Graded on a Curve:
Mott the Hoople,
All the Young Dudes

Celebrating Ian Hunter on his 82nd birthday.Ed.

Mott the fookin’ ‘Oople—you gotta love ‘em. They were the first band I ever sang along with in front of the mirror, imaginary microphone in hand, checking out my rock star moves. The song was “All the Young Dudes,” of course, and the album bearing the same title belonged to my oldest brother, who was the closest thing my tiny hometown had to an actual glam rocker; he glammed up a couple of pairs of stacked-heel shoes with sky-blue paint and glitter, and actually walked around in them, which took balls in a place where shoes like that practically screamed fag and Grand Funk Railroad was considered avant-garde.

The Mott the Hoople story is legendary; they recorded four albums that didn’t do very well, mainly because they were a diffuse mix of sludgy hard rock, irksome folk, Ian Hunter’s Dylanesque musings, and covers of everyone from Little Richard to Melanie to yes, you heard me correctly, Sonny Bono. That said, LP number 3, 1971’s Brain Capers, was a real breakthrough, containing as it did such weird and wonderful numbers as “The Moon Upstairs,” “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” and that bizarre little ditty “The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception,” not to mention a stunning cover of Dion DiMucci’s harrowing but ultimately redemptive heroin confessional, “Your Own Backyard.”

Still, the band had decided to call it quits following a disaster of a gig in an abandoned gas holder in Switzerland—you know you’re in trouble when you’re reduced to playing an abandoned gas holder anywhere–which Hunter recounts in detail in the excellent “Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26 March 1972)” off 1973’s Mott. When who should come knocking to beg them to reconsider but Ziggy Stardust himself, who as an incentive offered them first dibs on “Suffragette City,” which they turned down (!). So the Zigster sat down and wrote “All the Young Dudes” specifically for them. Said lead singer Ian Hunter, “I’d been waiting to hear something like that all my life.” The band regrouped, this time adorned in the outrageous trappings of glam.

Mott was anything but a bona fide glam band; they were North Country lads who looked like bricklayers, not androgynous androids or squawking pink monkey birds. But they saw the glam bandwagon (to find it all you had to do was follow the trail of glitter) headed towards the Toppermost of the Poppermost and hopped on. But then so did everybody else, including Lou Reed, Elton John, Iggy Pop, Suzi Quatro, The Sweet, and that infamous pop pervert, Gary Glitter, to name just a few. (Do you remember Mud? Wizzard? Chicory Tip? Neither do I.)

Mott may have been about as glam as Lynyrd Skynyrd, but that’s beside the point: they still recorded the ultimate glam anthem–a song that perfectly captured the youthful and rebellious spirit of glitterkids everywhere. And while it may have been written by an anorexic spaceman with bad teeth wearing Kansai Yamamoto named Ziggy Stardust (who can be heard singing along on the chorus), it took the definitely-from-planet-Earth journeymen of Mott the Hoople to nail it in a magnificent rendition that still sounds as fresh and relevant as the day it was recorded.

All the Young Dudes, which was produced by Bowie and released in 1972, is an odd construct—Hunter wrote only five of the LP’s nine tracks, while the other four songs included two covers and two songs written and sung by other members of the band (a mistake—the other Hoops couldn’t write, or sing for that matter, worth a damn).

The album opens with a tremendous cover of The Velvet Underground’s immortal “Sweet Jane.” The Mott version is less barbed than the Velvets version, and smoother somehow; Hunter was always a backwards-looking fellow (no avant, he preferred Little Richard to Brian Eno, and unlike Bowie would never have bragged about “parading our sounds of tomorrow dressed in our clothes of derision”) and his vocals were less frosty (whose weren’t?) than Lou Reed’s Nu Yawk squawk. The result is a sweeter, more lithesome “Sweet Jane” that is still most definitely a rock song; I love the unique and subtle tone of Ralphs’ (who was usually more of a brutalist) guitar, which in a lovely coda takes the song out on a lush, almost romantic note.

“Mama’s Little Jewel” is a funky uptempo number that opens with a guitar riff, some honky tonk piano, and the faintest hint of saxophone by one David Bowie, only to stop abruptly while Hunter says, “Alright we’ll stop it, now we’ll bring it in,” to which presumably Bowie responds, “No, don’t stop—carry on.” At which point the song restarts, and Hunter sings, inventing a new word in the process, “Momma’s little jewel/Just out of school/Fresh from the nuns that made you/Don’t know why but I’m going to try/To re-in-celibate you.” (Take that, Steve Miller!)

