Forty-five years ago, Mott The Hoople seemed ready to summit the rock mountaintop. The band had just released their highest-charting U.S. album, 1974’s The Hoople, and its members were about to headline a historic week of sold-out shows at one of New York’s classiest Broadway theaters, then known as the Uris.
Less than a year later, they were gone — a victim of in-fighting, career pressure and bad management. In the process, they orphaned their growing fan base and become one of rock history’s greatest underachieving bands. While frontman Ian Hunter went on to enjoy a successful solo career, Mott’s tenacious cult in the U.S. has been pining for some kind of reunion ever since. (In the U.K. and Europe, the group performed a series of comeback shows over the last decade).
This week, Hunter will finally fulfill that fantasy for American loyalists with a select eight-date tour, kicking off today (April 1) in Milwaukee, though there are some major caveats: Two key members — bassist Pete Watts and drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin — have died in the last few years, and guitarist-songwriter Mick Ralphs can’t appear due to complications from a stroke he suffered two years ago. Hunter also didn’t ask back Verden Allen, the surging organist who left the group in 1971. To indicate those absences, the band has billed this tour as “Mott The Hoople ’74,” a logical billing considering this incarnation includes two members who were in the group during that potent year and also played during the Broadway run: Keyboardist Morgan Fischer and guitarist Ariel Bender. The new setlist will closely resemble that of their Uris Theater run.
Last month, Hunter sat down with Billboard to talk about Mott’s dramatic story in a restaurant located just two blocks from the old Uris.
Fans love that you’re doing this Mott tour, but do you feel at all self-conscious about being the only original member involved?
Not really. We can’t do anything about the guys who are no longer here, and Luther and Morgan are great. Luther has been stone-cold sober for a year and looks amazing, so you’ll be getting all of his excitement, which is about 120 percent above normal. The other guys who are playing [including the rhythm section from Hunter’s solo Rant Band] have done a lot of the Mott stuff over the years. They know Pete’s lines and Buf’s drum technique well.
I was lucky enough to see one of the Uris Theater shows when I was in high school. To fans, it seemed like a new peak for the band. Did you have any sense at the time that the band might soon be coming to an end?
It was in the back of your mind. Mick Ralphs was no longer in the band, so I wasn’t getting any of his songs. And I couldn’t continue to write everything. At some point, we were going to come up against that.
The other notable thing about the Uris shows was that Queen was your opening act. That’s the only time they opened for another band in America. Did you have any sense of how huge they would become?
I didn’t. I had heard “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Liar” every night, and those were good songs. And they fell right in with us. It wasn’t the normal thing where the headliner and the opening act are separate. We got along particularly well with Fred. He was great fun. And he loved us because we were the true spirit of rock ‘n roll. We had that X factor.
Mott is beloved by fans and greatly admired by critics, but you never sold that many albums in America. Even All the Young Dudes, the album that had your biggest hit of the same name, peaked at No. 89 on the Billboard 200 in 1973. Why do you think you weren’t more popular?
Our record company, Columbia Records, all they had to go on was Ten Years After in terms of British bands that had come over before us. I met with Clive Davis, and their plan for us was to be Ten Years After. Meaning, we were going to be an FM band, not an AM band that got hits. We had six straight big singles in England that we didn’t have here. The company wouldn’t pitch our singles over here because they said we were “too good for that kind of thing.” But I didn’t see the Stones having a problem with singles.
Mott had two distinct periods: Your first four albums were on Atlantic here and Island in the U.K. Then came the Columbia years. The Island/Atlantic albums are fascinating, with lots of great songs, but they all bombed.
We were looking for a sound, trying to find out who we might be. And every member was pulling in different ways. What we did back then wouldn’t stand a dog’s chance today. [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell stuck with us for four albums that didn’t sell. To be honest, I don’t think he realized that. He was too busy. Also, I think we got away with it because we had Guy Stevens [manager and producing the band], and Chris loved Guy.
Guy, essentially, put the band together. You joined last, as the singer-pianist.
I was first a bass player. I wasn’t a singer, really. But I went in to audition for what they needed. I just remember a bunch of hairy guys sitting in a circle. I played the piano and sang, and they got cheerful because they’d had guys in who could sing but couldn’t play piano, or who could play but couldn’t sing. Energized by this, I preceded to show them my bass solo, which killed the atmosphere completely. But I got a call a couple of days later that said, “You’re in until we find somebody better.” Then Guy took me down to the tailor’s because he said, “You look awful.” So he got me a little Dylan suit, and I thought, “Jeez, I’m in,” because he just spent 100 quid on a suit. It was one of the best days of my life.
You were quite a bit older than the other guys at the time — nearly 30. Were you concerned about that?
It’s annoying, but it was probably the last chance I was going to get. Someone said to me, “Tell ‘em you were in hospital for seven years so that time doesn’t count.” The good thing about being older was that I had been working in factories in various jobs. The rest of them had come straight out of school into bands, so they didn’t have anything to say. I had a lot to say. So lyrically, it helped.
The band’s debut album in 1969 consists mainly of covers, including “Laugh at Me,” originally by Sonny Bono, who was very disfavored by rockers at that time.
Not by me. I thought he was great: “I Got You Babe,” “Laugh at Me” — these are great songs. And he knew sound, because he had worked for Phil Spector. Later on, Cher came to see me and [Mick] Ronson play in L.A. But she left without saying anything, so I never knew if she liked it.
Your first album had that classic M.C. Escher drawing on the cover. The Stones also wanted to use a drawing by Escher for an album cover, but he wouldn’t let them. Why were you able to use it?
