A Funky Little Boat Race: Mott The Hoople’s All the Young Dudes at 50
What makes it one of the weakest albums from one of the greatest British rock bands
Mott the Hoople’s All The Young Dudes, which turns 50 this month, is one of the weakest albums from one of the greatest British rock bands.
I know anniversary pieces are generally supposed to be celebrations. In this case we are celebrating the artist and not necessarily the piece of work that was released 50 years ago. And the band are goddamn worth celebrating: Mott the Hoople are The Great British Rock Band of the 1970s.
Mott the Hoople lack the utter pretension and aspiration to majesty of Zeppelin, Floyd, the Who and Queen, while still being a bloody great band; to paraphrase Family Guy, unlike these other groups, Mott the Hoople do not insist on themselves, which I think is a terribly good way to put it. True, MTH are delightfully self-referential. (In fact, this trait has come to be known as Mott the Hoople Syndrome; i.e., when a band writes songs about themselves on a regular basis. It was probably most prevalent in one of MTH’s most significant disciples, The Clash.)
But being self-referential is hugely different from being self-important, different from treating each of your chord changes and album cuts like the second coming of Baby Yoda, different from being hyper-aware that you each release makes a “statement.” The 1970s were full of that. Yet Mott the Hoople didn’t make statements; they just released compelling, raucous and deep albums that applied the loose ends and untied laces of the Band, Cosimo Matassa/Sun rock ’n’ roll, early ‘70s Dylan or the Small Faces to a sludgy, joyous mixture of Kinks’ riffing, Girl Group/Rockabilly swagger, skiffle spontaneity and Joe Meek-esque delight in the absurdity of noise. Because that’s what Mott the Hoople was: Ridiculous, loud, yet also profoundly deep and moving, because they wrapped all that twisted volume and nearly Dolls-ish slop around some of the very best songwriting in the entire history of the rock ’n’ roll. I mean, if Brian Wilson or Fred Neil joined Slade, maybe you’d have something like Mott the Hoople.
In their blend of irresistible choruses, deep blue (yet never maudlin) balladeering and utterly chewy and memorable chord shapes, the imprint of Mott the Hoople can be heard throughout the legacy and lifelines of so very much of the Britrock that follows, from The Clash to Magazine, from The Smiths to Oasis. (Mott the Hoople’s influence on The Clash is so profound and so visible that it really deserves an article unto itself; suffice to say – and I do not say this lightly – The Clash’s masterpiece, London Calling, is a conscious attempt to make a Mott the Hoople album.)
Mott the Hoople’s magnificent gumbo of pub chatter, over excited record-collecting, utter love of extreme volume, and the ability to somehow bring the Spector/Wilson/Bob Gaudio spirit of over-the-top teenage symphonic pop into the small-format pub-billy combo, is a really a genre unto itself. (And Mott the Hoople unquestionably lead that genre, though it’s a category where you’ll also find, notably, the magnificent Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Ian Dury and the Blockheads.)
It could be said that Mott the Hoople found a way, almost uniquely, to transplant the wild enthusiasm and primitivism of the British skiffle movement of the 1950s to post-blues high-volume electric rock, which they then applied to high-end songwriting. And that’s really makes it all historic: Mott the Hoople had Ian Hunter, one of the greatest rock/pop songwriters of our age. I mean, one hardly knows where to begin, but I will note that every Mott the Hoople album contains at least one ballad that is as good as any ballad you’ve ever heard (on All The Young Dudes, it’s “Sea Diver”), and the guy wrote literally (and I mean effing literally) the two greatest rock ballads of all time: “I Wish I Was Your Mother” and “Irene Wilde.” (Yes, I know “Irene Wilde” is not a Mott the Hoople song.)
Regardless of the fact that All the Young Dudes is either the worst or second worst Mott the Hoople album (depending on your opinion of Wildlife, which is actually a pretty decent album if you forget that it’s Mott the Hoople), it is almost certainly the most important Mott the Hoople album. Prior to Dudes, the band were on the verge of defenestration when David Bowie compelled them to give it another go, resulting not only in the whelping of their best-known song, but more significantly, allowing the band to go on to what are likely their very best LPs, 1973’s Mott, ‘74s The Hoople and Live (also 1974).
