Mott The Hoople: Young Dudes and Old Feuds
To write this account of one of the great British bands, I did separate interviews with all members of their original hit line-up: Ian Hunter, Mick Ralphs, Pete Overend Watts, Buffin and Verden Allen. The piece was first run in MOJO, November 1998.
The story’s turning point is David Bowie’s gift of his song All The Young Dudes. So I’ve since added some quotes from my 2002 interview with Bowie himself.
‘Rightly or wrongly we never looked for money. And by God we never got it…’
They say that it’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll. One winter’s day in 1974, Pete Watts was learning just how far down it can be. Better known to his fans as Overend Watts, of the even more strangely-named Mott The Hoople, the bass guitarist was depressed. He sat in his two-bedroomed flat, in Ealing, digesting the bitter news that his band had just broken up. Now, like repo men in reverse, roadies were lumbering up the stairs, cramming his tiny abode with massive amplifiers. They hauled in a wardrobe trunk full of stage clothes. There were guitar cases, guitar strings and, as he recalls, ‘a million tins of silver hairspray.’
He glanced about him with a heavy heart, dwarfed by the unwanted trappings of a glam rock supergroup who were suddenly no more. The roadies unloaded the last of his gear, and bid him their soft farewells.
Alone, he looked around him and thought, ‘Where am I going to put it all? What do I do now?’
But Overend Watts had not yet touched the bottom. A founder member of one of Britain’s classic rock acts, he’d soldiered with them through five Top 20 singles, seven acclaimed LPs and scores of frenzied live shows. Mott The Hoople had generated a huge amount of money – little of which ever found its way to Mott The Hoople. The Inland Revenue gave Watts the most poignant souvenir of his time as pop star: a tax demand for £85,000. The bill was eventually argued down to £15,000. But that was enough to make the bassman give up music. ‘I decided, “I’ve been a mug long enough. I’ve played in groups for 15 years, and this is what’s happened, I’ve ended up with a bill.” And I was lucky I’d got it down to £15,000. If I’d stuck around for another 10 years, who knows? I might have owed another 300 grand.’
Today Pete Watts runs a successful business, and he can afford a rueful chuckle at the irony of it all. But where did it go wrong? What had happened to the glory that was Mott The Hoople? And how the hell did he get a name like Overend in the first place?
Mott are remembered with affection. All The Young Dudes, their glorious first hit, was a landmark record of the ’70s, a glam anthem that single-handedly defined the post-Woodstock generation of teenagers. With his shades and corkscrew curls, the singer Ian Hunter looked like the Rock Star From Central Casting. When punk rock came along, it claimed descent from hip American acts such as The Velvet Underground or Iggy & The Stooges – but the real Godfathers to the Pistols and The Clash were laddish rock acts like The Faces, Thin Lizzy and, perhaps most of all, Mott The Hoople. Their flash and swagger, their tough, melodic crunch, is deep in the racial memory of British pop. If Oasis resemble anyone, then it’s not The Beatles, but Mott The Hoople in their pomp. And who, in their right mind, does not confess a fondness for Honaloochie Boogie?
Actually, Mott The Hoople had their share of lucky breaks. The biggest were meeting Island’s legendary svengali Guy Stevens, and teaming up with David Bowie. As we’ll discover, both breaks came about through Pete Watts’ unsuccessful efforts to leave the band. Fate had a way of coming to Mott The Hoople’s rescue at the very moments when all hope had fled. But on that melancholy day in late ’74, as bass-stacks blotted out the daylight in Overend Watts’s place, there was to be no rescue. Nobody came to roll away the stone. This time, there would be no resurrection.
Mott the Hoople were born one sunny morning in Herefordshire. At school there, Pete Watts made friends with a young drummer called Terence Dale Griffin, nicknamed Buffin. The pair would play in various bands, meet a local singer called Stan Tippins, and a guitarist named Mick Ralphs. Through shifting line-ups, and with the addition of a Welsh-born organist called Terence Verden Allen, they would coalesce by 1968 into a five-piece outfit with the fashionably deep name of Silence.