Because we just said, “Fuck it, we’re going with it.” And he never said a word. We thought, “It’s a 50-50 chance, either you’re going to get sued or not.” And he didn’t.
The best-known song on your debut is one Mott the Hoople co-founder Mick Ralphs wrote: “Rock and Roll Queen.” The Stones’ riff in “Bitch” sounds very much like it, and that came out two years later. Did you guys ever say anything to Keith about that?
I wouldn’t say that to him. I didn’t know what he might do. [Laughs] He wouldn’t do much now, but he might have at that time!
Early on in the band, Mick wrote most of the rocker songs and you did most of the ballads. Why?
I would write a rocker if it was really necessary, but I was better at ballads then. They’re slower, so you have more time to think. And I was more lyrically inclined.
One rocker you wrote in 1970 was “Walking with A Mountain,” which ends with you guys singing the chorus from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” How did that come about?
We were in Olympic Studios in the big room, and the Stones were in the little room. Jagger just walked in one day and danced around to the song. They had a lot of down time because they would stay in the studio for weeks. We were in awe of that. We had to watch the clock.
Mott’s second album, Mad Shadows, is very moody and dark. What led you in that direction?
It was not a good time. I was divorcing my first wife. I had two kids. So it wasn’t much fun.
The band’s third album, Wildlife, went in yet another direction. It shifted to country music, with Mick sounding like Neil Young. How did that come about?
Mick loved Neil Young. And he just said, “I’ve had enough of this crap we were doing, we’re going this way.” To me, it was just another experiment. There’s some good stuff there, but the album doesn’t make any sense. The nine-minute live track of a Little Richard song at the end doesn’t really match, does it?
Just when you were going to break up, in 1972, Bowie rescued the band by offering you a song he had written, “All the Young Dudes.” Did you know that song would become seminal?
I knew that I could sing it, and I knew it was a hit. It was on a different level.
What was your relationship with Bowie like?
It was great. He was very generous, but we were very different people. I think he liked us because we were rough and ready. And David was a little twee. He liked things just so in the studio. His version of “Dudes” would be a typical example. It’s little bit safe. Ours is more open.
Today, “Dudes” is seen as a prototypical gay anthem. Did you see it that way at the time?
I saw it as a hit. A lot of people thought it was a gay anthem, and in the Midwest, they weren’t too keen on that. So we lost a lot of air time. But we just had a great time with it. I remember we toured, and Bette Midler was touring the same cities. We were going to all the gay clubs with Bette afterwards because they didn’t like us in the straight clubs. But in the gay clubs, we had a great time.
You were working class guys. What was your attitude about adopting the androgynous clothes and affectations of glam-rock?
We saw it as just flash, as show-biz. There are so many bands, so you’ve got to do something to stand out. Pete Watts was especially into it. Everything he did, Gary Glitter did six weeks later.
One thing that really stood out about your lyrics at that time was how you used the band as a character in the songs. Why did you adopt that perspective?
Because the guys in the band were such characters. And I love characters. Unless you’ve got them in the band, touring is so boring. We weren’t those kind of dull great musician-types who sit on the bus and listen to last night’s gig. These guys were hilarious. My songs also started to go inward to be about Mott because that’s all that I was seeing. I wasn’t surrounded by the factories anymore.
1973’s Mott is clearly your peak. Why did everything come together so perfectly there?
Mick [Ralphs] had watched [producer] Tony Visconti like a hawk when we worked with Bowie. We learned off him. With Guy producing, it was more like a gig. We’d talk for an hour, and then he’d just say, “Play.” He was not the greatest producer in the world. Also, we’d found Bill Price at Air Studios [to engineer the record]. He was amazing. And I had good songs like “All the Way from Memphis” and “Honaloochi Boogie.” I also had “Roll Away the Stone,” but we kept it for the next album just in case I couldn’t come up with anything as good!
Even when Mott became big in the U.K. the band stayed down to earth.
One of the main things with the band was that we were there with the fans. It was the exact opposite of Bowie, who came from another planet. Bowie’s manager, Tony DeFries, hated us for that. He wanted us to be distant. He would say to me, “Every time you open your mouth, it makes me vomit.”
At the band’s height, Mick left for something untested — a new band, Bad Company.
He was ready to go because the band was becoming more and more my thing. Also, he loves that basic R&B thing, and I wasn’t that kind of singer. He was writing “Ready for Love” and “Can’t Get Enough” [which Bad Company recorded], and I couldn’t handle those songs then. I might be able to handle them now.
You said that when the band really started to fall apart, you had sort of a nervous breakdown. Was that psychosomatic?
That’s exactly what it was. I wound up in New Jersey in hospital. And they said, “You shouldn’t be in this band anymore.” And I said, “I know, but I can’t leave because I’ll get sued.” So they wrote me a letter saying I wasn’t capable of carrying on. And that got me out of it.
You went on to have a great solo career, aided for many years by the late Mick Ronson. All of which has led to this latest rebranding of Mott. Two months after this tour ends, you will turn 80! Any thoughts on that?
I feel great about it! 80 sounds sunshiny and clear and lovely, and 79 sounded all murky. I didn’t think I’d make 50, so this is all a bonus.
Mott the Hoople ’74 tour dates:
April 1 – Milwaukee, WI – Miller High Life Theatre
April 2 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
April 3 –Chicago, IL – Chicago Theatre
April 5 – Detroit, MI – The Fillmore
April 6 – Cleveland, OH – Masonic
April 8 – Glenside, PA – Keswick Theatre
April 9 – Boston, MA – Orpheum Theatre
April 10 – New York, NY – Beacon Theatre