In early March, 35 people gathered on the first floor of a two-story house in Tokyo to listen to the British keyboard player Morgan Fisher reminisce about his days with 1970s rock act Mott the Hoople. This month, Fisher is joining a reunion of the band for brief tours of the U.S. and U.K. Since 1985 he has lived in Japan, and occasionally puts on “salon” concerts in the former piano instruction studio where he keeps a collection of keyboards of various vintage, a video projection setup and folding chairs.
On this night, Fisher, who turned 69 on New Year’s Day, sat behind his bank of keyboards telling stories, syncing up videos on his laptop and performing songs with accompaniment from a drum machine. There was no discernible script, just Fisher’s memory, which veered off on unexpected tangents. While describing Mott’s cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” he related an anecdote about going to a pub with the song’s composer, Lou Reed, and interpolated the song’s familiar guitar strum on the piano. Somehow, it morphed into Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” and then Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
One attendee, Masatoshi Arano, a music writer who has known Fisher since 2006, said during the intermission that Mott had a distinct following in Japan even if they never toured here. “Older fans know Mott as part of the glam rock scene of the early ’70s,” he says. “Younger Japanese got to know them only through reissues,” but those fans, which include several top-selling bands like The Yellow Monkey and The High-Lows, are quite intense about Mott, he added.
At the beginning of the presentation, Fisher stressed he was not an original member, having joined when original keyboard player, Verden Allen, quit after the band was revitalized by David Bowie, who produced its fifth album, “All the Young Dudes,” and donated the title hit song. Fisher started out as the touring pianist and played on “The Hoople,” the group’s last record with leader Ian Hunter. By that time, several original members had left, including guitarist Mick Ralphs, who went on to found Bad Company. In his place Mott hired guitarist Luther Grosvenor, who redubbed himself Ariel Bender.
It is Hunter, Fisher and Bender who are now touring as Mott the Hoople ’74, the surviving participants of a weeklong residence at the Uris Theater on Broadway in 1974, when Mott was at the peak of its popularity. But then Hunter called it a day, and without its distinctive lead singer and main songwriter, the band was basically through, though the remaining members did release two more albums.
The original lineup reunited for some London shows in 2009. Fisher attended but didn’t play, and since then the band’s bassist, Pete Overend Watts, and drummer, Dale “Buffin” Griffin, died. Hunter called Fisher and Bender last year and suggested another Mott reunion using his current backing group, The Rant Band. They played a string of successful festival gigs in Europe last summer, thus leading to this year’s tour. Fisher is optimistic it will be extended to other areas, including Japan, despite the fact that Hunter told Rolling Stone it probably won’t.
“It’s possible,” Fisher says several days later at a restaurant in Shinjuku. “That is, if there’s interest from promoters, and there are already a few offers. The New York and London shows are sold out.”
He’s charged up for the tour. He makes a good living in Japan as a studio musician and composer of advertising jingles and soundtracks, but longs for the rock ‘n’ roll life and thinks, at his age, there’s more of an advantage than there used to be. After mentioning that Hunter is 11 years older than he is, Fisher says, “We’re old enough to get treated properly now. You don’t exploit 70- or 80-year-olds.”
Having started out in the London band Love Affair when he was still in school, his choice of career was made for him when he put off higher education after the band hit No. 1 on the British charts, but after five top 10 singles and a change in musical tack that didn’t please its fan base, the group dissolved.
“It was the same as with most bands,” he says. “The singer quit.” Fisher formed another group, then drove a truck for a while but kept his eyes on the want ads in Melody Maker magazine. In 1973, he saw one soliciting a keyboard player. Mott needed a replacement for its American tour. Fisher knew the group by name.
“I was more into progressive rock,” he says, “but the first four Mott albums covered a lot of ground stylistically.” Like many bands of the era, Mott was basically formed by a manager, in this case the legendary Guy Stevens, who hired Ian Hunter, chose the band’s unusual name (the title of a novel he read in prison) and produced its early output. Fisher points out that Mott was famous for its raucous live shows but sold few albums, until Bowie helped focus the band’s strengths.
The British rock scene was like Major League Baseball, with players being traded at will. Bender came from Spooky Tooth and Bowie’s guitarist, Mick Ronson, briefly toured with Mott. In the ’80s, after Mott disbanded for good and Fisher traveled the world in search of enlightenment, Fisher got a telegram from Brian May.
He had known Queen from the start. Tim Staffell, the singer and bassist in May’s pre-Queen band Smile whom Freddie Mercury replaced, went on to sing with Fisher’s post-Love Affair outfit, and Queen opened for Mott 40 times.
“It was for the album ‘Hot Space,'” he says about the Queen tour he joined. “It had synthesizers, and they needed somebody to play them on stage. So they chose someone they knew.”
Though Fisher enjoyed his short time with Queen, he found the experience less fulfilling than Mott, which, thanks to Hunter’s influences — Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan — was looser. “Queen was like a Broadway show every night.”
Mott was also more down-to-earth, even if it was lumped in with the glam rock crowd thanks to the Bowie connection, Hunter’s penchant for writing songs about the rock life and the band’s colorful couture.
“I always thought glam rock was jokey bands like Sweet and Slade,” says Fisher. “But there’s no shame in dressing up for the public. Make an effort!”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5