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Rock and Roll Reflections

March 1980
by Steve Caraway

Ian Hunter's music sounds like a condensed history of rock and roll. Both in his work with Mott the Hoople and his solo efforts, the influences have been clear. Hunter has managed to combine the styles of the Who, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Lou Reed into a separate contemporary musical identity.

Although Hunter has released five albums (Ian Hunter, All American Alien Boy, Overnight Angels, Shades of Ian Hunter, and You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic) and, one book (Reflections 6f a Rock Star), his best work has been. collaboration with guitarist Mick Ronson, probably best known for his work with David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars.

Ronson is a diverse musical entity. It shocked many of his fans when he joined Bob Dylan for the Rolling Thunder Review, but as Ronson said in an interview in a December 1976 issue of Guitar Player Magazine, 'It doesn't matter what the public thinks about my playing, whether it's Dylan or anybody - as long as I'm enjoying myself. Some people will like it, and some people won't.'

The current Hunter/Ronson band consists of drummer Eric Parker bassist Martin Briley, George Meyer and Tom Mandel on keyboards, and Tommy Morrongiello on third guitar. After six months on the road the band is back in New York to put some finishing touches on a soon to be released live album.

M.I.: When you were first developing musically, who were you listening to?

Hunter: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, The Stones. Presley really put it together, but he didn't write much - neither did Jerry Lee Lewis or Richard for that matter, but you can see how it came about. Little Richard was leaning over from gospel and R&B, and Jerry Lee Lewis came over from country, but they were both getting into that same area. Elvis just put it all together, same as the Beatles did later on. I also used to like the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry; it was the same sort of thing, countryish R&B and it worked out to be rock and roll.

Ronson: The Yardbirds, the Beatles later on, the Everly Brothers, the Shadows with Hank Marvin on guitar, the Stones, and I listened to the Ventures a bit too!

M.I.: What was the first instrument you played and why did you pick it up?

Hunter: Guitar was my first instrument. My uncle gave me one when I was young. It was a mess of a guitar, with a bent neck and everything. My father was a policeman and he wouldn't have it in the house, so I had to keep it in the garage outside the house and it got even 'benter.'

Ronson: Guitar wasn't my first instrument; I played piano and violin. I really didn't want to play violin, I wanted to play cello, but they wouldn't teach me cello, So I played violin first, then viola, and eventually on to cello. Then I wanted to be a drummer, I couldn't become a drummer because I couldn't afford any drums of my own. I couldn't give up violin lessons, and I ended up getting a guitar because that was much cheaper. That's how I became a guitar player.

M.I.: Ian, were you in any other group before Mott The Hoople?

Hunter: I was only in one before Mott, and that was just a pub thing. This guy was like a Jerry Lee Lewis act, and I played bass for him. We went to Germany and played the Star Club. It was after the Beatles were there and the place was winding down a bit, but you could still I get a month's work there and you'd make $8.00 a week. That was good money then, and you could live on it. It was good fun; it was like a holiday. We'd come back to England and do weekends in pubs and local church halls. You'd have to work, too, and you'd have to get a part-time job on the side. In England we'd get $16 between five of us, so you couldn't really exist on that. If you weren't on the top of the bill you'd get $12!

1 perfected a way of not paying off amps! We used to put $10 down on the amp and then move [laughs]. Then we'd move again, and move again, and move again, and they'd never catch up with us. It was the only way we could get gear; nobody had any money. I think it was a little different in America, but in England our parents didn't have any money. Most players of that time had to thieve, borrow, or do whatever to get their gear. It was good because you had to fight to play; it wasn't just shoved in your hands. So many parents just give their kids guitars, it's not right - the kid's got to fight to do it!

M.I.: Mick, how did you get involved with David Bowie?

Ronson: I was staying at his house one day, I just knew him, and he asked me to do this radio show with him. I didn't know any of his music, and I just played along the best I could. He came to me and said, 'Hey, why don't you join the band?' I thought about it for a little while, because every time I got involved with anything it took a lifetime to get out, and I didn't want that. I thought, 'Well, Jesus, I might as well give it another go because if I don't, I'll kick myself in the head.' I went for it one more time and it paid off!

M.I.: Can you explain how Mott The Hoople got together?

Hunter: I just answered an audition ad in the paper. They were already together and they just needed a singer/piano player. They wanted somebody who sounded a bit like Bob Dylan and who played piano. They got hold of some demos of mine, and I never went to the audition. They listened to the demos, and asked me to come around, and I got the gig.

M.I.: When you first came to the U.S. with Mott, what was your impression?

Hunter: It was a buzz. I think that English kids think of the United States and American kids think of England. It was pretty frightening since we came into New York. We saw the skyline as we came into the city and thought, 'What are we taking on here?' A bit intimidating really. Everything is bigger in the U.S. and there is a lot more hype. We found the crowds to be pretty much the same, except that certain bands broke in England and never over here. Slade had that problem as well as T. Rex. American kids took to certain bands really and not to others. The Police are doing well in the States now, and even the Clash are getting good reviews. I can't figure out why about the Clash either. I have been a big fan of the band for a long time, and I know them. I don't want to put them down, but when the critics start tossin' Lennon and McCartney around as comparisons - I don't understand it. It's too bad really, because the band might start to believe it.

