In time, Mott The Hoople would become their own mythic beast of rock and roll legend but they began as an experiment. A mixture of high-stakes gambling, madness and alchemy, you might say.
Producer Guy Stevens was their svengali and he had a simple formula: combine the musical heft of the Rolling Stones with the artsy lyricism of Bob Dylan. To achieve this, he recruited a young band, sacked their singer, drafted in a 30-something ex-touring musician/songwriter to be the new frontman and gave them a new name he lifted from a book he read during a stint in jail.
To capture lightning in a bottle, Stevens made this thrown-together braintrust rush through some covers and a few quickly-penned originals in a few days. The results of this pressure cooker, the self-titled Mott The Hoople album, didn’t work in spite of these conditions. It works because of those conditions.
Side one defies the rock criticism’s late ’60s demand for authenticity by starting with no less than three covers. The first is a rendition of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” that filters devil-may-care garage band energy through late ’60s heaviness. It’s done as an instrumental, offering the first sign that neither Mott nor Stevens would go the predictable route. A cover of Doug Sahm’s “At The Crossroads” follows and it provides a good showcase for the rumpled soul of Ian Hunter’s vocals. It also shows the band’s knack for Byrds/Burritos-ish country rock, which might surprise those who only know their Bowie-influenced glam era.
Next is Sonny Bono’s “Laugh At Me,” which is played straight and is devastating in its wounded earnestness. Hunter’s delivery, pained but ultimately stirring, cuts right to the heart and the powerful slow-burn arrangement is pumped up by majestic swirls of organ from Verden Allen. “Backsliding Fearlessly” caps side one, offering the first original. Hunter’s songwriting and the organ-heavy arrangement wear their Dylan influence on their sleeves but they make that into a strength, knocking it out with the conviction of a group determined to make an impression or die trying.
Side two begins with “Rock And Roll Queen,” a number from the pen of guitarist and sometimes vocalist Mick Ralphs. He acted as the rock-traditional yang to Hunter’s artsier yin in Mott and that quality is felt here: a marauding guitar riff brings out the Stones-iness in the band and Hunter shows his ability to roar in the best rock fashion. You can hear the first inkling of Ralphs’ later group Bad Company here.
The second side also includes a Ralphs instrumental (“Rabbit Foot And Toby Time”) and a shambling album coda lifted from an early stab at “You Really Got Me” (“Wrath and Roll,” puckishly credited to Stevens) but the real order of business here is “Half Moon Bay.” This nearly eleven-minute epic shows everything that the original incarnation of Mott The Hoople could do: moody atmosphere, arena-worthy heaviness fashioned from an alloy of guitar and organ, despondent balladry that grows into something cathartic as its emotions peak and a massive central riff that the band works for all it’s worth.
By the end of the journey, you’ve gotten to where you want to go with a debut album: the songs and performances give you the sense that you’re witnessing something special at its very inception, just as it begins to realize its abilities and potential. You couldn’t ask for more from a band thrown together on a producer’s whim… and the roots of their future legendary status shine through several times on Mott The Hoople.