All the Young Dudes unquestionably provided a second life for this amazing band. But on both a sonic and compositional level, the album often feels like an apologetic sop to the soporific stoned hymns of 1970s FM radio (which is to say it largely sounds nothing like Mott the Hoople). Throughout, the production sounds tinny, the mixing flat and full of sticks instead of stones, and the guitars thin; this is an astounding contradiction to the usual Mott guitar sound, which normally sounds like Dave Davies and Leslie West fighting over a piece of raw meat while they argue about who is going to raise Fu Manchu’s baby (this guitar sound was consistent with both Mott guitarists, Mick Ralphs and later Ariel Bender, though for the record, I prefer Bender). It is terribly odd that the album Bowie famously produced just a year later– the Stooges’ Raw Power – has virtually the opposite attributes; Raw Power features too much of everything, a philosophy that would have suited Mott the Hoople.
My god, if Bowie had made All the Young Dudes with the same aurally virile rudeness and attack that he applied to Iggy and James Williamson, we might have had a genuine Mott the Hoople album here (contrast Dudes with the roaring, resonant, gigantic, roomy sound of the album that preceded it, Brain Capers). As a rule and philosophy, Mott the Hoople had a sound that predicted the shatters of punk and the slurps of stoner metal, married to a New Orleans / Memphis / Big Pink rollicking, rolling, roustabout band sound. Honestly, it’s as if producer Bowie did everything he could to contain that. The performances and sonic environment, even on the more violent songs like “Sucker” or “One of the Boys,” sound restrained, as if someone was going “Keep it down! Bob Welch is in the next studio convincing Fleetwood Mac to record ‘Sentimental Lady’”. (I actually love “Sentimental Lady,” but this is another story.)
True, there are three and a half truly great songs on All the Young Dudes (the title track, “One of the Boys,” and “Sea Diver” – the half is the utterly swell cover of “Sweet Jane”). But even those have to fight the low ceiling of Bowie’s closed, non-resonant, weirdly calm production (Mott the Hoople cannot be produced as a calm or contained act, any more than the Shangri-Las or the Stooges could!). The rest of the album features the band’s weakest songwriting since their hodge-podge debut (which I still vastly prefer to Dudes, if only because 1969’s Mott the Hoople is such a spirited, almost obnoxious mixtures of covers and a half-finished originals, creating the effect of a very drunk Neil Young and Jack Nitzsche collaborating with Vanilla Fudge to make a very loud Bob Dylan record; in fact, I’ll go a step further: Mott the Hoople is a great record, and possibly the best Dylan record Dylan never made).
But back to Dudes. All the Young Dudes begins strong, with a cover of “Sweet Jane” that I actually prefer to the Velvets version, because a) Mott the Hoople dump the whiff of arty exceptionalism that fogs the VU’s version, and (more significantly) b) Cowbell. Mott the Hoople’s version of “Sweet Jane” is one of the great cowbell songs of all time. Immediately thereafter the album hits the shoals of the tepid mediocrity. Like “Jerkin Crocus” (which follows a little later), “Momma’s Little Jewel” sounds weirdly thin (there’s that word again, but it’s a perfect word for the sonic palette of All the Young Dudes); more (in)significantly, “Momma’s Little Jewel” may be the least Mott-ish song ever recorded, though I can’t quite exactly figure out who or what it’s supposed to be; perhaps Atlanta Rhythm Section cutting a demo for Steely Dan? Plodding, circular “Soft Ground” makes virtually no sense as a MTH song, or a song by anyone else, for that matter; it makes me think of the Good Rats trying to play something from Floyd’s More soundtrack, badly.
Oh, and “Ready for Love” is a helluva riff and a damn good song, though significantly hampered by the odd blend of AM-thin sound and extended, FM-late night arrangements that handicap nearly everything here (and the Bad Company version probably gets to the meat of the piece more effectively). But I’ll own up that for all its considerable failings and character-defying production, All the Young Dudes does contain three essential Mott the Hoople cuts (and one flat-out fantastic track, “One of the Boys,” though even that fights with the tap water guitar sound and weirdly distant mixing of the whole record).
