Life at 33⅓: The cool side of glam

Mott The Hoople: Mott (CBS)

Mott The Hoople: Mott (CBS)

This record sleeve should have been iconic.  But it is not, it’s long gone.  On the recent CD-edition the lavish sleeve-design was replaced by a cheapo, cheapo photo of the group just standing there looking rather confused.

The original sleeve triggered expectations, it signaled that the band you had followed through frustrating years of obstacles and wasted opportunities finally and mysteriously had made it, they were camping at Mytikas, the peak of Mount Olympus.  I remember studying every tiny little detail of the sleeve as the bus took me home.  I opened the gatefold, I closed it, I read the song titles as if they were coded language for initiates.  There was a ballad and a hymn and onomatopoeic words like “Whizz” and “Honaloochie”.  And Ian Hunter had a hand in writing all the tracks except one.  I was damned sure that I loved the album long before it landed on my turntable.

England was glam-rock galore at the time: boys wore make-up, silly haircuts, feather boas and flamboyant, colourful silk-costumes.  Camp, oh dear, yes.  You would never find me in platform shoes or red silk pants, but then again, I did not live my life on a stage.

The great Sweet, Gary Glitter, Slade and T. Rex and loads of lesser talented guys delivered glam to the teenyboppers, while Bowie (and his American role model Lou Reed), Roxy Music and yes, Mott The Hoople took the walk on the wild side, they were the cool side of glam.

Mott were old acquaintances: They had fascinated me ever since I discovered them on the Island compilation album “Nice Enough To Eat” where they delivered Doug Sahm’s “At The Crossroads” in a powerful ebb and flow-arrangement bursting into a wonderfully prolonged orgasmic climax.

I bought all the albums Mott made for Island and felt the same frustrations as them as each and every one of them failed to chart.  Mott remained one of rock’s best kept secrets – adored by the few, ignored by the many.  Not very inspiring when you aim for the toppermost of the poppermost.

The group had decided to call it a day when David Bowie came to the rescue, giving them “All The Young Dudes” and a taste for really ugly clothes.  It became a smash hit, not a come-back as they had never actually arrived, but a fantastic breakthrough.  The accompanying album was a more uneven effort.  But rumor had it that “Mott” was gonna be the one.  And the sleeve certainly looked the part.

The long, staccato piano introduction to “All The Way From Memphis” clears the space for incoming drama.  Hunter’s voice, his playfully androgynous pronunciation, his singing style – half talking, half singing, Dylan like, but still so English, he charges the song until it almost bursts of anticipation, and then, perfectly timed, the band crashes in for that huge, blasting chorus that sends you spinning “from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowlin”, landing on your hands and knees on the title stanza, sung perfectly naked as the piano tip toes down the stairs for a hit of the harder stuff, and then wham!

The song takes off again.  And again.  And you are more than willing to accept that this gang of peacocks and their glam Dylan-leader is the missing link between the Welsh borders and Elvis’ Memphis.  All the way from Memphis, indeed.

To open an album with such a magnificent track is suicidal or just plain arrogant if you got nothing more up your sleeve.  But they had.  What holds this album together is Ian Hunter’s almost epic ballad rockers sung with a vulnerable voice overpowered by emotion, the lyrics shamelessly self-mythologizing the band, its history, its stumbling through the wilderness of defeats towards the sudden light of success.  In a strange way they make you feel part of their myth, you are drawn into their universe, it is as if the songs speak from your own heart.

“Hymn For the Dudes” is stunning, theatrical, burning, empathic, almost sacred – and drawn from the same well that would later give us “Boy”.  It is a slow one, rising and falling through mighty climaxes of harmony voices, guitars, keyboards and desperately shouting Hunter-vocals and then quieting down for tender, silent stretches where piano and voices harmonize beautifully as Hunter caress his words as if his life depended on them, and then the track detonates with a superb, high flying pompous guitar solo before the whole thing winds down for the pay-off line: “You are not alone”.

“Ballad Of Mott The Hoople (26th March, 1972, Zurich)” is an organ/piano-based eulogy from the band’s darker days when they though they’d hit the end of the line, the music tips its hat to “Blonde On Blonde”.  Another big one that gives you the goose pimples as Hunter name checks all the members.

The album concludes with the mandolin-driven, magnificently sensitive “I Wish I Was Your Mother”, the chorus is simply contagious.

The tracks I have mentioned are the pillars of “Mott” and the reason why you get so hooked on the album.  In between the semi-epics you find some rough rockers blessed with absorbent choruses.  “Honaloochie Boogie” is the best of these. Mick Ralphs overlong “I’m A Cadillac” the weakest.  And midway between the riffing and the drama is “Violence,” a not entirely successful mini musical trying too hard to be the cool cousin of “A Clockwork Orange”.  It’s too messy and chaotic to get anywhere.

In 1973 I was absolutely certain that “Mott” was an album for eternity.  Today I realize that it’s more uneven than I perceived it, and some of the stuff is clearly dated.  However, those epic pillars are so cleverly deployed that you never wanna leave the room.  “Mott” still got me under its spell.

Released July 1973
(All songs written by Ian Hunter, except where indicated)

Side One
1. “All the Way from Memphis” – 4:55
2. “Whizz Kid” – 3:05
3. “Hymn for the Dudes” (Verden Allen, Hunter) – 5:15
4. “Honaloochie Boogie” – 2:35
5. “Violence” (Hunter, Mick Ralphs) – 4:37
Side Two
1. “Drivin’ Sister” (Hunter, Ralphs) – 4:42
2. “Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zürich)” (Hunter, Dale “Buffin” Griffin, Peter Watts, Ralphs, Allen) – 5:40
3. “I’m a Cadillac / El Camino Dolo Roso” (Ralphs) – 7:40
4. “I Wish I Was Your Mother” – 4:41

Ian Hunter – lead vocals, piano, guitar
Mick Ralphs – guitar, backing vocals, organ, moogotron, mandolins, tambourine, lead vocals on “I’m A Cadillac / El Camino Dolo Roso”
Pete “Overend” Watts – bass guitar, backing vocals
Dale “Buffin” Griffin – drums, vocals, percussion, backing vocals

Additional Personnel:
Paul Buckmaster – electric cello on “Honaloochie Boogie”
Morgan Fisher – piano, synthesizer
Mick Hince – bells on “I Wish I Was Your Mother”
Andy Mackay – saxophone on “All The Way From Memphis” & “Honaloochie Boogie”
Graham Preskett – violin on “Violence”
Thunderthighs (Karen Friedman, Dari Lalou, Casey Synge) – backing vocals on “Hymn For The Dudes”

First published in Pattaya Mail on August 29, 2013