On Ian Hunter’s cranky new album, he sings about gutless politicians, clueless voters, scheming preachers and a babbling media.
So why does the music sound so poised and pretty?
“It’s about bewilderment,” says Hunter of the album’s tone. “That, combined with pragmatism.”
Don’t forget age. At a surprising 67, Hunter can look back from a wry distance at the sort of spit and rage he felt in his youth. Back in his days leading the classic band Mott the Hoople, Hunter penned some of the feistiest rock songs of the `70s, from “All the Way From Memphis” to “Roll Away the Stone,” along with barking out the classic hit cover version of David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” As a solo artist, since 1975, Hunter has offered upbeat staples like “Cleveland Rocks” as well as elegant ballads, like “Ships” (an improbable hit for Barry Manilow).
But it’s been six years since Hunter released a CD. Happily, his new one, “Shrunken Heads,” out May 15, houses some of his best-formed melodies and most engagingly agitated lyrics to date. It’s folk-rock in the best sense of the term, thoughtful and fluid.
Lyrically, Hunter says he lately found himself naturally skewing toward politics. “When you get older, you’re more aware of the world,” he says.
In the process, he discovered that “America has two languages,” he says. “English and bull-(excrement).”
He isn’t much more upbeat about the politics of his birthplace, England. “The country has pretty much disappeared under Blair,” the songwriter says. “And there’s a large underbelly of people there who don’t give two (expletives) about anyone but themselves.”
Hunter’s world-gone-to-hell perspective might make him sound like an old coot, if he didn’t have such humor about it. Another socially aware song on the album finds Hunter yearning for a time “When the World Was Round,” cleverly playing off writer Thomas Friedman’s assertion that the planet, in the information age, has become “flat.”
Hunter embraces his age on a personal level as well. In one song, he claims he hates the guy he was when he was young and, conversely, admits he now embodies everything he despised as a kid. “When you’re young you slag off the old, and when you’re old you slag off the young,” he says with a laugh. “That’s how it always has been and how it always should be.”
Certainly, Hunter served his time on the youthful cutting edge - even though he was actually a bit older than his peers at the time. Instead of finding his ideal band as a teen, Hunter worked in a factory for 8 years and was nearly 30 by the time Mott the Hoople got going in 1969.
“Most guys my age got their shot in the `60s,” he says. “I didn’t get it until the `70s. So I had to grow my hair long and wear shades to cover it up,” he quips.
When Mott first appeared, Hunter’s sandpaper voice was compared to Dylan’s. “I didn’t have a great natural voice, so I went that route,” he says. “(Later) I found my own voice.”
Mott struggled to find its voice as well. The band put out four mediocre-selling works, marked by as many lax moments as flights of genius. Their label stuck with them through all this, as did a significant cult of fans, an unlikely event today.
“We’ve lost the loyalty thing,” Hunter says. “Bands used to be like football teams: You were a fan for life.”
Mott’s late breakthrough came just before they went bust. In 1972, Bowie stepped in and let them debut his song “All the Young Dudes,” along with producing its like-named CD. The single went on to become a worldwide smash, and an anthem of the glam-rock age. Physically, the band hardly fit the androgynous look.
“We weren’t lovely, were we?” Hunter laughs. “But we had no choice. It was either that or back to the factory.”
Hunter, and lead guitarist Mick Ralphs, went on to write enduring rock songs, though Hunter still regards the band’s history a bit dubiously. “People see more in us than I ever did,” he says.
One thing many see is Hunter’s rare lyrical perspective. He used the group as a character right in the songs, in the process exploring the heartbreak of rock `n’ roll and the nuances of success and failure. Remarkably, his perspective wasn’t self-indulgent but universal, a fact Hunter credits to “not being a corny writer.
“I was in the goldfish bowl and didn’t know anything but the band,” Hunter says of his subject. “You write what you know.”
Hunter continued to do so through a solo career, buttressed by his frequent collaborator, the late guitarist Mick Ronson. After Mott ended in 1975, Hunter moved to Connecticut, where he raised three kids and where he still lives with his wife of 35 years, Trudy. “It’s bigger and more relaxed here,” he says of the States. “In England everyone hates each other because it’s an island; they’re too close.”
In America, Hunter has found continuing inspiration. In the title song “Shrunken Heads,” he addresses the country, and the planet, in a newly engaged way, using the title metaphor to refer not only to small-brained leaders and voters, but to the worship of the dollar, which comes stamped with its own miniaturized presidential head.
“There’s so much going on in the country and in the world these days,” Hunter marvels. “You really don’t know what to write about first.”