The chorus is great, there’s a wonderful little organ run, and Mick Ralphs plays a ferocious guitar solo, then Hunter sings “Laugh in the evening, when I/Catch you with my watering gun now/Wearing my Scorpio faces, when I/Come in the midnight sun,” which I have no idea what he’s talking about but it sounds great. The song finally goes out on Ralph’s repetitive guitar riff, while Hunter natters on about his Scorpio faces–I met him very briefly once, and wish now I’d asked him what the hell Scorpio faces means instead of just staring at him with my mouth agape–and Bowie blows on his sax, which trills and squeals and then abruptly stops in what sounds like (I remember the noise well–“Fucker just ate Robin Trower”) an 8-track tape being devoured by its player.

How does one describe the greatness of “All the Young Dudes”? It’s like a three-and-a-half minute orgasm, and having had three-and-a-half minute orgasms in real life (I practice Guntric Sex, a Magickal set of esoteric practices so obscure you can’t even Google them) I can tell you with authority the “All the Young Dudes” orgasm is better. It’s powered by a triumphant and ringing opening guitar riff, the organ that runs majestically throughout the song, the strumming of what sounds like 20 acoustic guitars, and a heap of monstrous power chords, but most of all by the song’s wonderful melody and Bowie’s “boogaloo dudes” lyrics.

Accompanied by that wonderful organ Hunter sings, “Well Billy rapped all night about his suicide/How he kick it in the head when he was twenty-five/Speed jive don’t want to stay alive/When you’re twenty-five.” That’s precisely how I felt in my youth; I really didn’t expect to see 21, much less 25, so I could definitely relate. Then there’s the great chorus: “All the Young Dudes/Carry the news/Boogaloo dudes/Carry the news,” which I can’t hear without shouting “I’m a dude, dad!” The same goes for the second verse, part of which goes, “And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag… too many snags.” I understood even then that revolution was futile, indeed that everything was futile, and the only way out was by going all the way out, through drugs and music and books and living like there was no tomorrow, which hadn’t Ziggy Stardust himself told us we only had five years?

Finally there’s the song’s long coda, during which backup singers repeat the chorus while Hunter, playing make believe he’s at a live gig, tosses off lines like, “Hey you with there… with the glasses—I want you” and triumphantly, “I’ve wanted to do this for years!” followed by a great cackle. It’s my favorite song ever, and always will be, because I hear it now with the same joy and glee that I first heard it oh so long ago, and Lord knows there aren’t many songs with that staying power or that ability to evoke sheer, unadulterated joy.

The very funky ode to S&M “Sucker” follows, with its great drums, cowbell, maracas, recurrent sax riff, cool hand claps, and very Bowiesque backup singers emitting spooky “Ooohs.” Hunter is your “friendly neighborhood sadist/Wants to take you for a ride/Come on tell me ‘bout the nights that I make you cry.” Then comes the chorus: “My baby calls me when she wants a tale,” accompanied by Bowie (I assume) on sax and more of those ghostly “ooohs,” which are followed by Hunter’s sneering “She’s a sucker.” There follows some acoustic guitar, a couple more verses and choruses, and both acoustic and electric guitars playing in tandem, after which Ralphs plays a long and very snaky electric guitar solo while Hunter repeats the chorus, and the backup singers keep doing their thing. Then the sax comes back in, playing a recurrent riff, and “Sucker” slowly fades out.

Next up is the great “Jerkin’ Crocus,” another funky rocker and representative slice of seventies’ sexism (me no support) about a woman (the “Jerkin’ Crocus” of the title) who wants a “lick of your ice cream cone.” (Ahem.) Ralph plays another great opening riff followed by a few bass licks by Pete Overend Watts, then produces some gigantic power chords. “Jerkin’ Crocus” is, as the great Hall and the not so great Oates once sang, a maneater: sings Hunter, “Jerkin’ crocus didn’t kill me but she sure came near/She’s a nads puller/I know what she want/A judo hold on a black man’s balls.” I love that “nads puller” (it always makes me laugh) every bit as much as the funky organ that comes in toward the end as the song speeds up, along with some great backing vocals and another really glamtastic solo by Ralphs. Then the song ends in a roll of drums by Dale “Buffin” Griffin, and boy isn’t chauvinism fun?

