David Bowie was many, countless things, but there’s one question about the music world’s most celebrated shapeshifter that’s often baffled me over the years. ‘Why was he such a pathological liar?’ Nope. ‘Did he really not remember anything about the recording of Station To Station?’ Erm, obviously not. ‘Was his “notorious” ‘Bowie constrictor’ really as huge as we’re led to believe, by everyone from Debbie Harry to my old MOJO boss biographer Paul Trynka. Nope. That’s most definitely a double nope.
No, it’s what on earth did he ever see in those hoary old rockers Mott The Hoople?
As singer Ian Hunter turns 81, apparently, the Mott story is ‘legendary’, so it says here.
The legend goes like this: It’s March 1972, and Herefordshire heavies Mott The Hoople have yet to achieve a hit single or album. Since 1969, they’ve recorded four LPs that didn’t do very well, mainly because they were a murky mix of sludgy hard rock, irksome folk, Ian Hunter’s Dylan at Sainsburys musings, and try-all covers of everyone from Little Richard to Melanie to yes, you heard me correctly, Sonny Bono.
The Midlands miscreants had built up a small but solid live following (indeed, founder member of The Clash Mick Jones was part of a group of loyal fans called “The Mott Lot” when he was a teenager), but were under-appreciated beyond its core fan base. Island Records is pushing the band to tour incessantly but many of the venues are poor and low budgets make life on the road unpleasant.
Mott decided to call it quits following on stage bust ups at a depressing gig at Zürich Volkshaus, an abandoned gas holder in Switzerland’s largest city—you know you’re in trouble when you’re reduced to playing an abandoned gas holder anywhere–which Ian Hunter recounts in detail in the deep cut Ballad Of Mott The Hoople (26 March 1972, Zürich) off 1973’s Mott album.
Completing their contractual obligation dates in Switzerland and Germany, Mott return to England, where bassist Pete ‘Overend’ Watts remembers the previous autumn the band had turned down a new song sent over to them by struggling singer-songwriter and admirer David Bowie in the hope of something more Kinks like. Watts takes up the story:
“We received this tape at Island Studios one day just after the Brain Capers sessions. It was a seven and half inch spool in a box, and it said something like, ‘this may be of use to you. Give me a ring. Love David.’”
He phones the number on the cassette case, asking for a job.
By now, the song, Suffragette City, was earmarked for the as-yet-unreleased landmark opus The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, and Bowie/Ziggy’s quite happy with his current bass player Trevor Bolder (for now at least). But when he learns that Mott are packing it in, he is horrified, pleading they reconsider and, with boundless crusading zeal, vowing to save their career by giving them a hit, despite his own one-hit wonder status at the time.
Hunter was certainly aware of Bowie but they were polar opposites. Unpretentious versus showy artifice.
“I’d never met Bowie; I’d seen him once doing the performance art thing, in about 1965. I knew he was great but I didn’t like what he was doing. But the women lined up after his show, it was obvious the guy had something.”
So the carrot-topped chameleon, resplendent in a shiny blue jump-suit and colour coordinated Espana 12-string acoustic guitar (the same one he used for his watershed telly box moment, Starman on Top Of The Pops a few weeks later), sits down crossed-legged on the floor of his manager Tony Defries’ Regent Street office (or his house in Chelsea, according to biographer of the band Campbell Devine) and plays All The Young Dudes and tells the band he’s just written it especially for them. Defries, ever the fixer, talks about how he will get the band off Island and sign them up with Columbia.
Hunter once more:
“Bowie offered us Suffragette City first, which I liked but I knew it wouldn’t get on radio. Radio was closed to us, so I knew we needed something special. I thought it would be something like You Really Got Me, that was more how we were. But when he played Dudes, I could see how we could go to town and really do a number on it. I’m a peculiar singer but I knew that I could nail it.”
Organist Verden Allen recalls that “Bowie was a little nervous when he played the song. We were all crowded round him in a circle.” Asked if they wanted it, “We broke our necks to say yes,” drummer Dale Griffin later said. “I’d been waiting to hear something like that all my life,” added Hunter, though he has been forthright in his realisation that, although David was handing these overgrown desperados a song on a silver salver, he may have also told them a bit of a fib.
“I wondered why he was giving it to us. Ronson told me later that he’d done it himself and he wasn’t too happy with it. At the time, he told us that he’d written it specially for us, but that turned out not to be the case.”
One reason was simply timing: in early 1972, David still considered himself as much a songwriter as a performer and wanted to place a song with an established act with a faithful following like Mott. Quid pro quo, you might say.
Indeed, in this clip from the Howard Stern Show in 2001 Ian’s also more matter of fact, hilariously describing The Dame as “just some little geezer from Beckenham.”
Bowie, always the shameless self-mythologiser, began to start rumours about how he created the song. One story went that he invented it in the moment at the Gem offices. Another tale, which Bowie was still telling to MOJO in 2002, suggested that it had been inspired by Mott’s potential breakup.
