Monday, 3 September 2018

Ian Hunter






 

"It seems to take me about five years to get a record together, which is not a clever idea" - Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter (1975)


Once Bitten Twice Shy/Who Do You Love/Lounge Lizard/Boy/3000 Miles From Here/The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nothin' But the Truth/It Ain't Easy When You Fall/Shades Off/I Get So Excited         

In early 1975, my favourite band, Mott The Hoople, had split the previous October, leaving us with the valedictory anthem of Saturday Gigs as a goodbye. Fans like myself waited eagerly for Ian Hunter's anticipated debut solo album, with Mick Ronson featured heavily on it too. I was not disappointed. If we couldn't have Mott we would have to make do with Hunter and, because of his presence and ability as a songwriter it was not so much having to make do as possibly trading up. 
                                                
The opening rocker, the hit single Once Bitten Twice Shy kicked things off well, while Who Do You Love sounded a bit soully, to be honest, but no matter (I love it now). Hunter was possibly following old mate David Bowie's lead from the time and letting soul influences into his work. 

Lounge Lizard was a full on Mott-style rocker that had originally dated from the sessions for The Hoople album and then came the monumental cornerstone of the album that is Boy. Eight minutes of Hunter heaven. Was it about Bowie? Course it was. A drawn out rock ballad saw Hunter worried about the state of his old mentor (not without good reason, it would seem). I finally saw him perform this epic song live a few years ago, after years of waiting. 

  

3000 Miles From Here is a short heartbreaking and most entrancing ballad then we get the insistent tour de force of The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nothin' But the Truth with a searing Ronson guitar solo. Despite that, though, it is probably a minute too long and is, when all is said and done a bit of an unremarkable song, if I'm honest.

It Ain't Easy When You Fall/Shades Off is another classic Hunter rock ballad/anthem however, with an archetypal Hunter spoken bit at the end (the Shades Off poem) and the original album ends with the frantic, riff-driven rock of I Get So Excited. Great stuff. I was left very satisfied back then in spite of few comparatively ordinary-ish tracks

The extras give you Colwater High and One Fine Day, both rockers which should have been included on the original album, I have to say. Both are reasonably short, so they should have fitted on with no problems.

This album still sounds good today, although in other ways it is very much of its time. Maybe it is for that reason that I don't seem to play it much these days. 



All American Alien Boy (1976)


Letter From Britannia To The Union Jack/All American Alien Boy/Irene Wilde/Restless Youth/Rape/You Nearly Did Me In/Apathy 83/God (Take 1)             

This is my favourite Ian Hunter album. Released in the sweltering summer of 1976, Hunter summed up his experiences of America with eight copper-bottomed Hunter classics. Employing some top notch musicians Hunter gathers together his influences and comes up with his finest work. Leaving behind the mix of glam and rock that had populated his debut solo offering, it was not like anything he had done before (or indeed subsequently), though, being very "American" with influences from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan being very prominent. The sound is a "big production" one dominated by saxophone and vibrant female backing vocals, while the musicians involved make for a pretty impressive list - Aynsley Dunbar on drums, Chris Stanton on piano, Jaco Pastorius on bass, David Sanborn on saxophone are the notable ones. 
                                             
The beguiling, understated and slightly funky Letter From Britannia To The Union Jack is a sad, soulful condemnation of his home country from his viewpoint across the Atlantic while the rocking, jazzy All American Alien Boy is a seven minute tale of his arrival and experiences in the USA. It is packed full of great lyrics, standing proud as one of Hunter's finest compositions. 

Irene Wilde is just gorgeous. A love letter from Hunter to a girl he was in love with back home in Shrewsbury and Barker Street bus station. Apparently, according to Hunter, she was tracked down after the song became well-known and she was distinctly underwhelmed and had "let herself go" somewhat in her appearance. What a disappointment.

   

Restless Youth is a searing one-paced rocker about the mob. It is possibly the weakest of the eight tracks but it still rocks, though, with considerable muscle and the weakest track on this album would possibly a stronger one on other albums. The dramatic Rape is a tragic shameful tale seen from the points of view of both the victim AND the perpetrator. Clever. Hunter was extremely brave to tackle this sensitive subject and he, perhaps surprisingly, manages to carry it off.

Hunter's old touring mates from Queen are on backing vocals for the unsurprisingly Queen-esque and overblown pomp of You Nearly Did Me In. The wordy Apathy 83 is an almost seventies-era Traffic meets Bob Dylan tour de force. The album concludes with the blatantly Dylanesque God (Take One) that sees Hunter railing at the almighty about their two lives and the conversations they have had. It is full of great lines, beginning with "God said to me 'I'm gonna kick your ass'...".

