British rock icon Ian Hunter has been an influential and acclaimed singer/songwriter for over four decades. First debuting in 1969 as the frontman for rock band Mott the Hoople, he was the singer and main songwriter for the group until they broke up in 1974. Since then, Hunter has been a successful solo artist who has released 14 studio albums, plus several live albums and compilations.
Hunter is known for writing and/or performing a number of classic songs which have had a major impact on a mainstream, worldwide audience. He came to the forefront when he sang Mott the Hoople’s hit songs “All The Young Dudes” (written by David Bowie) and “All The Way From Memphis” (written by Hunter), which remain rock standards to this day. Notably, Mott the Hoople was a cutting-edge rock band in the early 1970s that later influenced other great bands such as The Clash and Oasis.
After he left Mott the Hoople, Hunter launched his solo career and had immediate success with his album, titled Ian Hunter. This album contained his classic song “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” which was later covered by the American rock band Great White, and became a Top 5 pop hit in 1989. This album also displayed Hunter’s creative partnership with renowned guitarist Mick Ronson. The duo went on to collaborate on several more albums, and they toured together as the Hunter/Ronson Band.
It was in 1979 that Hunter released his fourth solo album, You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, which contained two classic songs: “Cleveland Rocks” and “Ships.” The high-energy tune “Cleveland Rocks” has become an anthem for the city of Cleveland, and is used as a victory song for the city’s sports teams. It was also featured as the theme song for the hit ABC-TV series The Drew Carey Show, which aired from 1995 to 2004. The album’s other classic song is the ballad “Ships,” which was covered by Barry Manilow and became a Top 10 hit in 1979.
Currently, Hunter remains very active in the studio and on tour. In September (2016), he released his latest studio album Fingers Crossed, which has been well received by music critics and fans. The album includes his song “Dandy,” which is his tribute to David Bowie. Other key cuts are “That’s When The Trouble Starts,” “Ghosts” and “White House.”
In addition, his label Proper Records has recently released a massive, 30-disc boxed set called Stranded in Reality. This anthology package contains all of the studio and live albums Hunter has released as a solo artist, and contains many rare and previously unreleased recordings and concert films. Stranded in Reality was compiled and curated by Campbell Devine, who is also the author of the book, All the Young Dudes: Mott the Hoople & Ian Hunter. The boxed set Stranded in Reality is a strictly limited edition of 2,500 units, for sale to worldwide customers through www.propermusic.com
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Ian Hunter. But before we get started, here are the discographies for the studio albums released by Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter. Also below is a list of other artists who have recorded songs written by Hunter.
Studio albums by Mott the Hoople: Mott the Hoople (1969), Mad Shadows (1969), Wildlife (1971), Brain Capers (1971), All the Young Dudes (1972), Mott (1973), and The Hoople (1974).
Studio albums by Ian Hunter: Ian Hunter (1975), All American Alien Boy (1976), Overnight Angels (1977), You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979), Short Back ‘n’ Sides (1980), All of the Good Ones Are Taken (1983), YUI Orta (1990), Dirty Laundry (1995), The Artful Dodger (1996), Rant (2001), Shrunken Heads (2007), Man Overboard (2009), When I’m President (2012), and Fingers Crossed (2016).
Here’s a list of other artists who have recorded songs written by Hunter: Def Leppard, the Pointer Sisters, Bonnie Tyler, Blue Oyster Cult, The Presidents of the United States of America, Mick Ronson, the Dead Boys, Brian May (of Queen), Rick Derringer, Shaun Cassidy, Alejandro Escovedo, Maria McKee, Ellen Foley and Karla DeVito.
Here is our interview with Ian Hunter:
DK: You’ve recently had two big releases, your new album Fingers Crossed, and the 30-disc anthology boxed set, Stranded In Reality. Can you tell me about these projects?
Ian Hunter: Fingers Crossed is the latest album. I took about three years from the last one, which was called When I’m President. I had a lot to do with Fingers Crossed, but I didn’t really have much to do with the boxed set. It was more to do with a guy called Campbell Devine who’s a fan of mine, and he got together with Proper (Records), which is my European label. It sort of dawned on me over a period of 3 ½ years, that they were going to do this. And I [became involved] about two-thirds of the way through, because they needed stuff that they didn’t have.
I had been off the road completely in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—I’d recorded stuff then on my own, and so Campbell came over and we started going through all of that stuff, which was interesting. I hadn’t listened to it in 25 years. It didn’t seem like it had anything to do with me, and that was good because I could [revisit the music with] no baggage with these tracks. Therefore, you could sit there and go, “I don’t like it or I do like it.”
DK: On your Fingers Crossed album, you have a new song called “Dandy,” which I read is about David Bowie. What inspired you to write this song, and what does David Bowie mean to you?
Hunter: Well you know, David changed things around a little bit, and that’s what it would mean to me. I hadn’t seen him in God knows how many years. I was writing a song called “Lady” and this was last January (2016). And then I found out that he had passed, and “Lady” turned into “Dandy.” It’s written from the point of view of a fan going to see him in 1971, prior to Ziggy (Stardust), you know….very Technicolor.
