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Hunter Ronson

by Joy Williams

first published in Shark (Germany)

Hunter Ronson


You can't talk about Ian Hunter without talking about Mott the Hoople, which started as a sort of Dylanesque hard rock band but which came to be one of the most influential of the bad-boy glam groups of the early '70s. Indeed, Ian has been cited as a major inspiration and reference point for numerous bands including the Clash, Kiss, Def Leppard, REM, Motley Crue, Blur and Oasis. Hunter's influence has remained incalculable.


Cribbing the name from a novel by Willard Manus, Mott the Hoople had a slow beginning, lasting from 1969 to 1972, when they were about to give up. But then David Bowie came to the rescue with an image and a song, "All The Young Dudes," that catapulted Mott to stardom.

Fame and fortune aside, there were internal problems all along, and the lineup varied over the years, with Mick Ronson (who'd played with David Bowie in the Spidermen from Mars era), joining for a brief spell, until he and Ian Hunter left together, after which Mott sputtered out. Since then, Ian Hunter the songwriter and Mick Ronson the guitarist have sometimes worked together, and sometimes apart.

The course of a career in rock'n'roll is more often than not full of peaks and valleys in every imaginable area. Musicians like Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, who've been around for a while, have lived through the naive hopes and dreams of youth, the bitterness that comes of being robbed of your innocence, and the (relative) tolerance that comes with maturity. Which is not to say that there's no fire left past 30, as I was to find out...

Ian Hunter's brought to where I'm sitting in a smallish club in San Francisco, and we're introduced. I look at him, this legendary bad-ass glam rocker (as best I can—he won't take off his shades, even in this very dim light). Like many Europeans, he chain smokes—and he coughs more than he used to, I don't doubt—but he's still got all that hair, and he's still got both charisma and attitude to spare.

With my very first question I elicit the severe and often searing attitude of the north of Britain. Like a crackling, spitting campfire on a crisp highland night the Scotsman responds, at first scorching me, but gradually settling into a comfy warmth.

Q: Mott the Hoople's most successful American LP was 1973's Mott. Though it wasn't the big hit single, there's a song on there, "Violence," that I was wondering about. I mean, what the heck was going on that you wrote such an angry, punkish song?

IAN: Well, that was before them, I mean.... (There are some strangled sort of noises as he appears to be struggling with himself, and then the Hunter rises to the bait...) ...frustrated bastards write... like, five days of stupidity, vainly screaming at the record label, screaming at everybody how much we fucking hated them, you know? Sell no records.... But I still get exactly the same royalties from 'em as I always did, so it's a sign of their trickery. I don't know how they trick you, but they do. But this was like, '69, '70, something like that. Mott never really happened until about '72. We all came out of the factories, and we thought, "Ah, we'll be rich and famous now. We'll be stars and everything." Of course, it didn't quite happen like that—mainly because they were burying us. So we just started screaming and shouting out of frustration, and they recorded it. We didn't really get down to business 'til we moved onto Columbia. A lot of people talk about Chris Blackwell like he's a really good record company man or something. His A&R department was good, but Chris didn't have a first fuckin' idea. The good thing about Island was that everything they had was good. Even bands that never made it. But you have to spend the money. I mean, Free got hurt real bad. He did this stupid deal with Atlantic in America. Atlantic sort of stroked Chris. And we'd find out things like, "Nobody wants you over there, but I'm going to put you on this label," and then 15 years later find out that people were gettin' paid, you know?

Q: But when you start out you're very much at the mercy of the system, aren't you? You were pretty young....

Mott the HoopleIAN: Yeah, and pretty stupid, too. I mean, like I'd never had a Chinese meal when I signed my first record deal. I'd never been in a cab! And so it was totally beyond comprehension, you know? [he's much calmer now] And I don't blame 'em. They get you for what they can get you for. I think our first deal was seven points, and the manager got half of that. So we got 3-1/2 between five of us. And they took 150% of the publishing as well. Normally what you do in a publishing deal, if you want money, you sell off 50% and keep the other 50% and all the writer's share. What Island were doing, and we didn't know—they only told us about the 100% writer's share, they never told us about the publishing—so they said, "We'll have half the writer's share, and we'll pay your rent." So, in fact, they were getting all the publishing and half the writer's [rights].

