It’s a mighty long way down Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Mott the Hoople traveled the distance: from the Liverpool Docks to the Hollywood Bowl (as they sang), and then to a quick implosion. The band languished in relative obscurity for several albums, reached its commercial and artistic peak with 1972’s All the Young Dudes and the next year’s Mott, then eked out one more studio album before disintegrating.
Columbia’s new reissue of those two high points is somewhat unnecessary; they both still circulate widely, in versions that hardly beg for remastering, especially compared to, say, the sonic atrocity of Atlantic’s mud-encrusted CD of the band’s pre-stardom album Brain Capers. On the other hand, great music needs no excuse; the remastering here does indeed bring added clarity to the individual instruments, and some bonus tracks will entice the dedicated, but the real focus remains on the albums themselves, widely perceived as two all-time high points of the rock genre.
And rightly so. Of the two, Mott reigns supreme, a definitive statement in the self-referential rock category. There are probably as many songs about rock as there are bands in the field, but no single album penetrates as deeply into its contradictory impulses; Mott performs the quintessential double gesture of deflating rock mythology even as it verifies the myth by manifesting rock’s liberating capacity in its untouchable songs. Rock is a religion (a friend “converted me to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Ian Hunter sings on “Honaloochie Boogie”), sustenance (in the form of fuel: it “keeps my motor running clean,” guitarist Mick Ralphs adds in “I’m a Cadillac/El Camino Dolo Roso”), and a hoax (“you look like a star but you’re still on the dole,” sneers Hunter on “All the Way From Memphis”), all at the same time. It’s a self-defeating, untenable proposition, and Mott transcends the paradox by embracing it, like the Buddha with a backbeat.
All the Young Dudes, on the other hand, can’t quite reach that peak. The band’s early albums were cover-heavy, and Dudes shows it emerging from its influences but catches it halfway through the transition into an individual voice. Only reluctantly did Mott even bother; in 1972 the band was ready to call it quits in the face of widespread indifference to their efforts, and only through the intervention of unexpected superfan David Bowie did they return to the studio. Bowie wrote the title track and produced the album, and his imprint is also evident in the decision to open with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” (which had yet to become cliché). “All the Young Dudes” put Mott the Hoople on the charts and to some extent conflated them with glam rock, something with which the band’s lumbering riffs and unambiguous masculinity shared quite little. The song is a delectable pop treat, though one can’t help but wonder whether Bowie approached it as some kind of Warholesque exercise in starmaking; tweaking with the sexuality of such a blatantly straight group had to appeal to Bowie’s clever perversities. Ian Hunter proved game, trading in his more swaggering vocal style for a lithe Bowie imitation and delivering hilariously erotic shout-outs to the dudes: “I want to hear you… I want to see you… I want to talk to you, all of you.” A bonus track featuring Bowie on lead vocals shows how fully Hunter understood the game; Bowie himself sounds too subdued in comparison to Hunter’s fey camp winks.
Elsewhere All the Young Dudes reflects a more traditional rock bent; on that front, the band reclaims its heteromasculinity on the unfortunate “One of the Boys”, a turgid testosterone fest that sounds intended for a Foghat b-side. It fades out after four minutes of aimless jamming, then returns, unwelcomed, to blight the album for another two and a half. While it’s the only serious misstep, it helps the album fall short of Mott‘s impeccable song selection. Hunter dominates on great rockers “Momma’s Little Jewel”, “Sucker” and “Jerkin’ Crocus”, as well as the tender closing ballad “Sea Diver”, but the other Hooplers have their moments. Guitarist Mick Ralphs contributes “Ready for Love/After Lights”, which he’d later pare down for Bad Company after quitting Mott; the later version would prove more concise and radio-ready, but the placid instrumental of this take’s second half serves as an effective extended outro. Keyboard player Verden Allen, meanwhile, stomps out “Soft Ground” with a dirty organ bleeding into the red, singing like Bon Scott’s vocal coach. It’s a fun, gritty tune, well-placed between the album’s two longest tracks.
All the Young Dudes catapulted Mott the Hoople to stardom, and like many an ingénue before them, they discovered the hollowness of fame. But they also won the power to call their shots, and one reason for Mott‘s potency was the band’s claiming of its material: no more covers, no more Svengalis. Hunter continued to dominate the proceedings, which led to Allen’s departure (and soon, that of Ralphs), but the band kicks out the jams with a unified vision. “All the Way From Memphis” commences the tour-themed album with piano-driven rock perfection; “Honaloochie Boogie” reaffirms the power of rock, at least until the “Ballad of Mott” bottoms things out again with its bleak vision of the world’s worst gig. The song concludes, “Rock ‘n’ Roll’s a loser’s game.” Ralphs steers “Drivin’ Sister” with a Stonesy guitar crunch, and he breaks out a mandolin for “I Wish I Was Your Mother”, a wonderful closer with Hunter indulging in his most Dylanesque phrasing to convey an odd but moving declaration of lovelorn despair. Not a moment on the album’s nine tracks goes to waste, and the riffs and lyrics stay consistently fresh, aided and abetted by unexpected flourishes like the swirling violin at the heart of “Violence”. In short, a masterpiece.
Mott the Hoople went on to record 1974’s The Hoople, which Columbia is also reissuing in a download-only format. The album deserves better, and the band itself merits the kind of lavish treatment recently bestowed upon T. Rex (name-checked in “All the Young Dudes”) by Rhino. Until the world can hear Brain Capers’ “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” in its full strength, no Mott the Hoople fan should rest content. These two great albums will certainly suffice for the moment, though; the world absolutely does not need the two extra versions of “One of the Boys” tacked onto Dudes, but its other demo tracks reveal strong rough drafts of final products, and “Rose” on Mott proves that the band was riding its crest in 1973: even its b-sides triumphed.
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