IAN HUNTER - "IT'S A MIGHTY LONG WAY DOWN ROCK N' ROLL"

 

"IT'S A MIGHTY LONG WAY DOWN ROCK N' ROLL"… So wrote Ian Hunter in the 1974 classic "All The Way From Memphis" and after more than three decades in the business, he knows it first hand. This year marks the thirty year anniversary of the debut of Mott The Hoople, the rock and roll outfit that Hunter rode to glory as songwriter, pianist, and guitarist. Mott The Hoople initially gained a reputation for powerful, sometimes riotous live shows (they were to blame for rock concerts getting banned from The Royal Albert Hall). Unfortunately, they were unable to capture that energy in the studio, and were on the verge of breaking up when David Bowie presented them with a demo of "All The Young Dudes." The rest, they say, is history, or at least rock and roll history. The "All The Young Dudes" album was a smash hit, and Hunter went on to write a book "Diary of a Rock and Roll Star" to chronicle that 1972 tour. He then led MTH through two incredibly successful followup albums ("Mott," and "The Hoople") and corresponding sellout tours. By late 1974, however, Hunter was exhausted. He decided to quit Mott The Hoople and start a solo career, taking Mott’s newest member (and former Bowie sideman) Mick Ronson with him.

In the twenty-five years since Mott The Hoople’s breakup, Hunter has written a wide range of music that has been covered by a wider range of artists, from Great White to Barry Manilow. Ian’s 1979 album "You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic" featured the anthemic "Cleveland Rocks" which can be heard weekly as the theme song to "The Drew Carey Show." I caught up with Ian in the studio recently, and he was busy at work preparing for his upcoming album and tour.

Tom Guerra: Ian, you had a career before Mott The Hoople as both a songwriter and bassist, right?

Ian Hunter: Yes, I started out as a bassist for Freddie "Fingers" Lee, playing all over Europe, correct. I was using just a homemade amp and speaker cabinet with a Burns bass, which were very popular in England at the time.

TG: Your audition for Mott is well documented, where you came in and banged out Dylan’s "Like A Rolling Stone" and were hired on the spot. Did play piano exclusively for Mott in the early years? At what point did you switch to guitar?

IH: I played piano originally, then sometime in the first year, Guy Stevens (Mott’s producer) was complaining that I wasn’t the front man, and he felt that he wanted a Stones sort of lineup. So, I stood in the middle and looked pretty stupid, and somebody hung a guitar on me! I knew a few chords, you know, about the same as piano. I was never that great at it, but I never got bored with the sound.

TG: At that point, weren’t you playing mostly Moserites? How about for amplification?

IH: Yes, I had a few Moserites, which we thought were cool because The Ventures used them. Mick (Ralphs) started with a goldtop Les Paul. For amps, we got Marshall full stacks (100 watt Super Leads), and it just sounded horrendous, until we got to a place late for one particular gig, and we didn’t use the full stacks, we just used the 4x12’s, the bottom half. And at that moment, we realized how to control sound. Before that, we were just stupid, cause we didn’t know what was going on. The bass player could only hear bass…it was just a mess! When we got to the States, we heard Spirit, who were using Acoustic amps, so we got a set. So, we had a set of Acoustics, a set of Marshalls, and we were traveling through America with one roadie, and he somehow just sorted the whole thing out! But we didn’t persist with the Acoustics, we had to let that go. We always wound up with the Marshalls.

TG: You guys used to visit pawn shops (or "shawn pops" as MTH bassist Overend Watts used to call them) quite frequently when you toured the States. What were some of your prizes that you found around this time?

IH: There was a lot of stuff then. Because the pawn shops were in areas of town that were very bad neighborhoods, some very heavily redneck, and everybody who played had long hair, not a lot of people went to them. Fortunately for us, we could go in because we had English accents and if you talked loud enough, they wouldn’t shoot you (laughs). It seemed that everybody had a brother, or an uncle or a granddad who was in the Army over in England in WWII, so there’d be a conversation about it. I remember once down in the stockyards in Texas…normal Americans wouldn’t go down there, but we could. We picked up some Melody Makers for $50, and some Les Paul Juniors for $75.

