There was a time when if you didn’t know a song you heard on the radio, you couldn’t just glance at the LCD panel on the dashboard or the radio and see the name of the song and the artist. Nor could you click on SoundHound and jam your phone into the speaker for a few seconds while somewhere a digitizer and an algorithm figured things out.
When I was a kid, if I heard a song on the radio and wanted to know about it I had to wait for the dj to speak. Sometimes dj’s might say something about the song right as it finished, but most often they’d rattle off what was played at the end of a 20 minute or longer block of songs. Sometimes you’d have to sit through a bunch of crap to get the name or the artist. Sometimes you’d wait and the dj would roll into a commercial with no mention of the songs just played. Sometimes you’d wait, and at the last minute mom would yell at you to come for dinner.
The is that often you heard stuff on the radio and had no idea who did the song or what it was called. And lyrics were a total guess unless they were printed out somewhere. I had no idea until recently that Elton John’s Goodby Yellow Brick Road contained the single most bizarre lyric in rock history: “Hunting the Hornet Backed Toad.”
I’m digressing everywhere. Onward.
In 1981 I’m a freshman in college in Indiana and I’m trying to be a rockstar. It was an ill-conceived plan but I had heart. ANYWAY. College was awesome, I did a whole bunch of morally ambiguous things that I’d been wanting to try out since puberty, classes were ok, blah blah blah, but all I thought about was music. And for that first semester, Debbie Prochaska.
My very first semester at college… I was actually living off-campus in a hotel called The Days Inn and it was awful. Purdue had too many freshman to fit us all in dorms, but come second semester, so many kids dropped or failed out that there was more than enough room in the dorm system for everyone. But for that first semester… off campus without a car, in West Lafayette, Indiana, trying to be a rock star, and also trying morally ambiguous things, in a gross hotel with disgusting food. A bunch of dumb freshmen and my roommate, Billy.
Billy… Billy died of cancer a few years ago. He was a great guy and had great taste in music. Rock played constantly in our pigstye of a room. Rock, Dr Who and Domino’s pizza. Domino’s sucked — as a New Yorker I’m allowed to judge, but it was better than anything in the midwest other than Chicago deep dish, which isn’t pizza, it’s underachieving lasagna.
Now, there was this one song that neither of us had a recording of, that neither of us knew anything about other than that it had a big guitar solo intro and we loved it whenever we heard a bit of it on the radio. We could both sing the very distinctive intro guitar riff: Da dat dadada. Da da da da da duh da da daaaaa, da dat da. :|| But that was it. We knew it was a great song, and we both wanted it, but we didn’t know who did or what it was called.
Da dat dadada. Da da da da da duh da da daaaaa, da dat da.
Christmas 1981: Bill went back to Virginia, I went back to New York. Christmas break sucked. I missed my very hot girlfriend from college (the previously mentioned Debbie Prochaska, who reconnected with her high school boyfriend who ditched me immediately after we got back from break). I had a miserable New Year on Long Island at a party that was basically me and all the kids in a clique I wasn’t part of in high school. That was awful. Everyone is hugging each other at midnight and I’m basically “designated observer.”
But I found the song over Christmas break! I went into a record store and sang the intro to the clerk:
“Do you know the name of this song? It begins like this: Da dat dadada. Da da da da da duh da da daaaaa, da dat da?”
He looked at me. “It goes like Da dat dadada. Da da da da da duh da da daaaaa, da dat da?”
I got excited! “You know it??”
“Sure. That’s Sweet Jane.”
He walked down the aisle, reached into a bin marked “Lou Reed,” and pulled out Rock and Roll Animal.
If you haven’t heard Rock and Roll Animal… it’s easily one of the best live albums ever recorded. The band backing Lou Reed on it is amazing, the song are the cream of Reed’s catalog at that moment, and he’s… somewhat in tune as a singer. But more than anything the album is a tour de force of virtuoso 70’s rock guitar playing. Huge, crunchy guitar sounds, great bluesy solos with phase shifters all over them, a bit of slide… and there’s fantastic interplay between guitar players, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter.
The opening track is entitled Intro/Sweet Jane. It starts with that lick by Steve Hunter: Da dat dadada. Da da da da da duh da da daaaaa, da dat da. The band kicks in gently at first. Hunter sails through a mixolydian mode based solo, with Wagner adding little ornaments. The bassist, Prakash John, fills in around them, culminating in a gorgeous solo along with organist Ray Colcord. The drummer, Pentti Glan, is a frickin’ animal. A rock and roll animal. It’s a devastating opening by a devastating band that later became Alice Cooper’s recording and touring group. These guys could really play.
