Mott The Hoople

Mott The Hoople

Atlantic, 1970

http://www.mottthehoople.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/01/2009

For what follows, I have no one but myself to blame.

You see, I’ve been a fan of Ian Hunter’s work since around the time his first solo album came out in 1975.  As big a fan as I was in my high school and college days, though, my respect for the man only multiplied when I picked up latter-day works like Rant and Shrunken Heads.  How many rock and roll artists can you name who are doing their best work in their 60s?  Me, too.

Ah, but just an Ian Hunter retrospective wouldn’t do.  After all, Hunter might never have had a solo career at all if not for his prior experience as frontman and (at least in latter days) primary songwriter for British cult heroes Mott The Hoople.  (For analogy’s sake, an Ian Hunter retrospective that ignores Mott would be roughly equivalent to a Sting retrospective that ignores The Police.)  No, we have to do both, said ye editor, pulling rank for his allotted one time a year.

Of course, when I said that, I didn’t actually HAVE any Mott The Hoople albums.  You heard right.  Not a one.  I’m sure this qualifies me as some sort of circus sideshow curiosity for the devoted IH fans who mingle over on the man’s lively message board, but it’s a plain fact.

And so, this will be the first of quite a string of Mott The Hoople reviews from the perspective not of a Mott fan of long standing, but of an Ian Hunter fan just getting to know his “old band.”  His, in point of fact, quite revered band.  At least, for the educated British rock and roller.  Of which I am clearly not one.

Anyhow!  You get the point. 

Mott The Hoople’s classic founding lineup – together for just three years and five lightning-quick albums -- consisted of Hunter on piano and lead vocals, Mick Ralphs (later of Bad Company) on lead guitar, the superb Verden Allen on Hammond organ, and the forever Mott rhythm section of Overend Watts on the bass guitar and Dale (Buffin) Griffin on the drums.  Hunter was in fact the last man in, invited to join after the band fired its previous vocalist Stan Tippens, later to become the group’s tour manager.

The group’s self-titled debut is a bit of an odd bird, showcasing a British blues-rock quintet whose live shows were soon to become legendary bouts of musical bravado, but who were still struggling to find their own voice and focus in the studio.  The threat of chaos is established early – how else to describe a crunchy yet wordless cover of the Kinks’ heavy metal prototype “You Really Got Me”?  If that doesn’t tell you this band doesn’t play by the rules, I’m not sure what would, especially when they follow it with two more rather startling covers.  First we get “At The Crossroads,” from the pen of Tex-Mex maestro Doug Sahm (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados), and then a cover of a Sonny Bono song.  Yes, *that* Sonny Bono.  They cover his 1966 single “Laugh At Me” and Hunter manages to wring considerable pathos from its surprisingly poignant lyric.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The linchpin to this opening trio is the counterpoint of Hunter and Allen’s frankly Dylanesque vocals and organ with Ralphs’ heavy, muscular guitar work.  “Crossroads” and “Laugh At Me” both start slow and gentle but execute a steady build before steamrolling into full-on jams by the end, the building blocks of the incendiary live shows that would earn the band a fervent following.

“Backsliding Fearlessly” is Hunter’s first recorded composition, and puts his Dylan fixation at the forefront, with snarly, subversive lyrics, slow, bluesy, speak-sung verses building to bellowed choruses, and a melody that’s a virtual mash-up of “The Times They Are A Changin’” and “Like A Rolling Stone.”  You couldn’t call it original, expect in the sense that he had the nerve to try it in the first place and pull it off reasonably well.

The beyond-a-doubt highlight of this debut follows in the thunderous “Rock And Roll Queen,” a Ralphs composition that was the band’s first genuine anthem and a damn fine one at that.  Other tracks on this disc might lose focus at times, but this one is a tight burner that shows off the sheer power this unit was capable of delivering.  If someone were to ask you what classic rock sounds like, you could do worse than to put this track on.

Which makes it all the more head-scratching when they segue right into “Rabbit Foot And Toby Time,“ a pleasant little instrumental jam that goes nowhere other than right into “Half Moon Bay,” an 11-minute suite that leaves you wondering just what the boys were thinking.  The entire sequence is like the Kinks and the Band joined forces and dropped a tab or two with Pink Floyd, a 15-minute multi-movement piece with a long instrumental intro followed by a second instrumental section followed by a soft ballady section with surrealistic Hunter lyrics that gives way to a solo piano section that builds into a psychedelic organ freakout that fades into a slow, rather bluesy jam.

Really?

As if not sure how to end things after that non sequitur of a track, they close out with 90 seconds of musical chaos in the form of “Wrath And Roll,” a throwaway “written” by producer Guy Stevens that’s nothing more than the trailing, revved-up jam that would logically finish off their opening cover of “You Really Got Me.”  Well, then.

Mott The Hoople is by no means a masterpiece.  The last third is a mess and the solid covers only partially mask the relative lack of compositional expertise within the band at the time.  In fact, Hunter writes only the one song, besides co-composing “Half Moon Bay” with Ralphs, a dubious distinction.  Ralphs is in fact a stronger writer than Hunter at this point, foreshadowing the day down the road when he would conclude there was too little space left in the band he had co-founded for his own work. 

Those caveats in place, Mott The Hoople is still a fine piece of work, the sound of a young hungry band searching for its sea legs.  In tracks like “Laugh At Me,” “Backsliding Fearlessly” and “Rock And Roll Queen,” they planted the seeds of the identity they would soon grow into as the ultimate rock and roll outsiders/evangelists, a brutally witty powerhouse of a band.  Not a bad day’s work, that.

Rating: B

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