Patience, thy name is Mott the Hoople fandom. The ‘70s group’s devotees have had a longer time to wait for a reunion than most — especially in underserved America. It’s been 45 years since the Ian Hunter-led band went separate ways, and exactly that long since they played the United States at all, since a few very short tours where various incarnations of Mott got back together in 2009 and 2013 were limited to Europe. But with an eight-city stateside tour that begins this week, the American faithful are finally getting their very belated chance to be hot to trot to Mott.
Never mind if the spots on everyone’s faces may no longer be from ripping stars off, at this late date; refreshed youth will be conferred upon all dudes at the door.
But what took so long? Was it Hunter’s general resistance to nostalgia that kept even European fans waiting for (a mere) 35 years to see Mott in concert again, let alone the near-half-century before Mott came anywhere within a thousand miles of all the way to Memphis again?
“It really is basically me going out singing songs that I wrote anyway,” says Hunter, speaking with Variety in a pre-rehearsals phone call, sounding almost nonchalant about the late-breaking nod to fan demand. “Most of it is stuff I wrote, or I had a hand in writing, and I’ve been doing this since ’69, professionally. But I’ve got to tell you, when they put the Mott intro music on and you walk out there, it’s something very special. And it’s lovely and it’s fun. And as long as it isn’t…” He hesitates. “I wouldn’t do it all the time, you know. I wouldn’t want to do that, because I like new stuff. But now and again, it’s quite bone-tingling when you hear the intro. And I’m really looking forward to it.”
Although the distinction probably isn’t necessary in most fans’ minds, the group doing this tour is being billed as Mott the Hoople ’74, because the core lineup consists of Hunter plus two musicians who joined late in Mott’s tenure — keyboard player Morgan Fisher, who came on in 1973, in time for the group’s most widely well regarded album, “Mott,” and Ariel Bender, who came in just in time for their 1974 studio swan song, “The Hoople.”
That latter album is “what we’re basing this show around. That, and there was a live album that came out (“Mott Live,” also in ’74); half of it was done in London and half of it was done at the Uris Theater on Broadway. This show is based around those two records.” So what distinguishes the final incarnation of Mott the Hoople from previous ones?
The fact that, toward the end, they transitioned from being more of a meat and potatoes — or, being English, bangers ‘n’ mash — sort of group, albeit one that had a very Dylan-influence frontman in Hunter, to one with more of a theatrical bent, which kind of finished up what David Bowie had started when he produced their “All the Young Dudes” album in ’72.
“We were always a bit that way,” Hunter says of their penchant toward rock mini-musicals toward the end, “but I mean, this was in the days when you had to have a show. It wasn’t enough to just stand there. You had to have a show as well. We were a bit that way. We were a tad theatrical,” he says with a chuckle.
For half a minute, they even got lumped in with glam, or glitter-rock, quite a turnabout from how they’d started circa 1969. “But before we started, the Who latched onto the mods thing,” Hunter points out. “You know, anything that would get bums in the seats, basically! So I was thinking, okay, fine. I mean, we looked like brick layers. I never liked to think we actually glammed it. We did dress up, but it wasn’t tinsel and silk and satin. It was more flashy than glam.”
There were other reasons beyond prevailing fashions for making a shift. “Mick Ralphs had gone, and Luther (Grosvener, who changed his name to Ariel Bender, upon replacing Ralphs as guitarist) really wasn’t a writer. He was also fresh into the band, and as much as he gave to the band — I mean, Luther basically carried the band live; he was brilliant on stage — he wasn’t coming up with the material in the studio. And he didn’t quite understand the style of the band. So ‘The Hoople’ was geared more towards keyboards. I had this thing about putting saxes against cellos, too; other people did it later on, but early on, I did it. Then Morgan Fisher was now in the band. and he’s somewhat of a stalwart piano player, so we naturally geared toward Morgan. And I was fiddling about with this orchestral sort of thing with ‘Marionette’ and stuff like that.”