Sweet Jane is, of course, iconic. Originally on the last Velvet Underground album, it’s like five chords, lyrics that do no more than hint at something bigger (which is what good lyrics should do), and it’s simply a terrific song.
Rock and Roll Animal is full of long, jammy versions of great songs like White Heat/White Light and Lady Day. It’s a must have. And I finally had it!
I flew back to Indiana in January ’82. Bill and I were finally in a proper dorm, roommates still. Debbie broke up with me. I pulled a paper bag with a twelve inch vinyl copy of Rick and Roll Animal in it out of my suitcase and handed it to Bill.
“Cool, really cool,” he said, chewing on his lip and looking at the back cover. “I found this for you.”
He reached into his suitcase, pulled out a similar bag and in it was… All the Young Dudes by Mott the Hoople. And there was Sweet Jane, the lead-off track.
Who the heck was Mott the Hoople? What kind of name is that??
I put on the album, and sure enough, there was Sweet Jane — a very different version of it than Lou Reed’s but still really good. And the next song on it, Momma’s Little Jewel, was really good, too. So far a kicking album. Momma’s Little Jewel ends with the sound of a tape deck suddenly stopping, and then… then…
Growing up, listening to the radio, every now and again, a song would come on, a glorious song, and I had no idea what it was. I’d listen out the set but never heard the dj mention it. This song too had a distinctive opening riff: Dee dee dee dee dee-dee-dee-dee-deeeee duh dee dee dee dee dee-dee-dee-dee-deeeee duh duh dee dee dee dee dee dee deeee… dee dee dee dee dee dee deeeee…
Suddenly, there it was, that great elusive song. First side, third track of Mott the Hoople’s All The Young Dudes. The song was All The Young Dudes, of course.
All the Young Dudes is the greatest song that almost everyone knows but doesn’t know the name of, or the artist. Regardless of the internet, people still have no clue about this song. Play it for someone and the reaction always the same: What great song. Who did it? Mott the Hoople? Who are Mott the Hoople???
Mott the Hoople. They deserve their own article, their own museum exhibit. Simply put, they were a glam band from the early 70’s who had a few hits, got some attention, influenced a lot of other musicians, and never quite got the audience they deserved. They had a punk sort of roughness, and a great lead singer/songwriter named Ian Hunter (no relation to Steve). Ian Hunter also deserves his own article and museum. He’s one of the great lyricists of rock. Mott the Hoople also had a great rhythm section , Overend Watts and Buffin Griffin (with cool and very British nicknames), Mick Ralphs, who later left and formed Bad Company, and keyboardist Verden Allen. I mention these guys because… I want these guys to live on.
Mott made a bunch of good records. Two though, were great great rock albums, All the Young Dudes and Mott. Mott’s probably the better of the two. Mott’s a masterpiece. But All The Young Dudes is wonderful, and it has the song that put the band on the map.
The song All the Young Dudes was written by David Bowie, and he gave it to Mott the Hoople to rpovide a bit of juice and keep them from breaking up. Bowie was a generous man. He gave away what is easily one of his best songs. More than that, he gave MtH a hit.
Bowie also recorded a version of it, but Mott the Hoople’s is definitive and Bowie admits it. MtH’s cut is so perfect and so iconic that it’s pointless to do another version of it. From the opening riff to Ian Hunter’s jabbering vocal in the ride out, there’s not a misplaced note on it. Every moment is exactly needed, no more, no less.
Sweet Jane, All the Young Dudes… what amazing songs to crack open my 18 year old idiot head.
A few months after Lou Reed and Mott the Hoople entered my life, I found The Rock Encyclopedia at a used book store. It was like the Bible. I would come home from classes, lay on the dorm room floor with a pair of cheap Radio Shack headphones on, playing stuff I special ordered from a local record store, stuff I discovered reading that book. Great bands like Love and Spirit, and Hank Marvin and the Shadows. The Velvet Underground. Albums like Berlin and Days of Future Past. Life changing stuff.
I graduated college in 1985, returned home, had another girlfriend dump me, and spent a few years with my head in my hands, and a guitar in my hands. The guitar was in my hands so much I ended up getting surgery on my left hand, which derailed my playing and pushed me into engineering and producing. From 22 to 27 was maybe the most screwed-up chunk of my life, but that is another story.
Lou Reed. Mott the Hoople. Bowie. Great stuff. Life changing stuff.