Q: How did you originally come into Mott as the new singer?

IAN: A guy down Denmark Street, Bill Farley, had a four-track and they were auditioning people. They wanted a piano player/singer and they couldn't find anybody. After about three days, Bill rang me up and said, "Why don't you come down?" And I said, "I'm not that good on the piano and I'm not that good as a singer." I was a bass player. And he said, "Well, look, we've tried everyone else...." So I went down, and because they'd tried everybody else.... (laughs)

Q: But once you get into something, you do start to learn it, don't you?

IAN: Not only that, but then I started writing. They hadn't thought about that at all; they already had two writers in that band. I wasn't supposed to be the writer at all, so when I started helping out with the writing a bit, they said, "Oh, that's good." So, I survived a couple of attempts at gettin' me fired.

Q: Where did you go after all those hits in the early '70s and then leaving Mott? There's a blank period there. What did you do?

IAN: Yes, an absence of a few years. Oh, I had the big house in the country and all that. I'd never had that before, it was kind of nice, you know. I loved it for about four or five years. Then it got like real weird again.

Q: What about the need to be creative? Did you miss making music, or were you satisfied just hanging out in your own studio?

IAN: I'm entirely different from Mick; Mick's a schooled musician. First, I was ugly, I couldn't pull women. I was poor, and in England there's only one way out of that: you're either a good soccer player or you get into a rock band. That's how I came up. Mick came up the serious way. He was a cello player, I mean he wanted to be a cello player.

I look at Mick Ronson, who's been sitting quietly since shortly after Ian started talking, and I'm reminded of my life-long fascination with fairies and elves and druids and such. There are some people who remind me of this tradition of magic people, and Mick Ronson's one of them. He's smallish, wiry, flaxen-haired, quick, nervous and dreamy all at the same time. It's already obvious to me that there's great respect and even affection between these two. When Mick speaks it's with the broad vowel strokes of Yorkshire, but quickly, the words like sparkling shards of glass.

David Bowie & Mick Ronson
David Bowie & Mick Ronson

MICK: I wanted to be a classical cello player. I played the violin, but I didn't want to play the violin. But you're not allowed to play the cello unless you play the violin first and then the viola and then the cello. If you want to play the bass, you have to play the violin, the viola, the cello, and then the bass. I like violas. Violas are all right. Then I played classical piano, classical recorder.

Q: What led you out of the classical line? Because that line doesn't end you up in a rock band.

MICK: It does. Melody consciousness, as far as playing the guitar. And I think that comes from classical. I mean, I don't like playing classical-type solos or anything. But it's music. Music's all the same, really. I don't think you can say, "I'm a jazz musician" or "I'm a rock musician." If you're a musician, you're a musician. I think you can go into any area of music—it's just music!

Q: You're quite different, you and Ian. And not just to look at—you're different personalities. Do you complement each other musically, then?

IAN: We've always got on good as friends, even when we haven't worked together. So I guess that adds something. I don't know. We don't bore each other. When I was in Mott, I was in this band for six years and I hated them all, and they all hated me. But I never got that way with Mick. I mean, we get pissed off now and then, like you get pissed off at your brother.

Q: But you're the one with the wild reputation.

IAN: Oh, I dunno, I think that's somewhat.... (He's embarrassed, mumbling]

MICK: Oh, go on, tell her about the horns!

IAN: That was just a bit of stupidity.

Q: You never got wild on the road, that was all made up?

Mott the Hoople/AerosmithIAN: Oh, yeah, oh yeah. I mean, most of Aerosmith's reputation was based on stunts that they'd watch Mott do. What had happened to us, Steve converted into they'd done it, because they desperately wanted to be real bad boys or something like that. We were embarrassed by it! But they were kind of naive at the time, like all this shit was flying around them and they kind of wanted to be like that, but they weren't like that—they became a lot like that later. But, yeah, we did some shit and they would take the credit for it. Not that I thought it was credit, in fact I was pretty disgusted. But I love Aerosmith. I love them better now than I ever did.

Q: And you, coming back into it?

