David Bowie was on the cusp of superstardom in the spring of 1972 when he decided to donate a Top 40 song. He’d already released two U.K. Top 10 singles in the spring of 1972, including the chart-topping “Space Oddity.” Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory had been a platinum-selling No. 3 smash in his home country. More importantly, he was just completing the career-defining The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which would finally break Bowie in the States.
That’s a moment when few would bother worrying about anyone else’s fortunes, but Bowie suddenly became very concerned about the ongoing struggles of Mott the Hoople.
“Who else at that stage in his career would start giving away time and songs to other people?” Mott’s frontman Ian Hunter marveled in a 2018 talk with The Guardian. “How did he find the time for that? He was extremely ambitious but still found time to do other things as well, which I think is quite remarkable.”
Frankly, Mott the Hoople desperately needed the help. They’d issued a quartet of non-charting singles dating back to 1969, remaining little more than cult favorites three albums into their career.
“We were a great live band back then, but couldn’t get any chart success,” Mott the Hoople keyboardist Verden Allen told Wales Online in 2016. “Bands like Free had done it, so had Traffic – but we couldn’t get a hit and we started to sense our record label Island was getting a bit impatient with us.”
“I remember getting there and thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’” Allen said. “The sound was awful, the crowd was awful and I couldn’t help wishing they’d put some bloody gas inside it to either [encourage us] a little bit or put us out of our misery once and for all.”
Listen to David Bowie’s Version of ‘All the Young Dudes’
Looking on in horror, Bowie decided to offer them “Suffragette City,” a track he’d already completed for the soon-to-be-released Ziggy Stardust. The guys in Mott needed the boost, but they weren’t sure the song was right for them.
“We received this tape at Island Studios,” Mott bassist Pete Overend Watts subsequently recalled. “It was a seven-and-a-half-inch spool in a box, and it said something like, ‘This may be of use to you. Give me a ring. Love, David.’”
The Zurich debacle was more than Watts could take. He ended up calling back Bowie, but not about “Suffragette City.” Instead, he asked for a job. Mott the Hoople, Watts informed Bowie, would be splitting at the end of their Rock and Roll Circus tour of the U.K.
This stopped Bowie in his tracks. He immediately began work on “All the Young Dudes,” the handout single that would rescue Mott the Hoople.
“It was the first song I’ve written for somebody else,” Bowie told Mojo in 2009. “They were at the point of breaking up as a band and I told them not to because I thought they were a very good band. I told them I’d write them a hit single – and I did. It was easy.”
Mott the Hoople then enjoyed an exclusive run-through of the song with its glammed-up author. “He liked our image and sent us a telegram inviting us to his agent’s office in London,” Allen told Wales Online. “He had on a blue catsuit and played ‘Dudes’ to us on a blue acoustic guitar. We’d never met him before, but he just had this unmistakable star quality about him.”
“All the Young Dudes,” they quickly realized, had the potential to be a big hit. “He’s strumming it on his guitar and I’m thinking, ‘He wants to give us that? He must be crazy!’” drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin later told Rolling Stone. “You couldn’t fail to see it was a great song.”
More importantly, it was a better fit for Hunter’s vocal approach than Bowie’s earlier donation. “We said, ‘Bloody hell, this is a hit – this is what we’ve been looking for for years,’ Mott guitarist Mick Ralphs said in 2013. “It really saved our bacon.”
They took Bowie out for a badly needed meal to celebrate. “He looked very thin, like he’d not eaten in a few days,” Allen told Wales Online. “I remember him putting his ‘Starman’ single on the jukebox and him telling me, ‘Your song will be on there before too long.’”
Listen to Mott the Hoople’s ‘All the Young Dudes’
Bowie manager Tony Defries booked time on May 14, 1972, in Studio 2 at Olympic Studios in London, where “Bowie played it to us, and we played it back to him,” Griffin recalled. Bowie recorded a guide vocal, a rhythm backing and some sax during the completely unrehearsed midnight session, overseen by coproducer Mick Ronson with technical assistance from engineer Keith Harwood.
The guys in Mott the Hoople were absorbing every fine detail. “We’d always got a murky, dirty sound without much clarity,” Hunter told the Lowell Sun in 1974. “We didn’t know how to do it properly. We had wanted to be a classy band. When David took over, the sound got clear. We learned a lot of things about arranging and production. It was a technical change.”
Ralphs added some bent-note brilliance, and within two hours Mott the Hoople had the basis of a hit. What they didn’t have, Bowie argued, was a proper finish. Everyone was still puzzling over what to do as they gathered the next evening.
“He felt the song was flagging toward the end — that nothing was happening,” Hunter later remembered. “He was at the point of deciding not to use it as a single when I remembered an encounter I’d had with a heckler during a recent gig at the Rainbow [in London]. He was annoying me and I ended up pouring beer over him.”
Hunter recreated his rant as a shouted ad-lib, beginning with a line from an old radio show. Bowie encouraged them to gather in a bathroom to add some echoed handclaps, and “All the Young Dudes” was ready for its July 1972 release. The single soared to No. 3 in the U.K., while finally helping Mott the Hoople to a U.S. hit.
That’s when their real problems began: “People thought we were David’s proteges,” Allen told Wales Online. “No one realized we’d been gigging around for a few years before that.” Hunter assumed a more central role in trying to match that singles success, but they never did. Allen would depart before sessions began for Mott. He was followed by Mick Ralphs, who went on to cofound Bad Company with Paul Rodgers.
“We were left puzzling over which direction the band should take, and Ian was taking things more and more in the direction he wanted them to go,” Allen added. “It’s a ridiculous thing to do when you think about it, but I’d finally found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and I realized I didn’t want it anymore.”
By 1974, Hunter had shut down the entire operation, though he didn’t place the blame on Mott the Hoople’s out-of-left-field hit. “You can say [“All the Young Dudes”] might have had an adverse effect on the band’s image,” Hunter told Rolling Stone, “but without it, there wouldn’t have been a band – simple as that.”
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