Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Mott The Hoople - Mental Train (The Island Years 1969-1971)

There's a man on a bridge called suicide....


In December 1974, for my 16th birthday, my mother bought me “Mott The Hoople Live’ (I had been into them since the “All The Young Dudes” album in 1972). In December 2018, for my 60th birthday, my wife bought me this excellent box set. Of course, I had all the albums anyway, but the additional material is of interest to me, and the new remasterings.

This is Mott The Hoople, Guy Stevens-produced, pre-Bowie influence, at their most shambolic, half brilliant half chaotic best, with Ian Hunter’s Dylanesque obsession merging with Mick Ralphs’ heavy rock stylings and Verden Allen’s prog-rock organ backing. There is some great stuff on here amidst the somewhat half-baked nature of some of it.

The sound is fantastic for a start-off. The previous masterings were good, but these are truly great, big, full and bassy, just as I like it. The “demo” studio material, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be that great, is phenomenally impressive, sonically. The extra material is extremely interesting, but I have to admit that it is not absolutely essential listening, particularly not the extended versions of things like You Really Got Me, a bit like the twelve minute version of Helter Skelter that is on the latest White Album box set. They are interesting the once, but, for me, they are not something that I will revisit too often.

Anyway, here is what you get:-

CD 1 “Mott The Hoople”
  1. You Really Got Me
  2. At The Crossroads
  3. Laugh At Me
  4. Backsliding Fearlessly
  5. Rock And Roll Queen
  6. Rabbit Foot And Toby Time
  7. Half Moon Bay
  8. Wrath And Wroll
  9. If Your Heart Lay With The Rebel
  10. Rock And Roll (Single Edit)
  11. Road To Birmingham (Single Version)
  12. Road To Birmingham (Guy Stevens Mix)
  13. You Really Got Me (Full Take)
  14. You Really Got Me (Guy Stevens Vocal Mix)
  15. Rock And Roll Queen (Guy Stevens Mono Mix)
  16. Rock And Roll Queen (Kitchen Sink Instrumental)
  17. Little Christine
Mott The Hoople’s debut album, in 1969, three years before their Bowie-inspired renaissance, was a competent, but somewhat patchy affair. A great cover, by the way, but utterly irrelevant. 

Because it is Mott The Hoople, however, who we all went on to know and love so well, it somehow seems as if the album is better than it actually is. 

Producer Guy Stevens wanted the band to sound, apparently, "like Bob Dylan singing with The Rolling Stones". He sort of achieved that, examples being the Dylanesque At Crossroads (although it was a Doug Sahm cover, not a Hunter original) and the riffy, Stonesy Rock 'n' Roll Queen. Indeed, Mott were never far from being labelled as "Dylan influenced", because singer/composer Ian Hunter definitely was, and it came across in many of is songs. They also liked a riff or two, so a lot of Stones comparisons would subsequently be made. 
On to the album. Nicely remastered, it kicks off with a storming semi-instrumental cover of The KinksYou Really Got Me, that almost sounds like a studio jam, then the afore-mentioned Dylanesque At The Crossroads  (as I said, Dylan was one of Ian Hunter’s perennial influences, in delivery as well as songwriting). Hunter's vocal is a little down in the mix, and it sounds a tiny bit under-confident as he had only just joined the group. The bass line and organ are impressive as well. It ends with some jamming, clunky style piano and drums as Hunter's vocals get more animated. These slightly clumsy piano fade-outs became typical of many Mott The Hoople tracks in the period.

A cover of Sonny Bono’s Laugh At Me is not bad at all, with an improvised Sympathy For The Devil-style ending similar to the previous track, neither is the most obvious single, the upbeat, riffy Rock 'n' Roll Queen. The old seventies-style vaguely sexist lyrics are present in Mick Ralphs' "listen woman..." address on this one.

Hunter's first songwriting contribution is the shamelessly Dylanesque Backsliding Fearlessly from the old "side one" and it is a good one, but you can't help but get the impression that this album saw the band go into the studio, play, and say "ok that'll do" in a "just happy to be there", rough and ready sort of fashion. I don't think they really thought this album through. It has the feeling of a studio jam pervading the whole thing.

Rabbit Foot And Toby Time is a vibrant instrumental jam that precedes the sprawling Half Moon Bay, which is a bit introspective, despite a huge, grandiose, promising intro as the quality dips a little on the old “side two”. The track is far too long and doesn't real get anywhere, being far too ponderous. The album ends with more instrumental jamming in Wrath And Wroll.

