Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ariel Bender/Luther Grosvenor - Jeckyl or Hyde?

"On our first tour '73 a guy came up to me and said, 'Jesus Christ, you are a dead ringer for Luther Grosvenor from Spooky Tooth!' I replied, 'So they tell me!' I think sometimes it has given me two identities, and sometimes two personalities. Some of my closest friends do not like Ariel, and often tell me to put him back in the box!"

They say it's a mighty long way, down rock and roll, and never was this more true than in the tale of onetime Mott The Hoople guitarist Ariel Bender, AKA Luther Grosvenor. 

In the late '60s and early '70s, the guitarist had found relative fame and fortune as a scorching hot lead guitarist for the legendary Spooky Tooth, whose playing had been described as, "Unhinged genius."

Bender laughs, "Really! I just played how I felt! Well, the solo on Evil Woman was 9 minutes long. I think some of the playing on Ceremony was like, that out of control."

You often get the sense, as you watch Grosvenor/Bender recount his storied history that two personalities do co-exist inside the English six-stringer. Grosvenor is a calm, relatively mild mannered blues rock musician who is given to thoughtful reflection and deep consideration, whilst Bender is a besotted madman, capable of not just taking over, but potentially dismantling, piece by piece, any stage on to which he steps.

The strange tale of his transformation from blues rock wizard to glam rock demon is one of rock's most enduring, and charming tales. His passage from the intellectual cult following of Spooky Tooth to the screaming minions on Broadway with Mott The Hoople is a story book tale of rock and roll.

After five years, and as many albums, Spooky Tooth had folded. Grosvenor was then recruited into Stealers Wheel, replacing lead singer Gerry Rafferty, who had written and sung on the band's first album, which included the monster hit, Stuck in the Middle with You. The tune then climbed to #6 on the American Billboard Top 100 singles charts, and #8 on the UK Singles Chart in 1973. As the song catapulted up the charts, Rafferty was convinced to return to the fold, leaving Luther without employment once again.

It was about this time when Mick Ralphs decided that his time with Mott The Hoople had come to a logical conclusion. Mott had endured many years of great live success, and very little success at the business of selling records. They had decided to pack it in after yet another exhausting set of European concerts, and in the wake of it all, bassist Pete Overend Watts had sought out David Bowie thinking that perhaps the singer could use another shiny haired, high booted band member. 

Bowie, of course, had no such need, and in fact had a different notion about the future of Mott. A hit single and album later, the band had found an audience, but lost a guitarist. Mick Ralphs had had his fill of playing first fiddle, but being second fiddle when it came to song writing and creative control. Ian Hunter had emerged as a superior songwriter, and star level frontman, leaving his guitarist unsatiable, and in search of Bad Company, which he founded with ex-Free vocalist Paul Rodgers. Much has been made of this over the years, but to see it as anything except inevitable is folly. Bad Company made Ralphs rich beyond his dreams, and gave him the ability to write as he pleased - who could wish him more? As for Mott The Hoople, their best days lay ahead.

Bender states, "I was already with Chris Blackwell at Island records with Spooky Tooth. I already knew Mick Ralphs. Therefore it was a natural crossover. I had at that time finished with Stealers Wheel, so to join Mott The Hoople at that time was a really big job for me!

"It was easy, as I said before. I was already with Island, I knew Mick so it was not as though I was joining a band I did not know, although I had not played with them. It was a breeze. I met with Ian Hunter for a drink in a pub in London. I did not think for one minute that they were going to ask me to join the band."

There was one rub. Being well wrapped in the glitz of the times, and the sensationalistic world in which Mott now moved, having a guitarist named Luther seemed a bit parochial, even if that Luther was an amazingly well respected guitar player.

Luther adds, "Ian said, 'We do have a problem. I know you already have a great name, Luther James Grosvenor.' Well, we have just come up with a name for our guitar player. Ariel Bender. How would you feel about that?' I said just call me Ariel!   

"Joining Mott gave me the chance to let live, and let rip on the guitar in a way that I had not been able to do within other bands. Mott gave me license to be myself. When you hear the live version of Walking with a Mountain, there was something like a 20 minute solo, and although it was sometimes crazy, or over the top, it was structured. I guess what I am trying to say is that, as out of control as it was, I was totally in control."

