Mott The Hoople – Mental Train (The Island Years 1969-1971)


They came, they saw, and when wearing glitter, thigh-high platform boots and dark shades they conquered the charts. But before those glam rock heydays, they made it big live in London then up and down the city halls, a working class band playing for the kid. A Herfordshire act with a Derby-born singer mixing The Rolling Stones with Bob Dylan, under madcap producer Guy Stevens’ direction.

There have been collections before, with alternative and live tracks too. This one contains the first four albums off the Island label featuring the original line-up of Ian Hunter (vocals, piano), Mick Ralphs (vocals, guitar), Verden (Phally) Allen (organ) and the incomparable 70s TV visual gold dust and sadly now deceased rhythm section of Pete (Overend) Watts (bass) and Dale (Buffin) Griffins (drums), plus alternatives, live tracks and BBC sessions that stretch out over another 2 CDs. And then there are 50 pages of rare photos in a brand new booklet with extensive footnotes written by Kris Needs to while away your day, or week/

Where original tapes have been located, the albums have been remastered by Andy Pearce and further complemented by bonus tracks selected by Needs. Across 89 tracks you can feel the 60s ending and taking baby steps into the 70s, and with it taking you just under 7 and half hours of playing time to get through you too age as a listener in a literal sense while finding yourself travelling back in time.

Motley Crue took part of their name and their glam rock act wholesale, Kiss the makeup, Queen the live energy, Def Leppard remain cheerleaders but The Clash got there first. As influential as much as they were influenced themselves, Mott The Hoople regrouped this millennium and will be out there again in 2019, Hunter ever-present at the helm.

But it is how the world came to know them, beginning with self-named debut, Mott The Hoople…

With his guitar distorted to buggery, Ralphs strikes the chords to ‘You Really Got Me’, and with this edition you really hear the rhythm section mugging along behind him. Ralphs grits, tears and pulls out melody licks dragging them kicking and screaming to its instrumental conclusion.

The drifting Dylan-like ‘At The Crossroads’ that follows no doubt confused the hell out of listeners watching the vinyl 12” run round their turntables back in the 60s. Piano and organ work really well, but when Ralphs swops an acoustic for electric three quarters of the way through you understand his influence on The Clash’s Mick Jones completely.

Piano led ‘Laugh At Me’ has us further adjusting to Hunter’s lyrical introspection, though when Allen’s organ comes in you acknowledge they’re sailing close to the wind with those Dylan-isms, but – while subtle – you do feel that Stones approach equally felt pulling it away, especially as they run down the Church aisle making out Gospel like. Allen’s organ benefits here, cleaner, sharper, not sounding like its keys are covered in dust. ‘Backsliding Fearlessly’ finds us in a similar mood but with acoustic guitars to the fore.

Then it comes, the mighty, the ass-shaking, the chick-pulling and over-the-top showstopper that is ‘Rock and Roll Queen’ – Again, it sounds brighter, cleaner than the versions I have already – From the raunch and drive to its inventive counter melodies, early and late 60s guitar techniques pull and shove cohesively like Bobby Charlton and George Best made Man United a winning combination. Hunter delivers the cheeky mockney persona in grand form on this rock number and the football chorus chant at the end warns you the working class have now arrived.

‘Rabbit Foot and Toby Time’ is invigorating instrumental pub rock boogie then comes the dramatic epic tumbling chords of ‘Half Moon Bay’ building then coming down to a half time near dirge –    poetic allusions to someone who’s left him, lover, friend, or mentor even. Five minutes, yes, five minutes in, a piano fakes a classical line or two, the organ whirrs in like a brewing storm and the main melody line returns… It’s over 10 minutes long so it ain’t for the fairhearted… But fear not, the album ends like it began with a rocking instrumental in ‘Wrath and Wroll’ that’s got an arrow pointing towards it telling The Stranglers where to come when they’ve had enough of picking tricks up from The Doors.

Of the bonus tracks ‘If Your Heart Lay with the Rebel (Would You Cheer the Underdog?)’ is a gruff but tempered live instrumental, a little Procul Harem in places, Buffin keeping it together as they go through the changes. Then you get numerous variations on ‘Rock and Roll Queen’ (This album’s lead in’s the best version), its single B-side ‘The Road To Birmingham’ (written following a gig at The Railway that’s now buried under Birmingham City University; a misplaced put down on the city, it gives the impression the place was overtly racist back then, but I don’t completely buy it) and ‘You Really Got Me’ (the extended instrumental version is comparable to Lemmy suggesting a gang of thugs join Keith Emerson in The Nice, while Ralph’s vocal version’s rather drippy in comparison to the others. The extras end with ‘Little Christine’ a kind of sneering garage rock come faux Stax number sung by either Ralphs or Allen.