Also included here in the bonus tracks is another Dylan-inspired number, Road To Birmingham. It should have been on the original album, to be honest, as should Little Christine. Certainly in place of the two short instrumentals. I just feel there was more that could have been put on here, and it was something of a missed opportunity. Three more albums over the next three years would do a little to dispel that notion, but all the albums were ever so slightly flawed. Therein lay their appeal, however.

CD2 “Mad Shadows”
  1. Thunderbuck Ram
  2. No Wheels To Ride
  3. You Are One Of Us
  4. Walkin’ With A Mountain
  5. I Can Feel
  6. Threads of Iron
  7. When My Mind’s Gone
  8. Thunderbuck Ram (BBC Session)
  9. Thunderbuck Ram (Organ Solo Version)
  10. No Wheels To Ride (Demo)
  11. Moonbus (Baby’s Got A Down On Me)
  12. The Hunchback Fish (Vocal Rehearsal)
  13. You Are one of Us (Take 9)
  14. Going Home
  15. Keep A-Knockin’ (Take 2)
The second Mott The Hoople album, coming the year after their "good in parts" debut from the previous year. It is similar to that album in that it rocks in parts and there are some hints as to the future in some of Ian Hunters slower numbers, but, as with all the first four Mott The Hoople albums, it carries the impression of being somewhat half-baked. While Thin Lizzy and Nazareth had two "finding their feet" albums, Mott had four of them.

The album kicks off with Mick Ralphs' heavyish rocker, Thunderbuck Ram which has some industrial, chunky guitar and organ parts but is let down by Mick's reedy voice. Oh for his later band-mate in Bad Company, Paul Rodgers on vocals. Ian Hunter takes the lead (he didn't always do so on these early albums) for the simply wonderful No Wheels To Ride , which sees Mott and Hunter at their "ballad with quiet Dylanesque verses turns into melodramatic dollop of rock majesty" absolute best. This is the first true Hunter/Mott classic. There is point about two minutes in when the first "chorus" part kicks in that shivers go down my spine and I realise why I have loved Mott The Hoople and Ian Hunter since 1972. Just magnificent. It rides above the muffled production. With a clearer sound it could have been absolutely outstanding. The quality continues on the short but rousing You Are One of Us, which finishes all too soon. Hunter is showing what a great vocalist he was to become. Shame the track ends to soon.

Walkin' With A Mountain has the rock keeping on rocking with Hunter again in fine form and a Jumpin' Jack Flash fade out. This is early Mott at their best, why they developed a cult following, and why, no doubt, David Bowie always had a soft spot for them. Some critics have not enjoyed this album, preferring the next one, the limp and feeble Wildlife. God knows why. This knocks it into next week.

I Can Feel is a slower pace, lengthy piano-led Hunter rock ballad of the sort he would go on to specialise in over the years. A great guitar solo on it from Ralphs too. Again, so typical of the best of early Mott.

This album is far more of a Hunter album than a Ralphs one, in comparison to Wildlife, which had four somewhat insipid Ralphs tracks and three lesser-standard Hunter ones. Of the album's seven tracks, four are from Hunter, three from Ralphs, but it just seems to have Hunter's stamp all over it.
Ralphs' Threads Of Iron has its country-ish moments, particularly the "you are what you are" vocal part, but there is still a heavy rock backing to it and Hunter is on vocals and piano and drives the track, making it his own, to be honest. Some great bass from Pete "Overend" Watts too. Some reviewers have described this three-track "side two" of the original album as being a "dense fog". I disagree, it contains some of Mott's hardest, purest rocking. If they were all off their heads on Jack Daniels and at the mercy of madcap producer Guy Stevens, who cares? The result is a frantic, furious kick in the head of beautiful, thumping early seventies heavy rock. Turn it up loud and enjoy the madness! It has the feel of a live recording and is all the better for it.

Hunter brings the proceedings to a reflective end with the sombre, thoughtful and moving When My Mind's Gone, which is somewhat appropriate for this wild ride. His voice, which is so poor on Wildlife is at its best here. Loud, clear, throaty but with a sadness. This is a nearly always forgotten Hunter classic. He has probably even forgotten it himself.  When he sings, against just his own piano backing "When I take my secrets, I will take them with me to my grave..." it is just one of those great Hunter moments, then Verden Allen's organ joins in, then Watts' bass for the fade out - early Mott heaven.

