Ian Hunter Interview: Mott the Hoople Tour, David Bowie – Rolling Stone
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Ian Hunter on Glam Rock’s Heyday and Mott the Hoople’s Return

Ahead of his band’s first U.S. tour since ’74, the singer-songwriter talks covering David Bowie, gigging with Mick Ronson and why he’ll never stop writing

Mott The Hoople

Ian Hunter looks ahead to Mott the Hoople's first U.S. tour in 45 years and back to glam's heyday in a career-spanning interview.

Harpic Bryant

On May 7th, 1974, the English glam-rock avengers Mott the Hoople opened a six-night engagement in New York City — at the Uris Theater on Broadway, “the first hard-rock group ever to appear there” as the New York Times pop critic John Rockwell noted in his May 9th review. The audience left “cigarette burns in the rugs” and “spilled-drink stains on the floor.” But, Rockwell went on, “In a way, the pretensions of the theater’s decor and design paralleled Mott the Hoople’s own aspirations. This is essentially a rough, scruffy and loud aggregation that is trying very hard to achieve sophistication, critical admiration and the adulation of superstardom.”

Forty-five years later, Mott the Hoople return to the U.S. for the first time since that historic transgression, the peak of a meteoric success triggered in 1972 by their defining cover of David Bowie’s misfits hymn “All the Young Dudes.” On April 1st, the surviving members of the ’74 Mott — singer-songwriter Ian Hunter, guitarist Luther Grosvenor a.k.a. Ariel Bender and pianist Morgan Fisher — open an eight-show tour in Milwaukee, fortified by members of Hunter’s longtime solo group, the Rant Band. The last show is, appropriately, on Broadway — a little further uptown at the Beacon Theater on April 10th. Mott then head to the U.K. for a final victory lap.

“But that’s it — I don’t want to take it down the tubes,” Hunter insists with a flinty edge in his voice from behind his trademark shades, sitting in the downstairs music room of his home in Connecticut on a recent chilly afternoon. “It was an X factor in Mott. We this thing, and you can’t rehearse it. It’s either there or it’s not. Mott were hilarious people, and the camaraderie was always more important for me than any other aspect. I’m not doing this tour for money. I want fun.”

It is a remarkable admission for a rock star who turns 80 on June 3rd. Hunter was already 30 when he joined Mott the Hoople in 1969, passing his audition by singing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” But he doesn’t look a day over 1975 — with that familiar aurora of curly, ginger hair — as he talks for two hours, like a pub raconteur in his distinctive Midlands accent, about Mott’s turbulent origins, their fateful liaison with Bowie and Hunter’s rise from working-class roots to English Dylan stature with a lyrically incisive body of anthems ranging from Mott’s “All the Way to Memphis” and “Roll Away the Stone” to the solo hits “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and “Cleveland Rocks.”

Mott’s 2019 shows are the latest wave in Hunter’s current renaissance. His groundbreaking 1974 memoir, Diary of a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star, written during the lunacy of Mott’s 1972 U.S. tour, will be published in America for the first time in March. Hunter’s solo career — at its early best with his late soulmate, former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson — got the monumental-box treatment in the 30-disc set Stranded in Reality, one of Rolling Stone‘s Top 10 reissues in 2016. And Hunter’s manic adventures with the first-golden-era Mott — drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin, bassist Peter Overend Watts, organist Verden Allen (who quit after “Dudes”) and guitarist Mick Ralphs, who left in 1973 to co-found Bad Company — are gathered in a definitive six-CD anthology, Mental Train: The Island Years 1969–1971.

Hunter is also looking forward. The walls of his spacious music lounge, with a picture-window view of the snowy Connecticut woods, are decorated with history: gold and platinum records; classic photos of Mott onstage; concert posters including a vintage gem from the Fillmore West in 1970 with Mott’s name between the blues-guitar legends Albert and B.B. King. But Hunter is keen to point out the row of cassettes on a table across the room — the home demos for his next album.

“My thing always was I didn’t want to be irrelevant,” he states firmly. “I was going for it. You could be fooling yourself — you’re getting older. But what am I going to do? I still love rock & roll. It gave me a life. The alternative I wouldn’t bear to think about now.”

The conversation opens, inevitably, with Mott’s 1974 U.S. tour, which featured Queen as the opening act — on their debut visit until guitarist Brian May contracted hepatitis halfway through and the band went back to England.

What was the audience reaction to Queen?
I would get there for “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Liar.” Those were good songs, so I figured they were alright. They were like, “Wha’dya think? Are we gonna make it?” And I said, “It just takes longer. It’s a big place. You’ve got to go ’round a couple of times.”

