sun 08/12/2019

Mott The Hoople Reunion Interview | reviews, news & interviews

Mott The Hoople Reunion Interview

Mott The Hoople Reunion Interview

Mott talk 35 years after breakup

The response astonished them – and me. Two sold-out nights at the Apollo rapidly turned into five, with talk of an American tour to follow. A list of rock luminaries from Noel Gallagher to Morrissey emerged from the woodwork to declare their undying admiration. In May at the Mojo magazine awards, Joe Elliot of Def Leppard appeared to offer more salutations and present them with a lifetime achievement award. Journalists far too young to have seen MTH in their prime were now queuing up to interview them.

I was more than puzzled. Part of the reason why I loved Mott The Hoople in the first place was because hardly anybody else I knew did. Their live shows were the most chaotically exciting thing I’d yet witnessed in my 18 years; but their albums never sold much, and they didn’t do hits until David Bowie sent them a cassette of "All The Young Dudes", after which they soon started shedding members. Having followed the band from their arrival in 1969 until their disintegration in 1974, I couldn’t recall reading a single positive review. The Melody Maker – inkie opinion-shaper-in-chief in those days – hated them, and I had been roundly patronised by my Zeppelin and Hendrix-loving mates for bothering with them at all. In short, Mott The Hoople had never been remotely cool. So why all this fuss now?

I drove out to Henley to consult Mott’s guitarist, Mick Ralphs. Though less visible than the curly-maned Hunter and the band’s flamboyantly booted bassist Pete "Overend" Watts, Ralphs was Mott’s original leader and main songwriter. At 65, his rosy complexion, tufty grey hair and soft West country vowels lend him more the air of an elderly character from The Archers than a heritage rock god - though that is clearly what he is. One wall of the office in Ralphs’ cottage is covered with gold and platinum discs. On close inspection however these turn out all to have been earned during his wildly successful time with Bad Company, the band he formed with Paul Rodgers after leaving Mott The Hoople in 1973.

Modest to a fault, Ralphs insists that he was never the man with Mott’s plan: none of them were. Put in touch with Island Records by his friend and fellow West-countryman Jim Capaldi of Traffic, Ralphs spent days outside the office of the company’s mercurial A&R man and producer Guy Stevens waiting to play him a demo by his band Silence. Eventually his temper snapped. “I went and kicked in the door of Guy’s office and barged in and he just looked up and said ‘I like your attitude, sit down.’ He didn’t want to listen to the demo, he wanted to see us play.”

After watching Silence perform in an Islington pub, Stevens took charge. He fired their singer, Stan Tippins, and hired a 30-year-old father of two, Ian Patterson, “because Ian reminded him of Bob Dylan in his electric period.” Stevens then re-named the band after a bo-ho novel by Willard Manus about a Southern drifter, re-christened the individual members – “except me, Guy thought Mick was an OK name” – and told them, basically, to get up on stage and go nuts. “The point was to have a style and image, to be an event. What Guy instilled in us was the desire to cause uproar. So there we were, this polite little local band from the Herefordshire area going mental, dressing up, overdoing everything.”

This was what I loved about Mott The Hoople live. After warming up with a few Dylanesque slow ballads, they would change gears and start hammering out favourites such as "Walking With A Mountain" or "Rock and Roll Queen". Unlike most of their contemporaries. Mott welcomed stage invaders. It may sound routine now, but at a time when psychedelic noodling for the benefit of head-nodding hippies ruled, this was incendiary stuff. It got Mott banned from the Albert Hall after a tumultuous gig I saw them play there in 1971. “Everybody else was trying to be very cool musically and we weren’t. With us it was no guitar solos. People used to ask me if I played lead or rhythm and I would say ‘I just play guitar’. We were totally against that self-indulgent muso stuff.”

Sadly this was not a formula for commercial success. Bands couldn’t support themselves selling £1 concert tickets back then, and even I found the albums heavy going. Ralphs agrees. “We never got it on record, it was always a live thing.” Their surprise hit with a song written by their arch fan David Bowie only delayed the break-up. "'All The Young Dudes' changed everything. Much as we wanted success we became like a pop group after that and we lost our underground subversive thing. It was a great song, but Ian carried on down that track whereas I wanted to play the more bluesy things which I’d written. And unfortunately Ian couldn’t sing them.”

Being a fierce democracy – “it always had to be 5-0” - Mott didn’t survive the elevation of Hunter as the band’s vocal lynchpin and boss songwriter. First to leave was organist Verden Allen, then, after their first headlining American tour, Ralphs quit. Hunter later told me that “after Mick left it all got too much. Too much touring, too many arguments. I was under a lot of self-inflicted pressure because we never had a proper manager.”

According to Mott’s drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin, the growing influence of the Bowie camp, in the form of Hunter’s friendship with guitarist Mick Ronson, didn’t help. “We didn’t get on with Mick Ronson at all. He was a boozer and we didn’t booze. We didn’t take drugs either. People used to think we were pie eyed on stage but we only ever got off on the music.” In 1974, just ahead of their first show topping the bill at Madison Square Garden, Hunter called a halt and that was the end of Mott The Hoople. Until now.

Ralphs says he didn’t realise how much his old band had been missed until he toured America earlier this year with a re-formed Bad Company. “A lot of people I met said they were flying over to see Mott in October.” A couple of surgeons from Chicago surprised him with the news that they performed operations while listening to Mott’s early albums. “They said they liked the wildness of it! I was astonished. Classical music maybe, but not Mott.” As for the younger demographic, Ralphs was delighted to learn recently that one of his noisiest early songs, Thunderbuck Ram, is being used in a skateboard movie.

But given that for years Mott “couldn’t get arrested” in Ralphs words, why all this comeback kerfuffle now? He suspects it must have something to do with the legend of Mott’s live shows in the current climate, in which the concert experience is king. “The audience was always more important than we were. We understood that it wasn’t about being cool, it was about getting people to let rip.” Even at our ripe old age? Ralphs considers. “Well, some people might want to hear the songs, I suppose.”

  • Review by Howard Male here

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