Ian Hunter Gets Defiant with a Little Help from His Friends

Music Features Ian Hunter
Ian Hunter Gets Defiant with a Little Help from His Friends

You’ve got to hand it to UK rock legend Ian Hunter. At an undiminished, still vital 83, the former Mott the Hoople frontman—renowned for his perpetually-hip stage persona of wavy blond locks, face-obscuring owlish sunglasses, and a heavily British-inflected singing voice that always felt comfortably working class—never wasted a minute of his remarkably illustrious career, especially once he finally flew solo in 1975. And proof of his continuing appeal and cultural relevance is there in abundance on his latest Defiance Part 1 album, wherein every track serves as a summit meeting for the man and a stunning guest list of guitarist well-wishers, such as Slash (the opening title cut), Todd Rundgren (“Don’t Tread On Me”), Billy Gibbons (“Kiss N’ Make Up”) Brad Whitford and Duff McKagan (“Angel”), Mike Campbell (“Guernica”), and Ringo Starr (“Bed of Roses”; Hunter is a regular in the Beatle’s All-Starr Band). Johnny Depp and the late Jeff Beck lend their talents to “No Hard Feelings,” and late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins makes several cameos, as do Def Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott, Billy Bob Thornton, Waddy Wachtel, and former Stone Temple Pilots Robery DeLeo, Dean DeLeo, and Eric Kretz. Basically a Who’s Who wish list of some of the finest musicians in rockdom, whose private numbers most artists only wish they could access. But that’s just the kind of respect Ian Hunter commands these days, as he sounds just as scrappy as he did on signature Hoople hits like “Roll Away the Stone,” “All the Young Dudes,” and “All the Way from Memphis.” Not counting, of course, his later solo-years smashes “Ships,” “Cleveland Rocks,” “Once Bitten Twice Shy” (covered, respectively, by Barry Manilow, Great White and—as the theme song for The Drew Carey Show—The Presidents of the United States of America).

Born in Shropshire, England, as Ian Hunter Patterson, the rocker joined his first outfit in the late ’50s, but was soon taken under the wing of clever cultural tastemakers like Mickie Most and Guy Stevens, and into the confidence of countless top-flight fellow musicians, like Billy Fury, Mick Ralphs, Jaco Pastorius, Earl Slick, David Sanborn, Ringo Starr, glam-period David Bowie, and—in one of his most significant collaborative friendships—Bowie’s fiery Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson, with whom he would continue to work until the artist’s untimely death in 1993. Concurrent with his definitive fourth solo set, the Ronson-produced You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic in 1979, the forward-thinking Hunter also happily involved himself with the then-nascent punk movement, working alongside The Clash’s Mick Jones and producing Valley of the Dolls, the sophomore disc from Billy Idol’s Generation X. And just about any question you pose to the man will lead down a veritable rabbit hole of surreal showbiz stories. Like the so-called cylinder that Mott the Hoople played back in 1972, which hammered the last nail in its Mach One coffin. “It was actually a gas tank!” Hunter recalls, as if it were yesterday. “ It was a big round building that they used to fill with gas, a huge round building, and it would seat maybe 300, 400, something like that, and it was in Switzerland, where these gas tanks had been converted into small clubs. And they were metal, so the sound was horrible. So we decided that was enough, as far as Island Records was concerned, and we were gonna split up. So we split up, and Pete (Overend) Watts tried to get the bass job with Bowie, and that’s how Bowie found out we were splitting up. And then David didn’t want us to split up, and that’s how we came to do “All the Young Dudes” (a song given to Hunter by the Thin White Duke, which resuscitated their post-cylinder career). And that’s it! That’s the story!” Naturally, he has plenty more where that came from for Paste, as Defiance Part 1 hit the streets on Friday, April 21.

Paste: Over the pandemic, I talked to the fabulous Ellen Foley about her classic Night Out album, which you and the late Mick Ronson co-produced. And Ronson’s incredible guitar lead on the opening “We Belong to the Night” track just talks, doesn’t it? But you’ve always seemed to be looking your whole life for a guitar that can speak like that, right?

