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Monday, 17 September 2018
MOTT THE HOOPLE - MENTAL TRAIN : THE ISLAND YEARS 1969 - 1971 ( UMC 6 x CD).
Before David Bowie gifted Mott The Hoople ‘All The Young Dudes’, the song that would turn their fortunes around, they were on the verge of splitting up completely, playing a few final shows due to a contractual obligation. Originally part of Island Records late 60s/early 70s coterie of British “underground” rock bands that included among others Free, Spooky Tooth, Traffic, Blodwyn Pig, King Crimson, Heavy Jelly, Vinegar Joe and Jethro Tull, the band had been partly conceived, created and named after a Willard Manus novel by maverick Island in-house producer Guy Stevens who wanted a group that would fuse together Blonde On Blonde/Highway 61 Revisited era Dylan with the Rock ‘n’ Roll raunch of the Rolling Stones. Adding Shropshire singer/songwriter Ian Hunter to established, hard gigging Hereford band Silence, led by guitarist Mick Ralphs, Stevens had a band that had depth and lyrical sophistication but live were one of the most thrilling bands on the planet that would tear up venues night after night (it was a Mott The Hoople gig that got rock shows banned from The Royal Albert Hall in the 70s after a minor riot) and it was said that “on a good night, they were the best band in the world”. Between 1969 and 1971 Mott The Hoople recorded four albums for Island, with Stevens at the controls for the majority of the sessions, however their live reputation never lent itself to record sales and any attempt to break America was met with indifference with Island dropping the band after the release of Brain Capers in November 1971. The period that Mott The Hoople were on Island has been somewhat ignored. There was a compilation, Rock And Roll Queen, released in 1972 to take advantage of the band’s new found fame but most “Best Of’s” and newer releases tend to unsurprisingly concentrate on the hits on CBS……………until now. Mental Train (The Island Years 1969 - 1971) is a 6 x CD box set that brings together all four albums, remastered and with a ton of bonus tracks, plus a disc that comprises more unheard and, in some cases, unreleased music from the Island archive and to round everything off, a disc of live material recorded at Fairfield Hall, Croydon on 13th September 1970 plus a BBC Radio One In Concert from the Paris Theatre, London on 30th December 1971. Complete with extensive sleeve notes by the former Mott The Hoople fan club secretary, the veteran Rock writer Kris Needs (who also had a hand in selecting the disc of rarities) and a 50-page booklet designed by Phil Smee who scoured the archives for rare photos and memorabilia, tracing the evolution of the band, this is the most comprehensive collection of the band’s formative years to date.
Released in a sleeve depicting a brain teasing colorized reproduction of Escher's lithograph Reptiles, the debut, self titled, Mott The Hoople LP hit the record shops on November 22 1969. A cult hit among British heads, reaching 66 on the UK charts, the first album fits Guy Steven’s vision of Dylan fronting the Stones with a mix of covers (Doug Sham’s fantastic ‘At the Crossroads’, Sonny Bono’s ‘Laugh At Me’ and a berserk instrumental version of The Kinks ‘You Really Got Me’) and some Ian Hunter and Mick Ralphs songs. As a Blonde On Blonde era Dylan tribute Mott The Hoople works perfectly as Hunter’s piano intertwines with Verden Allen’s Hammond organ throughout the record creating swirling soundscapes underneath Hunter’s Dylan-esque sandpaper vocals on Mott originals ‘Backsliding Fearlessly’ and ‘Half Moon Bay’. The second side of the record has a rockier edge, featuring probably the best known song from this LP……….Mick Ralphs’ ‘Rock and Roll Queen’ is typical of much of his songwriting from this era with proto-metal riffing and…….erm………nowadays questionable lyrics about hard lovin’ women that Ralphs would eventually find International fame with Bad Company (‘Can’t Get Enough’ was originally written for Mott The Hoople fact fans). Ralphs provided counterbalance to Hunter’s Dylan influences, contributing songwriting and lead vocals on many of Mott’s best known songs of the Island era in addition to being a vastly under rated guitar player. Nearly 50 years on, much of the first Mott The Hoople LP still stands up well today………..although patchy in places it was the blue print for their time at Island. The bonus tracks included with the debut album collect together several alternate versions of ‘Rock and Roll Queen’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ plus Hunter’s ‘Road to Birmingham’ that first appeared as a single B side, although interesting not really essential.
