Mott’s Class of ’74 revisited – back in touch with Ian Hunter

I only turned seven in the month Mott the Hoople released their final single with Ian Hunter, and it was another dozen years or so before I became aware of ‘Saturday Gigs’.

Sure, I knew the David Bowie-penned ‘All the Young Dudes’ and a few other hits that got aired on daytime and early evening radio, maybe even seeing a couple of Top of the Pops appearances. But it was only in the second half of the ’80s that I got to grips with that tremendous back-catalogue, starting to understand what had turned on bands from Slade forwards to those amazing performances and recordings.

My gateway was via the 1976 Greatest Hits compilation, bought on vinyl (most likely a 1981 UK pressing), and the track that made me sit up and take notice – not least wondering how it had passed me by before – was the final song, its lead guitar part played by Mick Ronson rather than recently-departed Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor, who featured on its demo version.

What was it about that song that stirred me? I’m not sure if I’m any wiser 30 years after first hearing it. It’s certainly epic though, like so many Mott numbers, and left me aching for something, having missed out on all that inspired the lyric. That’s the power of good music. I understand the Germans have a word, as they often do, for such emotions – sehnsucht, in its most literal meaning a longing and nostalgia for a far-off home one has never visited. I guess that’s how ‘Saturday Gigs’ makes me feel.

It seems odd now that Ian Hunter didn’t know this was his Mott swansong when he wrote it. That’s neatly explained though on the www.hunter-mott.com website, its author explaining, ‘In the years since, many retrospectives (including some LP sleeve notes) have commented that during the recording of ‘Saturday Gigs’ the band sat in the studio control room wondering why Ian was singing ‘Goodbye’ at the end. No mystery … the plan always was to put the band ‘on hold’ for a while. Hunter was going to do a solo album, (Morgan) Fisher was going to do session work, (Pete Overend) Watts and Buffin (Dale Griffin) were going into production. The single was meant as a letter to fans saying, ‘Goodbye, for a while, but we’ll be back’.’ Well, I guess they eventually returned.

It’s a kind of joyful obituary to the band. And what an obit. I wasn’t at the Roundhouse in those formative days, I didn’t meet any Chelsea girls down the King’s Road at the turn of the ’70s, I wasn’t in the crowd for Top of the Pops, and I wasn’t there at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon (even if it was just 25 miles from home), never mind on Broadway, where Mott became the first rock group to sell out a week of concerts in New York’s theatreland. But Ian was certainly there, and perfectly conveyed it all in his lyrics. And speaking recently, he reckons he understands what I’m saying about my ‘sehnsucht’ feeling too.

“Yeah, I get it. Ironically enough, ‘Saturday Gigs’ was the end. A good song, but never quite made it. And in my mind, I was, ‘Well, if that doesn’t happen, forget it.’ Stan Tippins, our manager all the way through and the singer before me, they sent him over to try to get me to stay in the band. But that morning when he left Heathrow, he found we were stuck at No.33 with ‘Saturday Gigs’. So by the time he got to New York he was like, ‘I think you’re right.’

“The feeling with that particular track at that time was that it was too like ‘All the Young Dudes’. Which I didn’t think it was. A lot of people like the song now, but it was irritating to me because I knew it was good, but they weren’t getting it. Sometimes that can happen.”

Actually, it was previous single ‘Foxy Foxy’ that made it to No.33 in the charts at home, with ‘Saturday Gigs’ stalling at 41. But the same logic stands. It deserved much more.

It had been a long road for the band, with so many amazing memories tied in. Between 1969 and 1973, they split main songwriting duties between Ian and lead guitarist Mick Ralphs. By 1974 though, Mick (forming Bad Company) and organist Verden Allen had left, leaving Ian as principal songwriter, that free rein clearly suiting him, the following year’s The Hoople LP charting on both sides of the Atlantic and exploring ideas and concepts now widely credited as having influenced everyone from the punk movement to Queen.

This was arguably Mott’s most intensely creative period, not just with that album, but also a string of fine singles, with ‘Roll Away The Stone’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Rock ’n’ Roll’ from that March’s LP followed by ‘Foxy Foxy’ that summer then ‘Saturday Gigs’ in October, their legacy already long since assured. What’s more, there was a live album, half of it recorded during that week-long stint at the Uris Theater on Broadway, NYC.

The live LP certainly highlighted the talents of Mick and Verden’s replacements, Ariel Bender and Morgan Fisher, the new pair breathing fresh life into Mott classics and crowd favourites like ‘All The Young Dudes’, ‘All The Way From Memphis’ and ‘Honaloochie Boogie’. And while the game was soon up, in 2009 and 2013 the band’s 1969/73 line-up completed two highly-successful reunion tours, with talk naturally leading to a ‘Class Of ’74’ reunion too.

Sadly, the rhythm section of Pete (bass) and Buffin (drums) have since passed away, while Mick’s health rules him out. But Ian is back with long-term backing group the Rant Band around the UK this month, this time with fellow Hoople legends Ariel and Morgan along for the ride, following three successful festival appearances with the same line-up last year.