DK: Is there anything more you’d like to talk about with your album Fingers Crossed, before we discuss your great older songs?
Hunter: Fingers Crossed, to me, is a [culmination] of the last four or five records. It’s a really good record from my perspective. I write from the point of view of personal quality control—that’s how I do it. And this album is kind of consistent throughout. So I’m very happy with this one—I’m very happy with the people who played on it and the other people who were involved with it, like the engineering and stuff like that.
Ian Hunter performs his classic “All The Way From Memphis” live in 2004
with Brian May (of Queen) and Joe Elliott (of Def Leppard).
DK: Now going back to your Mott the Hoople days, when David Bowie offered his song “All The Young Dudes” to the band, was Mott thinking about breaking up?
Hunter: We had broken up. Island Records had us doing gas tanks (playing a depressing concert) in Switzerland. The whole thing was just a waste of time. So we split up and went back to England. Then Pete Watts, our bass player, rang up David (Bowie), because he knew David was [putting together] a band. And Pete said, “I can play bass—do you fancy anyone?” As it turned out, David was a fan of Mott, so he decided to try and keep us together, which he did.
DK: Wow…the power of one song to put a whole band back together.
Hunter: Well yeah, it was a special song. When I heard it, it was like, “Why are you giving this away? This is stupid.” But then I heard [David’s] version, and he’d done it wrong, and somehow we took it up a key. There was a lot of alto sax on his version—there was none on ours. It was more harmonies and stuff like that. And [when we recorded our version] he kind of perked up and got really into it. It was just two evenings at Olympic Studio in Barnes (West London), and that was it. We just did two tracks: “Dudes” and the B side.
DK: Is it true that David Bowie also offered you his song, “Suffragette City”?
DK: But you just chose “All The Young Dudes”?
Hunter: Well, “Suffragette” was good but it wasn’t that good. It was a good rock song…we had good rock songs. We needed something special. We had a couple stiffs on English radio, and if you have a couple of stiffs, then radio is virtually closed down. You need something to get back. We thought it was going to be something like “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks’ song. We thought it was going to be a rock tune, but it turned out to be “Dudes.”
DK: One of my favorite songs of yours is “All The Way From Memphis.” How did you write this song?
Hunter: This song took awhile (to write). I wrote the piano part first. We recorded it because it just sounded good—there were a lot of riffs in it and [we liked] the chord sequences. It just sounded good, but there was no actual melody or lyric (yet). And I had that [demo] by my bed for at least a couple months, just trying to make sense out of it lyrically and melodically. And in the end…it came. Sometimes, the ideal song comes quickly. I wrote “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and it all came together in 10 hours…that’s the way you want them to come. But they all don’t come like that. With “Memphis,” the music was done, and I was sitting there trying to get the hang of the song (he laughs).
Here’s the video of Mott the Hoople’s hit “All The Young Dudes,” which
was written by David Bowie.
Usually, it’s just an idea. I mean, if you can get the idea, you’re all right.
DK: Another favorite song from the Mott album is “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” which has such a unique lyric concept and perspective. How did you come up with the idea for this song?
Hunter: It’s [about] if one person grows up in a completely functional family, and then meets another person who comes up in a completely dysfunctional family. That’s really what it’s all about.
DK: Before we move on to your solo career, are there any other Mott the Hoople songs which are your particular favorites?
Hunter: No…I mean they’re all the same to me. Every one of them [whether they’re] good, bad or indifferent, they’re all my babies.
DK: When you started your solo career, I really liked your first album (Ian Hunter). Can you tell me about making this album, and writing your song “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”?
Hunter: For the first solo album, I was in America and Mick (Ronson) came over. He said, “You should make a record now.” We had just finished with Mott, and I’d been in the hospital. I said, “I’m not really sure that’s a good idea.” He said, “No, no, we should do it now, while you’re emotional” (laughs). So he went back to England and formed a band, then I went back a couple weeks later and changed the drummer, and then we went into the studio. [But] the stuff we went in with, we didn’t come out with. We were in there six weeks, and we came out with a completely different record. “Once Bitten” and a lot of those songs were written while we were in there, you know, which is a scary thing to do. It’s not something I like doing, but that’s how it worked on that particular record.
DK: You said that you wrote “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” in 10 hours. Did you start writing this song with the cool guitar riff in the intro?
Hunter: How it started, was [Ronson] had a place, around the back of Albert Hall in London. He had a little drum machine, and it was in the days when drum machines were in their infancy. And this thing had [buttons for] rumba, samba…rock, snare, and I just pressed them all. So there were about seven notes. I pressed them all and this [drum rhythm] was coming back at me. So that’s how that started. I used open G tuning (on guitar) and sort of rolled along with it.
DK: Your fourth album was You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic. It seemed that everything came together on that album—you had great songs, Mick Ronson, and the E Street Band playing on it. How did it all come together?