But life was eerily quiet for Silence. Discouraged, Pete Watts took a day trip down to London to audition for the Island producer/A&R man Guy Stevens, who wanted a bass player for Free. (Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers had temporarily been sacked from the volatile band, leaving Paul Kossoff and Simon Kirke.) Mick Ralphs came along to keep Watts company. Although the Free position was not to be, Guy Stevens took a liking to the Hereford boys and asked them to keep in touch. Ralphs came down to Island again, this time with a Silence demo tape: ‘I went to their office in Oxford Street and sat there and waited, and in the end I got so frustrated I burst into Guy Stevens’ office: “Listen!” I said, “I’ve driven all the way down from Hereford and I’m pissed off that no-one takes any notice. You better listen to this tape.” And he says, “I like it! I like your attitude!”’
A Silence audition was duly arranged. Verden Allen: ‘I remember carting the Hammond upstairs and Guy said, “Anyone who carts that bloody big thing up the stairs deserves a record deal!” They were complaining like hell across the road about the noise, and that turned Guy on, he was leaping up and down, going “Yeah!” Sadly for Stan Tippins, Guy Stevens liked the group but recommended they find a new singer. Ralphs: ‘So it was a very tough choice, but it was up to us to tell Stan. He said “Fine, go ahead, you should.” We promised we’d do something for him in the future and ended up using him as a tour manager. But it was a heart-rending thing, and he showed an admirable attitude.’ Buffin: ‘Guy didn’t fancy it, and I don’t think Stan did, either. He was a ’60s type of singer, tall and handsome, with perfect pitch. But he was starting to thin on top, and didn’t have the image of that “progressive” area we were in.’
So an ad was placed in the Melody Maker. Buffin: ‘These auditions were a farce. We’d had in four or five people, all hopeless. One bloke goes, “It cost me 10 pence to get here on the bus, you ought to refund me that.” It was that bad. Meanwhile Ian turns up. He looked atrocious. He had these horrible open-toed sandals, possibly with grey socks on. But he sat at the piano and played and I thought “Shit, there is something about this guy’s voice.”
Watts: ‘The auditions were frighteningly awful. The first bloke looked like Les Dawson, with thick pebble glasses, his face was about an inch from the keyboards. We sat there despondently until about eight or nine at night and then Ian turned up. He looked grim, with short horrible curly ginger hair. He was very nervous but there was something about him. Afterwards he stood up and said, “I’ve got this idea for a symphony. Can I borrow your bass?” He played this horrible bass line and we were all thinking, “Oh God, how awful.” After he left we sat down and none of us were very impressed. But Guy said, “Maybe if we get that last bloke in for a week or two, just to show Island you’ve got a complete group.” We reluctantly agreed.’
The new recruit was Ian Hunter Patterson, from Shrewsbury. Older than the others, he was a veteran of British beat groups in Hamburg, had recently backed Billy Fury and almost joined Jimmy Page’s New Yardbirds. Now on the point of abandoning music, he lived in North London with his wife and children. He recalls: ‘Guy loved the Rolling Stones and he loved Bob Dylan, and so did I. I sung a bit that way, quite naturally.’
Watts: ‘So Ian was in the group, but he didn’t have anything to do with the rest of us. But for him it was 15 quid a week to help him keep his family.’
Allen: ‘As Guy said once, Ian’s heaviness from being in London, and our lightness, the country feel, worked together just right.’
Hunter: ‘I don’t think it was as romantic as that. I think the verdict was, We can’t find anyone else so let’s try him for a few weeks. I hung on by a hair, because at one time or another they all wanted to get rid of me. They were extremely strange. Guy had got them in a basement flat in Lower Sloane Street and I went down there, this was the biggest day of my life. The drummer came up the stairs as I was walking in and just totally ignored me. Nobody would speak to me. It turned out they had a happy friendship with Stan Tippins, the original singer, and I think they were missing him. Yet Stan was the only one who would speak to me.’
Buffin: ‘It’s bollocks. Ian is the professional outsider. What gets him through life is the idea that he’s fighting off these terrible people who want to keep him out.’
Rehearsals were held at the Pied Bull in Islington. Meanwhile the manic Stevens (fresh from a drug-related stretch in prison; his tale is told in MOJO 9) was furiously inventing new names for the group, and for its members. ‘Mott The Hoople’ was a favourite novel of his, by the cultish US author Willard Manus.
Hunter: ‘Guy wouldn’t let us have the name Mott The Hoople at first. He’d told us it was the name of a book he’d found in jail, and he’d given it to one of the guys in there, a heroin addict. And the guy had died. So now Guy said it was bad to call anybody by that name, it had bad connotations. But we hustled him, we’d never heard something so totally different.’ Ralphs: ‘I never read the book, but he said it was in keeping with the band: anti-social.’