For some reason, the country-ish rock of It Would Be A Pleasure, included as a bonus track with the previous release of Mad Shadows is not included here.

CD 3 “Wildlife”
  1. Whiskey Women
  2. Angel Of Eighth Avenue
  3. Wrong Side Of The River
  4. Waterlow
  5. Lay Down
  6. It Must Be Love
  7. Original Mixed Up Kid
  8. Home Is Where I Want To Be
  9. Keep A-Knockin’ (Live At Fairfield Hall, Croydon)
  10. Midnight Lady (Instrumental Backing Track)*
  11. The Debt
  12. Downtown
  13. Brain Haulage
  14. Growing Man Blues (Take 10)
  15. Long Red (Demo)
  16. The Ballad Of Billy Joe
  17. Lay Down (Take 9)
*not the “Single Version” with vocals as advertised.

As pointed out in a review of Nazareth’s 1972 album,  Exercises, many bands felt the need to go “folky” and “country rock” in style around 1970-72. The somewhat directionless Mott The Hoople, circa 1972, did exactly the same with thus comparatively low key effort. Even the cover saw the band posing, slightly unconvincingly, in the middle of a wood.

The opener, Whiskey Women is a mainly acoustic led piece of mid-pace rock, with some pleasant upbeat parts and a hook but it is all a bit undercooked. Mick Ralphs is on vocal and his voice was never that great, to be fair. However, at the time it was the equal, if not superior to that of Ian Hunter.  Hunter’s Dylan admiration rears its head once more in the somewhat subdued, organ and bass driven Angel Of Eight Avenue. As with Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and Slade’s Noddy Holder, Ian Hunter’s voice was nowhere near what it became only a year later. All four of them seemed to transform not only their voices but their confidence and personae. The sound on here is superb, it has to be said, just sumptuous.

Wrong Side Of The River is so Neil Young it may as well be Neil Young. Mick Ralphs is on vocals again here, he even sings in Young’s Canadian whine - “riverrrr”.

Waterlow is a mournful dirge of a ballad, (although many love it) with Hunter’s voice again not convincing. He raises it up a bit for the upbeat, gospelly Lay Down, but this is another track that just seems not really complete or credible. It is very, very easily forgotten.

It Must Be Love is a steel guitar Mick Ralphs song with him on vocals again and going all “Nashville Skyline meets CSNY somewhere in the Colorado countryside” on us. No need, Mick. Start rocking! Hunter’s Original Mixed-Up Kid has potential, lyrically. Musically it uses a Dylan-1965-66 style organ and some more whining steel guitar. Hunter’s voice is at its strongest on the album here and it is not a bad track. Probably the album’s best. The “woh-woh” vocal fade out would be repeated by Hunter again on 1974’s Trudi’s Song.

Mick Ralph’s The Band-like country-ish rocker, Home Is Where I Want To Be is probably his strongest track on the album too, all very melodic and not unpleasant at all, with some nice bass bits, but this is Mott The Hoople. For me, this sort of thing saw the band going a dead end street at a pace. They could, and would, do so much better with later releases and Hunter with his solo material, Ralphs with Bad Company.

The final track on the album is incongruous, given what has come before - it is a rocking live version of Keep A-Knockin' which reminds us that, yes, Mott The Hoople could rock. Time to start proving it! As Ian Hunter says in half way through the track - "this is the best kind of music that ever was". Thanks for reminding us, Ian, now keep on rocking yourself in future.

Another bonus track from the previous release, It’ll Be Me, is not included.

CD 4 “Brain Capers”
  1. The Wheel Of The Quivering Meat Conception
  2. Death May Be Your Santa Claus
  3. Your Own Backyard
  4. Darkness, Darkness
  5. The Journey
  6. Sweet Angeline
  7. Second Love
  8. The Moon Upstairs
  9. Mental Train (The Moon Upstairs)
  10. How Long (Death May Be Your Santa Claus)
  11. Darkness, Darness (Edit)
  12. Your Own Backyard (Complete Take)
  13. Where Do They All Come From (Backing Track)
  14. One Of The Boys (Take 2)
  15. Movin’ On
  16. Black Scorpio (Momma’s Little Jewel) (Remix)
The last of the four “pre-Bowie” Mott The Hoople albums and it is probably the best of the four.