10 and 11 minutes of seeming rock and roll rambling on some songs can be a bit much for some, five versions of ‘Rock and Roll Queen’ is too much for most. If you’ve never heard the album before their wild and woolly long instrumentals are best focussed through Ralphs guitar playing, the faux-Dylan folk becomes wearying, but the power of  the definitive ‘Rock and Roll Queen’ and the epic direction on ‘Laugh At Me’ (where they all pulling together on their strengths) points the way forward. For those who’ve already heard the original what gives this new version a thumbs-up is the cleaned-up sound that gives greater clarity to both instruments and voices throughout.

With the following Mad Shadows there was more of the same, though little more cohesively.

Ralphs turned his amp once more to rage on guitar for ‘Thunderbuck Ram’ with its deadly runs, power chords and some beautifully captured spotlight notes alongside interplay between him and keyboards that this production brings to the gull. Ralphs takes vocals too, for what’s effectively a Buffalo Springfield meets Mountain number.

Hunter’s down-on-his-luck ‘No Wheels to Ride’ starts off gently but Watts pronounced bass points the prototype power ballad direction it will take when the solo comes in. The brief ‘You Are One of Us’ is a singer/songwriter predominantly piano piece wherein Hunter appears to make his first official lyrical overture to fans. There are 60s pop harmonies but the rock end of the band intimate what they’ll be playing some years down the road with ‘Honaloochie Boogie.’

‘Walking with a Mountain’ is next. Less a life on the road song and more an early prototype for ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ innuendo methinks. it’s pumping hot rock ‘n’ roll and unrelenting they go into ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Apparently a live favourite throughout their career, the re-tweaked Mott even lifted the riff for ‘She Does It’.

‘I Can Feel’ has Hunter (having left one family behind) seeming to be feeling the guilt. Not a spring chicken had golden opportunities left him by? Many of his early songs sound like he was considering the end was nigh and clutching defeat from victory too often, but then peace and love wasn’t a viable opportunity for many living in councils houses back then, and there’s an honesty to lines like: “It does not matter what you see, For my face is living on borrowed time”. With a couple of tender guitar solos from Ralphs and a deep resonating and expressive lead vocal from Hunter plus gospel style backing ones, at seven minutes the average listener might think it too long. However, he is slowly beginning to take shape as a lyricist beyond a Bolan-does-Dylan pastiche.

Brit hippy beat ‘Threads of Iron’ sees Hunter and Ralphs share vocals, then they turn things up for a rave-up, getting ever more raucous and going off at tangents as if inviting The Sex Pistols and The Damned to take a leaf out their book; before ending with a squawk, a raging scream and no apology.

Mad Shadows officially ends with six minutes of mostly piano and Hunter raging and phrasing away, as if sharing the after effects of a bad acid trip with intended deep meaning but frankly not. His voice, however, does give its all. ‘When My Mind’s Gone’ is the title, and it summed up that the dichotomies found across early Mott albums was immense.

There is a BBC session and an organ-based original of ‘Thunderbuck Ram’ but fortunately no other major varied-repeats though there are some tunes and riffs played out in rehearsal for the future as extras. Most notable among these are the brass added, swinging brash mid-paced rock of ‘Going Home (2 Miles)’ and ‘The Hunchback Fish (Vocal Rehearsal)’ – That if you’ve not heard it before is like some plodding monster wading across from the bleaker parts of Wind in the Willows through to the pages of Gormenghast as sung by Ralphs  before heading out once more in Procul Harum territory, though it lacks bite to truly take it somewhere within its 6 minutes. ‘Moonbus (Baby’s Got a Down on Me)’ shows the outside influence of either Free directly or their mutual record company Island demanding such. Personally I’ve always liked it, the band pulls together cohesively with a hard soul blues feel.

Third album Wildlife has been much maligned historically. Partly because die-hard fans can’t accept the substitution of Guy Stevens for a self-production job, and partly because it was a bunch of country folk numbers plus a bastard rocking live version of ‘Keep a Knocking’ that upset the flow. Me, I genuine like this one.