At Stevens’ behest, Ian Hunter Patterson dropped his last name; Terence Verden Allen dropped his first name; Terence Dale Griffin reverted to Buffin. Then Guy turned his eye on Pete Watts: ‘He says to me, “Pete Watts, hmm, sounds a bit boring. Got a middle name?” So I go [shyly], “Well, Overend.” He goes “Overend? Overend! Yes! Not for he, the turgid bass riffs!” He was so excited, and I’d always tried to hide the name at school. It’s quite a surprise Mick Ralphs wasn’t called anything else. But then, his middle name was Geoffrey, you see…’
Thanks to a dynamic live act, and the impressive first albums Mott The Hoople(1969) and Mad Shadows (1970), Stevens’ boys became firm favourites of the UK hairy circuit. By the third LP, however, the group was tiring of its mercurial overseer. As Mick Ralphs recalls: ‘Guy had done us in, he was overwhelming. He’d taken it to extremes and we were all a bit shellshocked. We foolishly said we’d do an album on our own and ended up doing Wild Life, which is pretty tame. So we went back to Guy and said “OK, we give in” and it was like plugging in the electricity again. We just roared. Brain Capers was probably, for me, the best album we did.’
Allen: ‘Brain Capers was a crazy session, there was a lot of destruction. I remember in the foyer at Island they had big framed photos of, like, Blodwyn Pig, Traffic, Quintessence – so they got done in. The only one we didn’t touch was Traffic, cos we had too much respect for them. I remember Chris Blackwell of Island came into the studio and said, “Had a good night, lads?” Even the clock got ripped off the wall. But we had to pay for it in the end.’
Crushingly for all concerned, even Brain Capers failed to make Mott a lucrative act, despite their loyal following. Island’s patience was wearing thin. The ultimate heartbreak occurred on a dismal tour of Switzerland, when the group decided to disband – an event commemorated in their epic The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople. Buffin: ‘We’d been having rows with Island because they were saying, “You’ve got to cut back on the lighting and PA, you’re not making a profit.” So there was bad feeling. Then they sent us on this nebulous string of dates in Switzerland. We did one night at this horrible converted gas holder, and I don’t know, somebody played a wrong note, there was a push and a shove, nothing very much, but a bit of snarling, followed by “There’s better things to do in life than play fucking gigs in places like this.”
‘So it was decided, that’s it. “Oh, we’ll flounce off and not be a group any more.” For some reason we had the next day free, and went to see a John Wayne film and it was all very friendly. It was like the great albatross had been removed from our necks.’
Hunter: ‘We wound up in the middle of Switzerland and thought, “Why bother?” None of us did drugs but somebody gave Buff a block of something, so we all dug into that and had a great time on the train coming back. And that was the end of that.’
Allen: ‘I remember driving in London almost in tears, thinking ‘How can we pack up after all this work? We haven’t had any success.’
Before they could split, though, they were committed to a final UK tour, The Rock’n’Roll Circus, with music hall trouper Max Wall. Hunter: ‘Nobody was looking forward to the tour. And I was ambivalent because what else was I was going to do? I’m going back to the factory. It was slowly dawning on us that if we’re not Mott the Hoople, then what are we? We haven’t had a hit record. We’re nothing.’
Enter David Bowie, whose gift of All The Young Dudes would dramatically revive Mott The Hoople’s fortunes. But it’s worth remembering that Bowie was not a superstar at this point – if anything, Mott were the better known act. Though Hunky Dory had been well reviewed, Ol’ Odd Eyes was largely seen as a one-hit wonder who’d struck lucky with Space Oddity a few years earlier. (The career-changing Ziggy Stardust had not yet been released.) In March, 1972, he was still a songwriter pitching his songs to other artists, hence Peter Noone’s version of Oh! You Pretty Things. As a producer, he also lent his energies to Lou Reed (Transformer) and Iggy Pop (Raw Power), boosting their sunken reputations in the process.
