Ian Hunter Abandons Mott, Recruits Ronson
by Leo Warner
They came in through the hotel window. To the thrilled surprise of the entire New York press corps, a tiger-striped Mick Ronson and the punkishly jeaned Ian Hunter took their seats at the conference table, hugged each other, and with shy smiles broke the explosive news that Ariel Bender had left Mott the Hoople, and Ronno was to replace him. Mott seemed to have weathered yet another perilous squall in their stormy career, once again turning the tide from non-fatal discouragement to optimism. Still shaken from his close escape from involuntary retirement, Hoople drummer Dale Griffin remarked to Circus Magazine, 'After Ariel decided to leave and get on with his solo career, I think we could have packed it in if we hadn't gotten Ronno. We couldn't have brought in just any guitarist.' The new Mott line-up quickly cut a single, 'Saturday Gigs,' and released it to coincide with the band's most extensive tour of Eurpope and Britain in some time. That cross-Continental tour would prove to be Mott's ultimate and irrevocable undoing.
No sooner had Ronson accustomed himself to performing with the ill-starred rockers on stage, than Ian Hunter suffered a physical collapse while visiting his American manager in New York during a short break in Mott's non-stop concert schedule. Their upcoming English dates were first postponed, then scrapped altogether, as Hunter's doctor prescribed a period of complete rest. For a time, it appeared that Mott's five figure financial loss on the British tour would be the least of Ian's problems. His nerves had turned as raw as one of Ronson's intensely shrill power chords. Although he still regarded the members of Mott themselves as his closest friends, Hunter was no longer willing to live up to the band's image and reputation, which seemed to limit the group to high-energy raving without respite. 'There was a tremendous amount of pressure on Ian during the Mott European tour which led to his breakdown. The whole show was on Ian and touring Europe is the pits. The promoters are unprofessional and they lie to the artist,' Hunter's manager Fred Heller told Circus Raves recently, setting the scene for an even more momentous revelation.
Night of the Hunter: 'Ian Hunter will pursue a solo career,' announced Heller, pausing dramatically to draw on an expensive cigar while a Lincoln Continental limousine awaited his pleasure. 'Mick Ronson will serve as his guitarist, musical director, and co-producer. Dale Griffin, Pete Watts, and Morgan Fisher are deciding whether to carry on as Mott The Hoople, but Ian has resolved to record and tour under his own name. He doesn't want Mott's name or image to carry over into his solo career.' Ronson's recruitment into Mott's ranks was to have launched the Hoople into its most productive era ever; now, a suddenly formed Hunter-Ronson partnership had provided the impetus for the most important decision Ian Hunter had ever had to make in his life as a professional rock 'n' roller.
'By deciding to go solo, Ian now has a vehicle which he felt wasn't open to him as the lead singer of Mott the Hoople,' Heller explained, visibly relieved to have an answer for all the rumors which had begun to circulate around the rock world regarding Hunter's health and Mott's destiny. 'Ian's discontent with his situation had nothing to do with the individuals in Mott the Hoople,' stated Heller firmly, as he attempted to make clear what was undoubtedly one of the most complex problems he had ever had to deal with as a manager for the likes of Blood, Sweat and Tears and at one time, Lou Reed. 'Ian felt the concept, image, and reputation of Mott trapped him into doing mainly rockers like 'Sucker' and 'Jerkin' Crocus.' He's into more sensitive songs like 'Rose' and 'Rest In Peace,' which were never really picked up on. His great slow numbers were being overshadowed by the image Mott had in concert--they were definitely one of the most powerful live bands in rock with a heavily violent and sexual impact.'
Sex and violence: This flair for sex and violence had more and more been concentrated in the stage presence of Ian Hunter, whose habitual shades seemed to suggest an ominous mystery better cultivated in darkness. Yet, still committed to the Mott democratic tradition of 'all for one, and one for all,' Ian had actually resisted the spotlight of stardom which had singled him out increasingly after the departure of first Verden Allen, then Mick Ralphs, and finally Ariel Bender. 'I think my chief role is to be a writer,' he suggested to a Circus Raves interviewer last fall, hopeful as he was then that Ronson would help shift some of the attention away from him. 'That's more important to me than to be a front-man or even a musician. Mick Ronson is every bit the front-man I am, and so was Mick Ralphs. I just really want to be free to write for the group.' Strangely enough, however, it was Hunter tunes like 'Violence' and 'One of the Boys' that had established Mott's compelling aggressive attitude to begin with, before that aggression turned itself inward and began to destroy its creator. By the time Ronson joined the group, Ian was already aware that his songwriting would have to take on a different attitude if he and Mott were to rise above their reputation as under-dogs.
'I couldn't keep singing 'Hymn For the Dudes' forever,' he admitted. 'It's become a parody of itself, hasn't it? It makes me look a bit foolish, I think.' Like Dr. Frankenstein's unruly mutant, Hunter's material has begun to take over his talent. Somehow the frenzy that was Mott the Hoople had become Ian's monster.
