It is one of several bitter ironies in the Mott The Hoople story that they delivered the finest album of their Island Records era at a time when they felt forgotten, unsure of themselves and ready to break up. Despite being a well-regarded live act at home, their records didn’t sell and Island had no interest in pushing them. They brought producer Guy Stevens back into the fold and, after five days of chaotic sessions, they gave their not terribly deserving label one final, distinctive rock and roll statement.
Though probably not designed as such, Brain Capers plays like a bookend to their debut album, offering a very similar mixture of raucous proto-alt-rockers, smartly chosen and sensitively performed covers and an epic that allows them to show off the full emotional grandeur of their take on rock and roll. In keeping with Stevens’ trademark approach, these were mostly first takes captured under siege conditions (there are band-produced early versions that are more musically sophisticated) but his chaos gives the proceedings an edge and a tension that keeps the album sounding eternally fresh.
The rockers on Brain Capers are easily the fiercest and most-forward thinking of the group’s career. “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” is a memorably ferocious opener, sprinting out of the gate with a roaring guitar/organ alloy to back up its rallying cry of defiant eccentricity, and “The Moon Upstairs” sets one of Hunter’s most venomous lyrics, a spit-in-your-eye elegy for the band, into a rocker that swings with a chaotic, proto-punk anger. Atop these tracks, Hunter snarls like an angry genius empowered by the brute force of rock music.
Fittingly, these displays of edgy swagger are balanced with equally convincing displays of sensitivity: “Second Love” is a devastating lost-love lament penned by organist Verden Allen that seems to channel Stax soul, including a regal horn section, and “The Journey” is a trademark introspective Hunter ballad of self-doubt that starts with singer-songwriter “at the piano” subtlety before pumping the emotion and arrangement up to full rock-band intensity over ten taut, deeply-felt minutes. Its epic length is easily justified by the spellbinding performance: the band shows everything they can do here and Hunter pours a lifetime of emotion into his vocal.
And still, there’s more: “Sweet Angeline” is a rollicking midtempo rocker of the Stones-y variety that offers a brief respite between more intense songs and covers of Dion’s “Your Own Backyard” and the Youngbloods’ “Darkness Darkness” show the band’s skills for assimilating the work of others while giving it their own singular stamp. Ralphs deserves praise for his vocal on the simmering “Darkness Darkness”: he often sounded like a schoolboy in comparison to Hunter’s fierce vocal style but he summons an intensity all his own on this track that suits the album’s mood.
Brain Capers has the air of a band making its final statement, showing off all their virtuosity while also giving a one-finger salute to those who failed to support them. In fact, it almost was the final word because their relationships with their label and each other were in free fall. The band would ultimately be saved from breakup by none other than David Bowie, who would give them a signature song in “All The Young Dudes” and help them land a new album contract that would finally lead to hit albums and singles.
However, even if none of that happened, Brain Capers would have been a closing salvo any rock band could have been proud of: fierce, intelligent and every bit the distinctive work of rogues who wouldn’t go down without a fight.