Grosvenor/Bender, who’d previously kept a low profile in Spooky Tooth and Stealers Wheel, became almost literally a new man upon joining Mott, and not just in fake-name. “It was the funniest thing with Luther, because before us, he’d been in bands where he was a very tasteful player, and a tasteful writer, too. But when he joined us, and we coined the name Ariel Bender, he walked into this alter ego that was just outrageous. And he hasn’t changed much. Every time he does anything in the Mott area, this is what he does. (Mark) Bosch, my regular guitar player, idolizes his playing. He’s off the wall — and as a guy, he’s not really changed that much. He’s still running around the stage like a 12–year-old.”
That Bender and Fisher were left out of the previous European reunions, which focused on the 1969-72 lineup, was a thorn in Hunter’s side.
“Mainly, it’s important that Luther and Morgan get their shot,” Hunter says. “They never got it the first couple of times around. And it’s important that they get it, because they kept the whole thing rolling back in ‘74” — at a time when interest in Mott was peaking more than ever, especially in the UK; it wasn’t lack of popularity that caused the split.
He further explains the recent history: “The original band got together in 2009 in London, and then we did a second lot in 2012, but that was the original band. And sadly, it just seemed that they didn’t want Morgan and they didn’t want Luther to play, which kind of upset the bass player, Pete (Overend Watts), and myself. But they (guitarist Mick Ralphs and organist Verden Allen, presumably) maintained it had to be the original band. So Luther and Morgan came to those gigs, and they were very sporting about it. And I just thought that one of these days when we get a window, we should make it up to ‘em by following the second half of that band, which was the ‘74 version. We got together for three festivals in Europe last summer, and it worked like a dream, so we thought, why not?”
A lot has gone down since then to make any other version of the band besides the 1974 edition implausible, anyway. Dale “Buffin” Griffin was only able to make cameo appearances on the earlier UK reunions, where he was replaced by Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers, because of poor health; he died in 2017. Watts passed away in 2017. Ralphs is still around but has had to bow out of Bad Company touring, as well, due to health issues.
Amid all this happiness for American Mott fans, that ebullience dissipates west of the continental divide. That’s because all eight of the reunion dates are toward the east coast. Fans in California and the other Western states have been determinedly hoping a west coast swing would be added, although a gradual acceptance that this may not come to be has prompted a fair amount of flight bookings. Hunter confirms that they won’t be coming back to the States to hit other parts of the country.
“We were already booked in Europe” for the coming months, he says. “The American side of it was tacked on the front. So we have to leave when we have to leave. There’s nothing planned after this, I’m sorry to say. But nobody got in touch with us on the west coast. Either your promoters didn’t think it would work over there, or…” He trails off. “I’m sorry about that. But you’ve got to be asked before you go somewhere!”
At 79, Hunter continues to be an inveterate tourer as well as solo recording artist, regularly visiting the U.S. with his backing outfit, the Rant Band — members of whom will augment the original (or semi-original) Mott members on this tour. And he has more solo gigs booked for after the close of Mott the Hoople ‘74.
An impending 80th birthday might make other rock ‘n’ roll stars think about more extensive time enjoying mechanical royalties from “All the Way From Memphis” in the countryside. Does he ever ponder calling it a day?
“Well, no. I mean, I get away with it,” Hunter says. Eventually he concedes that the thought has crossed his mind. “I do think, ‘Oh, this is it.’” He laughs at himself. “I get to Scotland and I think, ‘This is it. This is the last time I see all this.’ But I’ve been doing that for the last 20 years, and nothing seems to stop. And what am I going to do anyway? What’s the point in stopping? So, no, I’ve no idea when I’m going to retire. I’m having a great time.”
The Mott the Hoople ’74 U.S. itinerary (some shows, including Cleveland — of “Cleveland Rocks” fame — and Philadelphia sold out early on):
April 1 – Milwaukee, WI – Miller High Life Theatre
April 2 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
April 3 –Chicago, IL – Chicago Theatre
April 5 – Detroit, MI – The Fillmore
April 6 – Cleveland, OH – Masonic
April 8 – Glenside, PA – Keswick Theatre
April 9 – Boston, MA – Orpheum Theatre
April 10 – New York, NY – Beacon Theatre