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

"Queen were one of the few bands where they could layer track upon track and it would get better. I was there at the mixing session for 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' They'd been going at it for four days in a room the size of a toilet. And it was like a cacophony coming out of these huge 300-watt speakers. My hair was moving. And Fred [Mercury] asked, 'What do you think of the second harmony at the end of the third verse?' I said, 'You're out of your mind. I don't know. I haven't been listening to this for four days.'"

In between Overnight Angels and the next album, Hunter released a U.K. single about the rising punk scene and "living in sin with a safety pin" called "England Rocks." It was rechristened "Cleveland Rocks" and placed on You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic, the album that finally broke Hunter with American audiences again.

"Schizophrenic started out in England with people like Glen Matlock, who Mick was hanging out with. And it wasn't really working," admits Hunter. "My manager in America said, 'Look, if you wanna get back here, the E Streeters will do it with you.' And it was just perfect. It was very fortuitous. Everyone was there at the right time. The press slagged the album off in England 'cause punk was in full whack there, but what they didn't realize is that I got on perfectly all right with all the punk bands, so they had to double back. It was weird. The press at the time, they coined that wonderful phrase 'new wave, old wave.' But it had fuck-all to do with the music."

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."

For a change, the album charted in America, and while the single of "Ships" didn't, it was covered three months later by Barry Manilow, who scored a Top 10 hit with the song.

"I was on tour on a bus the first time I'd heard his version," Hunter recalls. "It seemed so strange because it modulated all the time. I didn't know that all his songs had key changes. It was the first time I'd ever heard one of his records. I didn't know what to make of it. I didn't think it was awful. It was so different."

Interestingly, the Manilow cover didn't hurt Hunter's image a bit. "I think people know once a song is out there, anybody can cover it. I'm sure I got a bit of mileage out of that one way or the other."

Hunter and Ronson simultaneously co-produced Schizophrenic and the debut from Ellen Foley, familiar to most as the woman the ever-ravenous Meat Loaf nearly devoured by the dashboard light. "Mick made some money for the first time in his life. Got himself sorted and bought a house and a car. He hadn't made much by that point. He never made any money with David."

When the subject of David Bowie's legendary penny pinching comes up, Hunter begs off talking about it. "The whole thing just sickens me."

After issuing a stopgap double-live set, Welcome to the Club, Hunter and Ronson hit a block with the next studio album. "Having been together on Schizophrenic and Ellen's first record, now we didn't know where to go. When Mick Jones of the Clash came in, it was great. Here's a guy with energy who wants to do it. We ditched a lot of things I'd originally wrote for the record and a lot of it was just written in the studio. Mick Jones did Ellen Foley's second album and he did Short Back 'n' Sides with me."

Hunter minces no words about the reaction to these dense recordings. "Both these albums were disasters according to the powers that be. Nobody liked 'em. But I thought Short Back 'n' Sides was an interesting record."

Hunter returned to Columbia for another album sans Ronson, the directionless All of the Good Ones Are Taken ("I don't remember that too kindly. I'm not too keen on that"). What followed was a long period of quiet activity writing songs for forgettable films like Teachers, Up the Creek and Fright Night.

All of this material is collected for the first time on Once Bitten, and it's far from the hack work it would seem on the surface.

Hunter and Ronson hit the road together as the Hunter-Ronson Band in 1988, recording an album called YUI Orta, inspired by a favorite Three Stooges expression. Hunter likes the album, but complains the Bernard Edwards production sounds "too professional." While touring behind the album, Ronson was first diagnosed with cancer in 1990. "The tragedy of it was now he's ill and now he gets a solo deal with Epic, now he's producing Morrissey and things are working really well for him. Then this happens. And he knew it was incurable. So we were hanging about for two years and it was a nightmare. Obviously unimaginable for him. But he was great, a lot of fun to be with all the way through."

The last time the pair appeared onstage together was at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992. Ronson died the following April. A year later, Hunter would headline the Mick Ronson Memorial Concert at the Hammersmith Odeon. Onstage, Hunter debuted "Michael Picasso," a touching hymn to his fallen friend, which has never been released in the U.S. until now.

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