With a set based around the 1974 The Hoople and Live LPs plus the non-album greatest hits, they’re back for ‘seven shows, one more time’, across the nation, my excuse for tracking down Ian to his Connecticut home a month ahead of his UK run, rehearsals all set to start the day after. Was he raring to go?

“Yeah, yeah. I’m up for it. Y’know, you have to rev your voice up a little bit. You can’t just sort of walk in.”

Seven shows, one more time, yeah?

“Well, we’re doing another eight here before we come there.”

The pre-publicity suggests this is a bit of a one-off set-up.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s not an eternal thing, but it’s important that we give Luther (Grosvenor, aka Ariel Bender) and Morgan (Fisher) a good shot.”

His latest itinerary started in Milwaukee on April 1st, and he’ll be halfway through before reaching the UK opener at Leamington Assembly this Wednesday (April 17), coming closest to my patch on Friday 19th, playing Manchester Academy (7.30pm, tickets £45 plus booking, 0161 832 1111).

“I like being on the road. I could do without the busy-ness of the airports, timing your runs according to rush hours to get to the airport, but what are you going to do? When I’m on tour I kind of want to be home, and when I’m at home I want to be on the road!”

As this tour is all about the spirit of ’74, a huge year for you, it’s worth mentioning this was also the year his acclaimed Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star was first published (in May), documenting the band’s late-1972 All the Young Dudes Stateside tour. And a new Omnibus Press edition includes a foreword from Johnny Depp and an eight-day diary from Ian – originally published in Mojo magazine – of his 2015 Japanese tour.

It clearly remains something of a cult classic, influencing so many musicians over the years, including The Clash’s Mick Jones, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and The Cult’s Billy Duffy. And if there’s a secret to its enduring appeal, maybe it’s because it’s about a band doing all these amazing things, but written with such a down-to-earth approach, somehow normalising the rock’n’roll excess of that era. What does Ian think it was that resonated?

“Well, we’re halfway or somewhere. You’re either top of the bill or you’re opening for someone else, and sometimes you’re in the middle, but that’s more interesting than if you’re big or if you’re small. Plus, the bit at the end with Elvis. Normally, you just finish then go home, but I got lucky with that. A nice little ending.”

Indeed it was, Ian in a drunken attempt to get into Graceland by sneaking through the back door, but coming up against the King of Rock’n’Roll’s housekeeper. And I guess one of the things that set this Shropshire lad and his Herefordshire-reared band apart from a lot of contemporary acts was the fact they were so approachable as a band, and fans of music first and foremost, never losing sight of that.

“I don’t know if it was that or that I didn’t know what I was for. I heard Jerry Lee Lewis do ‘A Whole Lotta Shaking’ when I was 15 or 16 and thought, ‘Oh, thank God! I’m here for something’. There was nothing before that. I didn’t understand why I was here. A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing, then they hear something or see something and know what they’re supposed to do.”

What also strikes me is the grounded qualities of the set-up, as illustrated by Stan Tippins’ moods being dictated by results for his beloved Hereford United FC. As Johnny Depp put it in the foreword to the book’s new edition, Ian was a ‘reluctant rock’n’roll legend’. And the way he let young kids like Mick Jones in the back door at gigs was something both The Clash and contemporaries The Jam would be famed for in later years.

“There’s two ways of looking at it. Some people like their stars to be stars, like the way David (Bowie) did it. That different planet aspect. I couldn’t be bothered with all that stuff. (Tony) Defries (who managed both acts at one stage) used to get very upset. That was his modus operandi – you don’t do all this, you don’t talk on stage. But we couldn’t help it, we were just happy to be there. You either get lucky or you don’t. If you’ve got a gene that helps you do something, you’ve got to consider yourself lucky … not superior.”

That tour diary, a bestseller for two years initially, was written in late ’72. Was it easier to put it out when you did? You didn’t pull your punches, writing so honestly about your bandmates and so on.

“No, but it’s a bit softer now than it was then! It was more like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in them days. You could say what was on your mind without social media.

“I don’t know. It was lucky. I came back off the tour and I’d written this diary. I’d just got married, so I wasn’t hanging out with the ladies and all the rest of it. And I met Charlie Gillett, who was way behind on a contract for Panther – two books behind – and they were hassling him. I said, ‘Have a look at this. Maybe this will help you.’“

The fact that Ian remains married to second wife – and manager – Trudi 48 years after they tied the knot and 45 years after she was immortalised in a song on The Hoople tells you something about him, while his late ’72 diary offers a fascinating account of his atttude to his ‘on the road’ existence. Originally published as a 50p paperback, it was reissued in the UK in 1976, republished in America the same year with a new title and cover, and published in French as recently as 2013. Did Charlie Gillett (the writer and radio producer also working with Ian Dury, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, among others) make more money from the book than Ian?

“I’ve no idea. He said he edited it, but I don’t remember it being edited.”