TG: Your guitar players (Mick Ralphs and later Ariel Bender) used to play a lot of Juniors…

IH: Yeah, we were always fond of Juniors, it’s a light guitar and its just right, very simple with the one pickup. Leslie West was the first guy we heard play them, and he always got a great sound from them.

TG: Around the time of "All The Young Dudes," you started playing more guitar on record and on-stage, specifically, the open "G" chording on "One of The Boys" and "Jerkin" Crokus," eh? You were getting some great tone on those cuts - what were you using in the studio and live?

IH: In the studio I plugged into Ralphs’ Marshalls, because they were always in good shape. It was basically the same setup in the studio as live.

TG: Rolling Stone recently named the Mott album to their all-time top 100 classics, and that album was the first that the band produced. I recently gave it a listen again, and it really seems to stand the test of time.

IH: On the "Dudes" album, we saw what David (Bowie) and Mick (Ronson) were doing, and we thought we could do that. The only problem with the Dudes album was it was a weak mix. David’s production was more mild and pop-oriented. Self-producing the "Mott" album was a fluke, ‘cause we were looking for a producer when we were recording it. We were in AIR 2 and Roxy Music was in AIR 1, and they came in to listen one night and they said "you don’t need a producer, just do it yourself, sounds fine." We were using Bill Price as an engineer, who became well known. He wasn’t then, but he was an unnamed hero of the "Mott" album. Hits were coming off of Bill all the time and he never got any credit. We stuck with him whenever we could get him from then on in, but it was always a disaster when we couldn’t use Bill.

TG: Around this time you started appearing with some strange instruments like the Maltese Cross and that spectacular "H" guitar…who made those, and do you still have them?

IH: There were two H’s and a Maltese Cross. I haven’t got any of them…some guy in England has the Cross and he brings it to gigs. I don’t know what happened to the first H, but the second one is hanging on the wall in Osaka. That Maltese Cross was an old guitar when I got it. I found that one with Mick Ralphs in a pawn shop in San Francisco and paid $32.00. I’d never seen one before or since…recently, some guy came to a gig with it in England on the south coast. He took the scatch plate off and showed me it was made by the Thomas Organ company. The guy who actually made it had signed a $5 bill and left it inside it! I’m going to try to get that back…I also had a double neck H guitar that we used to call "The Weapon"…

TG: You also used to play a lot of Guild electrics in concert, specifically the one that looks like an SG (S-100). What did you like about those?

IH: I used to use the Guilds a lot because I used to throw them around, and sometimes they broke. So we’d just send them back to Guild, and Guild was very good about replacing them, until they figured out what we were doing. Then I met a guy in New York who started getting me really good guitars and I started buying older Strats. If I pick the older ones up, they just feel right. The new ones don’t feel right to me… I’m not slagging off the new Strats, but the older ones feel better. I’ve got a couple early 60’s models and they just feel better.

TG: By the late 70’s, you had another H styled guitar that looked like a little sled….this one was more high tech looking. What was that one?

IH: That was one of the first Steinbergers ever made…what had happened was the guy down at Manny’s said "you have to get a couple of these Les Pauls, they are limited editions"…so I did (note: these were the exotic wood model called "The Les Paul"). The average Les Paul I could handle, but I couldn’t be bothered with these cause they weighed more that most Gibsons. Although they were rare and worth a lot, I did not like them because they were heavy, so I traded one with Earl Slick for that Steinberger, which was a prototype. I do like SG’s though, you can still get them cheap and they have a great neck. My son’s in a band and has got a few…

TG: By 1980, you were playing exclusively Strats. I caught one of those you tossed out into the crowd once and a bouncer almost broke me in half, cause I wouldn’t give up that guitar…

IH: Well I don’t blame you – if someone gives you something you should keep it (laughs). Its very hard to do to give a guitar away – I tried that a couple of times, and the security guards don’t think you’re giving them away. Once in England I gave one to a guy in the crowd, he ran towards the door, and the security guard took it away and returned it to me. I then gave it back to the guy and the whole process started again!