Which is what Mott did.
That was Columbia Records. They had Ten Years After who worked seven nights a week, like an Aerosmith band. Columbia wanted us to do that. They were like, “You’re an FM band. You can’t have singles.” We were having them in Britain. We couldn’t have them here? Ridiculous. These people should know better.

In concert photos, you always look like trouble — glittering long-hair outlaws — while the audience is about to riot.
We did create an atmosphere. Real trouble? No. That would be in the hands of the audience. They used to go crazy. Pete Watts was an incredible presence on stage. The band members were all characters — except Ralphs. He would hang back. He was the sensible one.

How would you describe your character onstage?
Show-off [laughs]. I always wanted to be onstage, even when I was a kid. I was fascinated more by the side of the stage, what was going on behind. I saw Laurel and Hardy when they came to Shrewsbury [in 1952]. The skinny one [Stan Laurel] came from Stoke, not far from where I came from. I remember sitting there, going, “It must be amazing behind there.” It probably wasn’t. But I was in love with showing off. Trouble was I didn’t have much else to go for.

When you auditioned for Mott the Hoople in 1969, you were older than the other guys — married with two children and battle-hardened.
They came straight out of school. I came out of the factories. I went in when I was 15. I knew what that was — milling, grinding, drilling. I wound up in Northampton at British Timken, a ball-bearing factory. They were relatively unschooled in the world, and Hereford [the other members’ hometown] is in the sticks. It was a small-town mentality. The advantage I had was having been in the factories. I had something to talk about. I had lyrics. If you leave school and join a band, you don’t have much to talk about. Mick was writing these great love songs — boy-girl things. But I had more stuff.

Actually, on [1969’s] Mott the Hoople, the first side is almost all covers, including an amazing transformation of “Laugh at Me” by Sonny Bono. Who took him seriously at the time?
Me. I thought he was great. His singing was something I knew I could do — that Dylan-y way as opposed to R&B and blues. It’s phrase singing. Jagger’s great at it. You have to mold the lyrics to your voice, so you can hold them in a way that’s effective. I used Sonny Bono and Bob Dylan as a way to get into that.

I have an album of live recordings from Mott the Hoople’s 1970 shows at the Fillmore West and there is a moment in “Walking With a Mountain” when you berate the audience for sitting down.
Fuckin’ hippies [grins]. It happened in Amsterdam too, the Paradiso. They weren’t even sitting. They were lying down. “What the fuck are you doing?” We used to play great because we hated that kind of thing. France too — we hated France. And they hated us, so we would play great. It gave us an edge.

Then you got to the point that you wrote about on the [1973] album, Mott: “Ballad of Mott the Hoople (March 26, 1972 — Zurich).” You were ready to give up and Watts tried to get a job playing bass in David Bowie’s band. Bowie gave you one of his songs instead — “All the Young Dudes.”
We were done. In Switzerland, they converted these empty gas tanks into clubs. And we were over there doing those. I’m like, “There’s nothing worse than this.” We got on a train back and decided to split. And before I even had time to think. “What am I gonna do?,” Pete rang Bowie straightaway, and all that started.

Bowie offered you “Suffragette City” as well.
He offered us a few. [Later] he offered us “Drive-In Saturday.” I had changed the arrangement. We had a good version. Then Tony DeFries [who managed Bowie and Mott at the time] said, “He doesn’t want you to do that one.” OK. Then David says, “When I found out they weren’t gonna do it, I shaved my eyebrows off.” I figure DeFries was telling him one thing and me another. There were all those games going on, all the time.

As a songwriter, was it strange to have your band reborn with someone else’s song?
When you do something like “All the Young Dudes,” that creates pressure. We knew we couldn’t do another cover. The next one had to be one of ours. And we only had six months to write it. That’s how it was in those days. People ask you what it was like. It was busy. I was too busy worried about getting to the next level, getting the next record. There was more of that than just lying back and enjoying it — for me anyway.

Mott the Hoople first reunited in Britain for concerts in 2009 and 2013. It was the original quintet with Ralphs and Allen. “You couldn’t beat that for an emotional reaction,” Hunter says of the 2009 shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon (released as a limited-edition three-CD set). But Mott were “a awkward band,” he admits. Hunter ran into complications when he wanted to bring Morgan Fisher, who joined on keyboards in 1973, and Luther Grosvenor — a teenage guitar sensation in Spooky Tooth before coming to Mott in ’74 — into the earlier celebrations. “I considered them the blood of Mott” as well, Hunter insists. “I wanted to give them their shot.”

