The Hoople (1974) ***
....and right after they scale the artistic and commercial heights, it all begins to unravel. Mick Ralphs departed prior to the sessions, leaving a gaping artistic hole that newly recruited guitarist Ariel Bender can't quite fill. Actually, Bender's six-slinging abilities are not the problem - he's flashier than Ralphs' trademark gritty rumble; inferior but not drastically so. It's the songwriting: since Hunter's approach for penning rockers was to bounce ideas and riffs off of his guitarist, what does Ian do with his guitar-playing partner absent? Hunter admits that he was forced to compose his songs on piano, which works fine on the ballads, but the more rockin' numbers - well, 'tis another story. The pomp-rock piano-based rockers which take up a third of the record are overblown, overheated messes, and you can be sure that Queen were taking close and careful notes (that is not a compliment). "The Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll," with its ridiculous Quadrophenia horns, roars mighty dull compared to "All the Way From Memphis" - but at least it's mildly tolerable, unlike the barely mitigated disasters "Marionnette" and "Pearl'N'Roy". Those three, and the record as a whole, come across as significantly more overproduced and thus stereotypically glitter than any previous Mott record, and thus naturally more dated and disposable. There are precisely two crunchy guitar-based rockers, both sandwiched next to each other at the album mid-point. "Crash Street Kids," rewrites the previous LP's "Violence," and once again presages the sort of Yob street punk the likes of Cock Sparrer would be peddling a few years down the line. Overend Watts sneaks in a vocal spotlight, "Born Late '58," an ode to his car disguised as an ode to jailbait; an unextraordinary but promising songwriting debut. Of the three ballads, "Through the Looking Glass," defines the term power-ballad in all the worst ways: bombastic, oversung, overblown, and too short on an actual tune to justify its excess. The very Lou Reed-ish "Alice," works better (o the irony - Hunter hated Reed's music). It's about a NYC streetwalker, which leads to the question: why the hell did Hunter pen so many lyrics about hookers? He probably wrote more songs about prostitutes than any other major '70s rock songwriter. The gentle and heartfelt "Trudi's Song," is a love note to his wife, who I'm assuming was not a prostitute. The album ends with the verging on power-pop "Roll Away the Stone," which is actually a re-recording of a single they'd originally issued when Ralphs was in the band. Unsurprisingly, it's far and away the best song on here: pure, glorious Mott at their very best, and proof that if Ralphs had stuck around, they might likely have had another masterpiece in'em. It's also an inferior take (Ariel Bender on guitar) better heard on the original Ralphs-played version.
The bonus tracks don't necessarily mitigate the sting of disappointment. None of the B-sides can exactly be termed essential or even very good, while the Phil Spector tribute "Foxy, Foxy," was a baffling choice for a non-LP A-side (i.e., it blows). "Saturday Gigs," the triumphant yet elegiac final Mott the Hoople single, bids the fans farewell as Hunter recounts the band's history and fades out on a repeated wave of "goodbye, goodbye, goodbye...." choruses. The band had its day and knew it and decided to bow out gracefully. Ironically, the ideal replacement for Mick Ralphs was sitting in on that very studio session: Mick Ronson, lately estranged from David Bowie, had just replaced Bender in the band. Ronson did stick around to tag-team with Hunter for Ian's solo career, which produced occasionally fine results but never quite up to Mott level. The remainders of the band made the unfortunate decision to carry on, shortening the band name to just Mott, with Overend Watts in the driver's seat. Any potential promise Watts showed with "Born Late '58," quickly fizzled out - the two mid-'70s albums released as Mott are complete wastes of vinyl, with virtually no traces of a once-great band to be found buried underneath the generic cock-rock bluster. Perhaps I'll review them if a doddering Ian Hunter, now past 70, ever consents to a Mott the Hoople reunion tour.
.....oh f#@%, you don't tell me!....