This remains, for me, one of the 1970s' best albums. I don't believe Hunter ever bettered this. I am probably in the minority with that opinion, as it happens, because many fans and critics alike prefer other albums, finding it too experimental or 'hit and miss' or something like that. Not me, I find it pretty much perfect from beginning to end.






Overnight Angels (1977)


Golden Opportunity/Shallow Crystals/Overnight Angels/Broadway/Justice Of The Peace/Miss Silver Dime/Wild 'n' Free/The Ballad Of Little Star/To Love A Woman          

Firstly, let's talk about the mastering. The sound on this, Ian Hunter's third solo album, released at the height of punk in 1977, has always been awful. It was then and it is now. Now remastering appears to have taken place. Hunter's other albums sound fine but Overnight Angels sounds tinny, muffled and decidedly lo-fi. Shame. It is not just the sound but it does play a huge part in the negative vibes the album gives off, along with a general feeling of an overwrought but tired piece of work on which everyone is trying hard to make it gel but failing. For that reason, I find it difficult to write too much about it. 
                   
On to the music. Golden Opportunity has a great extended piano and guitar intro and is a storming rocker which gets the album off to a good start while the Oedipal Shallow Crystals is a classic Hunter rock ballad. The lyrics get a bit overwhelmed by the production, however. 

 

Overnight Angels rocks and rocks BIG and is probably the best sounding cut on the album. Unfortunately, it is followed by Broadway, a dramatic Hunter "build-up" ballad ruined by some more dreadful production, the lyrics being overshadowed even more than they had been on Shallow Crystals. It was another crying shame because this was, potentially, a really good song. I would love to hear it re-recorded. Justice Of The Peace is a tongue-in-cheek rocker and Miss Silver Dime is the big production power track on the album. While both of them are ok, they certainly don't rise too much higher than that in my estimation. 

The rest of the album peters out somewhat. No, it really peters out. Hunter tries to show he has his finger on the contemporary music pulse with the supposedly punky Wild And Free. All he does, however, is sound like a (comparatively) ageing rocker trying to play "fast" and spit out lyrics. Hunter didn't need to do this. Nothing like it appeared on his next album, which saw a rise in quality both musically and production-wise. The Ballad Of Little Star has potential but again it doesn't quite get there and To Love A Woman is an eminently forgettable piece of country-ish AOR laid-back rock with vague Bob Dylan hints.





You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic (1979)


Just Another Night/Wild East/Cleveland Rocks/Ships/When The Daylight Comes/Life After Death/Standin' In My Light/Bastard/The Outsider     

By 1979, the punks who had railed at existing rock bands had calmed down and revealed their pre-existing appreciation for artists like Ian Hunter. This was certainly true of Mick Jones of The Clash, (pictured at the bottom with under and Mick Ronson) who stated his admiration for this album and duly worked with Hunter on his next one. Also notable is that pianist Roy Bittan, drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent of Bruce Springsteen's E St. Band all appear backing up Hunter on here. Just when Hunter's star was seeming to fade against the brightness of punk/new wave he seemed to gain a new-found credibility with these endorsements and he was becoming something of a "respected elder statesman". Hunter's old mate Mick Ronson was back too, for the first time Hunter's debut album. The result is a polished, appealing and mature album that notably had a far superior sound to its lamentably poor predecessor (sound wise), Overnight Angels.
                                    
Hunter’s obsession with all things American - living there and musically-influenced by there - led to US-style mid-paced rockers like Just Another Night and the soul rock of Wild East. These were both fine, vibrant numbers to begin the album with, and I particularly like the latter with its horns and slightly Stax-ish vibe. The former is more guitar-driven and traditionally rock, almost Rolling Stones-esque in its approach.

When The Daylight Comes had a similar, almost laid back AOR style and was a bit of an understated gem. The rocking, catchy Cleveland Rocks was a bit more upbeat and punky and Ships was one of those classic Hunter ballads, this time about his relationship with his father. It stands out as the one really great ballad Hunter always seemed to come up with on every album.


Life After Death is a quirky, punchy rocker and Standin' In My Light was a slow burner in similar style to the rest of the album. The chunky and muscular shuffle of Bastard sees Hunter in vengeful mode against someone (unknown, probably in the music industry) against an insistent funky guitar (played, incidentally, by John Cale) and drum backing. The orchestrated piano and strings big ballad The Outsider ends the album with Hunter in full “Englishman in the USA” character that he used in All American Alien Boy, the title track from his excellent 1976 outing. It is a little bit over-produced for me, however, and would have been better without the huge, bombastic chorus parts - remaining as a more plaintive ballad would have helped to get its point across better. 

