Ian Hunter: not-so-young dude

Photo of singer/songwriter Ian Hunter

No one could have sold All The Young Dudes quite as effectively as Ian Hunter. Even David Bowie recognised that his lad’s-rock anthem needed an infusion of strutting, pugnacious, football terrace braggadocio way beyond Ziggy’s grasp. The former Mott The Hoople frontman retains the enviable everyman appeal that made him the only credible contender to carry the news back in ’72. He still writes songs that cause grown men to discover something unexpected in their eye, and he performs them with an emotional grit that guarantees him continuing artistic relevance, even as a not-so-young dude of 77.

At home in Connecticut, preparing to tour his latest Fingers Crossed album fronting the Rant Band, Hunter ponders his illustrious past and a songwriting gift that keeps on giving – whether he likes it or not.

In 2014 you jammed at Sun Studios in Memphis. Did it remind you of why you fell in love with rock’n’roll in the first place?

The lyric ofGhosts [from Fingers Crossed] really says it. That room is so live. The weird thing was, there were guitars all over the walls, a little kit, a double bass on a stand, and the band just started playing. It sounded great. Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano was there, with the cigarette burn where they told him to stop smoking and he put it out on the piano. Three stars on the floor for Bill Black, Elvis and Scotty Moore.

I use the word ‘love’ because nobody could mythologise rock’n’roll the way you have without being smitten by it.

I was just an ordinary bloke doing nothing, working in factories, and it gave me an out. It gave me a life. When I first heard Jerry Lee, that was it. I realised that’s what I’m here for.

Apparently you hadn’t seen David Bowie for years, but every night of your life there’s All The Young Dudes, emblematic of so much, but especially that glam era. Is that why Fingers Crossed’s Dandy is written as it is, from the perspective of a glam fan?

My stuff isn’t processed at all, it’s organic. I was writing a song calledLady, which fits the same as Dandy, and then I found out that he’d gone and it just changed naturally. The songwriting process is strange; magical really. It’s just what comes into your head at that point in time.

In the song, you’re inhabiting the character of a young fan.

The hook is: ‘And then we took the last bus home.’ England was pretty drab then; you’d come out of the picture house and want to kick Curry’s window in. And it was the same when you went to a gig. It was an escape, magic. And David was the biggest escape going. This came right after flower power and blues, which had been tedious, and all of a sudden you had Magicland. I never thought that Mott were glam rock, it was more like clash rock. We thought we were nearer the Stones. But we got shoved in there. But if you went to a David gig it took you right out there, and then you took the last bus home… flying.

Your songs have always had a journalistic quality to them.

I started out as a reporter – births, deaths and marriages – then I got kicked out. In those days you had to know shorthand and typing. And while the typing wasn’t a problem, shorthand? No. It’s like Chinese.

When you were grafting for the local paper did you harbour actual ambitions to pursue a serious writing career?

No, I was just wandering aimlessly. I certainly had no idea of being a singer until I heard Jerry Lee Lewis. Then, and still, compared to the kind of people I heard on the radio I couldn’t sing, so that wasn’t even an option. I was just trying to make a living.

You’re increasingly utilising historical subject matter for your material: the title track of Fingers Crossed is about press-gangs, and Bow Street Runners about the foundation of policing.

Well, I can’t sing boy-girl ‘You left me, you asshole’ songs any more – I’m seventy-seven, for Christ’s sake – so I’ve got to find subject matter that’s somewhat dignified. On the last album, I did a song calledWild Bunch because I got a riff in my head and the only thing that seemed to fit was Wild Bunch. I was thinking: “I don’t want to do this, because this is heavy precising: a three-hour movie into a four-minute song.” But nothing else came, so I had to go with it in the end.

So you’ve got no control over this gift that keeps on giving?

The older I get, the more I think that’s true. I really do sit down blank and what generates the ideas is, to me, magic. There’s a kind of stillness sometimes and then it comes to you like a soundtrack. If you could figure out what it was, it’d be great. But nobody can.

What’s your abiding memory of former Mott drummer Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin, who died in January?

You couldn’t tell him anything – he was going to do what he was going to do. He was a lovely bloke who just got wiser and more erudite as he got older. When we did the reunion dates in 2009, though he was ill [Buffin was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2008] there were times there when he was clear, lucid and marvellous to talk to.

Some might argue that while many of your peers have fallen into relative irrelevance – mentioning no names, though Dylan, Jagger and Townshend are all younger than you – you’re still producing work that’s as strong as ever.

Those guys have had a lot of success, made a lot of money, so maybe the hunger might have gone from them a little bit. And me? I was never that popular, so I’m still hustling [laughs].

If Bruce Johnston writes the songs that make the young girls cry, you write the songs that make the grown men cry. Is that the secret of your success?

I dunno. But it’s very moving to move someone to tears. I usually say: “It’s not that bad, mate.” But it’s really flattering.

Maybe you articulate how real people feel because, having worked in those factories, you’ve lived a real life yourself.

Yeah, I remember that [laughs]. I was really working class back then, but I haven’t been working class in a while. But at that time? Yeah, straight out of the factory, straight onto the stage.