Ian Hunter Is Defying The Odds
With a fab new album, the 83-year-old Mott man shows no signs of slowing down
When Jethro Tull wrote the title track of their 1976 LP Too Old To Rock and Roll (Too Young To Die), they clearly were not thinking of Ian Hunter.
Now 83, Hunter is gearing up to release the aptly titled Defiance Part 1. It’s his first album since 2016.
As any serious student of rock and roll knows, Hunter’s career has had several distinct phases. He released his first album with the legendary Mott the Hoople all the way back in 1969. While they were by no means a regular chart presence, Mott did score the occasional hit — notably 1972’s classic “All the Young Dudes,” a gay anthem that David Bowie gifted the band. Perhaps more significantly, Mott was revered by critics and was one of the few “old school” bands to influence the punk movement that would spring up a few years later.
Hunter left Mott in 1974 and struck out on his own. Five years later, he scored a critical and commercial success with You’re Never Alone with A Schizophrenic, which was sort of a Dylan album for the New Wave era. Rockers like “Just Another Night” and “Cleveland Rocks” (later immortalized on The Drew Carey Show) alternated with outsider anthems like “Standin’ in My Light” and “The Outsider” and the ballad “Ships” (which scored a hit for Barry Manilow of all people!) His output slowed a bit in the late ‘80s and ‘90s — perhaps due as much to shifting musical trends as the 1993 death of frequent collaborator and guitar virtuoso Mick Ronson. But Hunter came back with a vengeance around the turn of the century, as albums like Rant and Shrunken Heads will attest.
Now comes Defiance Part 1. This album is notable not only for breaking a seven-year silence but also for being Hunter’s Sun Records debut. And the guest list on Defiance has to be seen (or heard) to be believed. Among the legendary musicians who make cameos are Ringo Starr, Mike Campbell, Billy Gibbons, Slash, Duff McKagan, Johnny Depp, Todd Rundgren, Joe Elliott, Jeff Tweedy and the surviving members of Stone Temple Pilots. On a more bittersweet note, the disc also features appearances from Jeff Beck and Taylor Hawkins, both of whom have since passed away.
Despite all the special guests (and the variety of tempos), Defiance is ultimately a concise, consistent rock and roll album. 10 songs that make a racket, make their point and then leave. Rockers like the title track and the Stonesy “Pavlov’s Dog” are offset by intriguing ballads like “Guernica” and “No Hard Feelings” (inspired by Picasso and by Hunter’s father, respectively).
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Hunter about his past, present and future for the Rock & Roll Globe.
Tell me about the recording of Defiance Part 1. According to the press release, you recorded this album when the pandemic hit and had no idea that so many special guests were going to be part of [it].
What happened was that the pandemic hit, the Rant Band didn’t have any home studios and we were all stuck in our houses. I started writing songs. And there was a guy, Ross Halfin, who’s a photographer. He meets a lot of people and he said Slash wanted to do something [with me]. Then he said Billy Gibbons wanted to do something. Slowly, it got converted from the Rant Band to this whole other thing. And it was COVID that caused it, you know?
As these people came in —Jeff Beck, Ringo — it got me excited. ‘Cause, you know, the Rant Band had been playing for 20 years and did four records. Maybe it was time for a change anyway. [They] just kept coming and I think it helped me to write more and more. With COVID, you know, you’re not doing anything plus all these great people are getting involved. And it just took its natural course… It was all a fluke and it was an amazing fluke.
VIDEO: Ian Hunter “Bed of Roses”
“Bed of Roses” is the first single. That one has Ringo as well as Mike Campbell, who’s a tremendous guitar player. The one other time I interviewed you, you had recently played with Ringo in his All-Starr Band. So I was curious to hear your thoughts about recording with Ringo and also about Mike.
Well, Ringo, you know — an amazing drummer. Lefty playin’ right. I mean, everybody knows that story. And he nailed the track. It’s perfect.
And then years ago in L.A., in the Village Recorder, I met Mike Campbell. He had said, “If ever you guys are doing something” [and] I always remembered that. So we got in touch with Mike and it’s beautiful, what he did. It was like [Mott guitarist] Mick Ralphs used to do it, you know what I mean? It just made the song better.
Another track that stood out [was] “I Hate Hate.” Tell me about the inspiration for that. Hate seems to be a common feeling these days in the world.
Well, there you go! (laughs) You just answered your own question. I like the song a lot because it’s simple. Bob Dylan, Lennon, people like that — you know, I love those simple songs. “Imagine” was pretty simple. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” You’re always looking for that simple song. I like “I Hate Hate!”
I [also] liked “No Hard Feelings” a lot. I had a couple of questions about that. One, was it inspired by someone specific? And two, Jeff Beck played on that. Of course, Jeff recently passed away. I was wondering what it was like playing with [him].
The track’s about my Dad.
