Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Ballad of Mott The Hoople - A Brilliant Documentary

"Savage history always passes judgment in due course, and here we are in 2011, still studying Mott The Hoople."
           Morrissey, from the liner notes of the new documentary, The Ballad of Mott The Hoople.

I tend to go into any rock documentary with hesitation, trepidation and suspicion. This would be because most generally, they tend to be shameful rip-offs perpetrated by hacks who could not give two shits about their subjects. This lack of desire was doubly strong as I unpackaged this new doc on Mott, created by two lads barely in their thirties, Chris Hall and Mike Kerry. The last thing I expected was to see the band I had perhaps revered more than any other for the last 35 years be treated with the proper respect, love and admiration, but this film does just that.

For a great many years, the legend of Mott has been handled somewhat roughly by the press, or by scurrilous profiteers willing to commit any piece of tape containing a Hoople or two to a full release claiming the Mott name. There are more shitty live Mott albums, and more hackneyed, near Mott releases than I care to name, or remember.

I will cheerfully admit to looking at Mott The Hoople as family, as something I owned a part of as a youth, given my unwavering love and devotion. The band exemplified the notion of a band as a gang perhaps better than any other in the pantheon of rock. There were nasty fights, and serious disagreements among the band, but that was amongst themselves - when attacked outwardly, they quickly closed ranks and became an impenetrable shield of loyalty and togetherness. Of course, eventually they became victims of a fame they valiantly struggled for, and were torn apart by being overworked, under appreciated, and used up by their handlers. But in between the beginning and the end, they came to personify for the band's legion of fans something bigger than just another group. They were an approachable version of rock's elite - they were superstars without the trappings, a bunch of loveable average Joe's from Hereford. Much like their fans, they came with born to lose tattoos, and two strikes against them.

They were claimed by the craziest AR man/producer to ever rise out of Great Britain, the inimitable Guy Stevens, who became the band's Svengali, and made Ian Hunter wake up and realize he had something to say.

"There are only two Phil Spectors, and I am one of them." Guy Stevens

The producer had as big a view of himself as he had of the bands he helped create while working for Island records. His skills were completely non-musical, his ability was in creating a sense of event, of getting into the artists brain and compelling them to deliver a performance the artist had inside of himself, but may not have known it - most often in ways that included violence, drinking, drugs, and outlandish behavior in the extreme.

The film captures this magnificently, and from interviews with his widow, the members of Mott, and other witnesses, you are never sure if they were in awe of his talents, or completely in fear of his lunacy. Some may be nonplussed by the amount of time and gravitas the film's makers give to Stevens, but according to every source (including the band), you would never of had Mott The Hoople without Mr. Stevens, he even gave the band their name:

"Mott The Hoople started in Wormwood Scrubs (a London prison). I was doing eight months for possession of drugs, and I read this book, Mott The Hoople, by Willard Manus. I wrote to my wife and said, "Keep the title secret," and she wrote back, "Are you joking? Mott The Hoople? That's ridiculous!" Guy Stevens' recollection of the discovery of a name for a band he would soon create.

Interviews are liberally sprinkled throughout the film and include such luminaries as Queen's Roger Taylor, Mick Jones of The Clash, and every member of Mott, save for the late Mick Ronson, and the reclusive Peter Overend Watts, who sadly chose to remain silent -  a shame, especially given his spectacular performance at the band's2009 reunion shows, and that all the other members of the band give him much credit for being the band's backbone for many years. Watts always expressed tremendous bitterness over Mott's lack of financial success (not undeservedly so), and has stayed off the rock and roll playing field since the early '80s, so I imagine he has earned the right to remain silent.

Ariel Bender played lead guitar for Mott for only a year, but what a year it was, as the guitarist whose talents have been labelled, 'unhinged genius,' breathed life back into Mott at a time in which it was desperately needed, and without his wild stage performances, and even wilder guitar histrionics, there would simply be no reason for a Mott documentary. Leaving behind his given name (Luther Grosvenor), a name that saw him rise to fame and acclaim with Island recording artists Spooky Tooth, Bender at least partially commandeered the ship from Ian Hunter's more than capable hands, and proceeded to make Mott The Hoople the most amazing live rock band on the planet for an all too brief year.

Bender does the same for this film, as he brings great humor and energy to his reminiscences of his time in the band.

In fact, the entire band, Hunter included, seem on their best behavior here, content to let the thousand bygones to be found in Campbell Devine's biography, All The Young Dudes: Mott The Hoople and Ian Hunter, remain bygones. Hunter is on several occasions at odds with what the others say, but this is perhaps as much just his seeing something from a different angle than any factual disagreement -  especially on the topic of Hunter's taking over the band as its creative center, a move that led Mick Ralphs out of The Hoople, and into Bad Company. Just a few years later, let's not forget that this role of creative helmsman also led to the dissolution of the partnership of Ralphs, and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. Someone has to be in charge, and in Mott it was Ian Hunter, who states in the film his opinion, that the fact that the band was a democracy is exactly what destroyed it in the end.

Organist Verden Allen was responsible for putting together the Mott reunion a few years ago, and his sense of regret at ever leaving the band (at the height of their success, with All The Young Dudes in the top twenty), is still palpable. His replacements, Morgan Fisher and Blue Weaver are also excellent in their respective segments. 

Filmmakers Hall and Kerry have done an amazing job of presenting the story of Mott The Hoople in an extremely fair balance, and with great respect to the legend. They pace the film in a way which feels like the very rise and fall of a band that may never have seen huge success, but has remained on their fan's minds, and turntables for all these years.

For me, the best part of the film is the band's drummer, Buffin, born one Dale Griffin. His demeanor and words express perfectly what the fans have always known. He never wanted to be in any band except Mott The Hoople. For Buffin, the world of rock and roll began and ended with this bunch of ruffians from Hereford, who crossed the Atlantic and saw a few divides, but never quit being the band with maybe the most heart that ever sailed the world's seas. If you can watch Buffin's performance here without getting caught up in his emotions, you're a pretty cold son of a bitch.

The Ballad of Mott The Hoople is a tremendous film for any viewer, but if you're a fan, this is essential viewing that will bear repeated viewings. As a fan, I am thrilled that this documentary got made, and am even more thrilled that it is amongst the better rock docs I have ever viewed.

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