Just the Old Dude

A newly released two-CD anthology of Ian Hunter's solo recording only tells half of the rest of the story

The first time I'd ever heard the term "elder statesman" used by a rock 'n' roll star was by Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter, in a 1979 issue of Trouser Press. "That's me expounding like an elder statesman," he remarked somewhat self-deprecatingly, after giving his seal of approval to bands like the Clash and Generation X, the latter of which he'd just produced. Elder or not, punks like Glen Matlock, Billy Idol and Mick Jones were drawn to the straight-shooting singer because he'd already done what they aspired to do in the pages of the NME, debunk the bloated myth of the rock star as divine royalty.

In Hunter's lyrical milieu, rock stars were just ordinary blokes playing a high-stakes game, ever mindful that they were one or two hits away from being sent back to a factory job. Few rockers ever addressed their fans as honestly and directly as Hunter did on "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople," "Saturday Gigs" and "Hymn for the Dudes." In one breath, he seemed to be thanking them for keeping him from the working-class heap, and in the next, apologizing for being too human.

Hunter even published a diary of Mott's 1972 tour called Reflections of a Rock Star, capturing the dreary nature of life on the road, where even musicians can look forward to nasty treatment from stewardesses and hotel desk clerks. And where fawning groupies can be just as annoying as insurance salesmen.

Ian Hunter: Still backsliding fearlessly.
Ian Hunter: Still backsliding fearlessly.
Hunter with Mott: "We'd come from the backwaters of England and didn't know how anything worked."
Hunter with Mott: "We'd come from the backwaters of England and didn't know how anything worked."

Mott the Hoople's story is well-documented on record; Britain has a definitive three-CD boxed set, All the Young Dudes, and Americans can find an authoritative two-disc anthology of the group called The Ballad of Mott. Legacy. In contrast, Ian Hunter's second act, the quarter-century as a solo artist, is generally overlooked by chroniclers who often tack solo hits like "Who Do You Love" onto Mott collections like he'd never left the band.

Sony Legacy's newly issued double CD Once Bitten Twice Shy would seem to be the ideal item to address this corresponding deficiency. While the inclusion of rare and unreleased tracks is a boon to collectors, it comes at the expense of better-known Hunter material like "Just Another Night," "Central Park and West," "We've Gotta Get Out of Here," "Lounge Lizard," "Lisa Likes Rock and Roll," "Irene Wild" and the extremely hard to find "England Rocks," which later moved to Cleveland and became the theme to The Drew Carey Show. Here's a case where appeasing the casual fan would've been wholly warranted since Hunter's solo CDs continue to slip in and out of print in the States. Unless a full-scale reissue campaign is launched, much of Hunter's best bits will remain hidden in the import section of your favorite record retailer.

But that's a minor quibble since this new set's release means the reclusive Hunter is making the rounds again, doing shows, interviews, launching his own Web site and recording an album for a March 2001 release. That will mark his first new effort since 1996's The Artful Dodger, which was never released in America, his adopted home since the 1980s. Hunter had little to do with Once Bitten's song selection; he did, however, pen the track notes and mandate that the discs be separated into one category for rockers and another for ballads.

"That's 'cause a lot of people like my rockers but they don't like the slower things, and a lot of people that like the slower things don't like the rockers," he offers. "I thought if we separate them, then people won't have to keep bouncing off the sofa all the time."

Once Bitten Twice Shy was culled together by Campbell Devine, a Mott fanatic who was accorded access to Sony's vaults -- unearthing a few gems like "Colwater High," an outtake from Hunter's first solo album. Devine is something of a controversial figure in Mott circles, as the author of All the Young Dudes, the "official biography" that has been disavowed by Dale "Buffin" Griffin and Pete "Overend" Watts, particularly for its account of the band's demise. The official line has been that Hunter left because Mott's rhythm section was jealous of the attention lavished on the "new guy," Mick Ronson. However, the other side maintains Hunter was taking a break, not making a break from the group, after collapsing from physical exhaustion.

"What it was was that I'd run out. Run out of songs, run out of patience; I think Mott had run their allotted course," Hunter surmises. "It's like any divorce; you don't really want it to happen. Ronson signed up and we were in Europe and there seemed to be a great deal of friction between the rest of the band and Mick, and that just added to the fatigue of it all. And it just seemed like I wasn't in it for the right reasons anymore."

Armchair psychoanalysts only had to look at Mott's recorded output to see the gradual buildup to a breakdown. After spending several albums lusting after the fame that eluded them, Mott's full-length finale, The Hoople, recorded at the pinnacle of their success, found Hunter castigating his reflection in the makeup mirror and complaining of being trapped like a marionette, whose pleas of "get me out of this mess" go ignored while crowds cheer.

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