The Golden Age of Rock & Roll: An Interview with Rock Legend

Ian Hunter


I was maybe 12 years old the first time I heard Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes.” I was pretty shy and a really unpopular kid, but I felt instantly, euphorically inspired – changed, even – by this exotic rock song about intoxicated, cross-dressing would-be suicide cases that managed to name check T Rex, the Beatles, and the Stones. And when Mott’s lead singer, the cockney-accented, golden-tressed Ian Hunter, sang the line “You, with the glasses, I want you. I want you at the front,” towards the song’s end, I was convinced Hunter was telling this geeky little girl with the glasses to come up to the front of the crowd and rock out. Basically, “All the Young Dudes” made me feel like less of a freak. It was really a revelation, and probably my single strongest rock n’ roll epiphany to this day. “All The Young Dudes” (which, as most rock fans know, was written for Mott by David Bowie) is still my favorite song, but I’ve never really told anyone that “How my life was saved by rock n’ roll” story before. I owe a lot to Ian Hunter.

Mott The Hoople went on to have other hits with “All the Way From Memphis,” “Drivin’ Sister,” and “Roll Away the Stone,” but unfortunately, the magic didn’t last forever. Ian Hunter left Mott in 1974, and began a solo career that hit some serious peaks and valleys of commercial success, but still turned out some incredible, heart-felt classic songs like “Who Do You Love,” “When the Daylight Comes,” “Bastard,” “You Nearly Did Me In,” and a love song to rock n’ roll that’s probably his best-known hit, the anthem “Cleveland Rocks.” A dedicated music fan himself, who never saw divisions between different styles of music, Ian Hunter fully embraced the first wave of British punk rock when it broke in the late ’70s, and even produced the second Generation X album, Valley of the Dolls. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

On a stormy afternoon in late July, I got the chance to meet Ian Hunter – who still looks great at age 61 – and pick his brain about some of the finer moments of a career that spans three decades. Columbia Records had just released Once Bitten Twice Shy, an excellent two-disc retrospective of music from Hunter’s prolific solo career, and he had driven into Manhattan from his home in Connecticut to do some interviews – despite the rain, despite (as I later learned) having just endured painful gum surgery. Ian Hunter is rock n’ roll to the bone. Although our time together was limited, Ian spoke openly and candidly with me about his memories of Mott The Hoople, the various ups and downs of his solo projects, and his enduring relationship with friend and collaborator, guitarist Mick Ronson, who passed away from cancer in 1993, and is eulogized in Hunter’s song “Michael Picasso.”

• •

Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine who is really young, 20 years old, and I told him I was going to be interviewing you. So he says “Yeah, I know who he is. What are some of his songs?” So I say “You know, ‘All the Young Dudes,’ ‘Cleveland Rocks,’” and he goes “Oh yeah, the Drew Carey Show theme song!” Do you hear that a lot now?

Yeah, that can happen. I remember it happened with “One Bitten Twice Shy” – [People would ask] “Why are you doing that?” “I did it cause I wrote it.” “Oh!” (laughs Because everyone thought it was a Great White song. But it’s understandable. I don’t get about much, and it’s been a long time, it kind of gets confusing after awhile. And those 20-year-olds weren’t even alive when I wrote that song.

Why didn’t they use your original version of the song for the show?

I think it was because – it had nothing to do with me – they wanted an inordinate amount of money for my version, or something like that. [Considering] they’d have to pay for it anyway, and there was that on top, they got the Presidents of the United States to do it. I thought it came out really good. It’s a great video.

I’ve always wanted to ask you, do you think they built the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland because of that song?

Noooo! (laughs) No, I don’t think so. But, I mean, anything’s possible.

Well, maybe you should ask someone.

Yeah, I should. (laughs hard)

Because, think about it, if anyone ever asks, “Why did they build the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland?” The obvious answer is “Because Cleveland Rocks!”

That’s why I wrote it, in a way. When I first came over, with Mott, you’d do these clubs and nobody would turn up. When we were still with Island (Records), nobody’d be turning up. Then you’d get to Cleveland and it would always be packed. Cleveland and Memphis were the first two towns that picked up on us, long before LA or New York. I just thought, “Well, wait a minute, if this town’s such a joke, how come they’re picking up on Bowie and us and people like that? Nobody else is picking up on it.”

