I've already mentioned the great new documentary on Mott the Hoople, but it's worth mentioning again. The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, just released this week on DVD, would probably work well for certain reasons regardless, simply because of its subject matter: One of the greatest, most underappreciated, interesting bands of the past 50 years, and one that hasn't been exhumed and discussed to death either in books or on film. But Ballad triumphs for being far better than it needed to be. It's simply a terrific documentary, telling nearly the full tale of Mott the Hoople, from their somewhat manufactured birth at the hands of madman producer Guy Stevens to their splintering under pressure at the height of their career in 1974.
Actually, I'll tack on another tiny fault for historical accuracy's sake, in that Ballad entirely neglects to mention the existence of the band Mott, the incarnation of the band that existed without frontman Ian Hunter shortly after Mott the Hoople's official disintegration. Mott released two albums which are widely judged to be lousy, before shuffling off completely. It's a slightly regrettable footnote to an otherwise stunning career, so perhaps the filmmakers realized this and chose to keep the band's story intact without mentioning it.
And what a story: From their origin, the five-piece band struggled for recognition and respect. They became a cult band but couldn't crack the mainstream; they fostered the seeds of what became recognized as punk, as talking head Mick Jones articulates onscreen (and as Morrissey lays out in his short essay inside the DVD booklet.) They squabbled, they struggled, they trashed studios, they learned how to write songs—Ian Hunter, initially a hired gun brought in to lead the band after original singer Stan Tippens was deemed not quite right by their producer, proved to be particularly good at this.
And then, in 1972, they broke up. Sickened and frustrated, the group decided to call it a day. But fate intervened—or rather, David Bowie did, which is kind of the same thing. Bowie had seen them perform and insisted to them that they couldn't break up. He even offered them one of his songs: "Suffragette City." Mott turned it down. (Can you believe that?) So Bowie wrote "All the Young Dudes" for them, then produced their next album. All of a sudden, Mott were huge. (In Britain at least; America slowly began to follow suit.) Their cult of proto-punk fans fell to the side as they turned up, newly tarted up in of-the-moment glam gear, on Top of the Pops.
And that was that: Ian Hunter quit the band, citing pressure and exhaustion. The movie makes it clear that if he hadn't, Mott the Hoople would have become one of the biggest rock bands in the world, on the level of Queen or possibly Zeppelin. But, of course, it was not to be. And that's sort of the beauty of the Mott story, really: A band this ragtag, with this much unwieldy brunt force, couldn't really exist in this world. We're lucky they left behind such incredible music—and, let's be fair, a couple albums that, for whatever reason, don't do either the band or the songs justice—and we're even luckier now that The Ballad of Mott the Hoople is here to tell the story. It's a fantastic rock doc. If you've ever found yourself enthralled with any of their work*, you need to watch it.
*and if not, get on that shit. I created a Spotify playlist of 10 great Mott tracks to get you started.