MOTT THE HOOPLE – TWO MILES FROM HEAVEN: Buffin’s Buffet Of Forgotten Mott

Mott The Hoople and its fans were dealt a serious blow when the group’s drummer, Dale “Buffin” Griffin, passed away on January 17, 2016. Not only was he a superb drummer and a talented producer, he was also the band’s keeper of the flame for many years.  For example, he provided witty, informative liner notes for a slew of Mott live/demo/outtake/reissue discs that were released on Angel Air Records in the ’90s and ’00s. He also blazed the trail for such releases in 1980 when he masterminded Two Miles From Heaven, a killer collection of outtakes and alternates from Mott The Hoople’s Island Records era.

Odds and sods collections were a staple of the record business by the time Two Miles From Heaven was released. They were usually put together by labels to finish out a contract from an artist reticent to give up new material or to profit on the new success of an artist who moved on to a different label. Two Miles From Heaven is unique because Griffin actually petitioned Island Records on his own to put together the project.  He was part of the team that tracked down the tapes and even had to cope with a reluctant remix engineer to get it all prepared. Island supported its creation but it gave the finished product a half-hearted release.

That said, Two Miles From Heaven still found an eager cult following in Mott The Hoople fans. The group was known for being workhorses in the studio as much as they were on the live stage: in the process, they amassed an impressive cache of unreleased recordings. This release provided the first opportunity for the band’s fans to hear many of these songs, several of which would become staples on subsequent Mott The Hoople reissues.

The first side, subtitled the “Dark Cargo Side,” focuses on recordings the group made with Guy Stevens in the producer’s chair between 1969 and 1970.  The instrumental take of “You Really Got Me” that opened the band’s debut album appears here with a suitably raucous lead vocal from Mick Ralphs and an alternate mix of “Thunderbuck Ram” from Mad Shadows restores the Verden Allen organ solo that was mixed out of the original release.  Mick Ralphs is a major contributor on this side with self-penned tunes like the soulful, swaggering “Little Christine” and the eerie lament of “Black Hills.” You also get a barnstorming studio take of Little Richard’s “Keep-A Knockin’,” a solid counterpart to the memorable live version that closed Wildlife.

The second half of the album is called the “Bald At The Station Side” and focuses on group-produced recordings made between the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1972.  The key draw on this side is a set of tunes that would later be remade for the group’s first Columbia Records outing, All The Young Dudes: “Ride On The Sun” is a stripped-down, subtler version of “Sea Diver” with different lyrics, “Black Scorpio” is an alternate version of “Momma’s Little Jewel” with a much more aggressive tempo and an early version of “Out Of The Boys” is a rootsier affair with prominent acoustic guitar and harmonica. All are excellent takes, different enough to be interesting and well-realized enough to hold up to repeat listens.

And that’s not all on the second side: “Surfin’ UK” is a fun Ralphs vehicle that mixes hooks from his past (think “Rock ‘N Roll Queen”) with elements of songs he’d record in his next group, Bad Company, and “There’s An Ill Wind Blowing” is an elegant piano-led Ian Hunter ballad with apocalyptic lyrics.  If you spring for the Angel Air CD version, it adds some extra tunes like an early take of Ralphs’ Bad Company hit “Movin’ On,” complete with poppy sing-along vocal hooks, and an appropriately raw cover of Crazy Horse’s “Downtown.”

Finally, it’s worth noting that Two Miles From Heaven is the rare odds-and-sods set that actually feels like an album thanks to Griffin’s work at the production console.  The recordings utilized for this set were often incomplete or truncated – “Growin’ Man Blues” was a fragment that required looping to reconstruct –  so Griffin brought in bandmates Overend Watts and Morgan Fisher (plus latter-day Mott/British Lions guitarist Ray Major) to add overdubs.  Their work is done with surgical skill, avoiding overt attempts to modernize the recordings but fleshing out things in a consistent manner. Better yet, Griffin carefully remixed everything to 24-track stereo, ensuring that the sonics remain consistent from track to track in a way that lends it a genuine “album feel.”

In short, Two Miles From Heaven is as worthwhile a listen as any of the official Mott The Hoople albums. As stated above, everything here has been used in subsequent reissues of the group’s work but this is worth keeping for a few reasons: the sequencing of the tracks is elegant and Griffin once again provides ace liner notes that tell all you could want to know about the songs. The result is a testament to his love for his band and an easy candidate for the shortlist of the top posthumous studio releases by a band.

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