Steve Wilson. On music.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mott the Hoople - Live at Hammersmith Apollo 2009 (4Worlds Media)

If you blog (and isn’t that a savory verb?), you’re supposed to keep content fresh. You’re supposed to make new entries frequently. Well, it’s been a good two weeks since my last post. I shan’t bore you with tales of the intrusion of so-called real life on my activity. I assure you, though, it’s a factor.

Honestly, I haven’t been that inspired by recent releases. I’ve found plenty to enjoy, but nothing that suggested spending the requisite three or four hours to listen carefully, take a few notes, draft a review, and finally shape into a finished product. Now, I’m not going to name names; after all, some of these heretofore-desultory platters may prove stimulating enough to provoke the above process. Who knows?

Still, I’m reminded of the rhetorical laydown offered by David Bowie in the song “Young Americans:” ‘ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?’

I’ll tell you what did make me cry. And I preface this by admitting that this dates me and risks making me seem like an enormous sap. What the fuck – I’m strong, really.

I wept while listening to Live at Hammersmith Apollo 2009. It’s a live recording taken from Mott the Hoople’s five-night reunion stand in London in 2009. So, why was I blubbering? I shall endeavor to explain.

Mott came along at a critical time in my youth. Mott was pivotal for me because as a late high school/early college wreck I was a sponge. Arlo Guthrie, King Crimson, Alice Cooper, the Velvet Underground – bring it on. Woefully, I even shelled out hardly earned dough on Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes records. And I’m here to say that if you’re not this open when you’re eighteen you’re either preternaturally mature or a parochial, narrow minded sad sack before your time. Nope, youth is about listening to everything and growing up is about making choices, affirming affections, establishing rejections gradually. What I’m saying is that if you don’t have “skeletons” in your closet you weren’t living, Roscoe.

But Mott’s no skeleton. My affection for their ragged, thinking man’s yob-rock eventually helped determine my predominate preoccupation and esteem for smart, tough rock ‘n’ roll music. The wounded, but hard as nails alienation of “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” (‘how long, how long, before you realize that I’m strange’) came to represent my ‘what can a poor boy do?’ life much more than a bunch of horseshit about “Tales from Topographic Oceans.” It was proletarian. But it was poetic too in a Dylanesque way that plain Vanilla hard rock wasn’t. It suited me.

But I skip ahead four albums. I became intrigued, sufficiently so to shell out my $3.99 for their debut album, by a statement made by producer Guy Stevens (he produced the band’s first four albums and the Clash’s London Calling) in an article about the band in 1969. He claimed to have put the band together in an attempt to form a band that fused Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Damn good salesman, that Guy. I was sixteen. I thought that those two artists were the shit. So, a band that sounded like the Stones fronted by Dylan? That had to be great. That self-titled debut sold me. And Mott was the kind of band you bonded with and preached to people about. It didn’t hurt that initial public and critical reception to the band ranged from hostility to indifference. Heck, that only made me more partisan.

These crude, loud upstarts actually sounded more like a cross between the Kinks gone mental and a deranged, metallic (the) Band than the Stones – but what the hell? Where the Stones swung and were, well, fleet of foot, Mott was a thundering, raging beast of a band. The could play fast, but not swift. Shoot, Deep Purple shared their sonic authority in many ways, but their narrow cock-rock version of rock was no match for Mott in terms of character. Only the Stooges and the MC5 on this side of the pond rivaled Mott's sheer force.

Ian Hunter sang most of the songs, including storming covers of Sonny Bono’s “Laugh at Me” and Doug Sahm’s “At the Crossroads.” But Mick Ralphs, between his lead vocal turns and wrenching guitar work was as much at the head of this raging beast as anyone.

Hunter was a superior lyricist and a more commanding vocal presence, however. As front man he became the face (actually, the shades and hair) of the band. Ian Hunter Patterson was the last to join the group, installed by producer Stevens after successfully auditioning for the band, called Silence until Stevens took it upon himself to rename them, but Hunter was the missing piece of the puzzle that turned a decent, directionless band into a juggernaut.