“I literally wrote that within an hour or so of reading an article in one of the music rags that their breakup was imminent. I thought they were a fair little band, and I almost thought, ‘This will be an interesting thing to do, let’s see if I can write this song and keep them together.’ It sounds terribly modest now, but you go through that when you’re young.”
But this version of events slightly contradicts other stories Bowie had told about All The Young Dudes; specifically, instances in which he talked about the song’s connection to the epic he was envisioning for his then next record. In a 1974 issue of Rolling Stone, Bowie explained to William Burroughs that Dudes was apparently written about Ziggy and the events that take place in the concept album.*
“Ziggy was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and the kids no longer want rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this, and there is terrible news. All The Young Dudes is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”
Whatever the origins of the song, the band regrouped excitedly, this time adorned in the outrageous trappings of glam. Not that Mott was anything like bona fide glam band; they were North Country lads who looked like bricklayers. Kind of like Slade but even uglier, not androgynous androids or squawking pink monkey birds in the slightest.
But Mott saw the glam bandwagon (to find it all you had to do was follow the trail of glitter), headed towards the Toppermost of the Poppermost and hopped on. But then so did everybody else, including Lou Reed, Elton John, Iggy Pop, Suzi Quatro, The Sweet, and that infamous pop pervert, Gary Glitter, to name just a few.
Rather than being about his teenage fans, Dudes sums up the kooky coterie who David would socialise with at London nightspots like the The Sombrero Club, in particular regulars Silly Billy, Wendy Kirby and outfitter Freddie Burretti, who had recently moved from Bletchley to London not long before my family did exactly the reverse that July.
With Bowie urging Mott to sign with the same Mainman management company that were running his affairs, Tony Defries booked time at London’s Olympic Studios in Barnes, on 14 and 15 May 1972, with Bowie providing backing vocals and a toot on the saxophone, and on the first day, a guide vocal for Dudes (below). This charming skeletal demo would eventually be welded, shotgun marriage style, to Mott’s finished riff and choruses in a 1998 box set release, All The Young Dudes: The Anthology, “because he thought his chorus vocals were weak.”
And that’s kinda ironic, when you consider he was teaching the song to Ian Hunter, whose voice was so limited and colourless that he probably made more than a few kids with guitars think if this guy can sing in a band, surely I can. The band, however, found countless ways to work around Hunter, from melodic harmonising on the choruses that he could yelp and talk-sing over to clever lead guitar parts that Ralphs used to inject hooks into the verses.
“It was almost mystical to me. To get technical about it, I wondered where the ‘magic spot’ was–this split second of magic. I realised it was on the line ‘carry the new-ews’–the chord change goes from a major chord to a minor chord. That experience coincided with me actually putting chord changes together on the guitar.” — Johnny Marr, 2003
Personally, Hunter’s inability to get through half an octave without cracking or morphing into a dock worker’s holler is one of the main reasons I struggle with Mott. Nevertheless, as is evidenced by his memoir, Hunter makes a great raconteur, and in 2016, Hunter recalled the initial two-track sessions with Bowie and in particular that Dudes only has two verses.
“We did Dudes in two evenings at Olympic and we did the B-side as well. He worked his ass off and we did them both, then sitting there listening to them, he said One Of The Boys is the single. ‘No!’ He was going ‘the back end of Dudes is boring’. So I went out and did a little rap on the back end and then he was happy, then he thought it was the single. We knew it was the single right from the off.”
The stellar single became a huge lighter-waving hit and what critics described as “the ultimate 70’s glitterkid anthem”. With an intention to make Mott “basic and commercial”, David and right-hand man Mick Ronson went on to produce Mott’s fifth album, also called All The Young Dudes, both Bowie and Ronno’s first full length production for another act, just just as their own careers took off into the stratosphere.
“I remember, we had done the single and he thought he was going to write more material for the Dudes album but he came to see us in a rehearsal room and said ‘no, this stuff is good, we’ll just go with this stuff’. He could have said ‘well, let’s do a couple more of mine’ but he didn’t do that, he went flat out with what we had.”
“He was a nice bloke, really generous with his time, as far as my band was concerned, very helpful. He was full on. He was strange, one eye was a bit dodgy, y’know what I mean? You had a feeling he was slightly otherworldly but he didn’t come off that way at all, he was perfectly normal and so was Angie. We didn’t know much about studios. He’d worked with Tony Visconti, he knew how to mic stuff and so did Mick. He learned a lot off them. The studio was a different animal. Before that, when we were on Island, we treated the studio more like a gig. With David it was like ‘well, you can do this, you can do that’. It was a learning experience.”
“He wanted us to open for him. He got Roxy Music to do it but you didn’t do that. David is strict, 45 per cent of the lights, 45 per cent of the sound. You would pass like a mild irritation, so we wouldn’t do it. He was a mover. I thought the band was okay, but the visual was so strong. We’d just come out of flower power and the blues and this was a huge injection. Whereas the rest of us all thought we were flash rockers, this was glam. Ronson looked spectacular, they looked amazing. It really was a night out. He was just a normal bloke [but] he just got so big after a while that everyone thought he’d become extra-terrestrial!”