Buffin died in 2006, Watts the following year. Last summer, Hunter reunited with Fisher and Grosvenor for three festival shows in Europe, inspiring the imminent U.S. run. “We don’t have to rehearse much, to be honest,” Hunter says. “Everybody knows what to do. Luther knew what he was doing last year, but forgot the intensity. Luther had a lot of blood on his fingers. Now he knows. And he’s playing with that intensity.”

When I saw Mott on the ’74 tour in Philadelphia, he cut such a weirdly dashing figure with the top hat and name change — very different from Ralphs who seemed more solid, rooted in blues.
They grew up together, learned how to play guitar. So we just knew Luther. When Mick left, he was in, not giving much thought to what might happen [laughs]. He kept the whole band going on his back for a year, before Mick Ronson came in, because of his energy and enthusiasm.

He’s a total whack job. With Spooky Tooth, he was Luther Grosvenor — tasteful and a good writer. But when we gave him this name, Ariel Bender, he walked into the alter-ego. He still does it. He can’t help himself.

Where did the name Ariel Bender come from?
Mick Ralphs. We were in Mannheim in [West] Germany doing a TV show. We hated it. We came out after rehearsal and were walking down the street. Ralphs started bending every car aerial in the street. It was the frustration for doing this silly show. And there was this English singer there, Lynsey DePaul — she goes, “Aerial bender.” I thought, “That’s a great name.”

So when Luther joined, I went to a pub in Hampstead with him. I said, “We’re thinking of changing your name.” He said, “Oh, I’d never change my name in a million years, Ian.” I told him we wanted to change it to Ariel Bender. There is this silence. Then “Ariel Bender? Fantastic, I’m in.” That’s how he is.

When Ralphs left for Bad Company — and took his songwriting — were you afraid of losing steam, that you were at the end of Mott again?
I was worried that I couldn’t do it without Mick Ralphs. The trouble was I couldn’t sing his songs. And my songs were getting done and his weren’t. So Mick left. It was in the wind for a couple of months. I offered him half my publishing. But he was set, and I don’t blame him. But it was difficult. I don’t think Luther covered him in the studio that well. But he more than covered everybody on the road.

Could you tell, by 1974, that the energy and vitality of British glam was waning? You opened the shows that year alone at the piano, singing the first lines of Don McLean’s “American Pie” — a song about the passing of rock & roll in 1959 — before jumping into “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
I like dynamics. Maybe it was a show-biz ploy. We knew we had to entertain. There were so many bands. It was like a field full of cows. When you made it, you didn’t feel any jubilation. You were just the last cow in the field [laughs].

Then a few months later, with Mick Ronson on guitar, you released an actual lament for glam, “(Do You Remember) The Saturday Gigs” — and the band fell apart. What happened? After his time with Bowie, with his gifts as a player and the way he looked, Ronson should have been a natural fit.
That’s what I thought. And he joined with a vengeance. The nostrils were flaring, like “I’m gonna show David.” So I rang the band and two of them couldn’t make the rehearsals. I couldn’t blame ’em. They had been battling away for four, five years. And Mick, right at that moment, knew: This is not special. This is going to be average. Because when you get a new guy in, you gotta show you’re in it [with him]. What pissed me off about it was that my first solo album could have been Mott’s next album, except for the stupidity.

Ronson became an important part of your solo career as a guitarist, producer and bandmate. How would you characterize his working personality? He seemed to prefer being the foil, not the star.
A real Northern working-class lad, Mick. He looked gorgeous, all ponced up, but just your average bloke — very modest, very shy. I loved the guy, still do to this day. But in a band, he scared the shit out of me. It wasn’t easy standing next to him, the most gorgeous looking thing on earth [laughs]. Bowie had been there. Now it was me. But we got over it. We were mates. The thing with him was he’d get bored. He’d wander off with Van Morrison or Bob Dylan, which is what you do if you don’t write the songs.

People ask me what Mick was like, and it’s a long story. He was intelligent, very intuitive. But he was daft as a brush. He was a nightmare money-wise. He would meet somebody in a bar and be producing them the following day. No deal — and he had done half a dozen tracks. His manager would say, “Ring me first before you do it.”

He just found ways of being skint, even on [Dylan’s] Rolling Thunder tour. They were payin’ everybody out at the end, and they gave him a bill. Worst card player you ever met. If you were short of money, sit down and play cards with Mick.

In November 1974, while getting ready to record a new Mott the Hoople album with Ronson in New York, Hunter collapsed and was hospitalized with nervous exhaustion. He and Ronson quit Mott soon after. Buffin and Griffin carried on for a time with other musicians. Hunter settled in the U.S. with his American wife Trudi and recorded his solo debut, 1975’s Ian Hunter, co-produced with Ronson. The next two decades were a seesaw of high points — 1979’s You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic, made with a powerhouse union of Ronson and members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — and major-label exile.

