Ian Hunter and the Rant Band still have Mott the Hoople’s swagger

Ian Hunter and the Rant Band play Variety Playhouse on Fri., Nov. 7. With Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby.


Ian Hunter is a rock ’n’ roll anomaly. While being hugely influential to early punks such as John Lyndon and Mick Jones, he also penned songs such as the intensely personal “Ships” that Barry Manilow took straight into the charts, as well as the rocker “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” that ‘80s hair band Great White based their career around. Even stranger, the song he may be best known for singing was written for his band, Mott the Hoople, by a fan named David Bowie who hoped to resuscitate Mott’s faltering career. In his 75th year, Hunter is still touring the world, and still delivering a jerkin’ crocus of rock n’ roll. The “All American Alien Boy” checked in just before an American leg of his current tour kicked off to talk about songwriting, corporate radio, passing on “Suffragette City,” and how to craft a good nickname.

Are you working on a studio album right now?

No. Just got back from Europe. Just did twenty dates in the UK and Scandinavia.

So you’re just touring?

Yeah, I got a week off and then I start over here. It winds up in Tokyo in January.

What did you think of the Down n’ Outz album Joe Elliott put together of Mott the Hoople covers?

It’s got a lot of balls. It’s a tad on the posh side, you know. But it’s really well done.

I interviewed Joe earlier this year and he said Freddy Mercury was inspired to write “Bohemian Rhapsody” by touring with Mott and seeing you guys play “Marionette” every night. Is there a story behind that or is that a rock ‘n’ roll myth?

No, I don’t know anything about that. I mean, we did have a song called “Marionette,” and he did go and do what he did. But I have no idea if the two are connected in any way, you know?

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You didn’t join Mott until you were about thirty. What kept you going through all those years of being in smaller bands? Just love of rock ‘n’ roll?

Well it never dawned on me that I would be pro. I mean, the whole thing was, I saw Little Richard, Sam Cooke, all these people, Jerry Lee, you know, just when I was hitting fifteen, sixteen, and they had great natural abilities. I didn’t, so I just thought I was going to be a fan. I was a normal bloke working in factories, and I don’t know, fate sorta makes you go to London and get a job in a factory in London. And, fate makes the phone ring. And all of the sudden, I’m in a band. I’d been in semi-pro bands but I never considered I would be professional.

When you’re writing, do you get a melody first or lyrics?

The ideal way is they come in one rut. They seldom do that. I find lately, it’s more the music comes first. Lyrics seem to be harder because you’ve mined a lot of lyrics, you’ve mined a lot of your experiences. It doesn’t get any easier. Plus, when you get older, you can’t do the boy girl thing, you know?

I didn’t think about that.

Well I did. (Laughs)

When Bowie offered you “Suffragette City,” what made you pass on that?

We had good rock songs and there’s a difference between a good song and a special song. “Suffragette” was a good song, but it wasn’t a special song. To his credit, he didn’t leave us alone. He came back with “Dudes.”

Have you written anything with Mick Ralphs lately?

Oh, it’s difficult. You know, Mick’s not writing much and he’s playing a lot of blues. He got up with me a couple of weeks back in London. He likes to jam. He’s got his own blues band. But he doesn’t like parts, you know? I mean he’s like a lot looser. I don’t know, he doesn’t seem to be that interested in writing, period. He’s just having a good time. He had both his hips replaced and he’s glad to be mobile.

I don’t hear a lot of bands these days that have quite the swagger of Mott where everyone in the band is just going for it. Do you feel there is an element of that missing in rock ‘n’ roll today?

We do it. Me and the Rant Band do it. To me, I want everybody in the band to have a personality, because then there’s more a chance of people turning up (laughs) to see somebody apart from me. And that’s how Mott was. The difficulty with Mott is they’re all a bunch of stars so it’s very difficult to get them all together.

The glam look was wildly effective for Mott. How much of the clothing were you finding on your own and how much of it was custom made for you?

How it was then was the mod thing started up and the Who grabbed on to that. Right about the time we started up the glam thing was going so we sort of grabbed on to that. It’s just a tool to be used.

I’ve read about how you guys came up with the “Aerial Bender” moniker for Luther Grosvenor, but what’s the story behind Dale Griffin’s “Buffin” and Pete Watt’s “Overend” nicknames?

Oh, I don’t know. Pete Watts, the bass player, used to change everybody’s name twice a day. And distort it and mess with it. Pete was basically the Spinal Tap of Mott. Great guy, typical English eccentric, still is to this day.

Did he give you any names?

Uhh, yeah … I think I was the “Ginger Bastard” (laughs). But he would warp ‘em. Billie Holiday would become Hilly Boliday and then he’d take it and mess it, and mess with it, and keep on messing with it. I mean, Buffin, I can’t remember how he got to Buffin, but it was like a long protracted list of twisting Buff’s name. Terry Griffin, you know, so you’ve got like, I don’t know, Barry Triffin, and off he went. And you just never knew. And he wound up with Buffin.

Does Cleveland still rock?

Ummm, no comment (laughs). I don’t really know, I mean, I still go there.

I saw you’re playing Beachland Ballroom on this tour.

Yeah, we do that pretty regularly. And yeah, the people that go to Beachland rock, I don’t know about the rest of Cleveland. Those were the days. Cleveland used to have WMMS, Kid Leo, all these great DJ’s, but slowly the corporate structure took over and it all became pretty lame — everywhere, not just Cleveland.

Ian Hunter and the Rant Band play Variety Playhouse on Fri., Nov. 7. With Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby. $30-$35. 8 p.m. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.