It’s 1972. Mott the Hoople is an awesome live band, but under-appreciated beyond its core fan base. The band has yet to achieve a hit single or LP. Island Records is pushing the band to tour incessantly but many of the venues are poor (especially in continental Europe) and low budgets make life on the road unpleasant. Guy Stevens, the bands producer and champion, has personal issues separate from but not entirely unconnected with Mott’s lack of success, which he felt was his own failure.
The band felt that Island, despite its considerable loyalty and patience in sticking with the band over four albums, was not doing the right things to promote them, and perhaps even looked down on them as less sophisticated than the likes of Traffic or Free. The contract with the label was not good either, and the band was in debt.
Things come to a head in Switzerland, where Mott perform two dismal gigs in Zurich and Berne, 24th and 25th March. “Somebody had the bright idea to split up,” recalls Mick Ralphs, quoted in Campbell Devine’s biography.
Well, there’s a problem even with that, because Island has set up a tour called Rock n Roll Circus, to run throughout April 1972. The band agreed to do the tour, but without enthusiasm.
Either way, it was over.
Now, David Bowie. He’s not actually a mega star at this point, but he’s started the Ziggy Stardust UK tour ahead of the album release in June 1972. He’s already a Mott the Hoople fan though. He likes Wildlife, he senses in the band a sort of primal energy. It’s not clear how often he’s seen the band perform, but maybe he has; they toured incessantly after all. Around October 1971 he sends the band a tape of Suffragette City along with a phone number:
“We received this tape at Island Studios one day just after the Brain Capers sessions,” recalls Pete (Overend) Watts. “It was a seven and half inch spool in a box, and it said something like, ‘this may be of use to you. Give me a ring. Love David.’”
The band didn’t think the song was for them and ignored it.
So Watts comes back from Zurich and wonders what to do next. He calls the number, hoping that Bowie needs a bass player.
“We got talking for an hour and I was telling him about the group and Island … I don’t think David had ever seen us but he’d got our albums and seemed quite into the band. David said, ‘you can’t split up. Look, leave it with me for a while. I’ve got a great manager, he’s the business.’”
Bowie calls back a couple of hours later and invites the band to meet him and his manager (Tony Defries), adding that he has a song for them.
Mick Rock, Bowie’s photographer, has his own memories of how it happened. He’s in a taxi with Bowie the next morning, and he is talking about Mott the Hoople and how the band is broke and splitting up. Bowie says he’s started writing a song for them and sings the first few bars. “All the young dudes, carry the news…”
Watts goes to meet Bowie, his wife Angie, and manager Tony Defries. “David got a 12-string acoustic and played me All the young Dudes. You could tell it was a great song, he’s got the chorus but he hadn’t got some of the verse words.”
Bowie explains how much he loves the band and the new album Brain Capers. He “liked the wildness of it,” Watts recalls.
Defries, ever the fixer, talks about how he will get the band off Island and sign them up with Columbia.
Next day, Watts calls the rest of the band. They agree to meet and “when the rest of Mott heard the song, they thought it was amazing.”
This all happens just before the Rock ‘n’ Roll circus tour, so Mott never actually broke up. In fact the band has good memories of this tour, with Max Wall and Hackensack supporting, during which Bowie apparently courted the group, “bombarding them with flowers,” according to Devine.
One remarkable anecdote in Devine’s book is that Island was desperate to keep the band. Lional Conway, then VP of A&R, apparently took Ian Hunter and his partner Trudi to a French Restaurant in London and offers $250,000 to re-sign the group. “He could have had it weeks before for three thousand pounds,” said Hunter, “I said, ‘Lionel It’s not enough’, and it wasn’t.”
Note that much of this remarkable transition was thanks to Bowie’s song, All the young Dudes. It wasn’t just Bowie’s sponsorship on its own. It was the quality of the song, and its obvious hit potential, that made the difference.
It’s also easy to see how Dudes fits in with the Ziggy Stardust theme. It’s really a Ziggy song. “All the young dudes, carry the news” is the same news in Five Years “newsguy wept when he told us”. The subject matter is obscure but who cares?
Finally, let’s note that Bowie found in Mott a wildness, a raw energy, that he could not quite find in his own performances. He is always too controlled for that. Years later, he would seek the same in Tin Machine. But that is another story.