“Both of those guys (Freddie Mercury & David Bowie) were dedicated to being Rockstars. I was just glad to be out of the factory”
Ian Hunter is rock royalty. The youngsters out there won’t be so familiar with the name, but in the early 1970’s he was hanging out with David Bowie, pictured with Freddie Mercury and even had Queen as a support group. He and band Mott the Hoople were regulars on British TV’s iconic Top Of The Pops. It was a time when shirt collars, trouser bottoms and even mens hair were all worn Big. It was the golden age of Rock n Roll.
It’s good to have you playing here in Bonn Ian. I know you’ve played Rockpalast and done shows in Cologne before.
Yes, We’ve played Rockpalast, me and Ronson. We played a club in Cologne, it was underneath the Metro (Alter Wartesaal). Difficult for guitars…
I read a quote from Suzi Quatro that she has a so called ‘Ego Room’ where all her gold records and rave reviews are stored with a sign above the door saying ‘Mind your head’. Is it easy to get big headed with people calling you a star? How did you deal with the Rockstar tag that you had in the seventies?
We didn’t really have one I don’t think. We were proud. I guess that’s the same sort of thing. But we (Mott) never really had an ego. For instance Tony Defries wanted us to act like rockstars and we couldn’t do it. David (Bowie) could do it – but we couldn’t. For some reason. We came from small towns where if people couldn’t afford to pay to get in, we got them in for nothing, through the back door sort of thing. We were a people’s band. There were five of us and you can’t have an ego with five people…
So Ian Hunter the Rockstar and Ian Hunter the man on the street were the same person?
No, I wouldn’t say that. There’s two things you see. There’s making them and there’s selling them. The one half of me, I’m Gemini, would be the writer. The other half would be the performer – that’s the difference.
There are two Ian Hunters in effect?
Yeah. Most definitely.
Is that also true of some of the people you’ve mixed with over the years? I’m thinking especially of Freddie Mercury and of course David Bowie. They could be Rockstars and you said you couldn’t…
Well they wanted to be. Both of those guys were totally and utterly dedicated twenty four hours a day to doing that. I was just happy to get out of the factory.
I read somewhere that you had more than forty jobs before becoming a professional musician. What were some of them?
Goods inwards, goods outwards, milling, grinding, centre lathes, capstans, you name it… anything. Bottling milk at four in the morning. Anything really. You could come to Germany. You could get regular work here but then you couldn’t get it in England. Maybe you’d do a month in Hamburg and then you had to come back and there was only one gig on a Saturday night so you had to get a job. I was playing with a guy called Freddie Fingers Lee who was a piano player like Jerry Lee Lewis and I was the bass player. And when you went back to England you got a job and the next time maybe you’re in Duisburg, maybe you’re in Kiel, maybe you’re in Flensberg and then you have to go home again and get another job. That’s why there were so many jobs.
You were originally a bass player?
I played bass for Billy Fury; and Mike Berry.
So what got you into singing?
Well, Fred was the singer and I thought, maybe I can do this? Fred said my writing was good – but don’t ever sing! Then I kind of fluked my way into Mott the Hoople and I became a singer.
Who were your inspirations as a youngster?
Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, The Everly’s, The Platters. Incredible.
For younger readers could you describe Mott The Hoople for me?
It was a people’s band. When we got back together if that had been a disaster they wouldn’t have thought we were bad – they’d have thought we were all bad.
You’ve been described as an accessible Rolling Stones. Is that a fair description of Mott?
Yeah. A lot of bands followed through on that. The Clash used to come to our gigs so they adopted the same sort of thing you know. They were a peoples band.
Very much a Punk attitude?
Well yeah. All the papers, when the punk thing came and the papers started slagging us off. Then all the punks came around and said ‘No, no. They’re alright!’. They changed it all around. And Punk was Gene Vincent, I mean, the punks who came in the 70’s were just people who couldn’t play, and they wanted to play so bad
And some of them did play bad as Sonny Boy Williamson said of the youngsters trying to play Blues in the sixties.
Some good came out of it, you know. It did well.
