By Catherine Frumerman
He sipped tea with Frank Zappa at London’s Dorchester after cold-calling him about producing the British Lions. He recorded Yoko Ono in her Tokyo hotel room reciting the words to “Love” for an ambient album of John Lennon love songs. He visited Quentin Crisp in his Chelsea flat, which hadn’t been dusted in 40 years. In 1973, he answered Mott the Hoople’s blind ad for a keyboard player, because the ad said the band was booked for an American tour, and, at only 23, he had never been to America. There, he recorded much of the band’s experiences on its three-month tour using his dad’s standard 8mm camera. The resulting one-of-a-kind documentary, Mott in America, is findable.
He appeared on two of Mott the Hoople’s signature albums, The Hoople and Live. He has lived in Japan since 1985. Arriving there — inspired by turning a page on an atlas — without knowing a soul, and having no Japanese, he found a job teaching English.
Among his many projects in Japan, he performed monthly for 10 years at a cutting-edge Tokyo club in a series called Morgan’s Organ. Until the pandemic brought the world to an abrupt halt, he hosted monthly salons for about 40 guests at his home, which was once a piano school. Fittingly, he possesses a wealth of keyboards, among them a small French, proto-type synthesizer, which, at over 70 years old, appeared before the Moog, and a small pipe organ, made in Australia. When he is not making music, he paints with light, the results are music for the eyes.
Through the magic of Zoom, Goldmine is meeting Morgan Fisher during breakfast time in Tokyo. Morgan’s hair is snowy, he’s wearing a dark shirt patterned with cars, his demeanor is welcoming.
GOLDMINE: Good morning! Goldmine readers want to know whether we will see Mott the Hoople perform again. Is Ian Hunter feeling better?
MORGAN FISHER: Well, last Autumn, he had the tinnitus, which is pretty debilitating. Bad enough to cancel the tour. On June 3, which was his 81st birthday, we had a Zoom party. Me and him, the Rant band and a few other friends got together and just had some fun. He seemed to be in great shape. He said, “I want to work. I mean, that's what I'm here for. I'm born to work. I don't want to lie around the house.” This indicates to me that maybe he's finding a way to make the condition manageable so that he can perform. He loves touring and he's been doing it all his life. He's like Bob Dylan — he doesn't want to stop.
GM: Just prior to the cancellation of the October 2019 tour, I had read that Luther Grosvenor (aka Ariel Bender) said after that tour he would be “hanging up my guitar.” Had he said that to you?
MF: (Laughs) Well, he says all kinds of things. I wouldn't believe it.
GM: Back in April, you only did eight dates. Was this a management, or band decision?
MF: You know, I don't really know, I just went along with whatever they invited me to do, and I think it was kind of sensible that they didn't want to overreach. This was more than a toe in the water, I would say it's certainly checking out the market, at least on the East Coast. I think it was a good kind of first tour and, of course, there was going to be a second tour. They wanted to do it in two halves. Also, there was an English tour to be done. So, the timing was good to just do eight days in America and the same in England. I think it was very well done, beautifully organized. We used to do three-month tours, but we were in our 20s. And there was a market for it — we were in the charts. Now we have a more limited, but very dedicated audience. I think the size of the theaters and the length of tour was just right.
GM: You were No. 1 in the U.K. singles charts in 1968 well before you were in Mott the Hoople. This was with your first band, The Love Affair, and the song was “Everlasting Love.”
MF: It was like Beatlemania at the same level of screaming. It was just two years after they quit touring. At 18, we were younger than The Beatles were when they had it.
“Everlasting Love” is a classic song and I'm very honored to be part of it. Although, we didn’t play on the record. And that’s the scandal! We had people like your Wrecking Crew. It was standard practice at the time. Because we were so young and wanted to make a really good-sounding record, we didn't mind.
It was very thrilling to be at the top of the tree like that. But it only lasted about a year and our fame started to dwindle. Then I got more interested in playing music better and experimenting.
I've always been fascinated with sound. So, even as far back as 1968, with The Love Affair, when we got a chance to make an album, I was like, Oh, look! There's a Mellotron in the studio!
I think right from the very first time I heard something other than a piano, on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” I thought, Wow, you can do so many things on the keyboard. That's for me. It's like painting with sound. So, that's always been my approach, rather than wanting to become an incredibly virtuoso jazz player or something. People who play a million notes a second don't often impress me.
GM: Then you formed Morgan with Maurice Bacon from The Love Affair and Tim Staffell, who had been in Smile, the band that became Queen once Tim left and Freddie Mercury took over.
MF: It was my prog rock band. It was very intense. Finally, I had a minor breakdown due to overwork and lack of success, and knocked it on the head.
GM: Not long after that, you joined Mott the Hoople. In 1973 you were headliners, supported by Queen. Later, on Queen’s album Sheer Heart Attack, Mott the Hoople was paid tribute by the line, "Down in the city just Hoople and me/ Don’t I love him so." “Killer Queen” on that same album pays tribute to Moët & Chandon. You keep an iced bottle of Moët on stage during shows. I was wondering, did you introduce Freddie Mercury to Moët?
MF: Oh, I'm sure he was already well into it. We didn’t have much Champagne in those days, it was cheap sparkling wine, mostly. But it looked good in a glass bucket on my grand piano!
I remember we complained. I said, "Do we have to have this cheap American wine?" Of course, now American wine is great. But in ‘74 it wasn’t. So, we insisted on European wine after every show. Moët was only for very special occasions, like receiving a gold disc event.
