Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Ballad of Mott the Hoople

And I guess I lost just a little bit on the journey
- Ian Hunter, "The Journey"

Rockumentaries are a dime a dozen. After all, isn't every band's story basically the same? The best examples of the genre chronicle the careers of performers who are themselves habitual self-mythologizers: The Kids Are Alright, MC5: A True Testimonial, We Jam Econo.

And was there ever a band as self-referential as Mott the Hoople, who made a concept album about their own failure (Mott) as well as not one but two about madness (Mad Shadows and Brain Capers, the latter still a regular spin around mi casa), and capped it all with a valedictory single about breaking up ("Saturday Gigs")? Well, sure there was: the Clash. But they were co-led by a muso (Mick Jones) who spent his formative years trooping around the UK following Mott. So there.

I've been infatuated with the idea of music as a source of community since I was a teenager, which is why I was so easily won over by bands like the Who (with their Mod claque), the MC5 (with their Grande/Trans-Love Energies/White Panther cabal), and the Clash (whose other leader arose from the Ladbroke Grove squats).

You couldn't find a more _organic_ example of this phenom than Mott, who were thrown together by a mad genius obsessed with Blonde On Blonde (Guy Stevens, who'd previously assembled Procol Harum but lost out on producing "A Whiter Shade of Pale" when he was charged with amphetamine possession and thrown in Wormwood Scrubs for eight months) but made their name on atypically-cathartic-for-the-time (1969) live performances and a lack of rockstar pretension that inspired uber-fanatical loyalty from a small army of young acolytes that included Jones and future journo Kris Needs.

By 1972, the wheels were about to come off the Mott cart when David Bowie saw them, was floored, and offered them a perfect glam era hit single ("All the Young Dudes"), even though they'd already decided to call it quits. Transatlantic fame ensued, including a week-long stand at Broadway's Uris Theater, where your humble chronicler o' events -- who was in the habit of playing air guitar to Mott with his buds, even though a couple of us could actually play by then -- witnessed their performance and intuited, for the first time, the hollowness behind the theatricality of big rockaroll shows (which led to my life-long preference for shows where you can feel air from kick drum heads and speaker cones moving your clothes around, as opposed to the kind where you have to squint at a Jumbotron to see the band), and the fact that Mott frontman Ian Hunter (b. 1939) was relatively old.

Mike Kerry and Chris Hall's documentary The Ballad of Mott the Hoople traces this trajectory in a lively way, including on-screen interviews with most of the principals (bassist Pete "Overend" Watts declined to participate, and Guy Stevens died by his own hand in 1981), as well as important observers like lead singer-turned-road manager Stan Tippins (the ultimate team player), Jones, Needs, ace engineer Andy Johns, Queen drummer Roger Taylor (whose band toured with and learned from Mott), and American tour manager Leee Black Childers. Hunter, guitarist Mick Ralphs, and drummer Dale "Buffin" Griffin come across as clear-eyed and unpretentious as you'd expect, while organist Verden "Phalley" Allen's thick Welsh brogue almost requires subtitles.

True, there isn't as much live footage as one might expected from the ton that's viewable on Youtube (but not embeddable here) -- there's just enough to give you a taste of the band's live insanity and whet your appetite for a more complete sampling that, as of yet, doesn't exist on DVD (although three complete songs from Mott's 2009 reunion are included in The Ballad of...'s bonus features) -- but the stories are good enough to be worth the price of admission by themselves.

Viewing the film, I realized that the Mott I saw in '74 was living on borrowed time. The Mott album was the result of Hunter's determination not to be seen as a Bowie satellite, and it succeeded: the record's passion and heart are real, and enduring. After that, though, he'd pretty much shot his load. The follow-up, The Hoople, sounded like a glam caricature and was amateurishly produced to boot. Ralphs soon decamped for Bad Company, for whose first album he took "One of the Boys" from the All the Young Dudes LP, sped it up, added a different chorus, and wound up with a big 'Meercun hit: "Can't Get Enough."

Ralphs' replacement by Luther Grosvenor aka Ariel Bender (as engaging on-screen as he was onstage at the Uris) gave Mott a shot in the arm, but it was purely a holding action. Grosvenor's subsequent replacement with ex-Bowie sideman Mick Ronson was too little, too late. By then, Hunter says, he'd realized that at the end of Success' rainbow, "...There's nothing. The fun is the ride. There ain't no station." Amen, brother.

Rockumentaries might be a dime a dozen, but Mott the Hoople was one in a million.


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