The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople

The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Truth is ofttimes stranger than fiction, as Byron observed – and nowhere is that more true than in the Byronic world of the Seventies British rock band.

Mott The Hoople made Spinal Tap look like a model of restrained professionalism. Their story, brilliantly retold by obvious fans Hall and Keery, includes a guitarist who had to be laid flat by roadies to get into his eight-inch platform boots; a tour supporting ‘comedy walker’ Max Wall; and a band member who managed the Withnailish feat of “quitting by accident”.

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But they also produced some of the greatest rock n’ roll songs ever recorded. Their live shows created a devoted fanbase and they attracted celebrity admirers from both the glam and punk factions of the Seventies Rock Wars – I doubt many other bands could attract on-screen testimonials from both Queen’s Roger Taylor and Mick Jones of the Clash.

That combination of on-stage theatrics and a solid old-school r n’ b base made them as big as The Stones or Zeppelin at one point – and they could have remained so, but for an Olympic-level talent for shooting themselves in the foot.

Their story, as the title makes clear, is a classic rock saga from the start. In 1960s Herefordshire young men with the Tap-esque names of Mick Ralphs, Overend Watts, Verden Allen and Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin get blown away by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. After paying their dues in myriad band permutations they settle on a relatively stable line-up and head for London to make their fortune.

They are taken on by Svengali producer/promoter Guy Stevens, who urges them to ditch a relatively uncharismatic singer (who, with a tribal loyalty that’s to become something of a theme, stays on as road manager) and replace him with Ian Hunter, a veteran jobbing musician. Stevens also finds them a new name – taken from a book about an American circus freak, which he read while in prison on drugs charges, naturally. The charismatic, but somewhat unhinged, Stevens gets them a deal with Island records and squires them through a succession of critically acclaimed but commercially dud albums. Just as their career seems to be stalling, David Bowie (a fan of their already legendarily full-on stage shows) offers to write a song for them. It’s an act of remarkable generosity – and the result is one of his greatest-ever songs, All The Young Dudes. It’s a huge hit, America beckons and the band begin to write follow-ups – All The Way From Memphis, Roll Away The Stone – that match it.

But the cracks are already beginning to show. On their American trip, Hunter writes one of the great rock books, Diary Of A Rock N’ Roll Star, chronicling the tedium and disillusionment of a grinding tour schedule and band members start quitting on what seems like a fortnightly basis. They embrace glam rock (despite looking, as one interviewee puts it, like “hod carriers in drag”) and the fans remain loyal but bemused. Sales fall off again, and the end seems inevitable...

The directors don’t divert too much from the standard rock doc template. Classic stills of the perma-shaded Hunter and the hair and fashion excesses of his bandmates are augmented by grainy live footage and vintage Top Of The Pops/Whistle Test clips, while a succession of elderly chaps (some of whom have worn better than others, it must be said) reminisce in cosy living rooms about the excesses of the old days. But when the story’s this good the best option is to step back and let the protagonists tell it. And as the mild Welsh and Herefordshire burrs (along with Hunter’s slightly dazed baritone and the odd incongruously posh sound engineer) deliver such classic lines as “they didn’t get it – probably because they were Swiss” and “my motto was always: SERIOUS. FUN” you realise the film is indeed the real-life Tap, only with a lot more than “this much” talent; ramshackle, poignant and very British but capturing the sheer joy of being allowed to make music and prat about on stage for a living.

A bit more about the band-members’ post-Mott work would have been interesting, as would some more mention of their personal lives. Apart from one significant female interviewee, women are basically “the girls at home”, giving the film something of a lads-only flavour.

But as a snapshot of a career that was shorter than the gaps some bands leave between albums nowadays, and an era when everyone in the music business was still making it up as they went along, it’s pretty near faultless. It’s also (like Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil, which chronicled an equally well-loved set of rock veterans) a story about the unique bond of being in a band. And, as an emotional final scene makes clear, that can sometimes survive everything the years throw at you.

Reviewed on: 16 Oct 2010
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The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople packshot
Mott the Hoople members Verden Allen, Dale Griffin, Mick Ralphs, Overend Watts and Ian Hunter tell the story of their band at a 2009 reunion gig.
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Director: Chris Hall, Mike Kerry

Year: 2010

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: UK


London 2010

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