TG: You’ve been blessed with playing with some other great musicians, if I could name some of, can you tell us what you liked about playing with them?

TG: Mick Ralphs…

IH: He was great, straight off the bat. He and the organ player (Verden Allen) were by far the best two musicians in Mott The Hoople. Very creative, you give him a song or an idea, and he’d always turn it into something. He was great for Mott…he came to the party with rock and roll songs.

TG: Mick Ronson…

IH: I think that out of the two of them (Ralphs and Ronson) Ronson was a better player, but given the two of them I would prefer to work with Ralphs in an ideal situation if they were both alive and happy and young, because Ralphs could write. Ronson could write too, but it was usually slow things. Mick (Ronson) did have a great quality about his playing, it was always totally unique. But you should never judge one guy against another, Ronson stands alone in his own area.

TG: Jaco Pastorius (played on Ian’s "All-American Alien Boy" lp)

IH: He was great, very pleasurable, stayed at our house. He rehearsed from like 9 in the morning till 5 at night – 7 days a week. It was a bit disconcerting hearing the bass coming from the floor, all day, every day…But he had been a drummer and had broken his arm, and it never healed properly, so he went to bass. The great thing about Jaco is he was a Stones fanatic, so he had a rock sensibility. But also, he could hear a chord on a piano and he could tell you what it was. You could literally sit down on the piano keys and Jaco would say "It’s an E diminished minor 7th". He was as clean as a whistle….at that point he had never did a thing in his life. Never had a drink in his life. He was into meditation. Scary, cause he was 21, and then a few years later he was a mess. Went to L.A. you see (laughs). I remember though for one song, I told him to forget everything he knew, and play his part imagining he was an old wino…so he went out and got 2 bottles of wine and drank them like you drink water, flat down, and sat and played and he was still sober. Astonishing…very strange person.

TG: Todd Rundgren

IH: Todd’s Mr. Busy. Rang me up and asked me to go on tour with him, we had a great time! I see him on and off over the years, we’re total opposites, that’s why we get on.

TG: Guy Stevens (legendary British record producer of MTH, Free, The Clash, etc.)

IH: Guy was way up there in the lunatic echelons, and I’ve known a few lunatics. He was through the roof. His thing didn’t have much to do with music, it was more about motivating you out of your brain. He felt that if people played like that, it would transcend actual sound. His sole contribution to the sound was maybe pouring a few beers into the faders, setting fire to something. He would sit there and start revving up, and you’d rev up with him, and then all of a sudden you’d start to play and it was like "Charge of the Light Brigade." It was a strange way of doing it, and people still talk about those old records, whether it was Mott or The Clash…so it must have had its attractiveness to some…

TG: You’ve written hundreds of songs throughout the years, many becoming classics… What are some of your all-time favorite Ian Hunter songs?

IH: The quick ones, the ones that didn’t take too long to write. "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" took only about 10 hours. "Irene Wilde" was like that, but I was never going to record that but my manager said put that on the album. Some take a long, long time, and by the time they come out you’re bored with them. : I have no patience whatsoever…I try to have everything done so I can just go in the studio and record them and get out.

TG: You’ve been recording for about thirty years…how has the business changed?

