Not so very long ago, some friends of mine circled a block for about five minutes while I tried to figure out which unreleased Dylan side we were listening to. I could have spared us the trouble if I’d been listening to the lyrics, which were those of Sonny Bono’s immortal protest classic “Laugh At Me.” And it wasn’t a Highway 61 outtake at all; it was Mott the Hoople.
Mott the Hoople is a synthetic rock band. By that I certainly do not mean that they’re phony. Rather, they have synthesized a whole body of Sixties rock into their own style — one which sounds like everybody while directly copying nobody. You can go through a song and say, for example, that “Backsliding Fearlessly,” starts with the Kinks’ “I Am Free” riff, the verse is composed of an English folksong and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” while the chorus is a sort-of “Sooner or Later (One of Us Must Know).” But actually none of those statements is accurate, even though in some cases the “cop” is note-for-note. The band maintains their innocence when charged with theft, claiming that the instrumentation is similar (piano, organ, guitar, bass, drums — the same as the Band, Procol Harum, and the Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde bands) and that the studio they used made vocalist Ian Hunter sound like Dylan.
No, it’s a synthesis. A ten-month-old (three when this was recorded, but to that in a minute) British group playing Kinks, Sir Douglas, Sonny and Cher and themselves, and making it sound like Kinks, Dylan and Procol Harum. It’s beautiful because they are every bit as competent as their mentors (they don’t write lyrics as well as Dylan, but what the hell …) and yet come off with an innocence that makes them very listenable. In fact, the best song on the album is “Rock and Roll Queen,” one they wrote themselves, and it is sung by lead guitarist Mick Ralphs, who sounds like nobody so much as Mick Ralphs. The chorus is very much like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and who could forget lyrics like “You’re just a rock and roll queen, you know what I mean/And I’m just a rock and roll star.”
There are a couple of throw-away cuts on the album, true — the instrumental version of “You Really Got Me” is not quite different enough from the original to warrant inclusion here, and the little jam-up “Wrath and Wroll” is nothing special. But the remainder of the album is unbelievably good. One might even find oneself growing nostalgic for the old Dylan while listening to it.
Mott the Hoople was fantastically talented at only three months old, when this album was recorded last July. I understand that they are presently recording their second. Atlantic seems to have this funny habit of sitting on albums they have rights to — I won’t embarrass them by telling you how long they sat on Fresh Cream — and they delayed this album for well over six months. Let’s hope that Mott the Hoople can keep up the good work and that Atlantic will let us know if they can a little sooner.