I understand there’s an authorised biography on its way, Rock’n’Roll Sweepstakes (Ian’s original title for his diary), from Campbell Devine, who writes an introductory chapter in this new edition of a book he describes as ‘the ultimate rock’n’roll travel brochure’, one which remains ‘insightful and a compulsive read’.

“Yeah, Campbell’s got a deal with Omnibus … volume one, apparently! Ha ha!”

Oh wow.

“I don’t know if anybody’s going to read it, but …”

Oh, I’m sure many of us will. And Campbell gets it spot on in his introduction of this latest edition of Ian’s diary, writing how, ‘Thankfully sex and drugs took a back seat while music, people, insights and humour thrived, Hunter penning perhaps the definitive account of the seventies rock lifestyle, whilst deftly demystifying the business in the process’.

As Campbell also put it, ‘It was Ian’s eye for the mundane that made his book slightly Spinal Tap, fretting about his weight, grumbling about the price of drinks or lambasting a bossy, belligerent air hostess.’ There are also his own takes on recording processes, the US cities he visited and his impressions of the stars he met, as well as those frank assessments of his bandmates. But as Ian put it, ‘It was never meant to be a work of literarary merit, rather an open revelation of the rock business from the inside,’

Last time I spoke to Ian, in June 2017 (with a link to that feature/interview here) we concentrated on his Fingers Crossed album and the Rant Band, while this time he has that set-up on tour, plus two extra distinguished guests. After success with the reunion gigs featuring the 1969/73 line-up, it made sense to get the ‘Class Of ’74’ back together this time, not least having lost two key members of the earlier band, and with Mick Ralphs not in the best health. In short, he was forced towards this new line-up, but it made sense.

“All I thought was that in 2009 and 2012 Luther and Morgan didn’t get to play, so I thought we owed them. They turned up at both gigs and were great – good sports about it. I just thought if I could find a window … I didn’t expect to be doing American dates with them though. We did those festival dates last year and everybody got on really well. But at festivals no one’s particularly there to see you. There’s a load of bands on. I just wanted to play for our lot, y’know. Ha!”

Thinking back to ’74, you were certainly on a creative high, with no need for David Bowie or anyone else to come up with the goods on your behalf.

“Well, David said that himself. He gave us ‘Dudes’, which was amazing, but after that, he came down when we were rehearsing on the King’s Road somewhere, with more material for us, but was the first one to say – when we played him the songs which would eventually appear on the Dudes album – ‘This is fine. You don’t need anything else.’ He wanted us to do ‘Sweet Jane’, because he was hot with Lou (Reed) at the time, so that was fair enough. It was a good song.”

Have you got good memories of your week’s residency on Broadway in 1974?

“Oh, I just remember the white limos with the Union Jacks and the music blaring as we came up from the Gramercy (Park) area, up to the Uris, and every night more and more people would be outside, when they heard the music. It was a great week. It was good fun.

“That was down to a New York promoter, and we’re doing a gig now for him there. He said, ‘Come and have a look at this theatre’, and it was just like Fairfield Halls in Croydon, which we’d done a couple of times, so we thought, ‘Yeah, we can do this!’

“We didn’t realise it was the first and only time a rock band would ever do Broadway. But we realised the first day, when NBC and ABC and so on turned up! That freaked us out a bit.”

How about the rest of the Rant Band – are they on cloud nine at the thought of this new tour, working with such rock’n’roll legends?

“That was the only thing I was worried about last year – would they get on? But they get on great. They talk to each other more than they talk to me, y’know! There’s eight people on stage, so you have to be a little unselfish. You have to be careful what you’re doing.”

Do you think you’re better at doing that now than you would have 45 years ago?

“Oh, most definitely. Everyone’s been through that and come out the other side, generally in their late 40s or early 50s, where all the ego’s gone. And the Rant Band is typical of a band that does less to get more.”

And what happens after this tour? Are you working on another album with the Rant Band?

“Yeah, it’s nearly done. We’ll go in this summer, then out in the Fall with the Rant Band. And I’ll be at the winery for my birthday.”

How do you mean?

“Well, I’ll be 80 in June, so I’ll be doing four nights at the City Winery in New York. We play there quite regularly.”

That doesn’t seem right, you approaching 80. Does it scare you, that age?

“No, actually. It’s been coming so long, I’m quite looking forward to it. It sounds good to me. It sounds better than 70 – that sounds like nowhere! This sounds quite positive to me, y’know.”

Three’s Company: Morgan Fisher (left), Ian Hunter (centre), and Ariel Bender (right), Mott the Hoople’s Class of ’74, reunited in the UK this month, playing with Ian’s Rant Band

Mott the Hoople ’74 play seven dates in the UK this month, calling at Leamington Assembly (April 17th), Manchester Academy (April 19th), Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom (April 20th), Birmingham Town & Symphony Hall (April 21st), Gateshead Sage (April 23rd) and Shepherd’s Bush Empire (April 26th/27th), with ticket details here. You can also keep in touch with the band via this Facebook link.

 

 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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