Though they’d never met, Pete Overend Watts had seen the Spiders play live, and was a fan of Bowie’s records. Prior to Mott’s ill-fated Swiss trip, a box had arrived for them at Island Studios, containing a demo of Bowie’s new composition, Suffragette City…
Watts: ‘He’d scrawled on the box, ‘This might be of some use to you, would you like to cover it?’ Anyway we played it and didn’t think it was quite right. So after we got back from Switzerland I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs, thinking, “I’ve got a box here with David Bowie’s phone number on it. I wonder if he needs a bass player?” So I just called him on the off chance and said, “Thanks very much for the tape, we won’t be needing it because we’ve split up.” And he sounded genuinely upset, he said, “You can’t split up. Hold on, I’ve got a great manager.” I said, “The other problem is we haven’t managed to get a hit single.” We were on the phone for an hour at least. He called me back about two hours later and said he’d spoken to Tony DeFries, his manager at MainMan, who would try to get us out of the position we were in. He said “Also, I’ve written a song for you since we spoke, which could be great.”
‘So we arranged to meet the following Sunday. He came round with his wife Angie in a beaten up old Jag, and we met Tony DeFries for afternoon tea. Bowie played me this song, All The Young Dudes, on his acoustic guitar. He hadn’t got all the words but the song just blew me away, especially when he hit the chorus. Then DeFries was saying he’d get us away from Island. I thought, “My God, I don’t believe this! Wait until I tell the others.” When I got back I had to phone round them all and say, “Look, you know we’ve just split up? Well, I’ve just had an incredible afternoon.” And, not wishing to mention any names, a lot of the guys in the band had never even heard of David Bowie.
‘But they went along with it because of my enthusiasm. David came along to one of our dates, at Guildford, where he met the rest of the guys. And it made that tour very enjoyable, knowing there was a future after all. Bowie had said to me the first afternoon we met, “In the ’70s you are going to be enormous, and I am going to be enormous.” It was like he knew already. And it made me feel great, because I thought we were buggered.’
Buffin: ‘Ian had been in the NME saying we were looking for songs and Suffragette City had turned up. I don’t think it’s true that Bowie wrote All The Young Dudes for Mott: the song was there and he wasn’t happy with it, so he offered it to us. We couldn’t believe it. In the office at Regent Street he’s strumming it on his guitar and I’m thinking, “He wants to give us that? He must be crazy!” We broke our necks to say YES! You couldn’t fail to see it was a great song.’
Hunter: ‘David just came out the woodwork, I’d never met him. He wasn’t very big at the time, but Pete was saying he’s a great songwriter, he might have a hit for us. We knew that soon we would stop selling out, because without a record the audience would fall off. We also knew that the radio were dead against us. So not only did we need to have a record, we needed to have a classic. We met him in an office in Regent Street and he sat on the floor with an acoustic guitar and played Dudes. And I just thought, “What the fuck is he giving this away for?” We went down to Olympic Studios in Barnes. It was a high, because we knew we were singing a hit.’
Buffin: ‘He said that Drive-In Saturday would be our next single but then he changed his mind. But it was great that we now had to come up with something from within the group. That would have been going to the well just once too often.’ Allen: ‘In a way it was a disappointment that the initial hit didn’t come from the group. I remember going to get a pizza with David Bowie while we were doing the album at Trident. And his record Starman was on the jukebox while we were waiting, and he said “Yours will be on there soon.” I said, “Yeah, great, but for some reason I’m not as excited as I would have been if it had come from the band.” And he said, “I know what you mean.”’
[A few years later I had the opportunity to ask Bowie what he remembered of this period. ‘I think if they were doing OK at the time,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think they would have wanted to link up with me, because they were quite macho, one of the early laddish bands. But things weren’t good, and I literally wrote that within an hour or so of reading an article in one of the music rags that their break-up was imminent. I thought they were a fair little band, and I almost thought, This will be an interesting thing to do, let’s see if I can write this song and keep them together. It sounds terribly immodest now but you go through that when you’re young: How can I do everything? By Friday! So I wrote this thing and thought, There, that should sort them out. Maybe I got my then management to phone up their people: David Bowie’s written you this song. And it worked! I was flabbergasted. And then I wrote them Drive In Saturday, but by that time I think they thought Oh, we don’t need that wimpy glam-rocker any more. They wanted to do their own stuff. But Drive In Saturday was written as a follow-up for them. But they didn’t want it. I think they would have done it great.’ ]
Signing the band to his MainMan organisation, Tony DeFries negotiated a new deal for them at CBS. Buffin: ‘People had to get over the shock of Mott The Hoople, the losers, having a hit. There were wonderful letters in the music press: “So, Mott The Hoople have sold out to David Bowie and CBS. Well that’s me finished with them. Signed, Disgusted of Oxford.” People took those things so seriously. Then it was the sin of sins, to be successful.’
