It is 26th March 1972. An English band has just played a disastrous gig in Zurich and decided to call it a day. In three years of recording and touring they had built up a loyal if rowdy following and had a reputation of being an exciting live band even if this was largely lost on the Swiss. On the other hand the albums they had recorded were a mixed bag, a few pearls amidst a lot of dross. The band themselves knew that their music lacked direction. In addition there was growing tension between certain members of the band and their charismatic lead vocalist. So they decided to split.
But they didn’t. David Bowie was a big fan and when ne heard they were quitting offered them a song. So they carried on, signed to CBS and released it. It became a hit and the band carried on for two more years. The song was All the Young Dudes and the band was Mott the Hoople.
In 1974, after a number of personnel changes, the band split, this time for good. Well that’s what we all thought. In 2009 the original members decided to reform to play two nights at the Hammersmith Apollo. They had no idea how this would be received and were genuinely surprised that the two nights sold out very quickly. They eventually played five nights.
It was a great experience and Mott fans came from all over the world. There were a dozen voluble Italians on the row behind me while on the train to Hammersmith I fell into conversation with a Geordie who had bought tickets for all five nights. What did they come for? For one thing they came to hear a band that produced great rock songs. Listen to The Moon Upstairs from the 1971 album Brain Capers. And listen again to All the Young Dudes. This is so much better than David Bowie’s version, a time machine for a melancholy journey to the alien yet familiar country that is 1972.
Mostly I think people love Mott for being a failure, a glorious failure to be sure but still a failure. Their career was short and they never made much money. They had moments of greatness, moments of disaster but that is the point. They had an insight into the business that the hugely successful bands don’t.
In the Ballad of Mott they sang about it. What other band has written a song about being a rock’n’roller that gets so close to the essence of the matter? And that is why Mott still have so many loyal fans and why they have sold out five venues for their 2013 tour. Maybe this will be the last. Then again, we thought that in 1974.