British rockers Mott the Hoople had a somewhat confounding career arc. Best known to pop radio listeners in the U.S. for the 1972 David Bowie-produced All the Young Dudes -- their only Billboard Top 40 hit -- the group was around for a few years on both sides of that radio staple.
Early on, they meandered trying to find their sound, ping-ponging between jacked-up covers, semi-aimless but excitingly enervating jams, and even acoustic sounds, before putting it all together on Brain Capers in late 1971. But few noticed; it was their first LP to miss the U.K. charts entirely, and the band split up. One who did notice was Bowie, who convinced the group to reunite and record Dudes, an album which sanded down most of Mott the Hoople's rougher edges and finally brought them success (despite the Bowie tinny-sounding AM radio recording method ... but that's another story). Once they did get famous things collapsed in a few short years; according to the group's official timeline, guitarist Mick Ralphs stuck around for another album before decamping to form Bad Company, and frontman Ian Hunter lasted for one studio album beyond that.
Then things get messy. The official timeline completely ignores a pair of later albums, billed as simply "Mott." Upon release, these albums didn't set the world on fire; today they still tend to get slagged on by music writers, and consequently have been ignored by many Mott the Hoople fans. The final album, Shouting and Pointing, was the only Mott album to not chart at all in either the U.S. or U.K. Following that disappointment, the band completely changed their name, to British Lions. A representative example of the modern critic's take on Shouting and Pointing comes from All Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who calls it a real-life Spinal Tap moment and "one of the true nadirs of '70s rock." Ouch.
Let me be a dissenting voice to that opinion.
Shouting and Pointing is a truly fine glammy rock record by a group who sound like they're having fun -- something that at times felt lacking on the Hunter-led discs, despite the quality of much of the music. Mott the Hoople's founding rhythm section of drummer Dale Griffin and bassist Overend Watts were still around from the early days, along with mid-period addition Morgan Fisher on keys. New-ish lead guitarist Ray Major and singer Nigel Benjamin came on board for the first album as Mott, Drive On. The band undeniably is different without Ian Hunter's distinctive, raspy vocals, and the sort of grandiose melancholy of his songwriting. (That also means the tendency for the band to occasionally go grandiosely over the cliff and extend tracks out into jam-band land is gone -- a plus to this listener.)
More so than Hunter's vocal sound and attitude, Mott is just a different beast because it's now Watts and company in charge of writing the songs. The humorous edge that was always lurking in the Hunter-led band is intact and even amped up in the Mott era, which is probably what makes Erlewine mention Spinal Tap. And, I must say, what the heck is wrong with being Spinal Tap, anyway? Mott was clearly in on the rock 'n roll joke on Shouting and Pointing. With Benjamin's high-pitched and less raspy lead vocals, Mott comes across as a sort of bizarre mash-up of Sparks and early AC/DC on the harder-edged tracks.
Ultimately, I wonder what would have happened if the "Mott"-era lineup had changed their name immediately rather than trying to maintain momentum by using the shortened band name. Would these two albums have been considered scrappy achievements by some underdogs, rather than crappy bummers by a rhythm section in over their heads and trying to stretch out their time in the spotlight? Oh well. It's all in the past now. The original five members on Mott the Hoople's debut album reunited in 2009 and the again in 2013, which is pretty darn cool. Maybe Watts and Griffin can convince Hunter to sing something off Shouting and Pointing. (Columbia PC 34236, 1976)