Their best, and maybe the most interesting glam-influenced record of all time
by Marshall Bowden
It’s 1973, and Mott the Hoople have taken the trip up rock’s Lucky Charms rainbow to discover the pot of gold on the other side. After a hard scrabble start that saw the band go from hard rockers to confused rockers, to hard chaotic rockers, to a Dylan and the Band inspired one off, they contemplated tossing it all in, Badfinger style. Then, with no time to spare, in swooped David Bowie anod his Main Man production company, and Mott joined the ranks of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed as a Bowie production. Now the band is on Top of the Pops singing “All The Young Dudes,” their most famous song and album and riding the glam rock train to stardom.
In the meantime, lead singer Ian Hunter has been revving up his songwriting skills, producing some good songs for All The Young Dudes. But it turns out he’s got some big statements to make and the band is ready to settle into some harder rock again, with the sheen of glam tossed over the proceedings like a discarded crinoline. What results is perhaps the only mature production to have the imprint of glam rock, with the topic being less rock & roll suicide and more rock & roll burnout. For Hunter takes as his thesis, not the rise and fall of Ziggy or Alvin Stardust, but the reminiscences of a seasoned veteran, sometimes bored, sometimes outraged, sometimes on the verge of cashing it all in.
It’s a pretty heavy lift to believe this level of ennui and jaded weariness could befall a band by its sixth studio album, though Mott the Hoople had indeed seen other bands with half as much commitment and even less talent pass them by on the autobahn of fame. But Hunter makes it stick; in fact he would make a solo career of it in just a couple of short years.
Take the opener, “All the Way From Memphis.” A little story about the narrator losing his guitar while on tour and finding it trashed when he finally catches up with it, the song opens with Hunter banging on the piano like John Cale on a bender, the rhythm section kicking in and then some honking sax backup courtesy of Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay before Hunter delivers his opening verse, swinging into what seems like an inevitable chorus:
Now it’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll
Through the Bradford cities and the oreoles
‘n you look like a star but you’re still on the dole
All the way from Memphis
A bunch of folks were introduced to Mott the Hoople for the first time when this track was used in the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
The song continues on, sounding a bit like an outtake from Moondog Matinee, Mackay’s horn becoming more and more unhinged, wailing like pop music’s Illinois Jacquet and Hunter riffing on that chorus like Lou Reed (“you look like a star/but you’re really out on parole,” “gotta stay young man, you can never be old”). Finally, here on the opener of their sixth studio album, Mott the Hoople finds that place that is them, just as surely as the Stones and Faces found that sweet spot where it all came together.
Two tracks from Side One, “Whizz Kid” and “Honaloochee Boogie” satisfy the Bolan/Bowie quotient of sparkle for the record. And they are sumptuous delicacies indeed. The former has the vibe of beat poetry, but it’s glam poetry instead, with all the dignity that Marc Bolan could summon and a lyrical turn that carries all the pathos of Ray Davies’ best couplets: “Send you victorious, happy and glorious/You got the stardust, the sawdust, and the smile.”
“Honaloochee Boogie” could have come from Diamond Dogs or Aladdin Sane but it has a playfulness that eludes Bowie on either of those albums, great as they are. It was selected as the group’s follow-up single to “All the Young Dudes” and it made it to #12 UK singles chart position. Mackay plays sax again, and the track also features Bill Price on Moog synthesizer and the ubiquitous Paul Buckminster on cello. And a cool roboto effect on some of Hunter’s vocals that make him sound like a demented game show host. Trust me, this is what the diamond dogs are listening to in their skyscrapers.
The album revolves around two large, dramatic, autobiographical tracks: “Hymn to the Dudes” and “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople.” “Hymn to the Dudes” speaks to the same audience as “All the Young Dudes”, but instead of an anthem it reaches out to their brokenness and confusion while at the same time taking a poke at the notion that a rock superstar (Bowie?) could ever be just ‘one of the kids’:
‘Cause if you think you are a star
For so long they’ll come from near and far
But you’ll forget just who you are (yes you will)
You ain’t the nazz
You’re just a buzz
Some kinda temporary…
“The Ballad of Mott the Hoople” references the day in Zurich when the band was seriously planning to call it quits and is the ultimate world weary anthem on Mott. “Rock and roll’s a loser’s game” sings Hunter, “it mesmerizes and I can’t explain…the rock and roll circus is in town.” The record that most closely matches Mott’s bookend ballads that tie the band and its audience together as victims of rock’s world of illusion while at the same time protecting them like a magic talisman is the Kinks’ 1978 record Misfits.
And these are merely the highlights. You also get the insane rave-up “Violence” that takes “All the Young Dudes” deep into Anthony Burgess droog territory, “Drivin’ Sister,” a standard issue Mott rocker that became popular live, Mick Ralph’s “I’m a Cadillac/El Camino Dolo Rosa,” a harbinger of his Bad Company work, and the closer, “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” another Hunter ballad, this time with a Dylanesque vibe.
In his 1973 piece on Mott for Creem titled “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople” Ben Edmonds wrote: “Through all the changes and complications, Mott has always been honest with the people who paid their money to see them perform. This relationship has allowed them to see exactly what the needs of their audience have been, and they’ve always done their best to fulfill them.”
Give Mott a listen if you haven’t previously heard it, or maybe give it a revisit. I think you’ll find it an enjoyable listen.