The single and the Bowie-produced album of All The Young Dudes would rocket Mott to the spangled firmament of glam rock. They were scarcely camp, however, and regarded the fey frolics of glitterpop with stolid Herefordshire scepticism. Only Pete Watts had a natural dandy streak: ‘My early taste had been for flared loons. I’d had a suede, long-fringed bag, a few grandad vests, very high bouffant hair. When I had a pair of platform boots made, the group couldn’t believe it: they said “You can’t be serious.” I proudly sported them to a gig in Oxford…’
Ralphs: ‘Pete was the image one, who was always getting us to wear wild clothes. I think he invented the stack boots later adopted by Slade and everyone. Some years ago my wife had a clear out and, unbeknownst to me, got rid of these platform boots in multicoloured leather, to some thrift shop. A couple of months later I saw this drunk in Reading, tottering down the street in them, with his raincoat on.’
Buffin: ‘I think people like Bolan and Slade picked up on what Watts was doing and took it to an extreme. Bolan only started doing his electric stuff after he saw us at the Roundhouse. But glam rock wasn’t us. The worst thing was we got these stage clothes made in ’74, after Ian had seen this ice show at Wembley. He found out who the designer was, and what we got was this very nice gay man who made us these awful clothes, at huge expense. He made me this thing with cascading coloured ribbons which looked like a parrot outfit. And he said “I’ve got all this make-up for you boys,” with a wad of mink, Max Factor make-up brushes, which cost a fortune. All for these hoary old bastards in Mott The Hoople. I took them home and my girlfriend thought it was Christmas.’
Famous at last, they toured America as stars. Being older, newly married, and rather given to introspection, Ian Hunter abstained from most temptations of the road. He spent his spare time penning a now-celebrated book, Diary Of A Rock’n’Roll Star: ‘I’d been married to my first wife for around eight years, then I’d been on my own, then I met Trudy and we did that tour. And tours are boring, they really are, if you’re not going to put your little pecker around. So I had all this time on my hands. I’ve always had a lousy memory, so I thought if I wrote a diary at least I’d remember this tour, then it just sort of developed. It’s historical now. It’ll always trickle through as new bands come up. It’s a text book, innit?’
Buffin: ‘Americans thought we were totally deranged drug addicts. But drink was the worst excess, drugs didn’t really come into it. They always thought there was some strange sexual connotation in ‘Overend’, too. But it’s just a family name, from the Lake District.’
Bowie’s career had also gone into overdrive, and he lost contact with Mott. Ian Hunter stepped into the breach by writing a string of Top 20 hits: Honaloochie Boogie, All The Way From Memphis (‘Well it’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll’), Roll Away The Stone and The Golden age Of Rock’n’Roll: ‘We knew we had to stand on our own two feet. The story was, “Oh yeah, Mott are all right if David’s with them, but the minute David’s not with them, they’re back to what they were before.” So that was really bothering me, because I had this feeling it was me that was going to have to write the hits.’
But if there’s one thing harder to survive than failure, then it’s success. With Mott’s belated breakthrough came the eruption of band tensions. Organist Verden Allen was the first to walk out: ‘I’d started writing and coming in with fresh ideas, and I don’t think it was going down too well. And I felt that I should do a bit of singing now. But we’d reached the point where it was important that everything was right, and I couldn’t see a way that I was going to progress. We went to the States to do a third tour and when we came back everyone was a bit tired. We were playing down in here in South Wales and I remember in the changing-room after, everyone was discussing what to do – by this time David had taken off, and Tony DeFries was too busy to do anything for us – so nobody knew which way to go.
‘So for some reason I said, “Best if I leave the band and you sort it out amongst yourselves.” I said it just like that. It’s ridiculous, after all that work. I should have just kept quiet.’
Mick Ralphs, who’d once been the band’s other main songwriter, was the next departure, leaving to form Bad Company with Paul Rodgers of Free: ‘It had become my little job: Ian would write the song and I had to come up with these little hooks, like on Honaloochie Boogie and Roll Away The Stone. He got into writing in a structured way, like Bowie. But it took away from the spirit of Mott. We became commercially successful but lost something in the transition. It’s a double-edged sword: you want success but when you’ve got it, you think, “This isn’t really us.” It became Ian’s point over my point. And that’s when I started looking around elsewhere. It’s hard to explain why I should leave, it’s totally illogical, but I’d just lost the feel for it. It’s like you can have a wonderful girlfriend, but one day you start looking around.’