Death May Be Your Santa Claus is a re-write of a track from 1970s Mad Shadows with an almost funky guitar intro but some seriously pounding, bassy heavy rock kicks in, some madcap, swirling organ and a red hot Ian Hunter vocal. A great start after the insipid nature of the previous album, the half-baked Wildlife. This is one of the best rockers from the early albums. Your Own Back Yard is a fetching, tuneful, Dylanesque rock ballad from Hunter. It is a cover version of a Dion song, but sounds like a Hunter song.  Shades of Alice from 1974’s The Hoople album in places. His voice seems to have rediscovered its mojo since Wildlife, where it was uncharacteristically weak. Verden Allen’s organ was also integral to Mott’s sound in this period , no more so than on this underrated track. The band’s sound was a sort of cranked up, heavy rock version of Bob Dylan’s 65-66 “wild mercury sound” at times. Darkness Darkness, another cover version,  highlighted Mick Ralph’s weaker voice, but it is still a refreshingly hard rocker in the chorus, which was good to hear after his lightweight, country-ish contributions to Wildlife. He seemed now to blend his love of a lighter, more melodic song with some harder rocking, which was good to hear. It made here for an impressive number. A bit Free-like in places.

The big, dramatic, “slow build up to rock majesty” Hunter number to close the old “side one” was the mighty nine minutes of The Journey. Nobody really does this sort of moving rock ballad better than Ian Hunter. Nobody. It is a monster of a song. Nice one Ian. Just wonderful from beginning to end. Hunter was back now, make no mistake. In places, this was also Mott at their heaviest.

“Side two” started with another great upbeat rocker in the Status Quo meets The Velvet Underground of Sweet Angeline (although I prefer the live version on 1974’s live album). Hunter was starting to burn with the fire that would make Mott, briefly, one of the best rock bands around over the next two years. This is one of their best early rockers.

Second Love (an unusual thing - a Verden Allen song) is a piano and organ led mid-pace slow rock number with another powerful chorus part and some almost Mexican-sounding brass used too, unusually. Something of an underrated track. Listening to this album again, it is definitely the best of the first four. Great full, punchy remastered sound on the latest edition too. The Moon Upstairs is a bluesy, upbeat heavyish rocker with hints of Restless Youth from Ian Hunter’s 1976 All American Alien Boy album. A frenetic, loud, thumping Mad Shadows-style ending too.

The Wheel Of The Quivering Meat Conception continues the fade-out from The Journey and is a waste, to be honest. Bizarrely, on this box set, it begins the album.

CD 5 “The Ballads Of Mott The Hoople”
  1. Like A Rolling Stone
  2. No Wheels To Ride (First House Take)
  3. Angel Of Eight Avenue
  4. The Journey
  5. Blue Broken Tears
  6. Black Hills
  7. Can You Sing The Song That I Sing?
  8. Until I’m Gone
  9. The Original Mixed-Up Kid (BBC session)
  10. Ill Wind Blowing
  11. I’m A River
  12. Ride on The Sun (Sea Diver)
These are alternate demo versions of some of Mott’s ballads. The extended Hunter workouts, the fifteen minute Can You Sing The Song That I Sing? and I'm A River are somewhat indulgent and not quite the slices of Hunter magnificence one may have hoped them to be. The latter particularly has an unfinished feel to it. The versions of Angel Of Eighth Avenue and The Journey are excellent, mind, as too is Ill Wind Blowing.

CD 6 - “Mott Live”
  1. Rock And Roll Queen (Live In Croydon)
  2. Ohio (Live In Croydon)
  3. No Wheels To Ride (Live In Croydon)
  4. Thunderbuch Ram (Live In Croydon)
  5. Keep A-Knockin’ (Live In Croydon)
  6. You Really Got Me (Live In Croydon)
  7. The Moon Upsairs (BBC Radio 1 In Concert)
  8. Whiskey Women (BBC Radio 1 In Concert)
  9. Your Own Backyard (BBC Radio 1 In Concert)
  10. Darness, Darkness (BBC Radio 1 In Concert)
  11. The Journey (BBC Radio 1 In Concert)
  12. Death May Be Your Santa Claus (BBC Radio 1 In Concert)
Excellent sound quality for live recordings frm the early seventies. Darkness Darkness from the Radio 1 In Concert series is a particularly fine piece of seventies rock indulgence. A fine end to a fine box set from a glorious band that will never be forgotten, rough edges and all.