Ian Hunter: There’s very few of them. And the first time I met Ronson was in ’69, coming out of Georgia Fame’s club. A guy called Miller Anderson (his guitarist in early London band The Scenery introduced me to him, but then he was with a band called The Voice, and this was before Bowie. And it was a religious kind of band, because you got a free amp and you got a free guitar and you got a free van, so The Voice were one of them kind of bands. They were not really religious, but just supporting the cause because they got free gear. And then the next time I met him was with Bowie, when we were doing the All the Young Dudes album, and we just got on. So when he split from David, we hung out. And we hung out for 17, 18 years, on and off. Because we had the same sort of backgrounds, the same sense of humor and stuff like that, and we just got on.

Paste: How did you and Ronson work together, say, co-producing Night Out? He was on guitar, you were on keyboards, and then how were the duties divided?

Hunter: You know, I work well with finicky guys. When Ronson was in the studio, he was very finicky. And the guy I work with now, Andy York, same sort of thing—very finicky. I like drama. I just couldn’t wait until the band comes roaring in, but Mick would go, “That’s too loud!” And I’m like, “no, no, no!” I like the flash and the drama, you know? So Mick would take care of all the finer stuff, the fine tuning. And that’s how we worked.

Paste: I had no idea until recently that Mick Ronson helped shape John Mellencamp’s classic “Jack and Diane.”

Hunter: Yeah! He pulled it out of the trash! I think John had been doing it electric, and Mick said, “No, no—it’s acoustic.”

Paste: Is there an example on your new album where any of the great guitarists you recruited changed the course of a song like that?

Hunter: No, nobody changed anything. They add to it by playing for the song, as opposed to playing for themselves. Mike Campbell is a good example of somebody who plays for the song, and that’s how Ronson played—he played for the song. And that’s how Jeff Beck did it.

Paste: How and when did you first meet the late, great Jeff Beck?

Hunter: He was really nice. And Johnny Depp was working with him, and I know Johnny Depp, and Johnny said, “Why don’t you guys get together?” There’s a guy called Ross Halfin who’s a photographer, and we met at Ross’s house, so Ross got it all together. So we went out for a night, and we had a good time, and then Johnny said to me that he reckoned that he’d do a couple of songs, so I have both of them on Part 1 and Part 2, a song on each album.

Paste: And when is Part 2 coming?

Hunter: I don’t know. Whenever it gets finished. Andy York, the guy that works with me now, he’s out with John Mellencamp, so we can’t really finish up Part Two until that’s over.

Paste: You live in Connecticut now, right? How did the pandemic hit you up there?

Hunter: Well, you know, we live in the country. We live in the middle of nowhere, so we were relatively safe. So I just went down in the basement and started writing songs, because there was nothing else to do, you know? We’d been out—we did my 80th birthday in 2019, with four nights (at New York’s City Winery). And then, all of a sudden I got tinnitus in my ears, and then Covid, so I just went down in the basement and started writing songs. What else are ya gonna do?

Paste: It sounds like, in say, “Bed of Roses,” you were looking back nostalgically, maybe on your times with Ronson.

Hunter: Oh, it was further back than that. “Bed of Roses” is based around the Star Club Hamburg, which was an amazing club that existed in the ‘60s. Ringo and The Beatles were there, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, all these great people played there. I played there in the late ‘60s—’66 or something like that, and it closed in ’69. It burned down. But it was an amazing club, and somehow I got to write a lyric about that. So that’s what “Bed of Roses” is all about.

Paste: The title track, “Defiance,” seems to equate defiance with significant paintings. Are you a painter yourself?

Hunter: No, “Defiance” is like, “Well, he’s old—he shouldn’t be playing young man’s stuff anymore.” Do you know what I mean? And I’m like, “Wait a minute! I ain’t quite finished here!” So basically, that’s why it’s called Defiance, the whole thing. I’m not supposed to be doing it, so I’m doing it. You can always slag off people for their age, and it’s stupid. And no, I don’t paint. I don’t do nothing— I’m a lazy sod. But then you get something like Covid that forces you into something—you’re not going out anywhere, you’re not doing anything. So I’ve gotta write songs because that’s what I do, and that’s how it all came about. Probably if Covid hadn’t happened, this never would have happened, because these guys? They were all sitting home, too. And they’d have been busy had it not been for Covid. But all these people are sitting at home with nothing to do, and you send them a stem and there you go. And if there’s an art to it, it’s just in sending the right people the right track.

Paste: Who was the most surprising invited guest who said Yes?