Of its time, undoubtedly, but enjoyable enough every now and again. I loved it back in 1979, as it provided a nice link between my new-found new wave enthusiasm and my old rock/glam past. 




Short Back 'n' Sides (1981)


Central Park 'n' West/Lisa Likes Rock 'n' Roll/I Need Your Love/Old Records Never Die/Noises/Rain/Gun Control/Theatre Of The Absurd/Leave Me Alone/Keep On Burning     
      
Having bought this album excitedly upon day of release, back in 1981, I have always had a mixed opinion of it. Some of it is superb, some decidedly ordinary. It is supposed to display Hunter's new-found punkiness and, to an extent, it does, being more edgy, sharp and spiky in places than the previous AOR feel of You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic. In other ways it never quite gets there, for me, although I can't quite put my finger on exactly why.

Ian Hunter had teamed up with Mick Jones and Topper Headon from The Clash, as well as Mick Ronson on this album. By now ex-punks like Jones and Headon now freely admitted their love for Hunter. Four years earlier they would have been condemning him as being a "has been". I was never convinced by that, anyway, Jones always loved Mott the Hoople and he would never have dared to insult Hunter. The album starts with one of my favourite Hunter solo songs of all time - the vibrant, rocking Central Park And West, which has a killer opening riff and some great Hunter vocals. I Need Your Love is a saxophone and guitar-driven, Springsteen-esque singalong number. Lisa Likes Rock 'n' Roll was written for Mick Ronson's then young daughter. It is a fine song for a four-year old, but it doesn't really cut it as a copper-bottomed Hunter rocker. It is ok, I suppose, with its Bo Diddley rhythms, and there are some mildly amusing lyrics.

Nobody does an evocative, heart-rending rock ballad like Ian Hunter and he gives us a classic here in Old Records Never Die, written in the wake of John Lennon's death. It does not directly mention him, but when you know the subject matter, it makes a moving song even more poignant. It has a killer sliding guitar riff which makes the song, as well as some fetching violin from Tymon Dogg (who featured on The Clash's Sandinsta!). Noises is a strange, experimental track and in many ways it is pretty pointless. It has a funky, rocking beat when it eventually gets going, but it goes on for over five minutes not really getting anywhere, with Hunter griping about noises, often in spoken passages, a bit like Mick Jagger on 1983's Too Much Blood. There is some brief interesting, Mike Garson-ish piano, but not enough to really rescue it.



Rain actually follows the same sort of pattern - an extended number with Hunter's vocals semi-spoken over a chugging beat. This one has a slightly more appealing instrumental backing, however, and, due to that, is far more attractive as a track. "Take your washing off the line...it's gonna rain" beseeches Hunter. It is no work of genius, but has an odd appeal. Gun Control is more of the solidly rocking Hunter we have come to expect. A throbbing bass line powers a cynical song about the "gun lobby" movement in the USA. It could be interpreted as Hunter supporting the movement, but in fact he is singing wryly from their point of view.

Theatre Of The Absurd is a favourite of mine. A shuffling cod-dub reggae number with some great dubby guitar lines and some "boing boinging" synth drum sounds back a great Hunter vocal. "There I was stuck in London, part of my history, it was just like being in school again, but I felt something moving in me..". Captivating lines from Hunter and listen carefully you can hear Mick Jones's backing vocals. That was the album's last great point. Leave Me Alone is a bit of a strange song, with Hunter putting on an odd croony deep voice over an upbeat, vaguely disco-style backing. It doesn't sound like Ian Hunter at all and the chorus is awful. Keep On Burning starts with a promising organ and guitar slow burn intro and a typical dignified, soulful Hunter vocal and you think "this is going to be a great one", with Hunter in Dylanesque/Steve Harley mode, and, to be fair, is is pretty good, almost anthemic in places. I am sort of reassessing it, it now sounds better than I remember it. It is spoilt by its frenetic, pace-changing, piano-boogie ending, which is completely needless and incongruous. Overall, this was a patchy album, and Hunter would not release any really good material for another fifteen years or so.