M.I.: Do you remember what kind of gear you were using with Mott?

Hunter: I can't even remember what I was using in 1973, and that was 1969! We used anything, but mainly Marshall amps. The gear was just there and we used it. We couldn't control it, and some of the gigs were total disasters. Then one day at rehearsal we set up 4x12's instead of stacks, and we found that we could then control the sound much better and it wasn't in control of us.

M.I.: Ian, you had some very strange looking guitars with Mott. Can you explain those instruments?

Hunter: I had a Maltese cross guitar that I bought in San Francisco, and I had one that was shaped like a big 'H' that was made in London by a couple of guys.

M.I.: Mick, what were you using with Bowie?

Ronson: I played the same kind of guitars as I do now, Les Pauls. Back then I liked to use Marshall amps, but lately I have been using a small Music Man amp. I don't know if it sounds any different, but it is, a really nice amp, especially if you're not playing too loud.

Hunter: We've been getting into playing quieter. I know out front it seems loud, but onstage it's getting quieter. On You're Never Alone With A Schizophrenic Mick used his Les Pauls and ...

Ronson: No, I used a Telecaster on the album except on 'Cleveland Rocks' where I used a Stratocaster. Not old ones, just regular Fenders. Back with Bowie I mainly used a nice '59 Les Paul. I don't really care about what I use, whatever sounds right. In fact, on the current album for the studio tracks Harvey Goldberg, who is engineering, said that he had a guitar and asked if I wanted to use it, so I did.

Hunter: I was doing some playing with Leslie West, and Leslie just picked up a guitar and amp at SIR [Studio Instrument Rentals] - neither of them was what he normally used - but it sounded the same. It's all in your ear, not in what instrument you play.

M.I.: How did you two meet?

Hunter: We were doing 'All The Young Dudes' dates with Bowie producing, and Mick arranged a track on that LP. Tony DeFries took Mott over as manager, and Bowie and Ronson were already managed by DeFries; we just kind of fell in with each other. We didn't start playing with each other until later, really. Bowie had 'retired', and I ran into a couple of people I knew and they said Mick was just sitting around. I wasn't happy with the way Luther Grosvenor (Ariel Bender) was playing with Mott, so I went down to Mick's one night. I was in trouble because Mott wasn't sounding right - and Mick just never rings you up. So I went down there and asked him to join Mott, and that lasted a short period of time.

M.I.: You two collaborated on Ian's first solo album, Ian Hunter. How did that come about?

Hunter: After I left Mott I moved to New York. There was a lot of flack going down, and I was a bit dodgy as it was. We were all fucked up at the time. So instead of sitting around I felt the best thing we could do was go into the studio and do an album. We had about half of it written when we went in there, and the whole thing was done in six weeks. In fact, 'Once Bitten, Twice Shy', which was a hit in England, wasn't written until ten days before the album was finished. We were just writing as we were going.

M.I.: When you write, is there any pattern to your creativity?

Hunter: No, I honestly don't know how the songs come together, and there is no order to my writing. I wish I did know! I can't say that I can't write in certain situations, because I have written in every conceivable situation. I can't say I prefer to write in other situations, because I have tried it. I've tried to put myself in a situation that I felt was ideal and nothing happened. There are times when I just zero in on things. It's like a receiver and a transmitter; you're just playing this song and it comes through. I write some on guitar, but mainly on the piano.

M.I.: How do you two interact as co-producers?

Hunter: As far as our roles are concerned, Mick is strong in certain areas and I am weak in certain areas, and fortunately they coincide - we complement each other. Oh, we get bitchy with each other, but sooner or later we come around to certain ways of thinking.

Ronson: We like being in the studio, but not all the time. It could get a bit boring if it were all the time. Live gigs are fun.

Hunter: The live gigs are great as long as you're not on the road too long. Last time out it was six months!

M.I.: What kind of gear are you, using on stage these days?

Ronson: We just kind of put all the gear together and went out. We had only five days to rehearse the band before leaving. Next time we'll probably sort out the equipment better.

Hunter: It was a brand new band! Just because I've been around for a while and Mick's been around doesn't mean you're going to get a 'happening' band. The members of the current band are not that experienced and it was a bit tough on them, but they pulled through it okay. My whole point here is that the potential of the group has nowhere near reached its peak yet. This is a great point, because you can see where you've got to go. What is horrible is what happened to Mott, where you couldn't see where you had to go.

M.I.: Is this new LP completely live?

Hunter: Yeah, with three live-in-the-studio tracks. Two of those cuts weren't even written at the time of the live recordings. We went to My Father's Place, in Roslyn, New York, and tried to do those live, too; but at that time we had been off the road for six weeks and the band just didn't gel, so we couldn't use it. The rest of the album was taped live at the Roxy in Los Angeles. We played the Roxy for seven nights and recorded each night. The LP is mainly from the Sunday night show.

Ronson: The album sounds like you're sitting in the audience, and I find that quite exciting. We used the room's ambience a lot on the recording. If you sweeten live recordings too much, you should've just done it in the studio in the first place.