Hunter: It’s kind of like the same way things came together for the Fingers Crossed album. For Schizophrenic it was a new studio, there was a new engineer Bob Clearmountain, who later went on to fame (mixing Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and many other artists). Bob had just worked with Chic and he was fed up with doing disco. But he had great drum sounds. And we were in the Power Station (studio), which was then kind of a disco place.
Here’s a video of Ian Hunter’s hit, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.”
I had started in London, with people like Glen (Matlock) from the Sex Pistols…people like that…punk music. It didn’t sound too good. At the time, my manager Steve Popovich said, “the E Streeters will [play on the album] if you want to come back (to the U.S.) and do it here.” So we did it with the E Streeters (Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, Gary Tallent) and Mick (Ronson) was with me. And we went into the Power Station and we wanted a bit of eerieness here and there, you know, so John Cale (of the band Velvet Underground) came in. It was all done pretty quick. The budget was small; it was the first record I did with Chrysalis (Records).
DK: The Schizophrenic album had two of your biggest songs: “Cleveland Rocks” and “Ships.” With “Cleveland Rocks,” how did you decide to write a song about Cleveland?
Hunter: What it was, when we first came [to the U.S.], you had those talk shows like Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson, and I noticed that they’re always taking the mickey out (making fun) of Cleveland. If there was a town to be taking the mickey out of, it was Cleveland. And I’m like, “That’s not right. Because we didn’t get discovered in L.A., we didn’t get discovered in New York. We got discovered in Cleveland, as did a lot of people.” The same with (David) Bowie…Cleveland was way ahead. You’d play Cleveland and [the venue] would be full. Everywhere else, it would be like 150 people staring at you, saying “What is that?” And so that’s why I wrote “Cleveland Rocks.”
DK: How did “Cleveland Rocks” become the theme song for The Drew Carey Show?
Hunter: They just did it. As far as I know, [the producers] sent me a video of the intro of the show. I just took one look at it, and I thought “that’s it then,” because the video was so good.
DK: Also on the Schizophrenic album was the big ballad, ‘Ships,” which became a hit for Barry Manilow. Was it (CEO) Clive Davis at Arista Records who played it for Barry?
Hunter: Yeah, it was Clive. Clive would play songs in the background when he talks to artists. I think [Barry’s] father had just died or something, and this was playing in the background when he went to meet with Clive. And Barry picked up on it. He rang me up, and said “Can you change the bridges?” I said, no” (laughs). He said, “My audience is not quite sophisticated enough to get the bridges.” But they did.
DK: You had a great, creative relationship with Mick Ronson. Later on after he died, you wrote the song “Michael Picasso” about him. Besides the fact that he was a great guitar player, what made you and Mick such a good team?
Ian Hunter performs his song “Cleveland Rocks” live in 2004.
Hunter: I think we were both from working class backgrounds. He’d been with David (Bowie), and with the best will in the world, David was not like your normal working class kid. He’d always striven to get out of the working class situation, as we all did. But nothing like what David did—David was almost alien with it. So Mick and I naturally hung out anyway during the early years. And then when David does his retirement thing, Mick did a couple records of his own. But he didn’t feel [comfortable]…he doesn’t like monitors, he likes to stay by his amp. And he couldn’t do that and sing at the same time. So Mick went out and did some gigs as a nine-piece (band), and he hated it, because (manager) Tony DeFries was trying to make him the next thing after David. So I guess I must have caught him at the right time. It was just before the end of Mott. Mott had about one European tour to go, and I said, “Mick, why don’t you join Mott?” and he did. And we did the European tour, and then I split (Mott) and he split a week later. Then we hung out (for a long time)—our kids grew up together. Then it went on until his death (in 1993).
DK: Over the years, you recorded many more solo albums. Can you tell me about your later solo work, and which albums and songs were your favorites?
Hunter: I can’t really differentiate. They were all good for that period. I guess my album Overnight Angels was perhaps more political. Honestly, it’s like I said before, it’s quality control. I’ve got a quality control level, and they ain’t gonna go below that. Whether that’s in competition with anybody else or not, I don’t have the slightest idea. But they pass muster, you know. So I’m not in the business of convincing people…I just write them.
DK: You’ve also released several live albums over the years. I like your live album Strings Attached (recorded in 2002), which featured an orchestra playing with you live.
Hunter: I really enjoyed doing the Strings Attached album. That was with Universal Scandinavia. They just said, “This is what we want to do.” As they were telling me what they wanted to do, I had this abacus in the back of my head—I was calculating how much it would cost (laughs). I said, “This is all very well, but it’s unrealistic.” They said, “No no, we want to do this.” And so it was great…they did it, and it was first class. I stayed in the Nobel Suite why we were doing this (laughs).
DK: I really liked hearing the full string sound with your songs.
Hunter: Yeah it was great…it really was. It was most enjoyable. There was a guy, Kjetil Bjerkestrand—he’s an arranger over there, and a lot of intros to those songs, they’re not mine, they’re his. He’s the unsung hero of that little adventure.