The 1970s heyday of Mott The Hoople is well remembered and reported, and has been in the forefront of their fans’ memories following the sad death in January 2017 of bassist Pete Overend Watts, and of drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin a year earlier. Less often recalled are the early albums the band made on the Island label, before their departure to CBS, so we’re reDiscovering their 1969, self-titled debut LP.
Mott’s geographical origins in Hereford, just 15 miles from the English border with Wales, may have been something of a disadvantage given that the West Country music scene of the mid-1960s was rather less obviously prosperous than those in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.
The band came together from the ranks of local outfits the Anchors (Griffin and Pete Overend Watts), the Buddies (Mick Ralphs and original vocalist Stan Tippins) and the Inmates (Terence Verden Allen). They coalesced in the Doc Thomas Group, who worked the local clubs in 1966 and ’67 but found more success in Milan, where they even recorded an album for a small label.
Back in the UK, they headed for London and famously auditioned, unsuccessfully, for The Beatles‘ new Apple label. Then they became the Silence, opened for the still-obscure reggae singer Jimmy Cliff and, in the fascinating rock family tree of the time, auditioned (again with no joy) for the Heavy Metal Kids. The musicians who beat them to that gig renamed themselves Free.
But some good did come of it, because the Silence were noticed by Guy Stevens, a DJ, A&R man and a flamboyant mover and shaker who was instrumental in the formation of the Island label. His role in the story is undiluted by the fact that early 1968 saw him doing time in Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Indeed, it specifically informed what happened next.
“I was doing eight months for possession of drugs,” Stevens later recalled, “and I read this book called Mott The Hoople by Willard Manus. I wrote to my wife and said ‘Keep the title a secret.’ She wrote back: ‘Are you joking? ‘Mott The Hoople.” That’s ridiculous.”
It may have sounded so, but when he regained his freedom, Stevens managed to persuade the members of the Silence that this would be their new name — except for frontman Tippins, who decamped to Italy to make the best of the band’s popularity there. He returned in the increasingly celebrated and long-lasting role of the later band’s road manager.
That’s when a certain Ian Hunter Patterson entered the scene, a veteran of Hamburg gigs with the young Ritchie Blackmore. Patterson would soon be going by his middle name. and after treading many other boards and making some formative records, Stevens signed him up to Mott The Hoople and booked two weeks of studio time in which to produce what became their debut album.
Released in November 1969 on Island in the UK and Atlantic in the US, it was preceded by the single ‘Rock and Roll Queen.’ Stevens sent Mott back to Italy for their first gig under their new name, then they returned for support dates on a UK college tour by the rising King Crimson.
Mott The Hoople showcased the group’s robust, Rolling Stones-influenced rock sound in which Hunter’s Dylanesque vocals and narratives came to the fore, on his own ‘Backsliding Fearlessly,’ songs by Ralphs and some notable covers. The album opened with an instrumental version of the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and also sported a remake of ‘Laugh At Me,’ the solitary 1965 solo hit by Sonny Bono of Sonny & Cher.
Mott enhanced their reputation with tireless work on the UK live circuit, in venues such as the Roundhouse, the Marquee and local clubs such as the Greyhound in Croydon and Friars in Aylesbury. An extremely modest breakthough was reached when the album spent one week on the chart at No. 66, six months after release, in May 1970.
Far greater recognition would eventually arrive, but Hunter remembered these as halcyon days. “The buzz was in the air,” he later said. “We were green as grass, not too good, but enthusiastic. It was fun, nothing to lose.”
Listen to Mott The Hoople on Spotify