If it was fiction, it would be too cliché-ridden to be believed: young British working-class rock ‘n’ rollers form a band in 1969 and build a fan base one member at a time while playing their asses off in every hall that’ll have them. They achieve early success; they almost implode, but are saved by a famous rocker who also happens to be a fan and bestows upon them a song that they ride to even greater heights; the original five begin to crumble again a bit at a time – and the end finally comes for the band, having blazed a path that’s still being followed, 40 years or so later.
It was real, however: the band was Mott The Hoople; their savior in their hour of darkness was David Bowie; and the song was “All The Young Dudes”. They came out of nowhere, went everywhere, and left a vapor trail in their wake that’s still visible. The Ballad of Mott the Hoople documents the band’s story with stories and remembrances from survivors of the scene, along with film of Mott in action.
Early on in the movie, the deserved focus is on Guy Stevens, the mad genius responsible for (among other things):
A.) hooking the core band up with Island Records;
B.) bringing Ian Hunter on board as lead singer; and
C.) giving the now-complete band their name (taken from a novel Stevens read while in prison on drug charges).
Stevens (who once said, “There are only two Phil Spectors in this world and one of them is me”) served as the band’s mentor and producer for their first four albums. He’s given his proper due by all hands interviewed as the man who honed and shaped the original five raw talents into Mott The Hoople.
As far as the DVD’s production is concerned, there’s nothing radical here: vintage concert footage and still shots are spliced in between modern-day interview clips with the band members and folks in their extended circle – all pretty much standard documentary format. The payoff, however, is the passion that those involved (on both sides of the stage lights) had – and still have.
Veteran recording engineer Andy Johns gets damn near bubbly when reminiscing about the challenge of capturing Mott The Hoople’s energy in a studio setting. The Clash’s Mick Jones – no stranger to rock ‘n’ roll glory himself – is simply a fan in this case, grinning the biggest kind of grin as he remembers what he and his buds would go through to make the Mott shows in the early years. Same for Stan Tippins, the man who was to Mott The Hoople what Ian Stewart was to the Stones: Tippins simply wasn’t lead singer material in Guy Stevens’ eyes. Dismissed from his position at the mic, Tippins took on the roll of tour manager when Ian Hunter was brought on board. Tippins tells his story with the smile of one who understands how the world turns.
Ian Hunter (he of the perpetual shades) looks more like Don Imus than a rock star these days (and his dry, almost gruff delivery only adds to the effect), but his narration of the Mott legend feels honest. He has the ability to laugh at some of the old rubs, for sure – but there are still things that cause him to tighten his jaw. The same is true for the rest of the band: the interviews are conducted in separate settings, allowing everyone to call it the way they saw it – or the way they remember seeing it, anyway – without interruption or correction by any of the other players.
The movie ends (and this is no spoiler, folks – if anything, it should make you want to watch it even more) on a poignant note: drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin almost looks shy as he admits to the camera, “The only band I ever wanted to be in was Mott The Hoople. I know it’s ridiculous, but it was such a strange and weird and wonderful band.” By the time of the band’s reunion shows at Hammersmith Apollo in October of 2009 – the first time in 35 years that the original five had shared a stage – Griffin was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was only able to man his drum kit for the encores on each night of the 5-show run.
They’re young dudes no longer, but the music and the stories behind it are part of music history. The Ballad of Mott the Hoople is just as “strange and weird and wonderful” as rock ‘n’ roll should be.