IAN: They've toured all their lives, they're really committed to it. I don't think Mick and me were really that committed to it. Mick likes producing and different facets of the industry, and I like taking time off. I can't be bothered doing it year in and year out. It starts doing weird things to me head. It's a very stupid business to be in, you know. (laughs) But the great thing about it is the music. Mick's great, too. This time, we wanted to see how it would go. I asked him to check some songs out, because he wanted to play guitar again. So we went out and did some gigs, and PolyGram turned up in Indianapolis, of all places, and said, "Do you want a deal?" I like playing with Mick. I have a big problem with guitar players, they don't really play anything, they're technicians or something. They may as well be draftsmen, it's like they go out on stage and practice scales for a couple of hours. There are exceptions, obviously; Eddie Van Halen's infinitely capable of doing both. I like Albert King. I like Leslie West, who can only play with two fingers. I mean, I like people I can understand. There are certain guitar players, and they're very few and far between, who listen to the song. They go to improve the song.

Q: And you, Mick, is there something in particular that intrigues you about Ian's songs? I mean, why work with this guy?

MICK: Why not?

Q: That's not a good enough answer! It doesn't quote well.

IAN: (laughs) No, no it doesn't. Say something better than that!

MICK: I like the songs. And we've been friends for years. I mean, I've played with a lot of people....

Q: It's true, isn't it, that two particular people working together can create something that they cannot create with any other person. And, eventually, you learn to choose who you want to be with, don't you?

MICK: Yes. Yes, of course. Somehow when we both get together we're both better than when we're separate. And that's the way it is, so why ignore it?

IAN: It was always lyrics. I guess Mick did it purely for the music. I mean, I guess we did it for different reasons. I know I did; I told you, I wanted to make money, go out with girls. Music kind of crept up along the way.

Q: You mean you started writing and then you found you actually liked doing it, that it meant something to you? Did you have a need to express yourself? Is it this driving force you just can't ignore?

IAN: Well, it's almost like, um.... You know, when you get around it, you start getting real itchy. And it never leaves you—whatever age I am—it never leaves you, just sits in the back.... [he taps the back of his head]

MICK: It'll leave you for a couple of months, you know, but then it starts again. It's like a little manifestation that builds up and build up and builds up, and then you write something and it feels great!

Mick Ronson & Ian Hunter
Mick Ronson & Ian Hunter

IAN: And it's like confronting yourself at the same time. I mean, you really are confronting your own limitations. You're scared, you know. If I know that I'm going to write a song tomorrow, that's scary to me. Because you don't know. Every writer gets a dry period, and every dry period you get, you think, "Well, that's the last song I ever wrote, that's it, that's the end of it. Now what do I do?" It kind of consumes me. The trouble is, there's nothing you can follow to put yourself in a situation where you can write. Instead, it's like there's an antenna sticking out your head, and you hope for the best. I can't sit down and write like some guys—like Winger; the driver was telling me they were sitting on the bus and writing—I can't write on the fucking bus with other people. I mean, for me it's a real personal thing. I can't write on tour!

Q: Do you retreat into your own world a lot? [ he nods] So this one's not here any more, really?

IAN: I love "down there." Nothing wrong with that!

Q: But you also like to perform, don't you?

IAN: Yeah.

MICK: Right now, I want to catch up on a lot of things I missed, you know?

Q: You mean serious things?

MICK: Yeah! Like doing what one's supposed to be doing, on a day-to-day basis. I think that's why Aerosmith is a good band, because they were terrible for years. They've got more of a, uh, "tall vision" about what they're doing now, or something. Somehow being able to put it all together and going at it, and it's like a whole person. They're going at it, you know? And they're doing a good job of it.

Q: What about this project? Is it serious?

IAN: Yeah. But we always took the music seriously. [We just] never took the business seriously.

MICK: There's a bit more determination this time, in our playing.

Q: Yeah? Is there something you want to prove—to yourself, maybe?

IAN: Yeah!

MICK: That we can do it.

Q: I was talking to the Buzzcocks recently, and Pete Shelley said they'd gone out to do a month-long promotion behind the release of a 3-CD compilation. And then they'd found they really liked playing together again, so now they're looking for a record deal.

MICK: We were sitting on the West Coast [of America] when we did those gigs together, and I said to him [Mick], "I never thought to see the West Coast again." And we kind of just got to like it. Just got to like it. If you hang around long enough, I guess the sun starts shining one day.

  

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