Maybe because there’s nothing else to do there.

Well, usually that’s the case, I mean rock n’ roll thrives much better in Flint, Michigan than it does in Hyanisport. This town [New York City]’s OK, but it’s departmentalized, you know. I mean, I played a gig a couple of weeks back at the Bowery Ballroom, and [the old Mott fans] come out of the closets. We had a good time. It was like a gathering of the clan.

I was at that show, and it blew my mind away completely. OK, thinking about how British punk rock, in a lot of ways, was a nail in the coffin of progressive rock – yet the punks were obviously directly influenced by bands like Mott The Hoople – what was that like, to bear witness to that transition?

It was more the press than anything else [who made a big deal out of it]. The bands themselves, I never had a problem with any of that lot. I mean, they were great. The press decided that the punks hated us, but I was going down to the Roxy and places like that and nobody was bothering me. [Those bands] reminded me of the punk bands in the ’50s, to be honest with you, because punk was just C, F and G – three chords. Now, it was A, D and E, but it was the same thing: people who couldn’t play properly learning how to play, but now they had the marketing behind them. But really, amongst the bands, people were just the same as they always were. The Clash’s Mick Jones was in our fan club.

When Mott The Hoople were recording The Hoople, Mick Ralphs left and was replaced by Luther Grovsnor. Do you think the band would have survived longer if Mick Ronson had replaced Ralphs?

(Pause) No, I think it would have died a lot quicker, actually, because Luther was great, morale-wise, in the band. They loved Luther. They didn’t get on with Mick. I got on with Mick, but they didn’t. (Pauses again) Maybe it would have gone on for the same length [of time]. Ronson was great on albums, maybe it would have lasted. There was just too much baggage and it would have been all right if we hadn’t been as tired as we were. But musically, the door shut on me. I knew I couldn’t write anymore in that particular existence.

How was it, leaving Mott The Hoople to do your own thing as they carried on without you?

I wanted them to carry on without me, because they wanted me to keep the name and I wouldn’t. I said, “I can’t do that.” If I take the name, they’ll be left with nothing, because [without me] it’s basically a rhythm section. They’re going to need that name to get them kick-started. So, it was decided that they would have the name Mott, and carry on. That was fine by me.

It didn’t exactly turn out the way it did when Peter Gabriel left Genesis.

Yeah, I think the mistake they made was they probably thought I was so much trouble that they’d get somebody they could maybe control and they would write more material. By this time, everybody knew where the publishing was at (laughs) – when we started, nobody did. But they didn’t bring in anybody who was a writer because they wanted to write themselves, and it’s kind of easier said than done. There’s no point in writing songs if they don’t sell.

Was the song “Boy” from your debut album an accurate account of your state of mind during the last days of Mott?

[Yes, but] I didn’t think it was about me when I wrote it, you know. I thought it was about somebody else. It’s only recently I thought “Oh, there might be a bit of you in there” (laughs). I thought I was writing about somebody else. But it did make sense eventually, it was just stream of consciousness, done really quick.

Have you ever heard from “Irene Wilde”?

No. She knows, though, she knows about [the song], somebody told me. She married a bloke who used to[sigma] I used to go with these girls in Shrewsbury, and I always went with the best-looking girls in the town. I don’t know why, it wasn’t like I was anything to look at or anything, but somehow I went with Miss Shrewsbury, and she was gorgeous. But there was always this guy, Brian Poole, hanging about, and every time I went with these girls – if I left town or something like that – he would immediately step in. I remember he had this crimson velvet jacket and I always envied that jacket. And he wound up with Irene Wilde, he married her, and they had twins. But that last time I saw her, she didn’t look at all like the girl I remembered.

A friend of mine is writing a retrospective on the Hanoi Rocks album Two Steps from the Move, and he asked me if I could get your recollections of working with that band and producer Bob Ezrin?

Yeah, Ezrin just rang me up and said “Could you come down? Because they’re having problems with the lyrics and the singer (Michael Monroe) won’t do it with anybody else but you.” So I went down there and I met them and Michael was really nice, I found him to be just a really nice ordinary kind of guy, you know. So I went out and wrote the lyrics and brought them back the following day. It seemed very easy to do and they liked them and that was the end of that. I still talk to Michael. He’s back in Helsinki.