He still sounds astonished Bowie took an interest in his primal earth band – without All The Young Dudes, it’s very likely Mott would have split in 1972 without a hit and Hunter would not have the reputation, at 81, that enables him to still work as a full-time musician.
“Who else at that stage in his career would start giving away time and songs to other people? Which he did with me and Mott, Lou Reed, Iggy. How did he find the time for that? He was extremely ambitious, but still found time to do other things as well, which I think is quite remarkable.”
What Bowie had that set him apart – aside from a prodigious work ethic – was boundless confidence, Hunter says. And that self-marketeer Madison Avenue advertising agency quality, which calculates that their self-absorbed and slightly manipulative enthusiasm for their own work rubs off on others.
“We were doing a session with him and he said, ‘Come with me.’ And we go into another room and he played me John, I’m Only Dancing. And when it finished, he did such a sales job on me, about how wonderful it was, how he’d wanted to do it for years. I thought it was crap. But he astonished me – when I play somebody something, I cringe. Still, to this day. I’m terrified in case they hate it. With David, there was nobody else in the world: ‘This is fantastic!’ And that’s what innovators do.”
Adds Overend Watts:
“Bowie was a strange bloke. Very talented, but he could be difficult and a bit moody.”
Guitarist Mick Ralphs:
“Bowie producing Dudes wear the best thing that ever happened to us. he saved our bacon really. I realised he was an artist who used music as a vehicle for his painting.”
Drummer Dale Griffin:
“The best thing that David did was offer us Drive-In Saturday as a follow up to Dudes, and then not give it to us. That made Ian very keen to write a hit single, which he did four or five times. In a way, the dangling of the carrot and taking it away made us all more determined, particularly Ian. Let’s face it, Drive-In Saturday isn’t the greatest song in the world. Bowie’s instinct to withdraw it was good for all concerned.”
Nevertheless, despite Hunter, Ronson and Bowie teaming up for a one-off live rendition of Dudes at the Freddie Mercury Concert For Aids Awareness in 1992, Ian thinks Bowie had misjudged Mott. I suspect he admired Mott because he deemed them authentic, which is something he knew he could never be. But maybe also because they were from Hereford and he was from Mars, and who would come from Hereford but thugs? He probably was seduced by their supposed machismo.
“The first time he met us, it took him four hours to get ready. I know this because Angie Bowie told me. He thought I was the head of a motorcycle gang. He was very into the macho thing. And he thought I was macho. And he probably liked Lou Reed for the same reason. He seemed to like people like that. He was shaking when he met us, real nervous. He thought we were a lot heavier than we were… heavy duty punks. We were about the first punk rock band to come out of England.”
I guess it’s that hairy heaviness that I always struggled with. Bowie found in Mott a wildness, a raw energy, that he could not quite find in his own performances. Bowie often had a penchant for being the English Iggy Pop, but he was always too controlled for that primal, wild abandon, even during the derided Tin Machine era.
Simply put, Bowie had too much of an effete pop sensibility to sound too ‘heavy’ like a lot of American-flavoured rock did. And we can all be thankful the Spiders didn’t turn into a lighter shade of Deep Purple, which they build have easily done on their reclamation remake of All The Young Dudes during early sessions for 1973’s Aladdin Sane album. (Note how Bowie had switched the line about “stealing clothes from Marks & Sparks” to “unlocked cars” because of complaints from the High Street retailer.)
Still, I did tough it out and decided to catch Ian live at the Forum in Kentish Town in August of 1993 (Friday the 13th, how apt), but, alas, then again I caught the Stonewall Equality Show at the London Palladium a few weeks later, and a concert featuring Pet Shop Boys, Julian Clary and the cast of Absolutely Fabulous was a helluvalot more fun, not to mention better groomed.
Still, despite my reservations about the band, All The Young Dudes is a stirring, gloriously anthemic single. Other than the cover of the Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane that was so obviously suggested by Bowie, I can barely remember anything about the album of the same name. Though I certainly wouldn’t turn off the radio if later single All The Way From Memphis came on.
All the way from Sydney, happy birthday Ian.
*Of course, this doesn’t rule out that by 1974 Bowie had refashioned the backstory of All The Young Dudes to fit with the story arc of the Ziggy Stardust musical he was planning
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“I used to love Mott. Me and my friends at school would go and see them all the time – great nights at the Sundown in Edmonton! We were called The Mott Lot. I was living in Hampstead when I first heard All The Young Dudes. It came on the radio one night, it was probably on the John Peel Show. As soon as I heard it I knew it was going to be massive and change everything. It was like when you first heard Ride A White Swan. Mott were on their last legs at that point, but Bowie saved them from the abyss. He gave them the song, came in and produced it and turned their career around completely. It’s a landmark track, their Hey Jude.”