‘The Ballad of Mott the Hoople’

Rock-doc goes backstage with Mott the Hoople


The embalming of rock history continues apace, and some days it seems as if every band that had a following in the 1960s or ’70s is getting a rockumentary of its own. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just boomer nostalgia: Bands back then were mapping out new territory, whereas contemporary rock seems largely content to stick to the paths. Influences were seen as a stepping stone then; now they’re more of a crutch, and I suppose we can thank postmodernism for that.

Still, a documentary on British glam-rock band Mott the Hoople seemed a bit of a stretch. Compared with David Bowie, T. Rex or Roxy Music, they were a footnote; their biggest hit (“All the Young Dudes”) was even penned by Bowie. The band’s stylistic changes over the years — from fresh-faced Buddy Holly wannabes to hard-rocking proto-punk rhythm and blues then sun-flared West Coast country-folk and finally the full visual excess of glam — suggest a real-life version of Spinal Tap. This feeling is only reinforced by the thigh-high white vinyl platform boots, silver crosses painted over chest hair and stages full of dangling marionettes.

Nevertheless, I walked away from “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople” with a grudging respect for the band. Mott started in the late ’60s as a group of kids who could all play fairly well, and whose full-steam live performances and frequent touring quickly won them a dedicated fan base around the U.K. The problem was that there was no clear stylistic direction for the band other than a desire to play. Producer Guy Stevens was their gateway to Island Records and a record deal, and they pretty much conformed to his image of what a band should be: intense.

Stevens could earn a film in his own right: A key figure in ’60s London as a Mod DJ whose knowledge of American R&B and blues informed bands such as The Who and The Rolling Stones, Stevens was a mercurial type who had a great sense for spotting talent (he would go on to produce The Clash’s masterpiece “London Calling” in 1979, shortly before his death from an overdose), but he was also a speed-freak who routinely left chaos in his wake. Recording engineer Andy Johns dryly recalls a Hoople studio session where “Guy was throwing chairs into the walls to ‘inspire’ them, which I seem to remember was somewhat inspiring.”

It’s hard not to respect a producer who states, as Stevens did, that “making a record is an event. Big Letters: AN EVENT. It’s not just ‘another’ session; I hate people with that attitude. It’s electricity, it’s got to be. I could well die while making a record, it’s that important.” It’s a sad reminder of a time where recorded music mattered, as we sink deeper into the digital age of disposable MP3s, where bands are told that albums should merely be “calling cards” for their live tours.

Of course, all these Internet “free music” evangelists who are telling bands to make their living from touring should see this film. Singer Ian Hunter talks of how the band topped off at a level of packing 3,000-person venues, and yet were constantly broke because their albums weren’t selling. Another anecdote has the band describing how they made better money buying cheap used guitars in America and reselling them back in London than they actually did on tour. Hunter notes how “people talk about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s bloody hard work, that’s what it was.”

The band would break up once due to the grueling pace, only to be resuscitated by Bowie’s enthusiasm and support. Members came and went — including Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson and keyboardist Morgan Fisher, who currently resides in Tokyo and can be found playing free-form keyboard improvisations monthly at Roppongi’s SuperDeluxe — and the band seemed to try out a new sound with every album until Hunter’s songwriting blossomed in their ’72-’74 glam phase. Everything seemed to finally be clicking when Hunter just walked away from it all. (Rather like Cherie Currie in last year’s band biopic “The Runaways.”)

The stress of heavy touring, clashing personalities within the band and the constant need to come up with yet another hit single took its toll, and Hunter cracked. “There’s nothing there,” he says of rock ‘n’ roll success. “The fun is the ride, but there ain’t no station.” Hunter joins the massed ranks of those disaffected by rock stardom, but at least he got out in one piece, unlike many of his contemporaries.

While Mott may not have been the most Earth-shatteringly influential band of their era, they certainly inspired devotion in many: Just watch Clash/ Big Audio Dynamite guitarist/singer Mick Jones become a puppy-eyed fanboy as he describes his teenage obsession with the band. This film may give you a clue as to why.