Releasing four albums in just over two years culminating with the brutal, raging Brain Capers in 1971, Mott built a devout cult audience but barely dented the charts. Burnt and bummed they were ready to call it quits. Then intervened David Bowie. Bowie put the focus squarely on Ian Hunter. For the band’s fifth album All the Young Dudes Bowie’s production delivered a more polished version of the band.. They still rocked, hard. But Brain Capers rage was caged in order to turn Mott into a more commercially viable proposition. The Bowie-penned title track and a glorious version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” were critical to making a good album great. The self-produced, sixth album Mott built on Bowie’s foundation with even better songs and more assured performances. Ralphs compositions took a back seat to Hunter’s and the freshly departed organist Verden Allen’s songs were no longer baggage. Put simply, making Hunter the center of the band made the band better. Mott remains one of the great albums of the Seventies.

But this came with a price. Ralphs left after the Mott album, forming Bad Company with Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke from the band Free. Rodgers is an expressive singer, but without Andy Fraser’s songs Bad Company were a dull thump of a rock band. And Ralphers would never play anything as perfect as his solos on “All the Way from Memphis” or the gorgeous fills on Mott’s version of “Sweet Jane.” He sure secured a financial future, though, with Bad Company’s meat and potatoes arena-rock take on soul music.

If ever a band was about Bob Dylan’s pressing question (“how does it feel?”) it was Mott. Their songs explored a world of feelings and experiences, but central to their work was an interior dialogue between Ian Hunter, emerging rock star and Ian Hunter, bloke in the crowd, which by extension was a conversation with his audience. When the band dressed for success after absorbing Bowie’s glam influences no one ever confused them for androgynous. They may not have looked as ridiculous as Slade, but their embrace of fashionable gender bending was brazenly tongue in cheek – always a trifle self-conscious, delivered with a wink, as if to say – yeah, we’re talented and we belong up here, but it could be you. And that sensibility did more to anticipate punk in an era of rock star idolization than anything I can think of.

Mott were the rock stars down the pub. A journalist pal once referred to my band the Mahoots, during the glum pallor of grunge and bad Sonic Youth imitators, as “the black t-shirt band for the rest of us.” I guess that’s kind of how their audience felt about Mott in the midst of a rock scene that turned Robert Plant into someone Byronic. I'm not hating on Zep either, merely commenting on the tenor of the times.

It was the kind of identification that led a scruffy kid to jabber endlessly about Mott to one indulgent girlfriend or another. May dear Barb forgive me? I’m pretty sure I prattled without end to her about Mott and the meaning of life. From the perspective of a grown ass man it’s all rather obsessive and perplexing, except for the fact that I just do it all a bit more discreetly these days … truth to tell. Old obsessions die hard, or not at all.

Recalling all this and awash in the sound of a reunited Mott the Hoople I got choked up. There it is. My life flashing before me a bit, I suppose.

As I noted earlier, Verden Allen left Mott after the recording of the All the Young Dudes album. But it was Allen who instigated the band’s 2009 reunion. My guess is that he missed the ride, both the one he made with the band and the one he got off of, perhaps mistakenly. But once Allen put out feelers to the other gents it didn’t take all that long for the idea of a reunion to grow. Once all of the original five members were on board the band booked three nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo Theatre. The shows sold out and two more were added. With a capacity in excess of 5,000 … you can do the math. 25,000 people ponied up to see a band that hadn’t played together in thirty-seven years. Considering their excellence, influence and enduring popularity perhaps Jann Wenner and the potentates who operate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should take note.

Live at HMV Hammersmith Apollo 2009 is a two-disc set recorded on the debut night of Mott’s five-night stand. It’s a glorious mess.