IH: I used to be keen and enthusiastic, but as this business has changed I’ve changed as well. I recognize record people a mile away and I try to avoid them. They have no knowledge of what they are doing. I think when I was coming up it was so much better because people were into it. The kids were maniacs and they were coming out of retail, not business schools. Today, they have to keep the board of directors happy, and these people speak the same language. The emphasis has gone from music to accountancy. It’s the same in art or sports or everything. Radio could have held out, but they didn’t. All radio today does is play tracks so that people don’t switch off. They don’t play music to excite people, they just try to play music not to offend people so they won’t switch off, and that’s pathetic! I don’t include myself in all of this, but its so unfair to kids now, what the labels make them sign to give them a deal. The way it is today, Mott The Hoople would never have even been signed, or we’d most certainly died an awful death. I mean, we were desperate. I’d worked in factories all my life, and I knew what was going to happen if I didn’t get something off the ground. When we got the chance to record with Island back then, there was a considerable amount of desperation involved. Because poor then was poor, it wasn’t phones or TV’s, it was nothing! So it was a great motivator…but I do think it’s great with these new web labels.

TG: You released an excellent cd last year, "The Artful Dodger" which included some great music (Resurrection Mary, Michael Picasso)…and I understand you working on a followup to this…

IH: Yes, I’m working on a followup, and its totally the opposite. There are more rockers. It seems that I have a pattern throughout where I do a quieter album, then something heavier. At the time I did "The Artful Dodger," I couldn’t write rock and roll…now, it’s the other way around, which I prefer because its more fun doing rockers. I’m about two-thirds of the way through recording it, and its almost "Hoople-y", which has that quasi-Europa chord ascensions. I just go to where the muse takes me…I’m very lucky to have that…

I thought when I was doing "The Artful Dodger", it was me in my elderly declining years, then all of a sudden I’m writing tunes like this new song called "Morons" that’s just outrageous. But you have to go with it…

TG: What’s your main stage guitar and amp these days?

IH: I’m still using the early 60’s Stratocasters, and I recently picked up a sunburst Paul Reed Smith and it’s a really nice, quality guitar. For amps, I was using Boogies and Fenders, but now am using the Johnson Millenium, which can do it all.

TG: Do you have a collection of guitars that you’ve hung on to throughout the years?

IH: I have a couple old Strats, but I’m not really romantically inclined when it comes to guitars. But its really hard to move all this stuff. I’ve been married a couple of times, had three childen, and lived in flats in London, New York, houses. Now I’m more interested in building up the studio.

TG: Do you stay in touch with the guys from Mott still? Any chance of a Mott The Hoople reunion?

IH: No, not really. No chance of a reunion, definitely not. I mean, I like Mick Ralphs – I think that he has a good heart and it shows. I think he needs somebody like me to annoy him. I piss him off and it makes him dig a little bit. I’d like working with him, that would be nice. But Mott The Hoople was like my primary school growing up. I did play with Andy Yorke a while ago, found it most enjoyable. There’s a lot of good guitar players about…

TG: To celebrate the thirtieth year of the group, Sony records has released a 3 cd set entitled "All The Young Dudes." As an accompanying text, author Campbell Devine has written an incredibly detailed book of the same title on Cherry Red Books. It seems that MTH is more popular today that when it was around…why do you suppose that is?

IH: I don’t think its more popular, but I think we just sort of come around on the come around, so to speak. Mott was always a good band for press, a very vaguely mysterious type of band that disappeared, probably at the right time. It’s easy for a writer to write about. I don’t think it means that much in middle America, or middle England for that matter. Mott has got its pockets of people who have hung onto them over the years, and we’re very obviously grateful. But its not like Sony is really interested, because they are not. Sony is going to do a couple of cd’s on me this year, too. In the next few months I’ll be doing a few English tours, and working on the new cd.

TG: So Ian, what are you listening to these days…what is some of your favorite new music?

IH: I don’t listen…I never listened… Sometimes you hear a single that sticks out like "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls, and "One Headlight" by The Wallflowers, there great songs. You know a few here and there. My favorites are still the fabulous 50’s, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

TG: It’s been great talking to you Ian – I really appreciate you talking to us. Thank you.

IH: Thank you.

Note: I would like to thank Phil Holbrook and Ian’s manager Kris Gray for helping to set up the interview




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