bowie’s generosity, although they negotiated a bit about which song to use. He offered “Suffragette City, “but Mott wanted “Drive-In Saturday, “which Bowie wouldn’t relinquish. The compromise song turned out to be “All the Young Dudes.”
The single and the album of that name turned out to be Mott the Hoople’s signature work. The song climbed all the way to number three on the British charts and cracked the top 40 in the United States. It became an anthem, speaking to disaffected youth, especially gays, an appeal that evidently caught the band by surprise. But more important in terms of the band’s evolution, the album marked a change in their sound. Predisposed to long instrumental solos characteristic of their on-stage jamming, under Bowie’s direction their songs, according Tony Drayton in Rock: The Rough Guide, “reveal hooklines and choruses without losing a lively, spontaneous feel.” The band had come into the spotlight with a new image. Mixing catchy pop with hard rock, they had become glam rockers.
Mott the Hoople moved quickly to follow up on their new-found success, releasing Mott in 1973. The album featured Hunter on keyboards, because Allen had left the band. His reasons for leaving ranged from fears about the flashy image of glam becoming more important than the music to the perception that Hunter didn’t want to record any of Allen’s songs. The change didn’t slow the band’s momentum. “Honaloochie Boogie” and “All the Way from Memphis, “an account of Mott’s experiences in the United States, both became Top 20 hits in the United Kingdom. While the whole band received the credit as the album’s producers, Hunter was listed as the arranger, hinting at the increasing role the front man was taking in shaping the sound and image of the group.
Hunter’s elevation created tensions that came to a head when the group returned to the studio after Mott to record the song “Roll Away the Stone.” Solidly in the glam mode, it would be the last work that Ralphs would do with the band. Frustrated that his song “Can’t Get Enough” proved to be out of Hunter’s vocal range, he departed from a group that didn’t rock like it had when he had helped to found it. He went on to form Bad Company, which had a huge hit with the song. Meanwhile, Mott the Hoople replaced both him and Allen. Former Spooky Tooth guitarist Luther Grosvenor changed his name to Ariel Bender and joined Mott along with new keyboard player Morgan Fisher. This lineup put out the album The Hoople in 1974 and continued the band’s commercial success, climbing to number eleven on the British charts and to 28 in the United States.
Despite their success, the new lineup didn’t last very long. Bender took off for other work, replaced by Mick Ronson, who had previously worked as David Bowie’s guitarist. He lasted all of one single, “Saturday Gigs, “described by Drayton as “another anthemic confessional, attempting to combine the best bits of ’Roll Away the Stone’ (shalala choruses) and ’All the Young Dudes’ (documentary lyrics).” This would also turn out to be Hunter’s last effort with the band that had come to be closely identified with him. Just before a scheduled European tour toward the end of 1974, Hunter was hospitalized for exhaustion, leading to the cancellation of the entire tour. Upon recovery, instead of rejoining Mott the Hoople, he teamed up with Ronson to tour and record as a duo.
Although Hunter had become the face of the band, the remaining members tried to carry on. Adding Ray Major, their third guitarist since Ralphs’s departure two years earlier, and Nigel Benjamin, the group shortened its name simply to Mott and released two albums. The public reacted with indifference, and in retrospect many critics felt that this new version of the band with the short name was not a good idea. Writing for the All Music Guide, Stephen Thomas Erlewine was especially scathing about Mott’s final effort, the 1976 album Shouting and Pointing: “This follows the same form as Mott the Hoople, but Shouting and Pointing gets it completely wrong, resulting in a set of hideous hard rock, one of the nadirs of ’70s rock.”
Dropping Benjamin and adding vocalist John Fiddler, the remaining members changed their name to the British Lions, but by 1978 that band was done and the members of Mott the Hoople had scattered across the rock & roll landscape. Ralphs and Hunter found the most success after Mott. Ralphs’ band Bad Company had a string of hard-rock hits. While not having as many big hits, Hunter achieved moderate success on his solo albums, some of which featured Ronson, with whom he collaborated until the latter’s death from cancer in 1993.
Rescued from breaking up in near anonymity in 1972 and split up, for all intents and purposes, by 1974, Mott the Hoople’s achievements came during a brief period. Yet they ended up making their mark on both the heavy metal and punk rockers who came after them, which in turn has kept interest in the band higher than one might expect from such fleeting fame. In 1999, a new Mott the Hoople album came out, All the Way from Stock-holm to Philadelphia—Live 71-72. Matt Blackett of Guitar Player magazine pointed out how the album “reveal[s] the impact the Motts had on bands such as Oasis, Queen, Def Leppard, and Sweet.” Along with bands such as these, punk bands such as the Clash and Generation X, for whom Hunter produced at one point, also owed a debt to Mott the Hoople. Influencing performers more than 20 years after their break up, the band’s legacy has lasted much longer than their brief time in the spotlight.
Mott the Hoople
Mott the Hoople, Island, 1969.
Mad Shadows, Island, 1970.
Wildlife, Island, 1971.
Brain Capers, Island, 1971.
All the Young Dudes, Columbia, 1972.
Mott, Columbia, 1973.
The Hoople, Columbia, 1974.
Mott the Hoople Live, Columbia, 1974.
Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1976.
The Ballad of Mott: A Retrospective, Columbia, 1993.
Backsliding Fearlessly, Rhino, 1994.
Original Mixed Up Kids: The BBC Recordings, Windsong, 1996.
All the Young Dudes (box set), Sony International, 1998.
All the Way from Stockholm to Philadelphia—Live 71/72, Angel Air, 1999.
Once Bitten Twice Shy (double album), Sony Legacy, 2000.
Drive On, Columbia, 1975.
Shouting and Pointing, Columbia, 1976.
Buckley, Jonathan and Mark Ellingham, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Penguin, 1996.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Penguin, 1989.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze, 1998.
Romanowski, Patricia and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Stambler, Irwin, editor, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock& Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Guitar Player, May 1999, p. 94.
Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1989, p. F3.
Phoenix New Times, August 17, 2000.
“Mott the Hoople,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 21, 2000).
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