Hunter: It's been edited. It had to be edited, which is a drag, because we could only put live stuff on three sides. What is that about 60 minutes? We had 106 minutes of solid material. We had to take 'Standing In My Light' off of there, and that was a real good performance. It was a real pisser taking it off! We also had to take 'One Of The Boys' off. There are edits and they are a pain in the ass. It's a continual compromise. Just getting the music on the LP we had to cut a lot of the crowd responses and all.

M.I.: What gear was used for the live studio cuts?

Ronson: Same stuff as on the road, really. I had my small Music Man.

Hunter: I was using a Twin-Reverb. We've really scaled the stuff down a lot. If we could get an individual sound, I'd love to go out on the road with Music Mans and all small stuff.

Ronson: Though the amp you were using sometimes was too small and the tone would muddy.

Hunter: Well Mick had my amp and I bought a new one for myself. I mean, after all, he needs a better amp. He has to sound better, because he's the lead guitar player and I am just the rhythm guitar.

M.I.: When you got off the road with the live tapes and you had a chance to sit down and listen to them, did you decide to do any overdubs?

Ronson: No, because it sounds like a bootleg. I think what we've just done is what we've just done. It has nothing to do with the future. It's just a 'diary' of what happened that particular week at that club. That's the way we sounded and that's how we played and that's about it, really. With sweetening it would ruin the roughness of the recording.

M.L: Do either of you listen to a lot of music out

Ronson: No, because it sounds like a bootleg. I think what we've just done is what we've just done. It has nothing to do with the future. It's just a 'diary' of what happened that particular week at that club. That's the way we sounded and that's how we played and that's about it, really. With sweetening it would ruin the roughness of the recording. M.I.: Do either of you listen to a lot of music out side of the band?

Ronson: I never find myself sitting down and listening to music. I find myself going over to friends' houses and listening to what they have on the player. I never listen to music to duplicate a sound, saying, 'I've got to get a drum sound like this, or a guitar sound like this'. [Producer] Roy Thomas Baker once told me that Queen sat him down to get the 'Mott' sound; for six weeks this went on. I mean, there is no 'Mott' sound or any other sound; there's just a combination of people going out and playing, and that's what it sounds like.

M.I.: You both must have learned a number of studio techniques from the people you've worked with, like Bowie. What do you look for, and how do you experiment?

Hunter: I, personally, am not interested in the technical aspects of the studio. I only have a layman's knowledge of them, and I try to keep as stupid as possible about studios - it just gets too technical. I look for a good engineer who is fast. If the engineer's good, then things are happening quick. I hate it when you sit for three days trying to get the 'right' drum sound. The song will tell you what it needs, you know.

M.I.: Ian, how has your role changed with the new band as opposed to when you were with Mott The Hoople?

Hunter. Not much, really. I just like to work two-handed, and I think most people do, actually. I got into a position where I was working on my own, when I did a couple of albums without Mick, and it was no good. I don't like working one-handed, and it matters to me who that other hand is. I could count on the fingers of one hand the people who I would like to work with. That makes it difficult. A lot of these people are not available. In fact, Mick was with Dylan for a while. It's hard for me to get what I want. I can function, but I don't enjoy myself.

Mick, how did you get involved with Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue?

Ronson: He just asked me to go, actually, and I said yeah. A few weeks went by and he says, 'Well, mate, are you ready to go on Sunday?' And this was a Friday! [laughs] I said, 'What?' And I went out!

M.I.: Do you remember what you were using on that tour?

Ronson: I think you're talking to the wrong people about equipment! We just use anything that comes up. I remember my guitar on that tour; the pickups kept falling out! [laughs] It was a hell of a start. Then I bought a new guitar.

Hunter: Ronson will just walk into a shop and ask for a Les Paul. They show him a Les Paul and he says, 'Thank you' and walks out! [Needling Ronson] You don't even check out a half dozen to see which is right! Like that guitar you bought in Maine!

Ronson: That turned out to be a really nice guitar. I like brand-new guitars, but you need to break them in; it takes a lot of work. I have got five or six guitars: three Les Pauls, a Telecaster, and a Stratocaster. All the instruments are stock.

M.I.: Do you carry your own PA system on the road?

Hunter: Yeah, we have this guy who handles all that, and we just get what he wants. He mixes us out front, and he's very good at it. We played a lot of different-sized venues on this last tour and it was hell for him, but he came through. I don't think a lot of kids understand that a band can go up and play great, but if the out front sound is bad they go home and say the group was lousy. They ought to put the name of the sound company on that program. A lot of them are jerks, real jive. They can ruin gigs and they don't care! It's the kids that suffer, because they don't get a proper chance to appreciate the music.

M.I.: What is down the road for the Ian Hunter / Mick Ronson collaboration?

Hunter: Haven't got a clue! Never have, really. We're not bothered by that. We think it's funny what goes on in this business, so we really don't have a plan. We'll plan for next week, and from then on just take it as it comes. We're having a good time; in fact, I don't think we would have done it unless we were having a good time. And I don't think we'll continue if we stop having a good time.

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