Hunter: ‘I think they felt the Mott The Hoople they knew was disappearing and a new Mott The Hoople was emerging. It was me that started writing the hits, it was me that started getting my picture in the papers. But I don’t think I was acting any different. They were beginning to feel pushed out, but it was by circumstance. I wanted to keep the band as it was. When Ralphs left it was a major blow. To me it was the end of the band when Mick Ralphs left, without a doubt.’
Buffin: ‘It was logical to have a spokesman and Hunter was the obvious one. His hair was down to here now, he’d got used to wearing the shades, he’d stopped trying to take them off at last. The shades were what made him strong. Once you see Ian’s eyes he’s mortal, but with the shades on he’s to be feared. But he used to go on without them and we’d have terrible rows: “Ian, you’ve got to wear those shades. You look like Mick Abrahams [of Blodwyn Pig].” “No I don’t!” “Yes you do!”
Watts: ‘It all happened wrong for Mott at that time. Whereas groups like Fleetwood Mac, when somebody leaves they happen to get somebody brilliant in, it gets better and better. With us it didn’t. We could have gone on and got better, but we didn’t get the right people in.’
Ralphs was hurriedly replaced with ex-Spooky Tooth guitarist Luther Grosvenor. As if his real name weren’t wild enough, he was re-named Ariel Bender. Keyboards were played for a short time by Mick Bolton and Blue Weaver, and finally by the flamboyant Morgan Fisher. While Ariel Bender was liked by his colleagues, and proved popular on US live dates, his style never gelled with Mott’s, and he left to form Widowmaker. Meanwhile a new single, Foxy Foxy, had sold disappointingly, and the band discussed taking a break.
Buffin: ‘Mott The Hoople was a touring band and an albums band but suddenly we were expected to come out with a hit single every two months. There was a panic after Foxy Foxy wasn’t a hit. But I thought, “Why? We aren’t a singles band.” But then I thought, “If the worst comes to the worst, Foxy Foxy will be Mott The Hoople’s last single. It would be terrible if that bloody thing was the last single.” But Ian wasn’t interested, so I plotted with Morgan and Watts. I said “What if I tell Ian I’ve written this great song as Mott’s last single?” They said, “Have you got a great song?” I said “No, but we’ll all say it is. Then Ian will crack and we’ll get something good out of it.”
‘So we went in and did a day’s recording. Ian sat there thinking “What the fuck is happening?” He seemed perplexed. We played it back and were all enthusiastic, totally phoney. And Hunter disappears. We thought, “Ah! We’ve finally got him worried.” After half an hour he shambles in and says, “I’ve got a bit of something, do you want to have a listen?” So we banged it down and the ploy had worked!’
The song, Saturday Gigs, was a nostalgic elegy for Mott, in which Hunter hymned their career in epic terms. In his own mind, he says now, he’d already left the band: ‘We were all so tired.’ Before the final mix of Saturday Gigs, however, a new idea presented itself. Instead of folding the band for a while, why not recruit Mick Ronson as the new guitarist? Currently struggling to launch a solo career after his time with Bowie, Ronson agreed to join Mott The Hoople. But despite his fine guitar work on Saturday Gigs, and the band’s conviction they had made a classic, the single was another flop. Gloom deepened on a European tour. While Hunter and Ronson bonded quickly – Ronson had found the frontman that he lacked since leaving Bowie; Hunter had found the foil he’d been missing since Mick Ralphs – the old schoolfriends Buffin and Watts felt themselves excluded.
Watts: ‘When we knew Mick Ronson was going to join us, we all thought this was going to be amazing. On paper it was the best thing that could happen. But it didn’t happen. We never seemed to have a conversation with him. He didn’t seem to want to talk. I don’t know if he was shy or what. With Mott we were very down to earth, I ate beans on toast. But I’d go to Mick Ronson’s flat and there were 50 hangers-on with green hair and make-up, mixing Banana Daquiris in the kitchen. It was weird, and quite decadent, and I didn’t feel at ease at all.’