You’ve said before that Braincapers is your least favorite Mott record. Has time tempered your feelings towards that album at all?

Yeah, because I think it’s the nearest to what [Mott The Hoople] were. I didn’t understand that for the longest time, for some reason. But it’s about the nearest to what we were live, and that’s why I like it [now]. But it’s annoying on a lot of levels. I mean, you can hear the hi-hat all the way through it.

When All American Alien Boy was released, you said you’d never make another rock album again. Then you made Overnight Angels, a very rock album, but the one you say you most regret. Why is that?

Well, I regret All American Alien Boy, as well (laughs). That effectively ended my career right there. I think, having written [so many rock songs], you get bored. Plus [I was influenced by] the people I was hanging out with then, Jaco (Pastorius) and Bobby Colomby, and the jazz people I was hanging out with. They went off to work again on their thing after that record, and I sort of gravitated back to [my roots]. I thought, “I’ve got to do something here, because Alien Boy sold nothing…”

I didn’t realize it did so poorly, I love that album.

That was Mick (Ronson)’s favorite record, and he wasn’t on it. But it was the biggest disaster of my life. I think at the time, nobody was ready for it. They just thought I’d be coming out with another one [like the previous one]. The label just put it out, they didn’t bother to tell anybody that it was slightly different to what I’d done before. No effort was made to consider that this record might have to be marketed differently. So it just came out and nobody bought it. It wasn’t a rock n’ roll record.

Do you think You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic helped to undo the damage done by Alien Boy?

Yes. When I did Overnight Angels, I thought I could just walk into rock n’ roll and take over again, but I obviously couldn’t. So Schizophrenic was a good record because I took my chances and I really worked hard on that. I was poncing about a bit when I did Overnight Angels, but I don’t blame anybody but myself. You know, you’ve got to take care of business, and I left an awful lot to (producer) Roy Thomas Baker… I wrote most of the songs in the wrong key. You know, I was just… dumb.

How did you hook up with Roy Thomas Baker? Was it because you knew Queen?

I was in the Beverly Wilshire and he was in the next suite. He said, “I’ll do your next record if you like,” so I said, “All right.” There was no thought [involved]. I never thought of him as a producer [suitable for my style of music] because he was doing people like the Cars and Queen, a lot colder sort of thing than me. But I thought, “Well, he’s a big guy and I’m in mess after All American Alien Boy, maybe he knows how to [give me hit] singles” and all the rest of it. I wasn’t in a good frame of mind, and I wasn’t taking care of business at all. On Schizophrenic, I really got down to it. I thought, “I’d better get serious here or I can kiss it goodbye.”

How did you get the E Street Band to back you on You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, considering Bruce Springsteen was just hitting critical mass around that time?

I was in England. I started [recording] Schizophrenic in England with people like Glenn Matlock, that crowd of Rich Kids, and it wasn’t working. Steve Popovich was running my management then – he’s out of Cleveland – and he knew Gary Tallent (bass player in the E Street Band), and one thing lead to another. Then all of a sudden he rung me up and said, “If you want to come back and do it here, you can do it at the Power Station with the E Streeters.” So I came back and I rehearsed with them and the rehearsals were great, so we just went in and did it. It didn’t cost very much, Schizophrenic, we did it really quick.

And there were a lot of hits off that record.

I did alright with that one, yeah.

YUI Orta was probably one of the first albums with a title that was a play on words, like Van Halen’s OU812. Whose clever idea was that?

Mick kept on saying that to Carola, the girl he was with at the time. And we had no title for that record whatsoever, so I just said, “Well, we’ll call it that then.” But no one could figure it out. I realized then that we’d done the wrong thing, but it was too late. I wouldn’t have minded, but I’d never heard [of the expression] either. He just kept on doing it with this girl he was with, “Why You I Orta.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s the Three Stooges.” Some albums just don’t have titles, and it becomes a major problem at the last minute. I guess that’s why that got stuck on there.