Luther Grovsenor was thus thrown head first into a whirling miasma of limousines, Trans-Atlantic flights, and sold out American concerts, giving birth to the legend of Ariel Bender.

Mott The Hoople had always been first above all, a superior live rock and roll band. They made their bones on endless tours of the UK, and Europe, selling out venues that far outranked their status as hit makers, which they decidedly weren't. However, with the insertion of the machinery that had made David Bowie a star, the band now were at the top of the British charts, and were finally becoming stars in the arena they most sought, the United States.

Bender brought something to the band which Ralphs could have never provided, star presence. While the Ralpher was a brilliant guitarist and writer, he was never cut out for the guitar god role. He was a humble worker, ever providing chunky riffs, and tasteful leads, but a larger than life stage presence, he was not, and that is just what the band needed to crack America, and Bender seemed born for the role.

Time has gotten things rather crossed, as it often will. There was not much argument from the fans over Ralphs departure, and Ariel's joining - that is something created later by those who must sell sensational stories after the fact. Indeed, audiences loved the change, and The Hooples were poised to becoming world beaters, the band that couldn't fail.

Bender recalls, "I think I joined Mott The Hoople at their biggest and most successful time! The band was much more successful when Ariel was in the band! It was never a problem being compared to Mick, as we were friends. Mick couldn't give a damn if people said that Ariel was better, and Ariel couldn't give a damn if people said Mick was better! No one would have refused to walk into a band that was just about to set off on huge American tours.

"Oh yes, whoever takes anyone’s place in a band will always have comments for and against, it was never a problem for me, as I knew that it would happen. You are always going to be compared.

"It was gigs first - straight to America. I then recorded the Hoople album, although as I said, it was a breeze joining Mott The Hoople. It is when you record that you really feel part of the band."

This is where history gets a bit, shall we say, shitty. One of my qualms with music journalism is its tired propensity for drama. There always has to be a good guy, a bad guy, and blame to be slung about.

The amazing juggernaut that was Mott The Hoople just couldn't last. Mostly, because its leading force, Ian Hunter, wanted no part of what was about to happen. He had become less and less comfortable with the trappings of pending superstardom, and had no appetite for the constant and incredible pressure that came with the territory - so, he blew it up. 

The band had been forced into going on the road, with the barest of rehearsals for their new guitarist, and was then sent immediately into the studio to record what would become their swansong, 'The Hoople.' In retrospect, much has been made of the lack of creativity on the part of Bender, but a closer look reveals a situation in which the new guy caught some blame for whatever shortcomings may have been felt at the time. In retrospect, 'The Hoople' is as fine a record as the band ever made. Much was said at the time, but let’s remember, this was a band that was imploding from the top down, and everyone felt a bit burned.

On the recording of 'The Hoople,' the guitarist said, "It was quite a mixed album. Marionette, pretty with Pearl and Roy. I played lovely guitar on Alice. If you are a builder you build to plans - it is the same with music. Not everybody can be manic and then controlled. I think there are strokes of genius on Alice, a pretty little ditty!

In fact, if you give the album even a cursory listen, Bender shows himself to be extremely creative, fiery, and inspired. Never had Hunter's proclivity for combining ornate keyboards, stabbing horns, and dirty rock and roll guitars been better realized. Ariel's slashing solo on The Golden Age of Rock and Roll is terrifying and exciting, all aquiver with wild tremolo and bends. Great, great stuff. On Hunter's greatest pop opus, Marionette, the guitars shriek and howl magnificently, and this surely didn't miss the consciousness of listeners such as Queen's Brian May, a huge Bender fan.

Luther recalls, "When Mott The Hoople chose Queen to be the backup band, and we did the UK tour first to gear it up for the American tour, I think everybody was kind of, I know everybody was kind of on their toes. When we went to sound check, we thought, 'Fuckin' hell, these guys are good!' But we got on with them like a house on fire, and we did 'em every night, just as Ian has said, it wasn't a problem.

"I think Queen learned a lot from Mott The Hoople. A lot of nights, they'd always watch us on the side of the stage. They weren't like a support band that would go back to the hotel, or whatever after their set. More than not, they'd stay behind and take it all in. And they were great, great guys, they were amazing. Brian May, his technical ability, he'd blow me straight to smithereens, but he used to say to me, 'Luther, how is it that you do what you do?,' and I'd say, 'Well, how do you do what you do?' I mean, I'm not a purely technical guitar player, I'm more of a play as I feel sort, but I have the ability to do both, sweet and sour. Oh, I like that, sweet and sour!"

