Pop star of yesteryear reminisces

In the 1970s, Ian Hunter helped write the rock-star rulebook as the frontman of Mott the Hoople. He talks to Gavin Martin about why rock'n'roll still gives him a thrill
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The Independent Culture

Back in the 1970s, when Ian Hunter was writing his way into the annals of rock history with Mott the Hoople, he was always a little older - and wiser - than his peers. Married with children, he had worked on a newspaper and as a songwriter for hire before joining the band.

When fame came, with the Bowie-penned "All the Young Dudes", it held no illusions: Hunter's deathless anthems ("All the Way from Memphis", "The Golden Age of Rock'n'Roll") and depictions of working-class street life ("Crash Street Kids") were filled with irony, wit and loss.

Def Leppard's Joe Elliott and The Clash's Mick Jones were among the teenage fans who followed Mott, and theband influenced many others, including Oasis and REM.

Hunter's songs were morality tales, and in his quintessential 1970s on-the-road rock autobiography, Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star, he even counselled young bands against consorting with groupies.

This year, Hunter turns 68; Mott, though fondly remembered, are long gone. But his knack for writing down-to-earth, perceptive, hook-filled songs has held strong across 12 solo albums, including his latest, the politically incensedShrunken Heads.

"Everyone wants to be a rock star - there's a lot of drama and romanticism attached to it," he says, sipping tea in the lobby of a London hotel. "That's a good thing - it's entertainment. But I can't deal with the preciousness of it - I can't be bothered. I see it for what it is. I'm not sure that's a good thing: people expect you to be a star. Mick Jones out of The Clash was classic: I was supposed to be God, but when he found out I was normal, he didn't like me at all."

The former Ian Patterson was a Shrewsbury-born teenage loner when he heard Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", which set him on a collision course with his parents and authority.

"I went to a lot of schools but I couldn't deal with it - at one point, my parents wanted to have me committed. My dad was a cop. He became an NCO at Sandhurst and ended up in MI5. I was a slob, the complete opposite. He was an Army boxing champion who'd think nothing of taking you in the back room and giving you one in the guts."

Lasting just five short years before 1974's "Saturday Gigs" sounded their bittersweet farewell, Mott were the perfect rock band, laying bare their own story in song. Hunter would later identify the group's legendary, wayward producer, Guy Stevens, as his surrogate dad.

"He talked to me, dug into me. An amazing guy, but a maniac. His thing was to drive you mental talking and you weren't allowed to play. He was probably coked out of his head."

Bowie's "All the Young Dudes" gave Mott the Hoople the hit that saved them from premature demise, but Hunter was wary of the band becoming "David's pets". "We had to show everyone we could do it without him, and we worked our asses off. David was never a rocker: I saw him in 1965 and thought he was great, but he was a performance artist who touched on rock. Mick [Ronson] was a rocker, but David wasn't."

Hunter became close to Mick Ronson. After his death from cancer in 1993, he commemorated him in "Michael Picasso". "That came the September before he died," he recalls, his voice cracking with emotion. "He was classically trained. That's why he didn't need to work all over the fretboard - little melodies within the song, that was his thing."

In 1978, after three men clambered out of a van on London's Shaftesbury Avenue and poured paint over him, Hunter decided to leave Britain for good. "I thought, 'People like that exist in this country? I'm off.' It was that mindless underbelly that defies description. People going out and hitting other people? I can't be bothered with that crap."

His native land remains an inspiration, not least on Shrunken Heads' title track, a classic piano-driven Hunter hymnal to a faded past. "I went up to Blackpool Pleasure Beach," he explains. "I didn't see anybody smiling - everything was rusty, children were crying. There are yobbos taking over the city centres. Guys my age living in council houses have children throwing stuff at their roof and windows. There but for the grace of God go I. It's a sad little song, really."

Like their disciples The Clash, Mott the Hoople never sullied their legend by reforming. But with all the original members still around, there have been tempting offers. "There's no particular reason why it hasn't happened. We've just never wanted to do it. We were such a powerful band. But a lot of it was power, desperation, energy - feelings you don't have any more."

Hunter is being overly dramatic: Shrunken Heads caps a career revival that began with Rant and continued with the Strings Attached live album. The trilogy suggests a renewed engagement with his muse, reflecting the upswing in fortunes of his greatest influence, the three-years-younger Bob Dylan.

"He still hangs in - so do I. It's what we do. As you get older, you don't want to be singing a 17-year-old's songs. You want to maintain a natural dignity. There's so much going on in the world: politics has been my oil well for the past two years. The birth of a song is like the birth of a child for me. It's a deeper thrill than anything."

'Shrunken Heads' is out on 4 June on Yep Roc

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