Ian Hunter was at home in Connecticut when I called, having a few days to himself before returning to the UK with The Rant Band for the latest run of shows to promote last year’s acclaimed Fingers Crossed album.
He’s around an hour and a half north of New York, having moved to that part of the US around 20 years ago following a spell in NYC. And although I wasn’t brave enough to ask so early in the conversation, I kind of assumed he was wearing his trademark shades.
As frontman of ‘70’s legends Mott The Hoople and a hugely influential solo artist, Ian’s rightly revered as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most compelling performers, and for 1973’s Mott and 1974’s The Hoople alone deserves major plaudits as a songwriter too. But while this Shropshire lad remains as busy now as when he started out in music in the 1950s, it seems that at the age of 78 he’s happy to be back in the sticks between engagements.
“I grew up in the country, and cities are annoying these days – too much traffic and you can’t breathe. And I don’t really have to be in town.”
Has he still got family and friends around Shropshire?
“Yeah, my oldest son lives there, and I have three grandkids there, plus my daughter’s in London.”
He was certainly looking forward to catching up with the Hunter clan and many more of us, a 14-date live run continuing at The Waterfront in Norwich on Friday, June 16th, and ending at The Playhouse, Whitley Bay, on Monday, July 3rd. Then, after three Californian dates in September, there’s a further run of seven shows in Germany, others in Switzerland and Italy, and three in Spain in October.
“I was over last year when the record came out. That went down great and we felt we wanted to come back, do some more, tied in with Europe. I love travelling round England, and on the coast. I was only ever popular straight down the middle first time. Now we’re trying to branch out sideways!”
With that in mind, I put it to him that there can’t be too many rock stars who moved to Northampton to try and reach the big time. And he laughed at that, perhaps recalling his formative days with The Apex Group and parallel outfit Hurricane Henry and The Shriekers.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never checked. I’ll have to Google that one up.”
If you don’t know that part of the story, I should point out that the future Mott the Hoople frontman’s entry into the business came after a chance encounter with two Colins – York and Broom – at a Butlin’s holiday camp, the trio winning a talent contest performing Blue Moon on acoustic guitars. The others were part of Northampton-based The Apex Group, fronted by bass player Frank Short, Ian soon leaving home in Shrewsbury to join them on rhythm guitar, transferring apprenticeship from Sentinel/Rolls Royce to British Timken, Northampton.
Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the apex of his music career, although it took a while to hit the big time, and gets slightly confusing in the re-telling. In a nutshell (almost), that dual-spell with The Shriekers, formed by Ian in 1963, led to a further apprenticeship – a rock’n’roll one this time – in Hamburg, Beatles-style, then further twists and turns, moving to London in 1966 and joining a band called The Scenery, getting to know Mick Ronson on the Flamingo Club scene around then. What’s more, he played with various other artists, including The Young Idea, Billy Fury and David McWilliams, and in 1968 was hired by Mickie Most to play in The New Yardbirds, not to be confused with the band that became Led Zeppelin.
To make up his wages, he also worked as a journalist and staff songwriter for the firm Francis, Day & Hunter, was a road-digger for a local council, and a newspaper reporter. Then in 1969 things took a fateful turn for this 30-year-old father-of-two, answering an ad (‘singer wanted, must be image-minded and hungry’) and auditioning successfully for a band put together by Guy Stevens, featuring guitarist Mick Ralphs, organist Verden Allen, vocalist Stan Tippins (who became the road manager), bassist Overend Watts and drummer Dale Griffin. Initially known as Silence, they were renamed after a 1966 Willard Manus novel, with their self-titled debut LP recorded in a week and proving a cult success. You probably know the rest.
Actually, a later check by yours truly revealed that Des O’Connor, born in the East End and seven years Ian’s senior, also had a spell in Northampton on his way to success, after being evacuated there in the Second World War, even having a spell as a professional footballer with Northampton Town (‘Cobblers’, I hear you say). That town’s also associated with electronica pioneer Delia Derbyshire, but few others of musical note, so to speak, until Bauhaus, The Communards’ Richard Coles and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke came along. Now what a super-group that would make, eh.
So does Ian make the most these days of all those dead hours between gigs, getting to properly see the places he visits rather than just travel, set up, play and move on?
“I have to soundcheck, one thing I never stop doing, but the band get there around two in the afternoon and I won’t usually get there until five, so I miss all the grind.”