Rant (2001)


Still Love Rock 'n' Roll/Wash Us Away/Death Of A Nation/Morons/Purgatory/American Spy/Dead Man Walking (Eastenders)/Good Samaritan/Soap and Water/Rip Off/Knees Of My Heart/No-One                   
                 

"England's such a ripoffIan Hunter's by now endearing croaky voice growls out, from his tax exile house in the USA. Forgive my cynicism. I can understand his dissatisfaction, but not from someone who hasn't lived there for ages. I agree with his sentiments on the song, though, from my position and it certainly rocks with a fire old Ian hasn't lit under himself for years. Yes, Ripoff is undoubtedly a corker of a track. This is also Hunter's most overtly political album, he is indeed having a "rant", although, as often has been the case with Ian Hunter (and I have enjoyed his music since 1972) I am never quite sure where he is coming from politically. He has, for me, always been a bit of a mix of contradictions. His love/hate relationships with both the USA and the UK, for a start. Either way, nevertheless, the albums rocks, big time. His best since 1979, by far.

The brooding, menacingly pounding beat of Good Samaritan is another highly convincing number on this vibrant album. Hunter's voice rides confidently over the solid backing. Purgatory has an infectious, funky-ish guitar opening of a track that sounds like The Rolling Stones' late eighties/early nineties material. American Sky is full of Tom Petty-style riffs and a classic industrial-strength Hunter vocal. Dead Man Walkin' has a Streets Of Philadelphia-style drum beat and one of those great stately Hunter piano backings and a sad yearning vocal. "All the world's a stage, it's just that I ain't on it anymore...." sings Hunter, with breathtaking honesty. "What am I supposed to do now...sink to the bottom of obscurity..." he asks, on what is a very moving song. It is almost as if Hunter has given up on himself at this point.

Thankfully, Wash Us Away sees him lifted up again, although in a very nostalgic mode, thinking back to his childhood in the 1940s. As with many of Hunter's songs, though, as much as the song sounds inspiring, I am always left by wondering exactly what he was on about. It sounds meaningful so therefore it must be. Joe Strummer's solo material has the same effect on me. Morons is a bit of a low point on the album, despite its Mott The Hoople-esque, promising piano introduction and convincing first verse, the chorus is pretty awful. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, it has a Dickensian vigour about it in places. Any doubts I had about Morons are blown away by the wonderful Knees Of My Heart, a pulsating classic Hunter rocker in praise of his long-suffering wife Trudi, still with him after so many years. "I bought you a house with a burglar alarm system.." is a great, typically wry Hunter line.

 

No One is an archetypal Hunter mid-pace rock ballad, full of those characteristic rises and falls and dramatic big chorus. When the guitar solo comes in you almost feel it is Hunter's old mate Mick RonsonStill Love Rock And Roll does what you would imagine it would - it blows away all the cobwebs and rocks with a huge thump. He even ends with a Golden Age Of Rock And Roll "that's all"Death Of A Nation perfectly exemplifies the dichotomy I find in Hunter's lyrics. Exactly what is he bemoaning as he imagines talking with The QueenPrince Charles and Winston Churchill? He is speaking of a nation dying - what, in 2000, under a Labour government? Things had been much worse, Ian. Despite my misgivings over the lyrics, the song has one hell of an atmosphere to it. It is one of my favourites of his. Actually the song is far more relevant in 2018. "Look what they've done, it's the death of a nation...". Indeed.

Soap 'n' Water is a slow burning number with Ian ranting at someone or other about something or other. Not quite sure who or what, but it sounds good in that majestic Hunter fashion, as the whole album has.






When I'm President (2012)


Comfortable/Fatally Flawed/When I'm President/What For/Black Tears/Saint/The Way You Look Tonight/Wild Bunch/Ta Shunka Witco/I Don't Know What You Want/Life                    
This is my favourite of the later-era Ian Hunter albums, some of which I have to admit, I have found a  little bit patchy. This one has a much stronger full compliment of songs. He was 73 when he made this album, which is an achievement in itself (and there has been another one since). Hunter has always been a good songwriter, never quite the Dylan he wanted to be, but one capable of magical moments. He comes up with a few on here too.
                                        
Comfortable kicks the album off with some rousing piano-led rock. Hunter's voice has aged, obviously, but it still has an appealing growl. He can still ride above the pounding barroom beat of a track like this. It has a Golden Age Of Rock 'n' Roll"that's all" ending too. Fatally Flawed has Hunter at his most Dylanesque in the verses, and it has a powerful heavy rock chorus. It actually is a bit too crashing, to be honest, and detracts from the subtlety of the verses. As with many Hunter songs over the years, I feel, sometimes they just don't quite get there. They get so damn close and God knows I love the guy, but I have to say it, unfortunately.