Buffin: ‘I never had any meaningful conversation with him. There are bizarre claims that we hated him, but the fact was we just couldn’t make contact. On tour with Ronno, we couldn’t afford to eat in the hotels we were staying at. Ronno and Ian were eating in the restaurants and Ronno had his MainMan card to pay with. The not eating together was a very divisive thing. It was hateful tour. It was like being the backing band, when the whole idea of Mott The Hoople was that it was the five people.’
Hunter: ‘Mick still had DeFries for a manager, who we no longer spoke to. We’d do gigs, there’d be an RCA limo for Mick. I didn’t care, to be honest, because I liked Mick and I was willing to put up with all the crap. But it got to the point where me and Mick would be sitting over at one end of the room and the others would be sitting up the other end. It was a great shame. The rest of the band were just looking at it as a day-to-day pain in the ass, while I was looking at it from an overview. I found it frustrating, I was supposed to write the songs, I was supposed to keep these people together, but it was fucking impossible. I was a nervous wreck.’
In late ’74, Hunter cracked. Buffin: ‘The next thing we heard was that Ian had collapsed with nervous exhaustion. On 12 December he rang up and said, “I’ve left.” I said, “Don’t we need to talk about this?” He said, “No, nothing to talk about, I’ve left.” It came as a tiny shock.’ Watts: ‘It wasn’t totally unexpected because things hadn’t been going right in Europe. But I thought, “Oh my God, I don’t believe it.” Things were fraught in Europe but I thought we’d iron out the difficulties. But I never got to talk to Ian because I don’t think he phoned me. It was a horrible feeling, because you just think, “That’s it, it’s over. What do I do now?”’
The ballad of Mott The Hoople had ended.
Pete Overend Watts retreated to his two-bedroomed flat in Ealing, where Mott’s road crew came to return his equipment. With Buffin and Morgan Fisher, he found a new singer and guitarist and they battled on as Mott – no Hoople – releasing two albums for CBS. In 1976, Mott regrouped as British Lions, fronted by John Fiddler from Medicine Head, and survived another three years. Buffin and Watts then became a production team, whose credits include Is Vic There? by Department S. Under the name Dale Griffin, Buffin went on to produce several hundred sessions for Radio 1, including Nirvana and The Smiths. His latest project has been to oversee All The Young Dudes: The Anthology, a 3CD box set of the band’s career.
Pete Watts now runs his own department store in Hereford, specialising in music, antiques and clothing. After leaving Mott in 1973, Verden Allen formed a band called The Cheeks, with Hereford musicians Martin Chambers and James Honeyman Scott. (The latter pair would soon join up with another local boy, Pete Farndon, to complete Chrissie Hynde’s band The Pretenders.) Allen then returned to South Wales where he still plays regularly: a recent album, Long Time No See, is being reissued. Morgan Fisher now lives in Japan. Mick Ralphs, meanwhile, remains with Bad Company.
Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson began collaborating on each other’s albums: Once Bitten Twice Shy, from Hunter’s solo debut, became a sizeable hit in 1975. Mick Ronson (whose story is told in MOJO 47) died of cancer in 1993. Hunter now lives in Connecticut, and his solo career continues: ‘I think Mott hit their time. It’s like, if you can’t play that well, and you play with a great amount of desperation, you’re a punk band. So we were a punk band, years before punk came in. You just do what you do, and if it happens to click then you’re away. But we were lucky in meeting David. He showed us a whole other thing.’
Campbell Devine is the author of a new biography of Mott (Mott, All The Young Dudes: Red Oak Press/Cherry Red Books), and helped compile the new box set: ‘They were not the greatest musicians in the world, but it all coalesced into something very special. They were great innovators, from the way that Pete dressed, and the custom guitars, to the way that Ian’s songs always carried a message: his foresight pre-dated punk and in Crash Street Kidds he posted warning of social unrest six years before the riots in Brixton and Toxteth. And Marionette, the mini-opera he did was another major precursor, because 18 months later Queen did the same concept in Bohemian Rhapsody. They never got the credit.
‘The other thing that nobody knows is that they were talking about an interpretive album of cover versions in early ’71, way before David Bowie did Pin-Ups or Bryan Ferry did These Foolish Things. It’s just difficult to believe that a group with that foresight didn’t reap greater rewards.’
Buffin: ‘There was so much adrenalin flowing in the early days, but not ambition. Rightly or wrongly we never looked for money. And by God we never got it. I don’t know how much money we made but we certainly didn’t get a fair share of it. As long as you had enough for guitar strings or jeans, that was all that mattered…’