I hesitate there for a moment, struggling to shake the enduring image of Ian as a glam-rock grandad, then tell him how much I love Dandy, his tribute to David Bowie, the lead single on 2016’s Fingers Crossed. It’s a slice of instant nostalgia and a fitting way to remember the iconic, influential star who gave Mott the Hoople their proper first hit, donating All the Young Dudes to them 45 years ago next month, just when they were on the verge of parting company after three years, four albums, and precious little commercial success, scoring the first of five top-20 singles.
In answer to my enquiry, Ian tells me he didn’t stay in touch with Bowie in recent years, but together we work out the last time they met was for the Wembley Stadium tribute to Freddie Mercury, also involving Mick Ronson and Queen, 25 years ago.
“Of course, he got down on his knees and did the Lord’s Prayer on that occasion. That was fun. Queen wanted to do Dudes last, of three songs, and there was quite a tense confrontation between David and Roger Taylor. I just said, ‘Look. It doesn’t matter’ – there’s this couple of multi-millionaires looking at each other rather sharply! But David already had it in mind what he was going to do.”
What about Ghosts, the second single from Fingers Crossed, all the way from Memphis in a sense, albeit via a New Jersey recording session, inspired by the band’s visit to Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studio in Tennessee.
“I’d been there once before, and we met the son of one of the original Jordanaires, who asked if we wanted to go around again. It’s kind of like that Disney ballroom scene where you see ghostly holograms dancing. That’s what it feels like in there. My band all picked up instruments and started playing, and I could see it was getting them like it was me. And they’re a lot younger. There was definitely something about that room.”
Ian mentioned on BBC 4’s cracking 2013 documentary, The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, the pull of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, but I’m guessing Elvis Presley – who the afore-mentioned Jordanaires backed for 16 years from 1956 – was a major influence too.
“Actually it was Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, The Platters, another great vocal band. Elvis was a bit too poppy. We were a bunch of Teds, and liked the hard stuff, y’know.”
I was thinking more of the earlier Elvis, when he was backed by Scotty Moore and Bill Black.
“Well yeah, and Jerry Lee’s piano is still there, as are the cigar stubs where they told them to stop smoking in the studio. Johnny Cash was there too, and The Prisonaires, coming off the chain gang for a day to record. Those early days were really something. There was a nice documentary about it all on the Country Music Channel recently.”
“It’s quality control really. You hang about until you have the feel acceptable to yourself. I’ve had this band a long time now, they know my modus operandi. I know what will work with a band, and try and keep it as simple as possible. And either you get it or you don’t.”
This tour with The Rant Band will involve a mix of Mott and solo work, centred around Fingers Crossed. Will Ian have his famous Maltese Cross guitar with him?
“No, I sold that to a guy in Folkestone. He took the pickguard off and there was $5 in there and the address of the bloke that made it! When I turned 70, (Def Leppard frontman) Joe Elliott had two made, replicas but with an amazing sound. I used those when Mott got back together. An amazing sound, better than the Les Paul Juniors. The only problem I have with this band is that I have two guitar players already, so it gets complicated. So I use an acoustic.”
Remind me where that original Maltese Cross guitar came from. Was that one of your US purchases?
“Yeah, I was with Mick Ralphs in San Francisco. He saw it hanging on the wall, and the bloke wouldn’t take it down. He thought we were a pair of ne’er-do-wells. We told him we wanted a look and he said if I take it down you have to buy it. It was around $100. I said we’d buy it if we liked it. I don’t think there was even a truss rod. It was pretty crappy, but it looked good, which was most important! I got it for $75 and sold it for £160.”
As he was on the verge of his 78th birthday when we spoke, I asked if Ian planned to record and tour forever, health willing. He’s clearly still on top of his game.
“I’m not really good at hanging about. I love it for a while but get the urge to make a move again. That’s what I do. It’s not just as a means to make money … as long as someone turns up!”
You’ve had a few run-ins with ill health and disillusionment with the business and success you’ve had over the years. Does that get easier to cope with?
“Well yeah, and what we try to do is hover on the periphery. I hate the business. I don’t like anything to do with it. But somehow we’ve found ourselves a little niche on the side, and it works financially.”
I tell him I’ve been reading a great book about The Clash, Pat Gilbert’s 2004 epic Passion is a Fashion, where he relates in detail the importance of Mott the Hoople on a certain Mick Jones, not least the ethos of not having that distance from the fans who pay to see you. They weren’t untouchables, I put to him, like some of the big bands of the time.