Luther then fondly recalled Freddie Mercury coming down to play table tennis backstage, and proceeding to wipe the floor with everyone.

On May 8, 1974, Mott The Hoople became the first rock and roll band to play Broadway, doing an extended run at The Uris Theater. Combined with a show recorded months earlier at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, the resulting record, Mott The Hoople Live, remains one of the most exciting live concert albums in history. The band's enduring legacy is largely built upon the fact that when these shows were documented - with Ariel Bender serving as Ian Hunter's foil and main musical weapon, Mott had become one of the best live rock and roll bands in history. Bender's remarkable performances define rock and roll guitar as well as any ever has, to this day. The record stands proudly beside KISS Alive as the record that probably sold more guitars to more young upstarts than any other of the era. Whether it was Queen's use of drama and musical bravado, or The New York Dolls retooling Mott's aggressive stage show and costuming to literally invent punk rock, the legacy of Ariel Bender and Mott The Hoople has endured.

Looking back on his role, Grosvenor says when asked if he had been scripted by the band, "No, down to me completely free agent. On tour, I grabbed center stage, and tormented Ian by saying it’s my show not yours, and he pulled and pushed me across stage. After the show we said well that worked and we kept it in. The audience maybe thought there was a problem, but no problem at all, just great fun. There was no set play, or structure, just a do what you have to approach."

Nothing lasts forever, and so it was such with Mott The Hoople. After 'The Hoople,' and the Live album, the band was again on the verge of collapse, and Hunter chose to briefly bring ex-Bowie sideman Mick Ronson into the band, perhaps seeing an ultimate exit strategy and stepping stone to a less stressful solo career. Once again, the stories told are more dramatic, and filled with villains and sinners than reality remembers.

Bender sums it up rather neatly, and with a hearty laugh, "Ian had always had a nervous disposition, especially before going on stage; me being the new guy, I felt he was more nervous than me. I never really witnessed the band come apart, I had already departed. Ronno was an amazing guitar player! Then, they did only go another 6 months after my time. Part of me would like to think it was because I left!"

And, so it was. The tale of Luther Grosvenor one day stepping out of a pub, and into a phone box, emerging a Superman, emerging one Ariel Bender - a stupefying, exciting, and brilliant guitarist who truly made the children laugh and cry. At the end of the day, we can ask no more than that of our rock and roll heroes. In his brief sojourn out of his calm, if somewhat unhinged glory as one of Britain's best ever blues rockers, Luther Grosvenor created a character as English as Dickens, as rock as Jimmy Page. He invented Ariel Bender, and for that, we remain forever in his debt. He gave us something bigger than himself, and bigger than our dreams had been. God bless Luther Grosvenor, and God bless Ariel Bender, the both of them.

But I couldn't quite let go. I had to ask Luther/Ariel about being sadly left out of the glorious Mott The Hoople reunion shows in 2009, and what was next for rock's greatest Jeckyl and Hyde.

Ariel had this to say, "At first I did not know anything about it, then I thought I would have been included. I was upset at the time but did understand that they wanted to do it with the original band members. I think it would have made for a better show more wholesome to have included the later members. There has been a lot of feedback from fans who were disappointed that Ariel was not included.

"Ariel always thought that Ian thought that Ariel might steal the show again!"

Luther on the future, "I might record with a couple of the band members of Mott The Hoople who I keep in contact with, who knows! My careers not over yet, there's still plenty of mileage in the Great Ariel Bender!"

Let us know, Luther. Another dose of Ariel Bender wouldn't hurt a bit!

My greatest thanks to Anne Carpenter who made this interview possible, and conducted the proceedings. And, of course, thanks to Mssrs. Bender and Grosvenor, without whom we would be so much more the less.


Anonymous said...

I will listen to ariel the worlds most over the top guitar player till the day I die jim y in lindstrom minnesota

Debbie Goodman said...

I knew Luther when he was with Spooky Tooth. I lived in Manhattan; he was dating one of my roommates Diane. He hung around the apartment a lot. I was making food for myself, so I fed him. He said it was the first TV Dinner he ever had.

Unknown said...

Wow Lu, it's you baby! Noral