A convincing case could be made for Mott The Hoople being the ultimate “hard luck kids” of rock and roll music. They were an influential band that could have and should have been bigger than they were but were held back by artistic/personality conflicts inside and outside the band, record business chicanery and inexplicable moments of bad luck that consistently cropped up when they were on the verge of a breakthrough.
For an illustration, consider the circumstances behind the group’s final studio album, 1974’s The Hoople. When it was time to record, the group couldn’t get their studio or engineer of choice. They had to record in atmosphere of politics-induced chaos in the U.K. (miner’s strike, electric outages, gas shortage, government changeover between parties) while also breaking in new guitarist Ariel Bender, a.k.a. Luther Grosvenor. Once it was recorded, the final tapes had problems and had to be remixed at another studio. Thankfully, Mott The Hoople was used to bad news by this point and soldiered on.
The Hoople is bookended with singles that have become staples of any Columbia-era Mott compilation, both carrying a distinctly Hunter-esque element of early rock and roll nostalgia. “The Golden Age Of Rock & Roll” is a barnstorming opener: the guitars roar and the saxophones chug as Hunter and his pounding piano lead the boys through a two-fisted salute to the restorative powers of rock music. Listen out for the line about “96 decibel freaks,” a reference to the city of Leeds’ attempt to impose a noise limit on rock concerts.
The album closing single, “Roll Away The Stone,” was actually recorded and released prior to the album sessions. Ralphs is featured on guitar but the album version adds overdubs from Bender and a re-voiced spoken-word passage. Like “Golden Age,” it mines glam rock’s throwback fondness for ’50s rock stylings but amps them with ’70s bombast and theatricality. Some prefer the single version but the extra tweaks on the album version make it sonically of a piece with the rest of the album.
Speaking of glam rock, it was at a theatrical peak in 1974 in the U.K., what with Bowie, Roxy Music and groups like Cockney Rebel pushing their mixture of high concepts and Weimar-era Berlin decadence to the hilt. Hunter picks up that mantle on a few numbers here. “Marionette” is the most overt entry in this area, an operetta-styled commentary on how the music business eats its own when they become successful. It’s dramatically structured, piling on saxophone, dramatic keyboard flourishes and violins alongside the blunt-force rock guitar as Hunter emotes for all he’s worth. The vitriolic, unsparing lyrics keep it from drifting off into the ether of pretension.
Another key theatrical track here – and a big Schlockmania favorite – is “Through The Looking Glass.” This time, Hunter turns the vitriol on himself, skewering his own vanity and neurosis about his age/looks in a kind of furious monologue aimed at the reflection his mirror provides. The sound is almost as grandiose as “Marionette,” featuring dazzling backing vocals from U.K. session stalwarts Sue and Sunny as well as an operatic orchestral arrangement from Graham Preskett. Hunter tops it off with a commanding vocal that defies his fragile vocal range through sheer, explosive emotion.
There’s also a couple of slam-bang rockers perfectly tailored to Mott’s reputation as a barnstorming live act. “Crash Street Kidds” is a perfect counterpart to “Violence” from Mott because both capture the voice of youthful, working-class rage that would fuel the U.K.’s punk rock revolution a few years hence. A panzer-style performance from drummer/co-producer Dale Griffin keeps its barrage of shout-vocals and stun-guitars rolling forward. “Born Late ’58” was both the songwriting and lead vocal debut for bassist Pete “Overend” Watts and it’s a thumper with amusing car-terminology-as-code-for-describing women lyrics. It’s the most old-fashioned expression of rock on the album, harkening back to early Mott with its “drunken bar band gone heavy” feel.
That said, The Hoople has trouble adding up to more than the sum of its parts. The first issue is the change in guitarists. The band admitted that Grosvenor struggled in the studio, trying too hard to fill Ralphs’ shoes. He shows an interesting noisy/wild style in solos but he’s just not the craftsman that Ralphs was, leaving the sound feeling a bit unbalanced. For example, consider “Alice,” a midtempo sleaze-rock track whose prostitute-themed narrative cries out for some steamy guitar work that never arrives.
Also, the material doesn’t coalesce into an album the way All The Young Dudes or Mott did. A couple of songs stick out. “Trudi’s Song” is often pointed to by fans as an odd man out on the album, a soft, sentimental ballad that leans heavy on the acoustic guitar and keyboards. It feels a bit quaint surrounded by material like “Marionette” and “Crash Street Kidds.” Elsewhere, “Pearl ‘N Roy (England)” is a bit of English political commentary whose oddball, brass-heavy arrangement feels more like a music hall experiment that belongs on an Ian Hunter solo album.
And Hunter’s solo career wouldn’t be too far behind The Hoople. Mott would record a few more fine singles – “Foxy Foxy” and “The Saturday Kids” – but would give up the ghost before 1974 was over. Hunter would move on to a solo career that continues today and the remainder of Mott The Hoople would continue through the ’70s in various forms (Mott, British Lions). The Hoople isn’t the perfect final album they deserved but its ambition and energy of its high points remain worth hearing for fans.
Besides, it delivers the kind of bombast that modern rock just can’t summon up… especially when rock’s original hard luck kids are the ones kicking up a ruckus.