Mott the Hoople (1969) ***
A repeatedly failed never-has-been in the music biz (Ian Hunter), ancient by the standards of don't-trust-anybody-over-30 longhairs (he was born in the year Hitler attacked Poland), is reluctantly thrust as frontman onto a band of hard-rocking youngsters (all a decade or so younger) hailing from the backwoods of some quasi-obscure Welsh/English border town. And so begins the unlikely saga of one of the most beloved and legendary of early '70s hard rock bands, not to mention strangest and against-odds influential. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, because Mott's first few albums can be heavy slogging even for diehards - it's not coincidence that the band temporarily broke up after the commercial failure of their first four albums, because they failed to reach the charts for the most honorable and explicable of reasons: they just weren't good enough.
Their debut owes a lot to the heavy hand of producer Guy Stevens, who not only foisted Hunter upon this band of Herefordshire rednecks (formerly known as Silence), but foisted the band's ridiculous new name upon them (from the title of a novel he'd read while in prison on drugs charges), and also heavy-handedly foisted his own personal musical vision upon them, as well. The audacious idea was to fuse late '60s hard rock a la Zep/Cream with a reinterpretation of Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, complete with roller-rink organ and Hunter croaking out his dead-on Zimmermanisms. Which, surprisingly, they nail down well enough half the time, and the other half they look like clueless as hell amateurs fumbling around half-assedly imitating their betters.
The album thus displays a sporadically interesting and sporadically irritating schizophrenia, alternating between Hunter's Dylanisms and lead guitarist Mick Ralphs' proto-Bad Company-isms. The first track roars out with an excitingly Cream-y update of one of rock's most over-covered standards, "You Really Got Me," sans vocals by some odd quirk. And both the unimaginativeness of the cover choice and the fact that it's an instrumental mark this opening track as filler-ish, even if it is energetically and crunchily performed filler. Yet already the band immediately switch gears by the second track, Doug Sahm's "At the Crossroads," which is an epically dusty and thoroughly Texan triumph, and then repeat the same trick with Sonny Bono's "Laugh at Me," which is a bit too similar in mood, approach, atmosphere, and laid-back performance - and you know how sequels that hew too close to the first installment do tend to be at least a bit weaker. Perhaps they shouldn't have sequenced those two songs one right after the other, and the fact that the first three songs are all covers is a mite distressing. But they're all good so far, eh?
The fourth track, "Backsliding Fearlessly," confirms those suspicions of distress by being a gross and unmitigated disaster: it's a shameless rewrite (not even that - it's simply the same chord sequence played backwards!) of "The Times They Are A'Changin' " with added, and unfortunate, gospel overtones in the chorus. So far, three credited covers and one shamelessly uncredited cover - can this band even write any of their songs? Take a deep breath - "Rock and Roll Queen," which practically invents a brand of quintessentially '70s sleazy/crunchy hard boogie that the ilks of Aerosmith would ride on the saddle to the bank, answers that query in the affirmative. Too bad it's the sole great original on this record. You can safely lift the needle from the vinyl after this point, because the next track is two minutes of instrumental noodling that links Track #5 with Track #7, all eleven failed minutes of "Half Moon Bay." Actually, it's not half-bad, despite the ludicrously inflated running time - as the band leisurely lopes along, Hunter slaps on his shades and delves into pure pseudo-profound Dylan mode, croaking an apparently meaningless but equally apparently heartfelt and soulful monologue about searching every day for....well, something. He never finds it and it takes him eleven full futile minutes and a piano solo to get back to square one nowhere. The final track is two minutes of nothing more than anarchic noise (literally), and does not merit further discussion.
Whew! That's a lot of words for an album that is, in the ultimate analysis, simply not that great. Perhaps the band's long-windedness has infected me. A positive grade of three stars may seem a bit generous, lukewarm though it may be - however, this album somehow manages to hold up better than the sum of its weaker parts. I like it in spite of its glaring weaknesses - which sums up many a critic's view of Mott the Hoople's career in the proverbial nut & shell.