Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray have described said track as "one of that rare breed: rock songs which hymn the solidarity of the disaffected without distress or sentimentality". The Bowie/Mott the Hoople story is weaved into Rock and Roll folklore; less so are the stories from behind the frontline, more specifically the road crew stories.
It’s not often I get to appreciate the connections between freelance transport companies and the dizzy heights of Glam Rock but on a balmy summer’s evening the dots were enthusiastically joined at the most intimate of venues. The Electric Palace, that well-loved Hastings Old Town cinema hosted an evening with Phil and Richie, a likeable pair of rogues who promised ‘tall tales and amusing anecdotes’ from ‘The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ A rather bold statement to live up to but this wasn’t your usual ‘I-was-there-so-I’ll-bore-you-ridgid-with-my-stories-on-the-road’ experience, more a compelling insider’s view of life on the road working for amongst others, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, Queen, Black Sabbath, and Aardvark.
Yes, you read that correctly, Aardvark! Next time you do your You Tube trawl check out Copper Sunset (1970). The internet in hindsight is a wonderful invention with everything available, but Aardvark were an obscure Prog Rock band back in the early Seventies, and with them, ‘in rough knackered transit vans’ our heroes cut their teeth. In a land that time forgot where dinosaurs the size of tanks stalked the earth wearing army great coats and fried egg badges. Where College Student Unions were preferable gigs to pubs and rock venues because ‘there was tons of free food and more perks’.
The affable Andy Gunton kept the conversation flowing prompting amusing responses with his incisive questioning. Clearly he had already established a friendly rapport with Phil and Ritchie as the banter was friendly and warm with some enlightening and highly amusing stories. This was all embellished with lovely vintage photographs on the cinema screen. Starter for ten why become a roadie, was it for the usual rock n roll clichés was met with a resounding yes to all three but it was their love of music, which got them on the road in the first place. The early days albeit great fun were not without their dangers and we heard of ‘heavies’ blocking the road to reclaim transit vans borrowed on HP and ‘horrendous noises’ when Phil was press-ganged into the understudy drummer role when one sticksman became a little too refreshed before a gig. Payment was always an issue and poverty was a badge to be worn with gritted teeth as certain bands believed that just being with them was cool enough. The wheeling and dealing came to a head when unbeknownst to Free (the band) their equipment was hired out to make ends meet whilst being looked after much to Kossoff’s chagrin.
Mott the Hoople began as a hybrid between Dylan and The Rolling Stones, and Phil and Ritchie’s big break came when they were head hunted by the band. When asked why they stayed with Mott for so long, ten years in fact, both gave similar answers - the everyday madness, the music was brilliant, and the live show was a riot. Mostly people had only seen Mott the Hoople on Top of the Pops, and they forget what an incendiary show they used to put on. One of the greatest ironies of the Glam Rock era was discussed with much gusto and hilarity. England had never seen the like before, fully qualified removals men in charge of hairspray, thigh-length boots, Kaolin and Morphine and haemorrhoid cream! Understandably there were big smiles in the chemist when orders were placed. There was an art to getting band members into their thigh length boots, no skinny jeans only voluminous flairs so split rings were appropriated and at one point locked together to excruciating embarrassment to all concerned. Even chest hair was fussed over and on one occasion with no hairspray to hand; silver aerosol car spray was sourced instead.
At this point Mick Bolton, a member of Mott the Hoople stood behind an electric piano and after entertaining us with a few tales played a beautiful version of All The Young Dudes. It’s fair to say no one in the room failed to be moved. He then proceeded to play Rainbow Over Michigan, his own composition which had the memorable line, ‘Ritchie and Phil, they’ve been driving through the night.’ He belatedly thanked them for all the work they’d done for the band which was a touching moment. This led onto a discussion about the differences between England and America in the Seventies, England – no phones, strikes, poverty. America – Cadillacs, everything worked and vast wealth there for the taking. They were all now living the dream USA style. Even when Mott were recording Phil found work on Bowie’s seminal Ziggy Stardust tour, and Richie toured with Black Sabbath. After a hilarious account of Mott the Hoople’s concert run on Broadway, the first band to ever play there – they out tapped Spinal Tap – we were treated to a film. Basically hand held super 8 footage of the band’s experiences in the USA. A fascinating document from a very human perspective, which portrayed America as a strange, otherworldly, fascinating place, jarring and disorientating at times beautiful and compelling at others.
Summing up after the film Phil and Ritchie made a connection to life on the road with The Eagles song Hotel California ‘You can check out, but you can never leave’ appropriating all our experiences as music fans at the same time. Wrapping things up Andy Gunton said they could have talked all night, and later in the bar I’m sure they probably did. An inspiring heartwarming evening from Rock’s frontline and highly recommended.