As had become custom, Ralphs starts things rolling on the album coming across like Neil Young as he sings about ‘Whiskey Women’ – It’s a country rock pastiche but the rock really is more prevalent despite the naysayers and full of cynicism (about groupies) and again the clarity of sound in instruments is much better than versions  previously released – Watts bass playing on this and other tracks really standing out.

Most importantly, it is with this album that Hunter finds his own muse not an intimation of others lyrically. It begins with ‘Angel of Eighth Avenue’ a beautiful song, with consummate playing by all, a tale of chancing upon love or good fortune when least expecting it. ‘Wrong Side of the River’ begins calmly on piano, before heading out to the bayou with picking guitars and Ralphs hitting the higher notes as his infatuation with Young again takes precedence, though there are also dramatic guitar runs that echo  the range of ‘Thunderbuck Ram’. Hunter returns to the microphone again for ‘Waterlow’ – A song that could have been used on the animated Watership Down or some British post war movie. Orchestrated, with evocative lyrical lines and a voice that holds you in the moment.

‘Lay Down’ is a number written by Melanie and also covered by The Strawbs. It comes across as another of those Brit beat pop tunes of its time going into a big singalong rocking gospel section preparing the way like John the Baptist for Jesus Christ Superstar. As I recall there are a number of guest backing vocalists including Jess Roden on it. Critics said this was truly out of place on the record but you can’t ignore the fantastic searing organ solo. It Must Be Love’ has Ralphs in out and out country mood, all upbeat picking acoustic and pedal steel. A little too twee, especially the lyrics, but the fact is, if someone had released this as a single around 1974 it would probably have been a hit.

‘The Original Mixed Up Kid’ is jug band folk not too far removed from Lindisfarne as Hunter reflects on what fame – such as it was in this period – was doing to him. Its overall existential reaching is felt and the band play with warmth about him. ‘Home Is Where I Want to Be’ features whimsical searching organ and piano moving in and out each other, a picking guitar and a more profound upbeat tune with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young style harmonies.

Side 2 of the original vinyl edition has Hunter introduced ‘What I’d Say’ live and it does feature that between other tunes in the rock ’n’ roll medley but predominantly – and on the record sleeve – it’s ‘Keep A-Knockin’. It starts with Ralphs chopping guitar and the audience clapping along, then a racing piano and organ before Buff kicks away on the drums and Watts bass comes booming in all over the shop (though less so here than on the original I think). Hunter sounds knackered but is giving it everything he’s got, while Ralphs makes out like bloody Jimmy Page as he solos wildly, followed by Allen not prepared to be upstaged. That it all breaks down for some Stax style funk, we get a bit of Dave Brubeck Quartet thrown, and Hunter pre-empts the rap we’ll come to know at the tail-end of ‘All The Young Dudes’ is just part of the oddball equation that makes this band.”This is a disaster area here we don’t know what we’re doing” cries out Hunter before they draw their live set to an unholy climax.

The add-ons for this record are a variety of mainly singles and demos with alternative titles for songs. The busking cover of ‘Downtown’ is pleasant but was never going to be a hit, whereas ‘Midnight Lady’ has a Stones like groove following on from a long Mick Taylor style intro that stuck a chance but the middle of the road “Nan-na-nah” chorus chant probably stole that away. The demo of ‘Long Red’ comes across as heavy-handed Cream but then it is a Lesley west number while ‘Growing Man Blues (Take 10)’ has a fuzzed-up organ soling over a song that can only be described as Wizzard meets The Beach Boys played by a gang of punks.

Next we move onto their darkest days and Brain Capers despite which ‘Death May Be Your Santa Claus’ opens with an off-beat funky guitar that then starts chugging away with a Stones back beat while an organ races out in front with Townsend patented power chords coming down as it turns the bends. Hunter’s vocals are pretty much a repetitive chant and overall it’s rather brilliant in its raucousness capturing the energy of their live performance. Buffin’s drumming brings it to an end but even he sounds like he doesn’t want to stop – Indeed, sonically this version of the album has the guy playing up a storm throughout.

