British rockers Mott the Hoople have had a somewhat confusing career arc. Best known to pop radio listeners in the United States for the film produced by David Bowie in 1972 All the young guys – their only Billboard Top 40 hit – the band had been there for a few years on both sides of this radio staple.
At first, they meandered around trying to find their sound, ping-pong between supercharged covers, semi-aimless but exciting and edgy jams, and even acoustic sounds, before putting it all together on Brain capers at the end of 1971. But few noticed; it was their first LP to completely miss the UK charts, and the band went their separate ways. Bowie, who noticed it, convinced the group to get together and record. Guys, an album that sanded down most of Mott the Hoople‘s rougher edges and ultimately brought them success (despite Bowie’s metallic-sounding AM radio recording method … but that’s another story). Once they got famous, things fell apart in just a few years; according to the band’s official timeline, guitarist Mick Ralphs stayed on for another album before decamping to form Bad Company, and frontman Ian Hunter lasted a studio album beyond.
Then things take a turn for the worse. The official timeline completely ignores a pair of later albums, billed as simply “Mott.” When they were released, these albums did not set the world on fire; today they still tend to be criticized by music writers and, as a result, have been overlooked by many Mott the Hoople fans. The last album, Shout and point fingers, was Mott’s only album not to be rated at all in the US or UK. Following this disappointment, the group completely changed their name to become British Lions. A representative example from the point of view of modern criticism on Shout and point fingers just All the music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who calls it a real Spinal Tap moment and “one of the real nadirs of 70s rock”. Ouch.
Let me be a dissenting voice to this opinion.
Shout and point fingers is a really good glammy rock record from a band that seems to be having fun – something that was sometimes lacking on records conducted by Hunter, despite the quality of much of the music. Mott the Hoople’s founding rhythm section, consisting of drummer Dale Griffin and bassist Overend Watts, had been around since the early days, with the addition of Morgan Fisher mid-term on the keys. New guitarist Ray Major and singer Nigel Benjamin have joined the debut album as Mott, Drive on. The band is undeniably different without the distinctive, husky voice of Ian Hunter and the awe-inspiring kind of melancholy of his songwriting. (It also means that the group’s tendency to sometimes leap over the cliffs in grandiose ways and extend the tracks into jam-band land has disappeared – a plus for this listener.)
More than the vocal sound and the attitude of Hunter, Mott is just a different beast as it is now Watts and his company in charge of writing the songs. The humorous side that still lurked in the Hunter-led group is intact and even amplified in the Mott era, which is probably what makes Erlewine mention Spinal Tap. And, I have to say, what’s wrong with being Spinal Tap, anyway? Mott was clearly in the rock ‘n roll joke about Shout and point fingers. With Benjamin’s high pitched and less hoarse lead vocals, Mott comes across as sort of a bizarre mix of Sparks and early AC / DC on the harsher tracks.
Ultimately, I wonder what would have happened if the “Mott” era lineup had changed its name immediately rather than trying to keep the momentum going by using the abbreviated group name. Would these two albums have been seen as rambling accomplishments by some underdogs, rather than crappy disappointments with a rhythm section above their heads and trying to lengthen their time in the spotlight? Too bad. It’s all in the past now. The original five members of Mott the Hoople’s debut album reunited in 2009 and again in 2013, which is pretty darn cool. Maybe Watts and Griffin can get Hunter to sing something. Shout and point fingers. (Colombia PC 34236, 1976)