The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, BBC Four | New music reviews, news & interviews
The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, BBC Four
Affectionately told tale of one of the early Seventies' most thrilling but unstable bands
“Five years,” said former Mott the Hoople fan club president Kris Needs of the band’s lifespan. “That’s how long the Kaiser Chiefs have been around, but who cares?” It seemed an unfair measure. Mott split 39 years ago and the Leeds quirksters are still going strong. But in terms of stitches in rock’s rich tapestry, Mott’s, like the Kaiser Chiefs’, probably wouldn’t darn a sock.
That’s not to say Mott the Hoople didn’t merit this documentary, or that their best records weren’t among the greatest of the early Seventies. But it did take David Bowie to write their first hit and boot them into the singles chart after four albums as a cult act. When Bowie gave them “All the Young Dudes” in 1972, it was to prevent them splitting. He first suggested “Suffragette City”, which they turned down. Then he came up with “…Dudes”. A glam makeover and fabulous Ian Hunter-penned hits like “Honaloochie Boogie”, “All the Way from Memphis” and “Roll Away the Stone” followed.
Ian Hunter said Mott were David Bowie’s 'flavour of the quarter'
The Ballad of Mott the Hoople caught a band built for success, but initially out of sync with the mainstream. Hunter said “if we got bored [on stage], we’d speed up, faster and faster. No one was doing that.” At the dawn of the Seventies, the pre-glam Mott’s ragged rock presaged punk and attracted fans like future Clash member Mick Jones, who spoke fondly of his enduring love for the band.
Hunter had a way with phrasing that his sphinx-like presence and frozen-in-time corkscrew hair ‘n’ shades combo did nothing to diminish. Talking about Bowie’s championing of the band, he said they were “[Bowie’s] flavour of the quarter".The film also celebrated their deceased producer and svengali, the volatile Guy Stevens. Stevens was described as throwing chairs at a wall to inspire Mott, “which I seem to remember was somewhat inspiring,” noted engineer Andy Johns, drily. When The Clash used Stevens for London Calling, he summoned the same chair-chucking inspirational technique for them.
Watch the promo film for Mott the Hoople's “All the Young Dudes”
The most memorable moment was a bizarrely stilted Old Grey Whistle Test interview with a tight-lipped Mick Ronson about his brief post-Bowie tenure with the band in late 1974. Hunter maintained that it could have worked with Ronson, despite him having a new solo album out at the time. Other band members disagreed, saying that the newly arrived guitarist had a different manager to the rest of the band and didn’t talk to them. Hunter didn't appear too fussed - then or now - about the views of the rest of Mott.
In a documentary so willing to reveal the negative side, there were some strange omissions. The most glaring was their 2009 reformation not being addressed. The origin of their name wasn’t explained (it comes from a novel by American writer Willard Manus which Stevens had read while in prison) and, perhaps less importantly, their pre-Mott album as the Doc Thomas Group wasn’t mentioned. The early band wasn’t quite as green as portrayed. Hunter, brought into the line-up by Stevens, also hadn’t come from nowhere and was in bands from the late Fifties.
Just as noteworthy was a "special thanks" to Morrissey buried in the credits. His take on Mott the Hoople could have been illuminating, but wasn’t included. Instead, without his input, this cautionary tale of wrong turns and conflicting perspectives will have to suffice.
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