GM: You know there’s a meme out there, with Smudge the white cat, that goes, “Queen stole from Mott the Hoople!”
MF: We all steal! The rap in the middle of "Roll Away The Stone" came straight off another old record!
GM: Was the April 2019 tour officially recorded?
MF: For release, I'm not sure. There were certain legal complications about using the name, that I won't go into it because, A, it's boring and, B, I don't know the details. But there were certainly some legal things we had to kind of sidestep, which is why we called it Mott the Hoople ’74.
There were certain limitations, I think on merchandise or other things. Also, there wasn't enough budget. It was a pretty shoestring budget, actually. We cut corners in some ways. I think there was a live recording of the show we did in Spain the year before. The first Mott the Hoople’ 74 outing was in Europe in the summer of 2018. We did three shows, one in Spain, one in England, one in Sweden. I believe the one in Spain, which is the very first show of this lineup, was recorded and video'd, but there's been no talk of any release.
GM: Do you think there will be some fresh Mott the Hoople in the future?
MF: Well, obviously, I would love to do a new album. Ian is a prolific writer. He doesn't often have any blocks. He just keeps writing. That's why he's made so many albums on his own. I'm sure he'll be doing that at least. When it’s a question of Mott the Hoople, would there be enough of a budget, and proper marketing? It's easier for him to make a solo album. His Rant band musicians live fairly near to him. But to bring me and Bender over would be an additional complication. But all I can say is I would love it to happen.
GM: Let's talk a little bit about your solo projects. Beside music, you do visual art with light. You’ve even had exhibitions in Japan and the U.S.
MF: It started in Maui. I photographed the outside of a house decorated with lights for Christmas. When I got the prints back, they were nearly all blurred lines. I thought, That was a waste of time, I should have used a tripod. But then I looked at them again and I thought, Actually, you know what? They look artistic. Maybe I should not even try to keep them sharp. I should move them more. So, the next time I went out with my camera, I started moving it while the shutter was open. And I could open the shutter for a few seconds at a time if I wanted to. And that just completely kicked off a new direction in my photography, what I call light painting. It still fascinates me.
GM: Going back to music, Miniatures is a pretty popular cult item, but not at all solo, since you invited dozens of artists to contribute. Nothing like that's ever been done before. It’s avant-garde, original and at this point nostalgic, with punk artist Mark Perry emoting about World War Three like a junkyard Bob Dylan, the venerable Quentin Crisp telling a droll tale, and Andy Partridge summing up the rock music of our time in 20 seconds. And that’s just three artists out of 51 on the original vinyl.
MF: It's quite a silly story. I'd already done three albums for this label in London called Cherry Red Records. The guy who ran the label said to me one day, “I'll make your own label within Cherry Red, so you can have your own identity and you just do whatever you want and I'll release and distribute it and promote it.”
And I thought, This is a dream! So, I sat down and came up with a long list of people I'd like to collaborate with. I couldn’t choose. Then, I suddenly went into a bit of lateral thinking, and I said, Why, if you can't choose, get them all on the album! Then the next step was, how do you get 51 musicians on one album? And the lateral thinking popped up and said, Well, let them each do one minute. Because that's about just the right size — 51 tracks.
GM: When we finally do hear you sing, have a very nice voice. I heard you do “Time of the Season” just recently. You captured the character of the song. It's earthy and celestial at the same time. Your guest musicians use some unusual instruments that carry the song across the world. Also “Taste of Honey” sounds fresh and contemplative.
MF: Those are from the album Seasons of 1984, just before I came to Japan. Yeah, I like that album. It was fun. Thank you for the compliment. I should sing more. I had a couple of other friends guest on the album vocal. John Fiddler, the singer in the British Lions, did the Hendrix song about rainbows, “May This Be Love.” He did a nice job on that.
GM: You recorded your club and salon presentations. For these, you’re again, spare with words.
MF: I'm more impressed by mood and color emotion, and that's what keyboards can provide. I’ve written a few words when inspired to. It must be nearly 20 years ago I wrote a whole album’s worth of songs and I just never got the right deal to release them. And they're still sitting there. So, I'm going through my archives thinking, Well, Hoople fans would be very interested. I might let them out at some point.
I used different kinds of keyboards for Morgan’s Organ — so called because it rhymes, but there may be an organ amongst my stack of keyboards. I have a whole collection of very rare vintage keyboards. This one behind me [Morgan indicates a polished wooden box with two S shapes on the front and crowned with about three octaves of keys] is called an ondioline, a French synth invented in 1941. Al Kooper played it on the first Blood, Sweat and Tears album and later on his Super Session album and his solo albums. It sounded to me like an oboe when I first heard it, not electronic, almost Indian in tone. I finally bought one and had it repaired. In recent years I met Al and asked him if he still owned an ondioline. He surprised me by saying he never owned one, just saw it in the studio.
GM: I’m sure Mott and Morgan fans would be interested in hearing your recordings, as well as your music live. Will you start up the salons again once this pestilence is over?
MF: Oh, yeah, I love it. It's very intimate. It's coming into someone's house, you know, where they live and create. People like that feeling. I give away free wine. Japan is very safe. I can trust people. That's one of the big reasons why I've been here so long.
GM: Speaking of respectable encounters with appreciative fans, has Mott the Hoople ever considered one of the many music cruises that, prior to this lockdown, were sailing for years?
MF: I’d love to do that. That's a perfect retirement plan.
Go to www.morgan-fisher.com