To say that Ian Hunter and, before he launched his solo career, Mott the Hoople mean a lot more than they ever sold is something of an understatement. Mott’s biggest hit single was their first, more than two years before they broke up; Hunter alone has not scored a substantial British or American hit since the end of the seventies.
Yet here he is, still releasing regular, and generally excellent, new albums; still selling out shows wherever he chooses to play, as much a British National Treasure as any of the other oldies-but-goldies who have also been thus christened. And now a large part of all of that has been bundled together in a box set that Hunter himself still regards with something approaching unease.
Beginning with the realization that, “when you get old, they do things like that.
“I didn’t ask. In fact, I didn’t come into the picture until halfway, three quarters of the way through. I couldn’t believe they were doing it. It was this guy Campbell Devine, who’s been a fan of mine for years. (He is also Mott’s official biographer.)
“He just badgered and badgered the label (Proper Records} and, in the end, they were in up to their neck, and it was to late to back out I suppose.”
As for his own awareness of the project, “it was slowly dawning on me. I didn’t take much notice because I’m not really big on what I’ve done, I’d rather concentrate on what I’m doing. But it slowly dawned on me that this was going on, and it was a mixed feeling because I thought ‘this is it, then. That’s the story of my career’. But then I had my own new album Fingers Crossed coming out at the same time, so that made me feel better about it. It’s a tremendous thing that they’ve done, but there’s still an element of ‘that’s it, then’.”
There again, people have been writing Hunter off, and telling him “that’s it, then,” for decades. They said it when Mott split in early 1972, before David Bowie resuscitated them with “All The Young Dudes.” They said it when guitarist Mick Ralphs quit the band to form Bad Company, before Ariel Bender stepped in to raise Mott to new heights. They said it when Mott split in late ’74; and two years later, when Hunter’s second solo album, All American Alien Boy, didn’t pick up from where his self-titled debut left off.
They said it when he didn’t follow You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, in 1979, with an album that sounded exactly the same, and they bellowed it from the rooftops as the 1980s rattled on, and he sank deeper and deeper into the background.
But Hunter kept on believing, and so did the faithful; and the last few years have rewarded them all with some of the best albums, and most blinding songwriting, of his entire career. Accolades, incidentally, that have also been poured across the just-released Fingers Crossed. Which isn’t in the box set but, if you have one, you’ll want the other.
“It was just a fluke that they were released at the same time,” Hunter admits. “They’d been going on with the box set for three and a half years, and the two things just sort of climaxed at the same time.”
Which is great, but it also leaves the Hunter devotee with an awful lot of new music to sit and listen to – one new album, and another three or four LPs worth of unheard material on the box.
“A lot of the unreleased stuff was done around the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, when I had no management, no band, no nothing, and I’d been doing this stuff downstairs on my own recording equipment. We got down to the half inch tapes and I had absolutely no knowledge of who was playing on it, or what I’d written.
“It was great in a way, because it was like listening to another band, a totally other band, so you could figure out whether you liked it or you didn’t. It didn’t come with any baggage. It was as though I’ve never heard it before… I don’t know who the singer is, I don’t know who the band is, yeah I like it, or no I don’t. Do it was good in that way, but it was strange because… ‘well, where were you that you’ve forgotten all this?’
“People were smiling at me, because there they were playing it to me, and I had no knowledge of it at all. And the other thing is, how do you pay people for playing on it when you don’t even know who’s on it? I’m still waiting for people to ring me up and say ‘oi.’.”
The sheer weight of what long-time fans might call “later” material becomes all the more noticeable when you see how little fresh meat has been drawn from Hunter’s earliest solo albums, although there’s a very good reason for that.
“A lot of the early stuff that hadn’t been out before, it’s been out already on various other compilations, of which there’s been a lot over the years. In the case of the first album, when I did that record with Mick [Ronson], the album we came out with was not the album we went in with, so there was stuff left over, three or four songs that never saw the light of day at the time, but they did later…
“Two in particular, ‘Colwater High’ and ‘One Fine Day’ … those two, I couldn’t get lyrics for at the time and about thirty years later, there was a new compilation coming out and they wanted some out-takes. So they said ‘get lyrics for those two,’ and I had them both in about half an hour. But at the time I was struggling with them for weeks, it’s very strange, very arbitrary. ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’ and ‘Who Do You Love,’ [the songs that replaced them on the original album] were written in the studio – I don’t like doing that; it’s great when it works but its expensive when it doesn’t. In that particular instance it worked.”
In the UK, that solo debut probably remains Hunter’s best-known (it was certainly his biggest chart hit). In the US, it was 1979’s You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic that reached the highest heights, and that album, too, he recalls with some pleasure.
“That was good fun. It was kinda like the new album, Fingers Crossed… a new studio with a new engineer, and things just worked out fine. Mick [Ronson] was back, John Cale came in, the E Street Band was there,
“I started that album in London and it just wasn’t working, so my manager at the time, said why don’t you come back to the States because the E Streets will do it, so we went into the Power Station which at that time was Chic, it was disco, but it had a great drum sound in there. Bob Clearmountain was our engineer, and he went onto become of the greatest mixers ever, but at that time he’d just been doing Chic, and they were all desperate to do some rock’n’roll, so we had a lot of good people going on with Schizophrenic. Plus, with Mick, it was always great, it was a lot of fun.”
Schizophrenic should have set Hunter up for life, or at least for a barnstorming career throughout the 1980s. Instead, he seemed to retreat, not simply eschewing the textures and triumphs of that LP, but also turning his back on the demands that continued success might have made. New albums in 1981 (Short Back’n’Sides) and 1983 (All the Good Ones Are Taken) were his last until the end of the decade saw him reunite with Ronson for YUI Orta and, while all three definitely have their moments, you can also argue that they represent the lowest point of his career, critically, commercially and musically.
Ronson’s death in 1993 was the prod that brought Hunter back into action, and back up to full strength, sporadically at first, but with increasing purpose and focus as time moved on. Certainly the run of albums that followed 2001’s Rant – that is, Shrunken Heads (2007), Man Overboard (2009) and When I’m President (2012) – represent his strongest sequence since the seventies, and Fingers Crossed possibly tops even them.
“The new album… It’s good, its really good. I sat with it for a year,we did it in January 2016, and I still like it, it’s really strong. Writing songs… it’s one of those things where you wake up in the morning and your antenna goes up. It’s a muscle, just like anything else, and it just happens to be something that songwriters can do, but a lot of people can’t, it’s like comedians picking up on something funny, they get it and nobody else does. It’s just a trick of the genes.
“I like doing what I do and I pay it respect… and I have good quality control. That’s about my only bragging point. I won’t let something out unless I’m totally gung ho with it. Plus the band and Andy York [Hunter’s now-regular producer and bandmate], I want them all to like something before we attempt it, so it does go through a process. I’ll present the songs to them and I get them up here one at a time, two at a time, and they can say whatever they want, especially Andy. If he doesn’t like something, it doesn’t go.
“And with Fingers Crossed, nobody had a single complaint. I presented it to them and nobody had a problem with it.”
Reviews so far, and fan reaction too, suggest that everyone else who’s heard it feels the same way. So pick it up, pop it into the box set (there’s just about space to squeeze it in), and play the whole thing in chronological order.
Then say that the golden age of rock’n’roll isn’t still alive and well in at least one corner of the world.
Read more from Ian Hunter in an upcoming issue of Goldmine