If they never play together again, it’s a fitting conclusion to their story. Mott was a band never concerned with or capable of duplicating the sound of their records. An element of suspense accompanied any Mott concert (and I saw two). All these years on, nothing much has changed.  Guitarist Mick Ralphs more or less blows the elegant lines that introduce set opener “Hymn for the Dudes.” It makes no difference. As the performance unfolds the band gains its footing. Ian Hunter sells the lyric – a testimonial to aesthetic reverence and humility, with the fervor of the relatively young man who wrote it. ‘Tell the superstars their hair is turning grey’ sings Hunter, the line resonating more than ever as he reminds himself and the assembled not to ‘forget just who you are; you’re not the Nazz, just a buzz, some kind of temporary.’Ralphs follows with a blistering solo that shows he’s shaken his cobwebs quickly. Ralphs also wails on the vehement “The Moon Upstairs,” a scorched earth testimony that sounds as powerful as ever (‘we’re not bleeding you, we’re feeding you, but you’re too fucking slow’). He plays a beautiful solo on “Sweet Angeline,” like “Moon” a track from the band’s still brutally beautiful Brain Capers album. On the album producer Guy Stevens went to great lengths to aggravate an already weary bunch of road dogs into performances that displayed a freakish combination of fury and discipline. It worked. And the mania that informed those performances isn’t absent these geriatric renditions of the songs.

Apollo’s mix is fresh from the soundboard, lacking much in the way of post-production, and favors organist Allen, sometimes at the expense of Ralphs’ guitar. You’d think that a band that could attract 25,000 people to reunion shows might have gotten a more dignified reception from some record label. Apollo is released on the 4Worlds Media label with minimal packaging and a track listing that gets the actual song order on disc one wrong. Something about this bit of snafu fits the band’s simultaneously triumphant and sad sack saga.

Ian Hunter’s voice was always fifty-percent leather, and at seventy years young it’s distressed leather. But rasp and all he hits most of the notes. Beyond that, Hunter’s emotional range, embracing everything from abiding sincerity to withering sarcasm is still marvelous. His investment in this material is untouched by time. “I Wish I Was Your Mother” from Mott was a Freudian marvel, remarkable for its balance of thorny opposition in the verse and unalloyed longing in the chorus. It’s like a pre-history of punk, anticipating a certain ‘Rotten’ persona by a few years. Hunter sounded beyond his years when he sang “The Journey” in 1971, in 2011 he sounds like he’s lived the song. The song’s epic qualities are only reinforced by organist Allen’s Garth Hudson-isms. Hunter’s commanding stage presence vindicates Stevens’ selection and Bowie’s positioning him front and center.

The twenty-song set concludes with “All the Way from Memphis,” the band by now in high gear. Bassist Overend Watts pushes the beat, reminding that he was one of the most propulsive, inventive and musical bass players of the Mott era.

When the band comes back for their encores you hear cries from the audience of “Buffin, Buffin,” as the crowd spots the band’s drummer emerging from backstage. Hunter announces “Ladies and gentlemen, Terrence Dale Griffin … Buffin.” For a fan like me it’s an OMG moment. Afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Buffin (a fabled BBC session producer and nurturer of talent in his second career) was unable to execute an entire evening’s performance. The Pretenders’ Martin Chambers ably filled his throne. But Buffin joins Chambers for the encore, bashing away like he could have played an entire show. It’s a touching moment. Some bands might ditch the disabled dude and move on. Not Mott.

The Spector-esque “Roll Away the Stone” and inevitable “All The Young Dudes” follow. The encore segment concludes with “Saturday Gigs.” The song was originally conceived and recorded as a swan song, a farewell to the band’s fans. It was a perfect closer for these shows – a final bit of history from a band never disinclined toward autobiography. Mick Ralphs delivers one last beauty of a solo – to think that he squandered his talent and made a ton of money with Bad Company after leaving Mott … ah, sheesh. The song’s coda is a fade over a sung “Goodbye,” which the audience sings along with full voice, taking over for the band as they leave the stage at the 4:45 mark. By 5:15 the crowd is clapping in time, as the clapping gradually morphs into full-blown applause. It’s a magical progression and one the band might have anticipated, even designed. But for it to work it required the audience’s participation. Mott’s audience didn’t let them down because in their hearts they knew the band never let them down.

Reverberating: Priceless

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