“Yeah, well (Tony) DeFries managed us and David Bowie and wanted us to be like them – like we were from another planet, very distant, not speaking between songs. That’s what he wanted but that’s not what he got! We didn’t feel any different from the people watching us. And if someone was a bit short of money we got them in the back door.
“That’s what happened with Joe Elliott, and Mick Jones, and a few people like that. They had no money and would maybe jump off a train before it came into a station. The least you could do was let them in.”
I ask him next who was the last band he saw who genuinely excited him in a similar way that Mott fans reckoned his band did … and a long silence follows.
“I don’t know. I really don’t get involved anymore. Not for some considerable time. I just do what I do. If someone bowled me over at a gig it was The Who at The Roundhouse, London, with Elton John opening. Normally you’ll have a discussion after a gig about what you thought, but nobody spoke after that.
“Halfway through, Pete Townshend turned around to Keith Moon and said, ‘Is it full?’ And Moony said, ‘Yeah, it’s jam-packed’, to which Pete said, ‘Is he reliable on the door?’ It took him back to the church halls! They weren’t on all the time, but when you saw them on one of those nights they were scary.”
After all the big names he’s played with over the years, is there anyone missing from that list who Ian would still like to record with?
“There’s a few. I’d have loved to have worked with Leon Russell, and nearly did at one point. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Also, I’ve never worked with Bob Dylan, although I’ve met him a few times. That’s something I would like to do if I ever get the opportunity.”
Well, we heard it here first.
Listening back this last few weeks to solo work like his 1975 hit Once Bitten Twice Shy, I suggest there’s no great leap from that to some of the punk and new wave bands I loved a couple of years later. He was a trail-blazer in that respect.
“Well, we were partly glam – we were, but we weren’t! – so when the punk thing came in, the press turned on us, but then the punks started saying, ‘No, no, no – they’re alright!’ They had to do a U-turn. They thought they were being cool, but they weren’t! I remember going to the Roxy in London with Mick, and he got chased out of there. But I was alright. They accepted me, but not poor Mick!”
I’m not sure if he meant Ralphs or Ronson there, but I’m guessing it wasn’t Jones. Taking his point on though, I suggest maybe part of that was that he didn’t lose sight of the importance of the three and four-minute single. He didn’t go down the ‘prog rock’ road. He stuck to his guns.
“Well, I just came up with original rock’n’roll – fast, medium and slow songs. Soul was about, but I wasn’t very good at that and it didn’t turn me on like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It all got fragmented, but I just stuck with the original idea from the ‘30s, the’40s and the ’50s.”
It’s more than 50 years now since he first met Mick Ronson. I’m intrigued by that Flamingo scene in London, and all the great acts there. Was London truly swinging for this Shropshire lad?
“Err … I tried a few times, like everybody else. I was always dead jealous of London chaps. They were born there, while we had to get there … and it was a fucking long way, y’know!
“I remember going to the 2i’s Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street. I saw a guy called Lance Fortune, with Brian Bennett on drums and (Brian) ‘Licorice’ Locking on bass. They both wound up with Cliff Richard in The Shadows. I saw those guys playing and went straight back to Northampton. They were so much better than we were. I thought we didn’t stand a chance. But you go down a couple of times and eventually wind up sticking down there.”
Did your time in Hamburg help you move up a few notches?
“It taught you how to play. You’re out seven hours a night and as much as 12 or 13 at the weekend. That was fantastic.”
I get the feeling that even if that advertisement to join Mott the Hoople hadn’t gone Ian’s way he might still have made the big time. He seemed to have the inner belief that it was going to happen, determined to make it one way or another.
“Yeah, I guess so. There wasn’t any desperation. I was bright enough to know there were only two ways for someone like me – it was football or music. Premium bonds were not going to happen. I put five bob in the Post Office and got that and just thought there’s got to be a better life than this.
“I’d been in factories around eight or nine years, and it didn’t appeal. But because of that I had lyrics. A lot of kids left school and joined bands, so didn’t have those lyrics. You just kept going and kept going, like a writer with a book or anything creative. You get rejected, but it only takes a phone call.”
For all his success with Mott, it was only a five-year ride initially. Since then, his solo career’s lasted 40 years, Ian having released a 30-CD box set last year alongside Fingers Crossed. That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?
“Erm … yeah? I don’t know. I don’t look at it like that. It’s just what I love doing, y’know.”
Ian Hunter and The Rant Band’s latest UK tour includes a visit to Preston’s Charter Theatre on Monday, June 26th, with tickets available via 01772 80 44 44 or this link. For more information and tour details check out Ian’s website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.