[The title for] Schizophrenic was on a toilet wall: “You’re never alone with a schizophrenic.” Mick found it on a toilet wall and he told me. I said, “I’ve got to have it,” and he wouldn’t give it me, because he was going to do an album himself. In the end, he got Just Another Night. I had to trade him Just Another Night to get that title. I thought, “What a great title!”

The song “China,” which was sung by Mick Ronson, never made it onto a proper release. Why was that?

He never liked it. The thing with Mick is, everybody used to say, “Why doesn’t he sing more?” You couldn’t get him to do it. When he did that, “China,” Mick Jones said to me, “Well, we’re one song short, how about using that song?” It just developed right there and then. Then Mick Jones says, “You’re singing the rest of the album, let Mick sing this.” I thought he sung it beautifully, because it’s like a sea chantey sort of thing, and he sung it plaintive. But Mick hated it, absolutely hated it. He hated his own voice, for some reason.

I think he had a lovely voice. His vocals on the first two verses of “When the Daylight Comes” are stunning. It’s the most beautiful song.

Do you want to hear a story about that? I was outside talking to Springsteen, outside of the Power Station. I was talking to Bruce (laughs) and [Mick] came out and he goes, “You gotta do this vocal!” And I said [sternly] “Not now.” (laughs) “You do it.” So he did, and that’s how that came about. I was right in the middle of a conversation I didn’t want to end, so I said, “You go and do it,” so he did. I came back in and I thought, “Oh, that sounds really good.” It sounded a bit like me, so I took over the third verse, right from when I went back in.

Trying to get him to [sing] was a nightmare, especially live. He wouldn’t listen to himself in monitors, he’s gotta listen to the amp. That was his problem with his solo career, because he had to leave the amp to sing. He’d just get totally perplexed by the whole thing, you know.

Was that some kind of technical thing or was he shy?

No, it was purely technical. He always had to hang where it sounded right to him, and that’s a whole other problem if you’ve got a mic to get to. I mean, he was supposed to do harmonies, and it was 50/50 if he was going to make it or not (laughs). If he happened to be in the area and everything was all right, yeah.

Do you ever wish you’d been able to produce an instrumental record of his, because his playing was so lyrical?

Well, I think where he belonged, but he just never got the shot, was [writing music for] movies. If he’d have gotten the shot Michael Kamen got, he’d have been off and running.

I have no idea who Michael Kamen is.

Well, he writes a lot of these big scenic film jobs. Kamen was around at the time, he was one of the kids hustling around. But he got huge and famous. That’s where Mick belonged, but Mick didn’t have the wherewithal to get into that area. Because it’s more than just playing, it’s how you handle yourself and who you meet and going to meetings, and he couldn’t do that. The thing he did with Tina Turner is the most hilarious thing you’ve ever seen in your life. Mick was a little bit loony, you know, in certain ways (laughs). Daft is not the word – he was an incredibly funny bloke.

Do you have a favorite Mick Ronson Kodak Moment?

(Long pause) Singing nursery rhymes to the kids at barbecues, stuff like that. I miss him more for that than anything else, because our kids grew up together and the wives grew up together, everybody grew up together. Even when we weren’t working together, we would be hanging out. There’s nothing you can say about that except there’s my life before him dying and my life after. It’s as simple as that: two different lives.

I couldn’t believe how long it’s been since he passed. Seven years. It seems like just couple of years.

Yeah, I know, times goes quickly. But cancer was in his family – his dad died of it and there was a lot of it in his family. Then he got it, and there we were for two years – it was a nightmare. He did great, I mean, he was still up and about right up until about two days before it actually happened. He was on morphine and he was fine, he didn’t hurt or anything.

How did you get him away from Bowie anyway, after the Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars tour?

Bowie retired and Mick sat home. I was looking for a guitar player, and a couple of people – Mick Rock was one of them – said “Why don’t you go see Mick, he’s sitting around not doing anything.” That was how the whole thing started with Mott. Bowie did ring him up in the ’80s and wanted to go out and do – he must have been hard up – he wanted to do Spiders again, but Mick wouldn’t do it. “Why won’t you do it?” “We already did it.”

I bet Bowie could make a lot of money doing that now if he could pull it off.

I don’t think he needs it (laughs).

• •

Ian Hunter will release an album of all new material in March of 2001. ◼

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