Hunter: Oh, there were a lot of surprises. And that egged you on to writing more. Slash was probably the first (contribution) I got back, and Billy Gibbons came back soon after that. And then it just started mushrooming. And when I got the Ringo track back, which was pretty much perfect—and the same with Mike Campbell—they just improved the song so much. And that’s what they do. Ringo plays for the song. Mike Campbell plays for the song. Dean DeLeo plays for the song, Todd Rundgren plays for the song. And Taylor Hawkins not only plays the drums, he sings harmonies and plays guitar—he did all this different stuff. And Waddy Wachtel plays for the song, co-produces, and is a great writer. Do you know what I mean? So these people? It’s a privilege to be playing with all these people. It’s amazing.

Paste: Going back to my first question, it struck me that you seeking—or were only comfortable—guitarists as strong and personable as Mick Ronson was.

Hunter: Well, it’s hard to talk about Mick Ronson, because Mick Ronson? It would take me an hour, because there are so many sides to him, you know? I mean, he could be thick as a plank, he was shy, he was not forthcoming, you had to ask him, “What should I do?” And then he would tell you. So there were a lot of different sides to him. And then, of course, he looked like God, so all the girls were looking in his direction. And he told the same jokes in the dressing room, every night of the week, after the gig. And they were horrible, oh, they were terrible. And then he would laugh at his own joke, and people around would laugh, but they would be laughing at him, laughing at his own joke! But he was great fun, with so many things. And then he would pick up a guitar. Any guitar. Leslie West was a bit like that, too—same sort of thing. Any amp, any guitar, it didn’t matter. He’d commandeer it straightaway.

Paste: Is “Pavlov’s Dog” told from the perspective of a TSA drug-sniffing dog? And they actually have Covid-detecting dogs now.

Hunter: Yeah. My wife said “Pavlov’s dog” one day, and I thought, “That’s a great title!” But I looked it up and thought, “Well, I can’t write about that.” So it just got translated into what you say—a dog sniffer. I actually patted one of those dogs in the early stages. A dog came up and I’m patting it, and a guy says, “Don’t touch it!” And I didn’t realize what it was. And in my song, the dog is looking for guys with guns. And it’s guns now, not drugs—they’re looking for guys with arms.

Paste: And with “Guernica,” are you a fan of Picasso? Or everything Spain was going through then?

Hunter,/b>: Well, he was surrounded by Nazis when he was painting it, and that could not have been easy. And I’d seen the painting—I was in Madrid, and it’s all symbolic. And the weird thing is, they bombed that place in the village, they bombed Guernica, and they not only bombed it, but they bombed people leaving. And I’d been into it over the years, but I finally had to admit that I liked “Guernica.”

Paste: What kind of paintings do you have on your own walls at home? Or is it all spartan there?

Hunter: Oh, just stuff I like. But I was good at art growing up—that’s what kept me in school. But I don’t collect art or anything like that. I mean, I’ve got pictures on the wall, yeah. I found a picture of a piano in a $200 store, and I liked that so I got it. And if you like something, you get it, right? But I’m not down in Soho, looking at all the new stuff, No. I’ve got a couple of Dylan prints, though.

Paste: I somehow wound up on Billy Bob Thornton’s tour bus one evening, drinking Shiner Bock with the late photographer Jim Marshall. And the conversation was amazing—he’s a great guy. How did you wrangle him?

Hunter: Well, it was Ross Halfin again—he told me, “Billy Bob Thornton would like to do something.” So I talked to him on the phone, and he was great—he said, “Yeah, I’ve got a studio!”It was like talking to your next door neighbor, and I’d just seen him in a film on TV, so I was kind of fan-struck, but he wasn’t like that—he wasn’t aloof at all. And he showed me his studio, the inside of it, and he has this great guitar player that runs it for him, who we use on the record, J.D. Andrew. And he’s got about 80 guitars in there, and I said, “Where’d you get all them?” And he said, “Oh, I was a roadie.” So Billy Bob was actually a roadie before everything! And his harmonies with me were perfect—he’s right on it.

Paste: Who did you learn the most from in terms of collaboration?