One song that doesn't fit into that category, however, is the wonderful When I'm President, a mid-paced pot boiler of a rocker with some evocative verses sung over an insistent guitar. When I hear songs like this, I forgive Ian Hunter anything. It is why I have stuck with him since I was thirteen years old in 1972 and heard All The Young Dudes for the first time. "Abraham, Theodore - you're gonna see my ugly mug on Mount Rushmore..." sings Hunter. "How do you wanna buck the system - welcome to the pit and the pendulum....". That is one of Hunter's finest ever lines.


What For is a typical Hunter rocker - riffy and taking no prisoners. "I'll give you what for..." he barks, evoking an old fifties/sixties saying. Black Tears is a potentially impressive ballad a bit overwhelmed by its chorus, not unlike the way Fatally Flawed was also, well, a bit "flawed". Saint is a good one, acoustic and electric guitars merging well on this slightly country-ish rocker. Just The Way You Look Tonight is up there with the title track in that it gives us one of those magic Hunter moments - "Julie Christie jaw - full of them pearly whites...". Another of those classic lines he keeps coming up with. It has a great hook to it and an anthemic feel all over it.

Wild Bunch is a Stonesy, riffy rocker that would have made a good Mott The Hoople track. There is excellent rollicking piano from Hunter here, too. Ta Shunka Witco sees Hunter revisit a subject he has dealt before - that of the plight of the Native American. Telling the story of Crazy Horse, it builds up with some pounding tribal drums and is underpinned by some U2-esque guitar. It is a great song, actually. Very evocative. I Don't Know What You Want is a tub-thumping abrasive rocker and Life is just an emotional closer to the album. "Laugh because it's only life...". Indeed, Ian. Thanks for another album that moved me in places.


Fingers Crossed (2016)



That's When The Trouble Starts/Dandy/Ghosts/Fingers Crossed/White House/Bow Street Runners/Morpheus/Stranded In Reality/You Can't Live In The Past/Long Time                    

Ian Hunter
 released this album  at 77 years of age, remarkable in itself. That this great man is releasing material at this age is an inspirational thing. I bought my first piece of Ian Hunter's music at fourteen years old, in 1972, and I have stuck with him ever since. His music has been with me for actually most of my life, certainly all my adult life.
                               
Viewing his music objectively, it has always been a bit hit and miss in places. Genius and magical, moving moments mixed with some run of the mill stuff. That has always been the way with Ian and I. However, both this and his previous album, When I'm President are the best of his later-era albums. This one is the best of the two. There actually isn't a totally duff track on the album. That's When The Trouble Starts kicks the album off with a Stonesy-style riff, grinding rhythm and some gruff, cynical Hunter vocals. The voice is ageing and clearly now has a few limitations, but what the heck, he can still ride with the power of this solid rock chugger. Fair play to him.


Dandy is a difficult concept of a song. It was written after the death of David Bowie by Hunter about his old seventies cohort. It could run into maudlin territory, and in places it does, but when you hear that seventies glammy riff kick in and Hunter sings "you turned us into heroes...." and "there ain't no life on Mars.... and then we took the last bus home...." he just nails what was impossible to nail. Then we took the last bus home. That line just sums it all up. 1972-73 in one line. To hear Ian Hunter singing this all these years later make me quite emotional. "I guess I owe you one..." he sings on the fade out. I guess so.



Ghosts is an excellent, bassy, thumping rocker, possibly one of the best cuts on the album. Hunter ruminate on the rock stars lost to drugs. "Standing in a room full of ghosts...". A song that is actually as sad as Dandy in many ways. Fingers Crossed is another good one, a typical Hunter slow burning emotional rock ballad. White House is a great rocker as too is Bow Street Runners an unusual song about the early London police force. Morpheus is an evocative piano-driven slow number of the type that Hunter always does so well. Listening to the guitar solo on this, it is just so seventies, it is so good that Hunter has not moved with the times at all. He is a creature of the seventies. Good for him. So am I.

Stranded In Reality begins with some very U2-ish guitar and a rhythmic bass line. It has a great backing but the song itself is just a bit so-so. You Can't Live In The Past Ian tells us on the next track, played over a late seventies Police-style white reggae groove. The thing I love about Ian Hunter albums is that they allow me to live totally in the past. "You can never go back.." sings Hunter, as I sit here getting extremely nostalgic just listening to him. His voice, the way he delivers the songs, it just takes me straight back to the mid-seventies. Long Time is a lively, folky romp of a singalong number to end on. Again, it is drenched in nostalgia. Thanks for the great trip, Ian.

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