Although critically savaged in the music press, Mad Shadows is a fantastic album and more influential than anybody dared to believe at the time. Released September 1970, this is where Mott The Hoople really started to find their way. Featuring a collection of original songs predominantly written by Ian Hunter and produced again by Guy Stevens it’s a much darker record with the Dylan influences still to the fore and no doubt the best of their four Island records. Mad Shadows includes five astounding Hunter compositions (‘No Wheels To Ride’, ‘You Are One Of Us’, ‘I Can Feel’, ‘When My Mind’s Gone’ and the ballsy Rock ‘n’ Roll wig out ‘Walking With A Mountain’) and possibly Mott The Hoople’s best song from the Island years, Ralphs’ electrifying ‘Thunderbuck Ram’. It’s a collection of songs that where criminally misunderstood at the time of release, with only Ralphs’ badly dated throwaway ‘Threads Of Iron’ a weak link, it’s a record that has aged beautifully over the passing of time and is due for a serious reassessment. If you only ever buy one Mott The Hoople record from their early years make sure it’s Mad Shadows. The bonus tracks include the alternate version of ‘Thunderbuck Ram’ that could be found on the Island sampler LP Bumpers and a BBC radio session recording of the same song along with a collection of demos, rehearsal cuts and alternative takes from the recording sessions. The live disc, It’s Live And Live Only, includes tracks recorded at Fairfield Hall, Croydon weeks before Mad Shadows hit the record racks and shows what a blistering Rock ‘n’ Roll band Mott The Hoople where on stage at the turn of the 70s……….."Mott would swing relentlessly and unstoppably into their show every night, like a marauding band of outlaws and every night there was something close to a riot – the kids couldn't get close enough; they simply couldn’t get enough. Ian Hunter – the unwritten boss – would plant himself centre-stage behind his shades and dare anyone to remain seated." Brian May, Queen…………..The centerpiece of the Fairfield Hall recordings is a stunning mash up of ‘No Wheels to Ride’ and ‘Hey Jude’ that is included with furious live versions of ‘Thunderbuck Ram’ and ‘Rock And Roll Queen’. No stranger to cover versions, Mott would take on classic tunes and completely own them and the live disc sees them dragging CSN&Y’s ‘Ohio’ from the West Coast to the West Midlands and giving it a good kicking along with supercharged versions of ‘Keep A-Knockin’ and ‘You Really Got Me’………….when most band’s were coming down in the post Psychedelic haze, Mott The Hoople were kicking in the doors and tearing the roof offa tha mutha. The live recordings show how understated the late Overend Watts and Buffin Griffin’s contribution to Mott The Hoople was……….never flashy but rock solid always propelling the band forward creating a solid base for Ralphs, Hunter and Allen to bend songs into strange and exciting shapes.
Let’s face it, Wild Life is a bit rubbish. Stung by the commercial failure of Mad Shadows Mott The Hoople returned to the studio late 1970 without Stevens to produce their own record. Although there are a few cracking tunes, including Hunter’s pastoral ‘Waterlow’ and sublime ‘Angel of Eighth Avenue’, Wild Life is the sound of a band seriously losing its way. Flirting with Country Rock, Gospel influences and an acoustic bucolic sound more akin to label mates Traffic, it sounds like a band desperate to have a hit record by introducing alien elements into their music……….of course there is yer by now expected Mick Ralphs’ paean to hard lovin’ women, ‘Whiskey Women’, but even then there is a shortage of songs with the album bulked out by 10 minutes of ‘Keep A-Knockin’’ from the Fairfield Hall recordings. With bonus tracks that include singles from the Wild Life sessions it’s not Mott The Hoople’s finest hour, even though it it charted 4 places higher than Mad Shadows.
With Guy Stevens back at the controls, Brain Capers was a return to form. Dedicated to the memory of James Dean, Mott The Hoople’s last album for Island, released in December 1971, returned to the Dylan/Stones fusion from the first two records with a much heavier sound. Possibly the “heaviest” of the early Mott records, Brain Capers has a post Psychedelic Hard Rock sheen with Allen’s snarling Hammond and Ralphs’ crunching guitar riffs not a million miles away from the sound of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep on tracks such as ‘Death May Be Your Santa Claus’ and the brilliant ‘The Moon Upstairs’. Apart from a couple of great covers (Jesse Colin Young’s ‘Darkness, Darkness’ and Dion’s ‘Your Own Backyard’) and a solo writing credit for Verden Allen for the soulful ‘Second Love’, Brain Capers is dominated by Hunter’s ever improving song writing has he slowly becomes the focal point of the band. The bonus tracks are fantastic collection of raw demos and alternate takes including early versions of ‘One Of The Boys’ and ‘Mommas Little Jewel’ that would later appear on All the Young Dudes. The second half of the live disc features a recording on 30 December 1971 from the Paris Theatre, London for a BBC Radio One, In Concert broadcast and features five tracks from Brain Capers (plus ‘Whiskey Women’ from Wild Life) with Mott in their element playing in front of a live audience. More focused than Wild Life, Brain Capers was supposed to be the record that turned Mott The Hoople’s formidable live reputation into record sales but to say that it died on it’s arse is something of a understatement. It was the first Mott album that failed to chart either in the UK or USA leading to Island dropping the band. Disillusioned and due to split up after a final gig in Zurich in March 1972………..that was until Bowie got wind of what was happening from Overend Watts and, reveling himself to be a massive fan of the band, persuaded them to carry on, first offering ‘Suffragette City’ before it was decided that ‘All The Young Dudes’ suited Mott best. The rest, they say, is another story for later on………………
Mott The Hoople’s output for Island was prodigious with four LPs in the space of just over 2 years. Disc 5 of Mental Train, The Ballads of Mott The Hoople, gathers together a mix of out takes, demos, alternate versions, live recordings and unreleased songs that there wasn’t room to include with the bonus tracks on the four albums, making this box as complete as possible history of the Island years. It’s a beautifully presented collection of mostly hard to find early material but at around forty quid of your hard earned, it’s more for the hardcore Mott fan and not intended as an introduction to the band (we recommend the 2009 The Very Best Of Mott The Hoople for that).
Due for release 02/11/2018, Mental Train (The Island Years 1969 - 1971) is available to pre-order now from all the usual suspects.