Your ‘Diary of a Rock n Roll Star’ was, and still is, a popular insider book on rock music in the seventies. I remember reading it at the time and wondering if it was real…
Oh yeah. Day after day. Hour after hour…
Do you still keep a diary?
Well, I’ve got a lousy memory – so yeah.
Are you thinking of an autobiography maybe?
Somebody else is doing it so it’s not an autobiography. The guy who did the box set has been a fan of mine since God knows when so he’s doing it – and I don’t really want to write an autobiography so I think I’ll let him do it you know.
Guy Stevens was a seminal figure in your and Mott’s career as Manager. He once said that you had to take yourselves seriously. Were you able to do that? I’m thinking now, it’s the early 70’s and the glitter scene…
Well. We were about as glitter as the Who were really Mods you know. I mean, it was a thing that was happening at the time and we used it. Made it a weapon. But no, we were bricklayers. We weren’t glitter. we were hod-carriers. It was like the Mod thing, the Who latched onto that. There were things and you latched on to whatever was going for the allure of getting bums on seats. Simple as that. But no, I mean, we were leather. That’s what we wanted to wear.
But you weren’t allowed…
No. Pete Watts, the bass player. He started it all. He loved it and we thought we’d all flash it up to get more bums on the seats and that’s exactly what happened. Flashy would be the best word for it.
Then suddenly you were writing a hit for Barry Manilow with ‘Ships’. How did you feel about that? Embarassing for a Rockstar? Barry wasn’t too highly rated by serious rock fans…
It was confusing. What it was, was that Clive Davis who is head of Arista now. He was head of Columbia Records in those days. If Clive liked a song, when his big artists came in he would put it on in the background during a meeting and the idea was that the artist would pick up on the song. That’s what happened with ‘Ships’. Manilowe’s father had just died. Clive’s sitting there talking to him and Manilow starts getting into ‘Ships’ and that’s how that happened.
You didn’t feel uncomfortable that might go down badly with your own rock fans?
Oh no. That doesn’t matter. It was the last hit he ever had. He should have come back…
It was a colorful time to be making music I would think. you might be the next act onstage after the Wombles. What was it like to appear on television’s ‘Top Of The Pops’?
Oh it was horrible, horrible. Hated it. You were there all day. It didn’t make any sense. I mean, you’d go to the bar and they wouldn’t let you in. You’d go to the bar again and they wouldn’t let you in. You’d go to the bar again and they’d let you in. There was no sense or logic to it. All the girls – didn’t matter if you were married or whatever – they all had to dance while the cameras were rolling or they weren’t allowed in. Stupid. But – if you were sitting at fifteen it took you to five in the charts. So that’s why people were doing it.
What do make of today’s Pop scene?
It’s crap. I mean, but people before me probably thought we were crap. It’s a generational thing. I think it’s mindless drivel. But that’s just me.
It hasn’t got any cheaper though to hear live music has it? In 1974’s ‘Saturday Gig’ you sang “Tickets for the Fairytale were twelve and six a time”. We just had the Rolling Stones play in Düsseldorf this week where tickets were up to 500 pounds. Do you think the fairytale is worth 500 pounds?
Well Mick’s an economist, and always ,you know, it’s what the market carries as they say… I’ve never gone into that in any degree. I don’t know how much stuff they’re using. Everything now costs so much. The crew, the stage and all that.. It’s a whole different level, I can’t really comment on that.
On the subject of the Worlds Greatest Rock n Roll Band, what makes a good rock n roll show to your mind?
Passion! An audience that’s into it. I don’t like festivals and multi-band shows, because they attract the kind of people that, like, want to get drunk. Want women. Maybe will like you, maybe somebody else. I don’t like that. I like doing my shows where people come to see us, and that’s it.
Are the days of Rock Icons coming to an end? Tom Petty’s recent death and naturally David Bowie who you were close to died not so long ago.
Well there’s Beyonce and that. There will be new ones I’m sure. Every generation has them. I hadn’t seen David – well I’d seen him but not to hang out with him, for a lot of years you know, so then I was writing a song called ‘Lady’ and all that happened was, I changed ‘Lady’ to ‘Dandy’ and that was based around the ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Ziggy’ period when I knew him and just based around the fans. It was very black and white in those days and he came and technicolored everything you know. And he did great music as Queen did their own music. It wasn’t particularly rock n roll it was good music. Different.
