Sunday, 4 October 2020

Mott The Hoople - No Wheels To Ride (1969-1971)

Mott The Hoople (1969)


You Really Got Me/At The Crossroads/Laugh At Me/Backsliding Fearlessly/Rock 'n' Roll Queen/Rabbit Foot And Toby Time/Half Moon Bay/Wrath And Wroll  

"I want the band to sound like Bob Dylan singing The Rolling Stones" - Guy Stevens 

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 The 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 his 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 Kinks’ You 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 style clunky piano and drums as Hunter's vocals get more animated. This sightly clumsy piano sound used to end songs is typical of Mott The Hoople in this 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, the civil rights-inspired 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. 

The group's live recording of Neil Young's protest song, Ohio, is great too. 

There is also a Jimi Hendrix-influenced instrumental in Find Your Way that is probably as good, if not better, (certainly than Wrath And Wroll), than the two on the album. I just feel there was more that could have been put on this album, and that 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.

Mad Shadows (1970)


Thunderbuck Ram/No Wheels To Ride/You Are One Of Us/Walkin' With A Mountain/I Can Feel/Threads Of Iron/When My Mind's Gone/It Would Be A Pleasure/How Long? (Death May Be Your Santa Claus)  

"If Mott the Hoople's debut album cheerfully careered all over the place, their second, 'Mad Shadows', has one direction – downward into dense murk" - Stephen Thomas Erlewine - AllMusic

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 Hunter's 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 comparatively limp and feeble Wildlife. God knows why. This knocks it into next week. I have to admit that it has a certain shambolic, slightly unfinished feel to it, however.

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.

** The bonus tracks are Ralphs' hint towards his country rock material on Wildlife in It Would Be A Pleasure and Hunter's Stonesy rocker How Long? (Death May Be Your Santa Claus). Both would have been ok on the album.


Wildlife (1971)


Whiskey Women/Angel Of Eighth Avenue/Wrong Side Of The River/Waterlow/Lay Down/It Must Be Love/Original Mixed Up Kid/Home Is Where I Want To Be/Keep A-Knockin' 

"Mick writes some great songs - they were written about Bromyard, where he comes from " - Ian Hunter 
      
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 this somewhat low key effort. Even the cover saw the band posing, slightly unconvincingly, in the middle of a wood. Nevertheless, despite several misgivings, listening to it sequentially, I can really hear progress here. It is the band's most cohesive and dare I say mature album to date, by far. It is far less chaotic than Mad Shadows, for example.
                                
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 Eighth Avenue. After several listens, though, despite the track's slightly hissy sound, it becomes clear that we have a beautiful song here. It has to be said also, though, as with Nazareth’s Dan McCaffertyThin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and Slade’s Noddy Holder, that 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.

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”. It is a good, underrated song. 

The muffled strains of Waterlow give us a mournful dirge of a ballad, with Hunter’s voice again not convincing. It is a bit of a grower, all the same. 

He raises it up a bit for the upbeat, gospelly Lay Down, a Melanie Safka song, but this is another track that just seems not really complete or particularly credible even what Mott The Hoople presumably wanted to be. 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 Ralphs' 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 and for me, this sort of thing saw the band going down 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. These songs are not bad ones, and the album is an enjoyable listen, but as I said, there is not much Mott The Hoople about it.

The final track on the album is totally incongruous, given what has come before - it is a rocking live version of Keep A-Knocking 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.

** PS - the bonus track, It'll Be Me, is far more of the sort of riffy, guitar-driven rocking material that should also have been included on the album. It's a good one. As indeed is the other extra - Long Red, an organ and clunky guitar chugger.




Brain Capers (1971)


Death May Be Your Santa Claus/Your Own Back Yard/Darkness Darkness/The Journey/Sweet Angeline/Second Love/The Moon Upstairs/The Wheel Of The Quivering Meat Conception/Midnight Lady/The Debt  

"The last bit of bad luck, or good luck, we ever had was an album called 'Brain Capers'" - Ian Hunter        
The last of the four “pre-Bowie” Mott The Hoople albums and it is probably the best of the four. It rocks much harder than Wildlife, and is less madcap and rambling than Mad Shadows. It shows some of the potential that would finally blossom over the next couple of years as Mott went into their glam-rock phase and merged showy pop with their by now more formed Dylan and heavy rock traits. It had been a long, hard road for three or more years, but MTH were getting there at last, it would seem. Just a bit more fine tuning needed.
                                               
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 comparatively half-baked Wildlife. This is one of the best rockers from the early albums, really good.

Your Own Back Yard is a fetching, tuneful, Dylanesque rock ballad from Hunter. It is a cover version of a Dion song, but sounds very much like a Hunter song, with shades of Alice from 1974’s The Hoople album in places, particularly on the swirling organ breaks. 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 1965-66 “wild mercury sound” at times.

Darkness Darkness, another cover version, (from The Youngbloods) highlighted Mick Ralphs' 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. It does veer from sheer brilliance to shambolic mayhem at times, though. Hunter's knack for a moving, melancholic line is found on the "bridge called suicide" bit. The melodramatic ballad tradition started on No Wheels To Ride and I Can Feel is continued on this behemoth of a number.

“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, unique track. Listening to this album again, it is definitely the best of the first four. There is a great full, punchy remastered sound on the latest edition too.

The Moon Upstairs is a bluesy, upbeat kick-ass heavyish rocker with hints of Restless Youth from Ian Hunter’s 1976 All American Alien Boy album, with 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. 

** The bonus track, the single Midnight Lady (albeit a live recording here), should have been used in its place, and also Hunter’s The Debt, another Dylan-influenced number. 

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