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
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
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.