Bowie was an influence on you but even more so was his guitarist Mick Ronson, who was very under-rated I think.
Not by the people who understand…
He doesn’t get the high placings on great guitar player lists that he deserves though does he?
He wouldn’t have cared about that. Very modest. He was an amazing arranger. Quality, pure quality. Mick was concert trained, as a pianist, a violinist. You wouldn’t have known it cos he was daft as a brush. His playing though, Scary. Scary and melodic. A song within a song rather than a solo. These people who just bomb down the fretboard at 100 miles an hour – that’s just stupid. He wrote melody. He wasn’t much of a writer but he was a great arranger, and when an orchestra was in a room he spoke their language. Nobody knew this about Mick…
Could he read and write music?
Yeah, but he’d do it on a fag packet (laughs) I remember we did a song called ‘Sea Diver’ on the ‘Dudes’ album and he came in with an actual fag packet, a ‘Players’ packet. Opened it up and fortunately the guy got it! He was running like a 17 piece (orchestra). It was one of those Randy Newman type things.
How does the band tonight compare to past Ian Hunter Bands?
They’re amazing. I’m very happy with this. It’s been a while – they’ve been together almost thirty years coming up you know. It’s the dynamics. Very good. I don’t like comparing bands . You always think you’re in the best band you were ever in.
You are, I’m amazed to say, 78 now and I’m amazed because you don’t look it…
Well, I got to 76 and then I started aging. But I looked really good around 75 (laughs) But you have to work on it you know, you don’t give up.
Has the way you write songs changed now from the early days?
It did yeah. You don’t do ‘boy/girl’ stuff. That’s kind of undignified at my age. You have to find anything that’s a way in.
Teenage angst is not an option I guess?
That’s no longer an option…
You’ve always had a lot of American imagery in your songs. Do you live over there?
Oh, I moved to the States in ’75. I am in fact an American, though I have a British passport.
Both Countries are having their problems right now.
Yeah, they’re both stupid.
I was going to ask where is the healthiest place to live – but I’m not sure if there is one…
No. I’m not sure either…
You had a recent tour cancelled in Japan because of a threat of war I read…
Yeah, and that cost me too. We had all the air fares sorted and then all of a sudden we’re on the West Coast and I’ve got to get them back home. We were only on that coast for Japan and came home so that cost a few bob. Most annoying… But what you gonna do?…
You have a massive 30 disc boxed set ‘Stranded in Reality’ just out. It’s been a chance to hear your back catalogue. What would you say was your favourite Album of all? – Solo or Mott.
Don’t get me into that. No. They’re like kids. They’ll all sulk if you pick one.
Do you listen to your music once it’s released?
No. To me that’s fatal, and Ronson was the same way. We never looked back. It’s done. It’s gone. If you have to go and rehearse something or you have to put something in the set… but no, I don’t even know if I’ve got my records.
What advice would you give to young musicians coming up today about making a career in the music business?
Don’t do it! Well no, cos there’s no money in it. The only guys who can make it now are posh guys because there’s no money there. When you’re single it’s alright. But the minute you meet somebody and they’re gonna have a kid and then you’re going to have to get a mortgage and stuff like that. There’s no money in music anymore. I do alright cos I’ve been around a while but for a kid starting now it’s really difficult.
Why are you still on the road and making music?
Because I love doing it. I have a band and I feel great camaraderie.
You could live from the songwriting?
I don’t know. With songs, they either come or they don’t. At the moment they don’t – that might be it. But if they come I’ll take them. It was never that I sat down and wrote like a professional writer. Well, it was at one point, which I didn’t like at all cos it was manufactured. I like the reality of something really hits you. It’s magic, it really is. If there’s any talent involved – you’ll only get a bit of it. A chord sequence, or a line, and it’s what you do with it then. If there was any talent involved in it that would be it. But, no it’s magic. More Magic than magic.
Do you have a note book with you all the time and pen?
Yeah. And I still use the old cassettes. Because you think you’re going to remember it because it’s so good – and you don’t. So you have to have this shit, you know?
Many thanks for your time Ian.