That stated, ‘Your Own Backyard’, a Dion cover, features odd shuffling drums, against a curiously picked acoustic guitar with Hunter singing over the top. Allen’s organ keeps it on course, and in hindsight it could have done with a mandolin too, but it’s not a song I’m fond of – Despite which live versions on this collection will prove the band enjoyed playing it. More covers come in the form of The Youngbloods’ ‘Darkness, Darkness’ with Ralphs signing of impending doom with a high country rock cry over crushing power chords and  powerful and affective drumming throughout. It all builds to a rave of a riff in its dying moments as if about to take off elsewhere but fades out.

Within the nine minute epic that is the slow ballad of ‘The Journey’ despair and the life of a musician are forever entwined by Hunter. There is tender playing from all even as it gets bolder and more impassioned and heavier with the pounding of drums given full weight.

‘Sweet Angeline’ plays like a mid-paced rocking continuation of the story began on ‘Angel of 8th Avenue’ and ‘Second Love’ another one where Hunter appears to be putting on a brave face of a situation gone to pot, while Buffin’s drumming keeps the brass arranged big band sound in shape. ‘The Moon Upstairs’ is in the great Mott rock riff manner with lyrics spewed with anger and frustration as clarion call to punk rock.  And finally ‘The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception’ is about as daft as its title, sounding like we’re half way in as it opens with off-key piano playing, feedback, hammering drums and something the Bonzo Dog Do-da Band scraped off their feet!

Of the eight bonus tracks with this album we tend to get calmer pacesetting takes of tracks with earlier titles, such as ‘Mental Train (The Moon Upstairs)’ ‘How Long? (Death May Your Santa Claus)’ alongside previews of tracks that would appear on the All The Young Dudes album and beyond – A slower blues version of ‘One of the Boys’ and in ‘Black Scorpio (Mommas Little Jewel) ‘ the tambourine shaking swagger of the Stones with some harder guitar, while Ralphs’ squeaky cheeky slide running country pop rocking ‘Moving On’ would get beefed up once he formed Bad Company and the run through of ‘Where Do You All Come From’ would get marshalled through as a 12 bar blues b-side to ‘Honaloochie Boogie’.

The Ballads Of Mott The Hoople features 12 tracks that supposedly “unheard and unreleased music from the Island archive” well if not I’ve heard quite a few variations of them on other compilations in the past. The version of ‘Angel Of 8th Avenue’ seems to feature fuzzed-up bass pedals and some dark prog rocking digeridoo, ‘Blue Broken Tears’ is a more classically orientated version of ‘Waterlow’ and the BBC session of ‘The Original Mixed Up Kid’ a breezier version.

‘Till I’m Gone (2 Miles)’ is interesting because there are snippets they used within it right up their final ‘Saturday Gigs’ single. Whereas, only the bravest of dudes are likely to sit through repeated listenings of ‘Can You Sing the Song That I Sing (Full Take)’ that’s basically 15.55 minutes of Hunter at the piano with Allen participating on organ and ‘I’m A River (Vocal Rehearsal)’ more of the same but five minutes shorter.

That leaves us with It’s Live And Live Lonely and it’s worth noting this is from a recording made in 1970 then comparing it to some of the big acts out around then. There’s a certain skewered almost-but-not-quite psychedelic add-on approach to numbers like ‘Rock And Roll Queen’ and ‘Whiskey Women’ – that or natural feedback. ‘You Really Got Me’ is played as if they’re mainlining speed with fuzzy lead licks pointing the way for Motorhead’s or just beating The MC5 at their own game. There’s a whipped organ on the rendition of ‘The Moon Upstairs’ and it ends in fine form with ‘Death May Be Your Santa Claus’ with drums up front keeping the chanting vocals going while Ralph chops away on guitar and an inspired Allen plays for his live. A rowdy party of a record to end this collection on.

For me it’s the clarity of sound that makes this collection work. Hearing the albums in sequence, they demonstrate how underrated a guitarist Mick Ralphs has always been – Emerging US influences like Leslie West & Joe Walsh are present alongside a Townsend style bash and crash and frankly his own inspired nimble fingers. Ian Hunter takes time to find a lyrical voice, but once we’ve reached Wildlife things become clear and the path that leads to him still writing thoughtful tunes to this day made. Too many epics and odd choices possibly for those not aficionados but what the Hell that’s who’s going to buy this, and for them and a good few more it’s worth it.

Mott The Hoople were put together as a band that would take the best of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, the truth of the matter was they were more like The Troggs meet Buffalo Springfeld and that proves a darn sight more interesting.