Was Ralphs right?: 'It took Ian eighteen months longer than Mick Ralphs to come to the same sense of discouragement with the concept of Mott the Hoople,' Heller revealed. 'At this point in his career, he felt he wanted to be represented in an honest, non-hyped context. He wants his experience and credibility as a songwriter to be recognized first and foremost as a product of his individual talent. Ian will be recording in London during the time slot we'd originally planned for Mott's next LP. His first solo album will be a very transitional project, designed to pave the way for the first Hunter-Ronson tour this spring. Some of the material was slated for the next Hoople album, but there will be less emphasis on sheer rock 'n' roll. There's a lot of Hoople in it, but even more of Ian's own personality.'
Even before the final split from Mott became inevitable, Ian had been eager to begin work on some form of solo project. According to Heller, 'when Ian got out of the hospital after his collapse, he was naturally depressed and extremely anxious about his own future and the band's; he didn't want to go back to England right away. The doctor suggested that he get into something constructive, so Ronno flew over, and together they worked on Ian's material for about ten days. Most of the rehearsals and pre-production demos were done at Bobby Columby's (of B, S, + T) house in Westchester, N.Y.' With the Hunter-Ronson demos as evidence of Ian's solo intentions, Heller was able to negotiate a new long-term record contract with CBS, who also distributed Mott's albums world-wide. Industry insiders allege that Hunter's new deal involves a hefty six-figure sum, running into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Ian hits the road: Mott's huge 1975 American tour, which Heller feels 'would have earned them complete recognition for their work onstage' was cancelled--all forty cities. In its place, Heller quickly booked an Ian Hunter tour of somewhat shorter duration, to include key cities and smaller, more intimate concert halls. Along those mentioned was the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, which in the past has opened its doors to only a handful of rock acts, most notably the Who, when they performed 'Tommy' for the last time. In addition, Hunter will be making America his home base of operations for at least the next year; as of April he moves to a luxurious and secluded estate in Westchester, N.Y.. As Circus Raves reported in an earlier article, Britain's unusually high income tax made his continued residence there impractical.
Crucial to all of Hunter's latest plans is the availability and versatility of Mick Ronson. Since David Bowie disbanded the Spiders From Mars, Ronson has himself recorded two solo albums as a MainMan artiste: Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Play Don't Worry. Ronson had been interested in joining Mott as far back as Mick Ralph's departure, but differences between MainMan and Mott's management prevented this, and the frantic Ariel Bender was drafted in his stead. Despite financial security and a reasonably successful solo tour of England, Ronson remained a bit dissatisfied with his own first album and seemed as ready as ever to join his mates in Mott as an equal and invaluable member. On Bowie's albums as diverse as Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane, Ronno had proved himself as both an arranger and production adviser. Among both fans and critics, Ronson was generally considered to have enabled Bowie to put his music across in those early days when Mick's searing lead guitar helped to win over those put off by David's fey image. Yet after Pin-Ups, Bowie abruptly called an end to their relationship, and Ronno was left with a solo career it seemed he would gladly give up to once again be one of the boys.
Raves for Ronno: Though Mott was soon divided due to circumstances beyond Ronson's control, Hunter and Heller offered him an arrangement even more dynamic that the one he had enjoyed with Bowie. 'There will certainly be more of a band feeling to Ronson's collaboration with Ian than there was to his work with Bowie,' Heller maintains. 'Mick will be the key to Ian's frame of mind in the studio; Ian will probably be more involved with production and Mick more concerned with arrangement, but Ian's first solo album will be a co- production of the two of them. We have a drummer and a bassist that Mick played with in one of his pre-Bowie bands, and they've all been rehearsing in London and laying down backing tracks. On Ian's first tour, Ronno will be billed as 'musical director.''
As for the remainder of Mott, Ian's decision evidently hit them like a thunder-bolt. Now that they've reconciled themselves to his loss, they're working once again to record an album of their own, which will very likely feature Overend Watts as a priciple songwriter. Overend's 'Born Late '58' was a high point on The Hoople album, and since he and Dale Griffin have known each other for many years, they form as tight a rhythm section as any in rock. Dale's ambitions to produce were initially fulfilled by the Mott Live LP, and the youngest Hoople who once called himself Buffin is more than ready to take on more responsibility in that direction, a goal that apparently caused no small tension between him and Ian. Ian himself has been an eloquent advocate of Morgan Fisher's talents as keyboardist. So under whatever name they choose to work, the rest of Mott the Hoople stand every chance of recouping their popularity.
It was a popularity at once tremendous, deep-rooted, and unique. Beginning with England's most raucous young ravers, their following grew on both sides of the Atlantic until Bowie gave them 'All The Young Dudes,' and helped them almost overnight to become the superstars they had always longed to be. But no one realized better than Ian Hunter that rock 'n' roll's a loser's game; it makes one old before one's time and fosters chaotic energy over intellect every time. It's exhilarating, but it's also exhausting. As Eddie Cochran said in his classic '20 Flight Rock,' 'When I get to the top, I'm too tired to rock.' Mott the Hoople were the ultimate in brash teen-ego rock 'n' roll run amuck. But that stage of their struggle for stardom is at an end. When Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson tour together this spring, Mott's fans will glimpse a new depth and diversity in their idol. Ian Hunter is staging a brain caper all his own.