What does it sound like?:
Glam rock in the early 1970s proved an opportune moment for various musicians with mixed success up until that time. Think of Bolan and Bowie and their mixed fortunes. This was also true of Mott The Hoople. While most people familiar with the band will know them for “All The Young Dudes”, “Roll Away The Stone” and other songs of that era, this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Before Bowie and “Dudes”, they had slogged their way around the live circuit for several years, establishing a fanatical cult following. They also released four albums on the Island label between 1969 and 1971.
This splendid six-disc collection includes all four of their Island albums, Mott The Hoople, Mad Shadows, Wildlife and Brain Capers, together with appropriate B sides, outtakes and alternative versions.
There’s a separate disc of studio rarities and a live disc to complete the set.
Under the tutelage of maverick producer Guy Stevens, Mott’s sound developed into a thrillingly intriguing patchwork of electric Dylan, full-on rock n roll, and a smattering of country thrown in for good measure.
This was the sound arrived at from grafting together a young band of longhairs from the South Midlands with a 29 year-old, curly-haired singer-songwriter in shades from Shrewsbury, who’d definitely been around the block.
Mott The Hoople’s music of this period doesn’t always cohere, but it’s never less than fascinating. The self-titled debut release includes idiosyncratic covers of Doug Sahm and Sonny Bono, and the band’s self-penned rocker, “Rock and Roll Queen”. Throughout, it’s heavily indebted to mid-60s Dylan, but underpinned by a kind of wild-card, eclectic energy. They recorded it following a mere 11 days rehearsal after Hunter had joined, and before they’d played a single gig as Mott The Hoople.
The second album, Mad Shadows is altogether denser. It’s a swirling mass of riffs and ballads, sometimes bordering on the chaotic. Ralphs leads off with the powerful “Thunderbuck Ram”, Hunter shows an early mastery of the slow, intense burner with “No Wheels To Ride”, and the band really goes for it on “Walking With A Mountain.” It sounds gloriously spontaneous and rough around the edges (there’s a notorious squeaking bass drum pedal audible throughout “I Can Feel”).
For their third, Wildlife, Mott stepped back from the brink of chaos and produced themselves without the input of Stevens. They came up with something curiously laid-back. Guitarist Mick Ralphs takes lead vocals on around half of it, with a very Laurel Canyon-influenced feel and a certain period charm. It’s not going to float everyone’s boat, but it does contain some peerless Hunter ballads, including “Angel Of Eighth Avenue” and “Original Mixed-up Kid”. It also has a rather incongruous but high-energy live take of “You Keep A Knockin’” rounding off the second side.
Brain Capers, the last of their run of Island albums, finds them back with Guy Stevens producing (while reportedly inciting and instigating some in-studio vandalism). It is generally regarded as the best of the Island bunch, but also seemed like a last roll of the dice. While they were a successful live draw, with riotous gigs that resonated powerfully with their fervent fanbase, Mott couldn’t seem to alchemise this buzz around them into studio gold.
There is, however, a real fuck-you attitude on “The Moon Upstairs” and “Death May Be Your Santa Claus”, and a feeling of chaotic, semi-shambolic momentum on “Sweet Angeline”. The epic ballad, “The Journey” further ratchets up the intensity.
Brain Capers was not a success, failing to chart in either the UK or US. Things came to a head at a gig in Zurich in 1972 and the band decided to split… only for David Bowie to step in and offer them “All The Young Dudes”.
Thus ended Mott’s Island era. This box set collects pretty much all their output at this time and unearths various rough diamonds, including some sprawling studio try-outs and excellent alternate takes on disc five, The Ballads Of Mott The Hoople.
The final disc, It’s Live And Live Only, includes nearly all the band’s legendary 1971 Croydon gig at the Fairfield Halls, supplemented with tracks from a BBC concert from 1972.
Live, you get a sense of the their power and ability to connect with an audience, but by all accounts, you really had to be there. Mott gigs typically escalated into celebratory near-riots, culminating in mass stage-invasions by an army of fans.
Overall, the band you hear on this collection is very different to the Mott The Hoople of the later CBS years. Notably, Verden Allen’s organ playing is a prominent element; and there’s a sense of democracy underpinning everything, even if it’s at the expense of a more consistent sonic identity.
What does it all *mean*?
“Rock and roll’s a loser’s game…” sang Ian Hunter on “The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople”, looking somewhat wistfully at the band’s past.
This was the paradox they discovered: that the success they finally achieved after the Island years effectively pulled them apart. The key to Mott really lay in the process, not the reward, the means not the end. Yes, they did triumph over adversity following Bowie’s intervention, but ultimately it was a hollow victory.
This collection, therefore, is all about the striving and the struggle to find a unique voice. It’s something that’s particular to this band but also pretty much universal.
It sounds like the very essence of rock n roll, whatever that means these days.
Goes well with…
Platform shoes (male), floppy hats, star signs, a large glass of red, incense, possibly a jazz cigarette…
Might suit people who like…
Mid-60s Dylan, Crazy Horse, early 70s Island artists such as Traffic and Free – for the general vibe. Also might appeal to fans of anarchic early 70s acts such as Third World War, the Pink Fairies and Edgar Broughton.