Review by Paul H Birch

Originally released November 22 1969 – Island Records ILPS 9108

  1. You Really Got Me
  2. At the Crossroads
  3. Laugh at Me
  4. Backsliding Fearlessly
  5. Rock and Roll Queen
  6. Rabbit Foot and Toby Time
  7. Half Moon Bay
  8. Wrath and Wroll

Bonus Tracks:

  1. If Your Heart Lay with the Rebel (Would You Cheer the Underdog?) (Instrumental Take 2)
  2. Rock and Roll Queen (Single A side)
  3. Road to Birmingham (Single B side)
  4. Road to Birmingham (Guy Steven’s Mix)
  5. You Really Got Me (Complete take)
  6. You Really Got Me (Vocal mix)
  7. Rock and Roll Queen (Guy Steven’s Mono Mix)
  8. Rock and Roll Queen (Kitchen Sink Instrumental)
  9. Little Christine (2 Miles)

Originally released September 1970 – Island Records ILPS 9119

  1. Thunderbuck Ram
  2. No Wheels to Ride
  3. You Are One of Us
  4. Walking with a Mountain
  5. I Can Feel
  6. Threads of Iron
  7. When My Mind’s Gone
  8. Bonus Tracks
  9. Thunderbuck Ram (BBC Session)
  10. Thunderbuck Ram (Original Take with Organ)
  11. No Wheels to Ride (Demo)
  12. Moonbus (Baby’s Got a Down on Me)
  13. The Hunchback Fish (Vocal Rehearsal)
  14. You Are One of Us (Take 9)
  15. Going Home (2 Miles)
  16. Keep A-Knockin’ (Studio version)

Originally released March 1971 – Island Records ILPS 9144

  1. Whiskey Women
  2. Angel of Eighth Avenue
  3. Wrong Side of the River
  4. Waterlow
  5. Lay Down
  6. It Must Be Love
  7. The Original Mixed Up Kid
  8. Home Is Where I Want to Be
  9. Keep A-Knockin’ (Live)
  10. Bonus Tracks
  11. Midnight Lady (Single A side)
  12. The Debt (Single B side)
  13. Downtown (Single A side)
  14. Brain Haulage (Whiskey Woman)
  15. Growing Man Blues (Take 10)
  16. Long Red (Demo)
  17. The Ballad of Billy Joe
  18. Lay Down (Take 8)

Originally released December 1971 – Island Records – ILPS 9178

  1. Death May Be Your Santa Claus
  2. Your Own Backyard
  3. Darkness, Darkness
  4. The Journey
  5. Sweet Angeline
  6. Second Love
  7. The Moon Upstairs
  8. The Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception
  9. Bonus Tracks
  10. Mental Train (The Moon Upstairs)
  11. How Long? (Death May Your Santa Claus)
  12. Darkness, Darkness
  13. Your Own Backyard (Complete Take)
  14. Where Do You All Come From (Backing Track)
  15. One of the Boys (Take 2)
  16. Movin’ On (2 Miles)
  17. Black Scorpio (Mommas Little Jewel)

Unheard and unreleased music from the Island archive

  1. Like a Rolling Stone (Fragment)
  2. No Wheels to Ride (1st House)
  3. Angel Of 8th Avenue (Tape 816)
  4. The Journey
  5. Blue Broken Tears (Tape 816)
  6. Black Hills (Full Ralph’s Version)
  7. Can You Sing the Song That I Sing (Full Take)
  8. Till I’m Gone (2 Miles)
  9. The Original Mixed Up Kid (BBC Session)
  10. Ill Wind Blowing (2 Miles)
  11. I’m A River (Vocal Rehearsal)
  12. Ride on The Sun (Sea Diver) (2 Miles)

Tracks 1 – 7: Fairfield Hall, Croydon, 13 September 1970
Tracks 8 to 12: Paris Theatre, London, BBC Radio One, In Concert, 30 December 1971

  1. Rock and Roll Queen
  2. Ohio
  3. No Wheels to Ride / Hey Jude
  4. Thunderbuck Ram
  5. Keep A-Knockin’
  6. You Really Got Me
  7. The Moon Upstairs
  8. Whiskey Women
  9. Your Own Backyard
  10. Darkness, Darkness
  11. The Journey
  12. Death May Be Your Santa Claus