I’ve known Johnny Depp for awhile now. Johnny was working with Jeff and he said, “Jeff’s up for doing a couple of songs,” you know? And Johnny was too. So we sent him the track. Johnny played slide on it. And then you get Jeff and it’s like — I always looked up to people [like that]. They’re ‘60s Gods, you know? I was a ‘70s guy. To hear Beck on one of your songs is a pretty amazing feeling.
And on the second album, Defiance Part 2, he’s on a song called “The Third Rail.” That was the last song he ever recorded.
Wow. It’s a powerful song.
[Jeff was] Mick Ronson’s favorite guitar player. One of the best ever.
You also worked on a couple of tracks with Taylor Hawkins. And he’s passed away since then — at quite a young age!
Taylor was an amazing guy, you know? An encyclopedia of music. Great, great drummer. And he wanted to anything! He wanted to do 20 songs; he [wound up doing] seven. Then Covid started easing off a bit and the Foos started going out again. But he wanted to do the lot! I’ve never known enthusiasm like Taylor.
I mean, I couldn’t believe what happened. It was such a shock for everybody — not least his family. Fabulous guy.
My favorite song of yours is probably “Just Another Night.” Any memories of recording that or writing it?
It was about a night in a city jail, in Indianapolis. And the last interview I just did before you was from Indianapolis! That was what the song was about.
It was done with The E Street Band, so the initial recording [sounded] too much like Bruce! So Ronson was like, “Come on, do it how you wrote it!” And I said, “I can’t remember how I wrote it!” And then he remembered the groove, which was more rock and roll.
It’s a great rocker. Going back to Mott — legend has it that [the band] was about to throw in the towel when suddenly Bowie stepped in and offered you guys “All the Young Dudes.” Fact? Fiction? Somewhere in between?
Well, what happened was we split up and Pete [Watts], the bass player, heard that David was looking for a bass player. So he rang him up for the job. David said, “Are you in Mott” and he said, “No, we split.” And David said, “You can’t do that.” It turned out David liked the band a lot and gave us “Suffragette City” to listen to. Pete played it for me and I [said], “I don’t think that’s [for us].” We’d had a couple of stiffs and radio was not interested in us. It was gonna take not just a good song [but] something special. So then David came back with “Dudes!” You know, we knew it was a hit the minute he played it.
Your last album, Fingers Crossed, came out [in] 2016. It was a different time in many ways. This was just on the cusp of Trump getting elected, several years before COVID. I’m curious to know — as a guy from England who’s lived in America for a long time — what are your thoughts on where the country’s been going?
That’s for Defiance, Part 2! (laughter) I deliberately kept away from that on Part 1 because I just felt people were under the weather. Why add to that? You know what I mean? The news is just black. And I didn’t really want to go that route.
I did slip a bit on Part 2, I must admit. Because shit was going down, [I felt] like let’s get a bit of sense here! I’m right down the middle, so I have a problem with both sides. You’ve got an emblem there; you have an eagle and it’s got two wings. [If] one wing falls off, you’re fucked. People don’t seem to get it.
I know you’ve worked with Andy York on several albums. He’s sort of an unsung hero. What do you like about working with Andy and about his production style?
[Andy] was a drummer before he was a guitar player. He’s a great guitar player and he can also play bass; no problems whatsoever. And he’s a stickler; he’s hard to please. You know, Ronson was like that. Take care of business. He calls it being cursed with that ability. (laughs) [We] work well together.
I’m sort of enamored [with] the music scene of England during the ‘70s and even into the ‘80s. I know Mott technically came together in the late ‘60s. But the first part of the ‘70s was your heyda0y. What was the music scene like as you experienced it?
It was fantastic. It had been flower power [and] blues. So it was wedged in between there and Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and, you know, the pub rock stuff. ’70 to ’75 and then punk started up. Those five years, it was fantastic. The country was rocking!
And you toured and [then] you made a record. I mean, we made seven records in five years. Plus toured all over the place, with so many people — over here and in Europe.
In ’71 alone, you guys had two albums! These days, that’s almost unthinkable. No one puts out two albums in one year outside of Taylor Swift and Jack White. Prince did it a couple of times in his career as well.
Yeah. Talk about a great guy! Prince. I was watching [him] the other night. Brilliant!
[But] back then, you were touring nonstop. And then you’d go into the studio and you’d make a record. I remember Pete Watts saying to me, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I”m too busy learning the bass part.” It was that quick, you know? Lyrics were like last minute. It was a panic station — in a great way.
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One thought on “Ian Hunter Is Defying The Odds”
What a wonderful interview. It reads like one of the great Mott walks down memory lane. Last year, I wrote for this very site about how startling it was that Ian Hunter, at 76, had written a stunner like “Dandy,” his tribute to band friend and mentor David Bowie. But now it’s 7 years later and I’m thinking “Bed of Roses” is just as glorious. Ian Hunter is a treasure.