VIDEO: Ian Hunter performing “All The Young Dudes” on Howard Stern on June 25, 2001
As you can see, I have a lot of questions about All The Young Dudes, from the uncharacteristically low-quality of about half the album tracks to the tiny, compressed sound. Honestly, I wonder if there was a mastering problem with All The Young Dudes; if nothing else, it sounds if it was likely mixed on too-large speakers, a common problem that causes the engineer/producer/artist to dial town the bass and low-mid frequencies in a damaging way. I also suspect that the song arrangements themselves were terribly over-thought out, thereby eliminating the rowdy repetition that marks MTH’s best work.
Familiarity has been very kind to All The Young Dudes. It is so ingrained in our FM memories that we overlook its shortcomings, even though it is one of the weakest albums by one of history’s greatest bands. Pretty much everything Mott the Hoople ever released is worth owning – yes, even All the Young Dudes (thanks to the presence of those three and a half magnificent tracks, and, well, it’s historical value).
So if you are going to dig into Mott the Hoople – or dig deeper than All the Young Dudes – I’d suggest seeking out (this is Tim’s order) The Hoople (1974), Mott (1973), Mott the Hoople (1969), Brain Capers (1971), and Mad Shadows (1970). I’ll also note that the expanded edition of the 1974 Live album is one of my all-time favorite live albums and might actually be a great place to start with Mott the Hoople, as it seems to fully display their proto-Clash/Kinks-meets-The Band thrash, trash, nuance and fury.
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7 thoughts on “A Funky Little Boat Race: Mott The Hoople’s All the Young Dudes at 50”
Nice piece, I agree most of what you write. Steve Jones confirmed to me that The Sex Pistols definitely borrowed from the live manic Mott shows circa ‘71 that ended in riots. And I hear Brain Capers — my favorite MTH album, followed by Mott and the debut — when I listen to Never Mind the Bollocks.
Obviously music is subjective, but this is nowhere near their worst or second worst album. I count 7 stone cold classics….including “Sweet Jane” (why the half grade?). To each his own.
Thanks for reading and responding, Dennis. Of course I completely agree with what you say. I gave the “half grade” to Sweet Jane because it was a cover.
I loved every word of this article, but the right answer is that each Mott the Hoople album is the best Mott album. And also: that Howard Stern appearance is fucking phenomenal.
I think it’s a great record, and I rate it a notch behind Mott. Bowie (and Mick Ronson) expanded out Mott’s sonic palette. Ian Hunter’s songwriting, and Mick Ralph’s too – stepped up considerably, perhaps challenged by Bowie’s fabulous All the Young Dudes, which is one of the best song’s that guy ever wrote. Without Sucker do you get I Wish I Was Your Mother? Without Momma’s Little Jewel do you get Whiz Kid? Yes it isn’t as punky, but it has a clarity to the production the earlier records don’t have, and that clarity let’s us hear what a fabulous touch drummer Dale Griffin has, and how well all the parts mesh together, and how spot on the arranging is – again, all of this gets even better on Mott.
I like early Mott records too, but they’re way more attitude than song writing. Death May Be Your Santa Claus is one of my favorite titles and it’s a pretty good riff and intro, but it’s the sort of dopey boogie rock tons of bands did in the early 70’s. It could be on Exiles on Main Street or Diamond Dogs, (but not good enough to wind up on a Pretty Things record).
On London Calling, the Clash was making two Mott the Hoople records – Mott, and All the Young Dudes.
Amen Tim. When I interviewed Overend Watts before his final show with Mott in London 2013, he revealed that the band was very disappointed with the mix – they intended it to be heavier ala Led Zeppelin. Ditto Wildlife, which the late great Mr. Watts referred to as “mild life!”
This is a great read! I really enjoyed a new take on an old album which was always one of my favorites albeit I will now listen to it differently having read this article. I’m going to spend some time going through each MTH album to refine (validate? change?) my thoughts on each. thanks for provoking some thought!