Procol Harum

the Pale 

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Guy Stevens

(from a Mott the Hoople history)

Sam Cameron writes: this is an abridgement of the text of a history of Mott the Hoople written by Adrian Perkins to be found on his website.

Silence [the band] were going nowhere when Overend [Watts] auditioned for the job of bass-player for a new Island band called Free. He didn't get the gig, but noticed that when they played, all of Free shook their heads, which resulted in Guy Stevens (their manager) also shaking his. Overend mentioned this to Mick Ralphs, who immediately travelled up to London to see Guy, armed with a demo tape of Silence they had made a few weeks earlier.

'I was so taken aback I asked him to sit down,' recalled Guy, and he eventually agreed to audition them. The audition was to take place at a small upstairs studio, and Guy arrived a few days later to find these guys lugging a huge Hammond organ up the stairs. He decided, 'If they succeed, I don't care what they sound like – I'll sign them anyway!'

Guy Stevens was an executive with Island records, and ran the Sue label (which was a subsidiary). He was responsible for inspired band names (for example, Procol Harum which was named after his cat), and for brilliant album titles (Sticky Fingers is but one of many). His knowledge of obscure American R&B was second to none; indeed it was he who had supplied the Rolling Stones with many of their cover-versions before they finally started writing hits of their own.

In 1967 he missed out on Procol Harum's greatest success (A Whiter Shade of Pale), since he was serving a short spell in Wormwood Scrubs (a prison in west London) for a drugs-related offence. While he was there, he read a book by Willard Manus called Mott, The Hoople. He told his wife it would make a brilliant band name (because, apparently, 'it would look great on a marquee – lots of Oh's and Tee's!'), but told her to keep it a secret for now.

Gradually, Stevens was forming a vision of 'the perfect rock group'. This would be a band that would combine a Bob Dylan vocal style, the keyboard sound of Procol Harum, and the sheer power of the Stones' rhythm section. Eventually, at Mick Ralphs' insistence, he gave Silence an audition. They seemed to be the band he was looking for, but felt the singer, Stan Tippins, 'didn't look right'. Stan accepted this with good grace, and he returned to Italy to pursue his solo career ('the Sinatra of beat'). He would return in 1970 to become Mott's road manager.

Stevens then placed an advert in Melody Maker: 'Singer / pianist wanted. Must be image-conscious and hungry'. Auditions were held at a small studio in London's Soho, and they listened to some two dozen hopefuls, but none seemed suitable. Eventually, the engineer Bill Farley said 'I know a bloke...', but it took several 'phone calls to persuade Ian Hunter to come down to the audition.

Ian Hunter had had a varied career up to 1969.

In 1969, Ian was kicking his heels looking for a gig when Bill Farley called him up and told him about this band who were in the studio, saying 'They're weird, but they may like you'. Ian needed a bit of persuading, since it meant changing 'bus a couple of times, but he didn't want to spend the summer working in the factory, so he eventually travelled down to the audition.

He arrived at the audition wearing a donkey jacket, open-toed sandals, and a pair of thick black shades. He said he was 'basically a bass-player', and picked up a bass to demonstrate. It was futile. Guy then motioned him over to the piano. Ian performed Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, and Guy was ecstatic. He had found his man.

Mick Ralphs remembers it was the shades more than anything which got Ian the gig. Ian was slightly overweight at the time, and wore them 'to hide his fat face'. Guy thought they projected the perfect image, and told Ian to never take them off. Ian initially tried to rebel against this, but they have long since become his trademark, and photos of Ian without his shades are rare indeed.

With a wife and two kids to support, Ian demanded guaranteed wages (£15 a week!) which Guy accepted. Guy gave Ian some money for clothes and, realising that this was his chance, Ian went on a crash diet to improve his image. Ian was forever grateful to Guy for giving him his break – years later he said 'with Guy it was special, because if it wasn't for Guy seeing that little spark that certainly I wasn't aware of, I would still be there [in the factory] right now'.

1970 was a traumatic year for Mott. Sales of their début album had been poor, but their live success was beyond their wildest expectations. Everybody was having problems of one sort or another; Stevens was pretty much out of control, and Hunter especially was finding it difficult coming to terms with their live success.

Stevens hit on the idea of recording their second album 'live in the studio', to try to capture the live feel of a Mott gig. The result, Mad Shadows, was Mott's 'black' album, and reflected the rather dark mood of the band. Hunter soon went off the album, saying it was 'the only [Mott] album I don't have at home'. Today, he reflects 'I single-handedly ruined that album ... you can hear the guys trying to play', and becoming increasingly disillusioned with Stevens' production, Mott decided to produce the next album, Wildlife, themselves.

Mott toured Europe at the start of 1971, promoting Wildlife. But with sales remaining poor, a planned tour of the USA was postponed as Mott entered the studios again to record their fourth album. With Guy Stevens back in the producer's chair, and convinced they were about to be dropped by Island, they decided to go down with all guns blazing. Again, it was a 'live in the studio' affair, and was recorded in about four days. To get the right atmosphere, Stevens and Andy Johns (engineer) dressed as highwaymen (complete with Zorro masks and pistols) for the first two days of recording. The sessions ended with Stevens attempting to set fire to the studio, all to the dismay of Island boss Chris Blackwell.

There were various working titles for the album, AC / DC, Sticky Fingers, Brain Haulage, Bizarre Capers – eventually Buffin suggested Brain Capers. The Stones promptly snapped up the title Sticky Fingers for their album.

And Guy Stevens, the man who started it all, dropped out of sight when Mott left Island. He returned in 1980, producing the highly-acclaimed album London Calling by The Clash. Sadly, he died shortly afterwards after falling down a flight of stairs.

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