“One of the Boys” is one of my faves; it’s another anthem for the kids (or at least the males) along the lines of “All the Young Dudes,” except on steroids. It opens with the dialing of an old-school telephone, then some acoustic guitars come in followed by the drums and Hunter’s “Hey hey hey/Alright.” Then the song takes off in a mighty crescendo of power chords, and Hunter proceeds to sing about how he grew his hair just to scare the teacher and ain’t little Johnny a creature in a voice that lets you know he’s not going to take any grown-ups’ shit.

I love the way Hunter sings, “I’m only human/So I ain’t got much choice/And I know it/Yes I know it” (truer words were never spoken) as much as I love the chorus: “One of the boys/I’m just one of the boys /I don’t say much/But I make a big noise/And it’s growin’/Yeah, it’s growin’.” The final third of the song, which most definitely makes a big noise, features Ralphs playing a great guitar solo while Hunter sings “Just just just,” then the phone rings again, the song stops then restarts in the remote distance–just like the Raspberries’ wonderful “Overnite Sensation”!–then slowly returns to full volume (you should have this one cranked up) while Ralphs plays some cool Stones riffs and the organ goes mad as Hunter shouts “Come on!” and “Hit it hit it hit it hit it hit hit it alright!” and “I know I’m a prince!” then lets out a great scream and one parting “alright!” as the song slowly fades out, for real this time.

Unfortunately it’s followed by organist Verden Allen’s “Soft Ground.” A sluggish, organ-heavy, and proggish slog through Procol Harum territory, the only good thing to be said about “Soft Ground” is that it’s blessedly short. I don’t know why the band let Allen sing it, I don’t know why the band choose to include it, I don’t even know why it’s allowed to exist. The organ is as ponderous as a mortally wounded Moschops, Allen awkwardly speaks the lyrics rather than singing them, and nothing, not Ralph’s brief but cool echoing guitar solo or the very “Man Who Sold the World” backing vocals, can save it. Soft ground my ass; this song is quicksand, and not in the sense that it sucks you in, but in that it just plain sucks, period.

It’s followed, disastrously, by Mick Ralphs’ dull and dumb “Ready for Love/Afterlights,” which sounds like a bad (are there any other kind?) Bad Company song because, well, it is one; Ralphs took it with him when he abandoned Mott the Hoople to join the hard rock lunkheads in Bad Co., and it shows up on their 1974 debut LP, sans organ and the “Afterlights” coda, which is ironically the only good thing about the song, namely Ralphs playing an excellent slow boat to China of a guitar solo to the accompaniment of some fine bass work by Overend Watts.

Album closer “Sea Diver” is a wonderful ballad featuring Hunter on the piano accompanied by brass and strings arranged by future Hoople and solo Ian Hunter guitarist Mick Ronson, whose axe it was David Bowie liked to pretend to fellate on stage during his Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars years. A slow and lovely song, Hunter sings the first verse sans strings and horns, and his “Oh lord I wish I could escape this iron veil/Ride on my son/Ride on my son/Ride until you fail” is tremendously moving.

On the second verse the strings and horns come sweeping in as Hunter sings, “Something comes and something goes/And something dies before it grows/And I’m like a sea diver/Who’s lost in space,” and while that sea diver lost in space (??) line is every bit as dumb as anything Bernie Taupin ever wrote it doesn’t much matter, what with the strings and horns (not to mention Griffin’s drums) creating a mighty tsunami of pure beauty that washes away all need for logic and decent wordsmithing, not to mention several thousand feckless beachgoers and a few luxury seaside resorts.

After All the Young Dudes, Mott the Hoople put out another two albums including the great Mott, but personnel came and went (including Hunter, who joined up with Ronson) until Dale Buffin Griffin was the only original Hoople left. At which point Mott the Hoople became just plain Mott and limped pathetically on, putting out abysmal and embarrassing albums like Drive On and Shouting and Pointing. But if Mott the Hoople ended not with a bang but with a bunch of sad-sack ringers, who cares? They bequeathed us “All the Young Dudes,” and that’s enough for a thousand bands. It was THE anthem of my youth and countless other kids’ youths, and if at the age of 13 I already knew I was a cracked actor, “All the Young Dudes” gave me not only something to sing along with but something to hold onto, like a life-preserver.

It was songs like “All the Young Dudes” and “One of the Boys” (along with Ziggy Stardust and Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story”) that kept me afloat through an adolescence I was stone certain would drown me. Thanks to Mott I was one of the boys, a dude dad, and if I didn’t say much I made a big noise, and even as I was doing something really stupid, like drunkenly driving my old man’s truck into a ditch, I could be heard to shout, “I’ve wanted to do this for years!”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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