The continuing diary of a rock’n’roll star

Dave Woodhall gets a lesson in musical history from the legendary Ian Hunter.

Mott the Hoople were the classic seventies glam rock band. Famously described by Freddie Mercury as looking like “bricklayers in drag,” they had a string of memorable hits, did all the outrageous things rock bands were supposed to do, and then split during an American tour that looked set to propel them into the big league. That was over forty years ago, but it’s still a surprise to hear that frontman Ian Hunter’s now 78 years old, and still performing.

“We just keep doing it. It keeps me young.”

You couldn’t have thought that you’d still be doing it now.

“I started out when I was fifteen. I saw Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly and that just became my passion. I’ve always wanted to do it ever since. They were all great natural talents whereas you never thought you’d get anywhere. Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, all those people. It wasn’t until Bob Dylan came along and changed everything round that I thought I might have a chance. I’ll carry on doing it now until something goes wrong.”

I suppose it’s ironic that if you have a real job you usually try to retire as early as you can, but if you’re in entertainment, whether music or acting, if you retire people think you’re either about to drop dead or that nobody wants you anymore.

“There’s an element of truth in both those things but I think it’s because we love what we do. It’s still a passion and you want to continue doing what you love.”

In all those years you must have seen just about everything there was to witness. The Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks; you must have got closer to them than most.

“Well, sometimes I hung out with wilder people than I was but it’s only in retrospect that it seems so wild. I’ve never really thought about it. We opened for the Kinks in the USA and half of our set was You Really Got Me. Pete our bass player said to Ray Davis, ‘Do you mind if we do it, we can only do twenty minutes if we take it out’. So Ray says he doesn’t mind and then he’s on stage and he says ‘Here’s another song from Mott the Rip-off’. That was in the early days, then we wrote a few songs of our own.”

“A few songs of our own,” like you just knocked them up in five minutes.

“It was a bit longer than that, but it was still a decent hourly rate.”

You might think it’s a pity that your book Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star came out so long ago. It would surely be a big seller now.

“It’s coming out again. I’ve had a few offers and normally I’ve not gone with them but Omni, they can get into the shops and airports. It’s the original book with a couple of new bits and pieces.”

If you included it all you’d be looking at something approaching War and Peace length. But sadly, like record sales, books aren’t big money-spinners anymore.

“That’s right, but at least this one’s going to be a solid publication. The first one was a 50p job.”

And hopefully a decent earner. Talking of which, all these years must have given you a built-in rip-off alarm.

“It didn’t happen with the book. That was plain and simple, easy enough to get paid when the copies sold, which is more than could be said for the labels. The only people who didn’t get ripped off in my day had an uncle who was a barrister or an attorney. We had a relative who was in the accounting business and these people knew what they were doing but in general… You’re too busy enjoying yourself to realise that you’re paying for it all out of your money, and with Mott we never had a string of labels chasing after us so you either took when they offered or you went back to the factory.”

I was talking recently to a promoter who said that while it was good to see so many bands touring again, they don’t see it as worthwhile to make records so after a few tours the audiences get tired of seeing the same sets every time.

“I’ve never seen the point of going out and always playing the same songs. Most of my set is new stuff; if I was doing the same old songs I’d be bored out of my mind. It would be different if I was going to do just Mott stuff but we did that a couple of times and it was great. I enjoyed it but I had to get back to doing what I do, and that includes writing songs.”

And playing Birmingham Town Hall soon.

“I like it there. I remember Mott playing there. I’ve played Symphony Hall as well. The Symphony made everybody sit down so it wasn’t that great to be honest but the Town Hall is fine. It costs a bit to put a show on there, though. I don’t have big label promotion anymore so we have to do a lot ourselves.”

The American tour, in 1974. You must have been asked this many times but if you’d not been taken ill then, would that have been the one that really made your name over there?

“We were the first band ever to do Broadway, was that the one? No, we were booked into Madison Square Garden on my birthday, June the 3rd. We were doing alright, we were doing ten to twenty thousand tickets but the band’s problems were becoming insurmountable. Mick Ralphs had left and there was nobody else to write the songs, it was all too much. I didn’t have the time or the inclination, maybe not the talent, to do all that.”

And over the next couple of years music turned round completely.

“Punk. Everything went punk and it didn’t really affect me because I was in the States although it was really funny because the press started taking the piss out of bands like Mott because we were glam or whatever you wanted to call it, then the punk bands said how much they liked us and they had to change their mind.”

That sounds a bit like Slade, who were also out of fashion at the time even though the bands who were in fashion loved them. And like Mott, they fell apart when illness, in their case bass player Jim Lea, hit when they were on the verge of finally cracking the States.

“We started out before them. And Noddy told me that if I could make it then anybody could. I like Noddy, he’s got a great voice. And he doesn’t have to work again, he’s got the Christmas pension. I’ve never got close to that.”

Although you made your home in the States. Are you there for good now?

“Looks like it. I live in Conneticut, about an hour north of New York. It’s different from growing up in Oswestry and Shropshire, Market Drayton and Whitchurch, those sort of places. I don’t know what they’re like now, butin the fifties they were a bit backwards.”

You mentioned writing mew material. Is there any in the pipeline?

“I did a new album last year, Fingers Crossed, that works out well live and I’m still plugging it. We leave the UK, then we do Germany, Spain, Switzerland then Australia next April.”

Sorry, I don’t believe you’re that old with a schedule like that.

“And it’s not like we travel in style.”

Ian Hunter and the Rant Band play Birmingham Town Hall on Sunday 25th June. Tickets