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Mental Train: All Aboard For Mott The Hoople’s Island Years

Named after a classic slice of Mott The Hoople psychodrama, the ‘Mental Train’ collection captures one of rock’s finest on their way to greatness in 1969-71.

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Photo: Brian Cooke

One of the greatest and most important British rock groups of the (late) 60s and 70s, Midlands mavericks and urban guerrillas Mott The Hoople were as prolific as they were influential during their time with Island Records. The four albums they released during this period have been collected on the 6CD box set Mental Train: The Island Years 1969-1971, which, along with remastered audio, comes lovingly packaged with a lavish booklet including many rare photos and memorabilia, plus fine sleevenotes from super-fan Kris Needs.

Counting among their fans Queen (who supported Mott in 1973 and ’74 in both England and the States), Def Leppard, Motley Crüe, R.E.M., KISS and The Clash, Mott The Hoople left an indelible mark on an even wider array of talent. Their staunchest supporter was none other than David Bowie, who gifted them ‘All The Young Dudes’ in 1972 (they turned down the chance to cover ‘Suffragette City’ and later passed on ‘Drive-In Saturday’), the song that rescued Mott from a premature break-up and made them Top Of The Pops regulars – an irony not lost on a band who endured more than their share of setbacks.

Listen to Mental Train: The Island Years 1969-1971 right now.

Given the quality of their four Island albums, it seems amazing that Mott were ever in the doldrums. Ian Hunter, Mick Ralphs, Pete “Overend” Watts, Verden Allen and Dale “Buffin” Griffin were the stalwarts who gave us the real deal with their self-titled debut, produced by Island man Guy Stevens, with Andy Johns engineering.

Recorded at Morgan Studios in Willesden, London, in the summer of ’69, Mott The Hoople still sounds epic, fuelled by a dual passion for The Rolling Stones and Hunter’s enduring devotion to the lyrical flair of Bob Dylan. A rowdy, intelligent romp of a beast, the album found the nascent Mott mixing originals with covers – notably The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’, Doug Sahm’s ‘At The Crossroads’ and Sonny Bono’s ‘Laugh At Me’. But their growing army of fans, known as The Lieutenants and The Hot Motts, were perhaps more drawn to the band’s own compositions, among them ‘Backsliding Fearlessly’ and the single ‘Rock And Roll Queen’. The Mental Train box set includes a complete vocal take on ‘You Really Got Me’, hammering home the band’s credentials, while the inclusion of the B-side ‘Road To Birmingham’ and the complex ‘If Your Heart Lay With The Rebel (Would You Cheer The Underdog?)’ provide a full flavour of Mott in their ’69/’70 pomp.

“A marauding band of outlaws”

September 1970’s Mad Shadows features the same team in more confident mode, with Hunter and guitarist Ralphs nailing the sound on ‘No Wheels To Ride’ and the glorious riffs of the grungy ‘Threads Of Iron’. The opening ‘Thunderbuck Ram’, meanwhile, receives several outings on Mental Train, including a live BBC session and an organ-fired studio outtake, providing chapter and verse on the song. There’s also a fascinating demo of ‘No Wheels To Ride’, while goodies such as ‘Moonbus (Baby’s Got A Down On Me)’ and the crowd-pleasing ‘You Are One of Us’ show Mott really getting into their stride on the second most successful album of their Island era.

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Photo: Brian Cooke

Released just six months later, in March 1971, Wildlife was largely self-produced but featured guest appearances from singer Jess Roden (once touted as Jim Morrison’s replacement in The Doors) and the pedal steel guitarist Jerry Hogan. Less dark than its predecessor, the album has elements of country rock’n’roll in its grooves, particularly on a medley of ‘Keep A-Knockin’’, ‘I Got A Woman’, ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, captured live at Fairfield Halls in Croydon, England, for which Hunter provides some piano destruction during the Little Richard classic. Wildlife crawled to No.44 on the UK – a showing that in no way reflects the quality of the album. Bonus Mental Train material rounds the picture off with a Mountain cover (‘Long Red’), the fan favourite ‘Brain Haulage (Whisky Women’) and ‘The Ballad Of Billy Joe’.

Mott’s first creative burst concluded with December 1971’s Brain Capers, an album constructed in a period of flux with Guy Stevens called back to produce. Critically acclaimed – not least for Hunter’s extraordinary ‘The Journey’ and Ralphs’ sterling guitar work on ‘The Moon Upstairs’ – this album also found Jim Price adding brass to Verden Allen’s ‘Second Love’. Full of psychodramas, Brain Capers is bolstered by ‘Mental Train (The Moon Upstairs)’, a neat version of ‘One Of The Boys’, and sought-after rarities ‘Darkness, Darkness’ and ‘Black Scorpio (Momma’s Little Jewel)’ – the latter being one of the songs that so intrigued Bowie, who watched the band with growing fascination during this period.

“The kids couldn’t get enough”

The fifth Mental Train disc, titled The Ballads Of Mott The Hoople, covers unheard/unreleased music from the Island days. Check out ‘Angel Of 8th Avenue’, ‘Can You Sing The Song That I Sing’ and ‘Ride On The Sun (Sea Diver)’, plus a BBC session take on ‘The Original Mixed Up Kid’.

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Photo: Brian Cooke

As a live act, Mott were second to none. Queen guitarist Brian May noted: “Mott would swing relentlessly and unstoppably into their show every night, like a marauding band of outlaws and every night there was something close to a riot – the kids couldn’t get close enough; they simply couldn’t get enough. Ian Hunter – the unwritten boss – would plant himself centre-stage behind his shades and dare anyone to remain seated.”

Fittingly, then, the final Mental Train disc combines their full Fairfield Hall show, from September 1970, with a brilliant BBC Radio 1 In Concert broadcast, recorded on 30 December 1971, finding Mott at a crossroads, turning out a version of Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ a fusion of ‘No Wheels to Ride’ and The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’, plus a definitive take on ‘Whisky Women’.

Sure, it took that Bowie moment to get Mott back on the rails and into the charts, but to say the rest is a footnote would be wrong. Their Island years remain a major part of their history and a vital addition to the mental train that remains Mott The Hoople.

The 6CD box set Mental Train: The Island Years 1969-1971 is out now and can be bought here.

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