In 2001, Hunter formed the Rant Band, named after his solo album that year, Rant, and anchored by John Mellencamp bassist Andy York, ex-Wings drummer Steve Holley and guitarist James Mastro, formerly of the Bongos. Hunter won’t be playing any of his solo material on Mott’s final final tour. “We took it as far as we could,” he says of the 100 shows he did with the Rant Band for 2016’s Fingers Crossed. “The reason I’m doing this Mott tour,” Hunter says with a sly smile, “is it makes a change from my stuff.”

When you sing Mott the Hoople songs now, do you flash back to that time — that madness and glory?
Nah, I’m very much about now. It amazes me, writers who dwell in the past. For me, it’s all what comes next. Ronson was the same: “What are we gonna do?” not “Where’ve we been?” That’s gone, nothing you can do about it.

What is a typical musical day for you now, when you’re not on the road?
I usually write lyrics between 4 and 6 a.m. Then I’ll come down here between 4 and 6 in the afternoon and check it out, see if it’s working. I’m working on a load of stuff now. There’s an album over there [points to the cassettes on the other side of the room]. That’s my new songs. Whether they’ll all get through the process I don’t know. But we’ll go into the studio in August.

Where do you get the drive?
What are you gonna do? Sit around reminiscing? Waiting for death? It’s pathetic.

What about the inspiration?
I’ve got a muse. I don’t know if I’m any better than anybody else — sometimes better, sometimes worse. It’s more difficult, because the lyrics have already been mined. But that’s the motivation — to overcome that. It’s gotta be better.

One of your best recent songs is “Dandy,” your tribute to David Bowie after his death [on Fingers Crossed]. At a time when many people didn’t know what to say, how to cope with the loss, you caught his legacy and impact with a clear, eyewitness reflection.
The key to that song was the line “And then we took the last bus home.” He’d turned to technicolor. But you always had to walk out into the black-and-white afterwards. That image — I knew it from gigs in Northampton when I was playing. Even when you were in the band, you caught the last bus home. It was like coming out of a movie — seeing Marlon Brando or James Dean — and then you’re back on the fucking street. There’s the bike shop, Woolworth’s — “I gotta get out.”

When did you last talk to Bowie?
Madison Square Garden, the Station to Station tour [in 1976]. He was trying to bum cigarettes off me in the dressing room. I had Marlboros. But he chain-smoked Gitanes. He was a totally different type to me. I remember he rang me once [in the early Seventies]: “I’ve got this great idea. Come down.” It was Boxing Day, and I was in Northampton. I’m 68 miles from London. I get all the way there, and he’s farting around on the couch. What am I here for?

I wound up getting pissed with [Bowie’s then-wife] Angie — she made sense [grins]. David and I weren’t the same type of people. I think he liked me because I was a bit rough and ready. I liked him because he did his dues. But we weren’t destined to intertwine in any way. I can’t do that level. I have no problem with people that do. I respect them. But I don’t have that. It’s too much like hard work. I prefer hovering on the periphery.

How is your health? You’re at a point when most performers your age are on farewell tours.
I’ll know when that time comes. I won’t enjoy it. But I’m not going to go out there and look like an idiot.

But you are older than everyone in the Rolling Stones, and people think they’re the oldest guys in the game.
Nah, there’s only a few beyond me. I’ve got my regimen. Nothing is untoward. I thought I was gonna be gone by the time I was 50. I think a lot of it has to do with looking forward. There’s always got to be something on the horizon. And if there is nothing happening next, you may well have a problem.

I’m half-Scottish. I don’t know if the Norse in me has anything to do with it. And I wasn’t a fucking maniac. I was a bit of a wild one, the way I was knocking it back. But I wasn’t a junkie. To me, cocaine is like revving up an engine. The engine is going to die quicker.

Will it feel strange to do these last Mott shows without Watts and Buffin?
No. It is what it is. I loved Pete — glorious guy, eccentric.

He looked nine feet tall in those platform shoes in 1974.
He loved it. Anybody else would be embarrassed. And the silver paint [on his chest] — he got it out of a garage, not like some hair salon where you can get stuff that won’t hurt when it comes off. He got car paint, from a fucking garage. Ralphs didn’t like that. He always wanted jeans. We went back to that in the end. Boy, that was a day, when we came off the heels. Because heels made your stomach go in. So when you came down off, you felt like … [pats his stomach gently].

Then we had a haircut as well. I remember one of those gigs on the last European tour when Ronson was in. This girl shouted out, “You’re the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen!” I had no heels, my hair was short, I felt like shit [laughs]. No accounting for taste.

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