Hunter: Well, you just get this stupid grin on your face when you hear the Ringo track (“Bed of Roses”) come back, or Mike Campbell’s (“Guernica”). I can’t differentiate between them all, because there’s so many of them and they were all great, so my hat’s off to all of them. I never got anything where I was like, “Oh, hang on! Wait a minute!” Well, I did actually—I got one track from Taylor, and this involved Billy Bob, as well. But the track in question was a slower track, and Taylor had gotten out his cymbals for a lot of cymbal crashes, and we were like, “This too much!” But how do you tell that to Taylor Hawkins/ And meanwhile, Billy Bob had gotten into the vocal, but Billy Bob sits down and says the same thing to me—“I think the drums are too flashy, there should be less cymbals. So I’m gonna put a drum track down, and he sent me his drum track back, and it was better. Then Taylor was preparing to go in and record the drum track, and I said, “It’s alright—Billy Bob’s done it.” Then five minutes later, Taylor sends me another drum track, which is absolutely perfect. So I had to take Billy Bob’s off, and I felt so bad about it, because Billy’s was fine, you know? And that was on “Kiss N’ Make Up.”

Paste: And lyrically, that song mentions lots of trees. Did you find yourself outside in nature, walking, during lockdown?

Hunter: Well, I live in the country, you know, so I’ve got a few acres here. So yeah, you can go out. So it was not too bad around here, Covid, because it’s village life—it’s not like you’re in the middle of a city, where Covid was spreading. So we’d go out once a week, and nothing happened—neither me nor Trudi got it. I mean, everybody I know got it, but we didn’t get it. Uhh, so far!

Paste: The strange evolution of your song “Cleveland Rocks”—from an obscure “England Rocks” all the to the signature theme for The Drew Carey Show— is quite a story. It just grew, exponentially.

Hunter: Yeah! And first off, it was written as “Cleveland Rocks”, and people come up with these dates, when I did this, I did that. But it was written as “Cleveland Rocks,” no two ways about it, and then later on, I think they wanted a single in England, so I changed it to “England Rocks,” just to get a single out over there at that time. And it was written because, you know, Cleveland bound people then far before New York or L.A., and yet to people on TV—Johnny Carson and all them people—Cleveland was always the city that they took the piss out of. And we just thought, “No!” We were fully in favor of Cleveland as a great place, and so was Bowie.

Paste: And I’m from Indianapolis, so I can totally relate!

Hunter: Oh, I’ve been in your jail! It was just one of them one-night things. The guy that ran Sha Na Na, Charlie Fame? We were playing Indianapolis, and Charlie was the promoter, and it was a big gig, and I think it was $10,000 we were getting paid. So we’re sitting in the Holiday Inn, me and a couple members of the band and Charlie, and there was a waitress and a guy down the bar—that’s all the people that were in there. And the ten grand goes missing. And Charlie had had it in his jacket, across his knees, but they wouldn’t shut the doors! They were still letting people come in off the streets, and I’m sorry, but that’s wrong—we were like, “We need the police!” Then all of a sudden, the manager turns out to be a police officer off duty, and he’s had enough of me shooting my mouth off, so now I’m downtown, and I’m in the Indianapolis City jail for a night.

Paste: Was the money ever recovered?

Hunter: No. I mean, Charlie knew the way America worked. He was like, “Look, I don’t give a shit what happened. I just want the money back if I can get it.” But I don’t think he ever got it. And I remember being downstairs, before you go up to see the judge the following morning, and I had no shades on, I looked terrible because I’d been lying on benches all night. And the guards were discussing the gig! They didn’t recognize me because I didn’t have my shades! And the sergeant came up to me and said, “Plead guilty, because if you plead innocent then you’ve gotta come back next Monday. And if you plead guilty, it’s like $35 and you’re out of here.” And we couldn’t come back because we were on tour. So I’m standing there, and the judge wouldn’t even look at me when he said, “How do you plead?” So I said, “Guilty,” and fortunately I saw the sergeant go up and whisper in his ear, and the judge went “Thirty five bucks,” and that was it. I was outta there, and we played that night.

Paste: How many pairs of sunglasses do you have now? And how do you update them from year to year? Or do you? And is the one brand you rely on?

Hunter: Yeah, yeah—there’s a particular one. I forget the name of it now. Hold on. It’s Cazal. That’s what I’ve always used, and I don’t know how many pairs I’ve got—I’ve got a few, maybe five or six. Something like that.

Paste: What’s the weirdest pair of sunglasses you’ve to rely on in a pinch? Like, “Uh-oh—it’s showtime! I guess these Daffy Duck shades will have to do!”

Hunter: Oh, I don’t know. I just remember this one time. Most of the time when I sing, I’ve got my eyes shut, you know? But I opened my eyes my eyes this one night and one lens had disappeared. Half the building had burst out laughing!

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