For a man in his eighties, Ian Hunter has enjoyed a remarkably productive streak in recent years. The legendary rocker—who rose to fame in the ’70s as the frontman of Mott the Hoople before embarking on a solo career marked by hits like “Cleveland Rocks” and “All of the Good Ones Are Taken”—has, at 83, comfortably settled into his role as an elder statesman of rock.
But as Hunter tells The Daily Beast below, that doesn’t mean he’s done making new music with his impressively stacked Rolodex of friends. He spent the pandemic writing and recording two new albums, the first of which, Defiance, Part 1, was released on Friday. It features Ringo Starr, Todd Rundgren, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, Mike Campbell, Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thornton, members of Stone Temple Pilots, and the late Taylor Hawkins and Jeff Beck. Part 2, which features even more special guests and which Hunter is currently putting the finishing touches on, will follow soon.
It’s certainly a remarkable amount of music for an octogenarian, and fans of Mott the Hoople and Hunter’s solo work won’t be disappointed, as the guests are hardly stunt-casting; each one is there to provide a solid backing to one of the most unique voices of the Golden Age of rock ’n’ roll.
Below, Hunter recalls the legendary Mott the Hoople tour of the U.S. in 1972 that led to what’s considered the first (and probably best) rock star memoir, Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star; his collaborations with everyone from Billy Bob Thornton and Johnny Depp to the late Jeff Beck and Taylor Hawkins; and how both serendipity and necessity inspired the making of Defiance.
We were supposed to do this when the reissue of Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star came out a couple years ago, when you were going to do some shows here in New York. But then your tinnitus flared up and you canceled those, just before the pandemic struck. So, first of all, how are you and how’s your hearing?
Well, still got the tinnitus. But apart from that, I’m OK.
Well, you’ve worked with Mick Ralphs, during Mott, plus Mick Ronson and Earl Slick, in the years after that, and most recently Mark Bosch in your Rant Band. Those are all guys who are known to play pretty loud. So there’s no getting around it, I guess. [Laughter.]
Oh, yeah, I’ve certainly had a lot of great guitar players in my life.
Yeah, you’ve had a blessing in that regard, haven’t you? But I’m curious, because Bowie had a real magic for finding the right foils. Mike Garson told me once that he felt like David was a really great casting director. He knew the right person for the part. Do you think you have an ear or an eye for that?
I don’t know. I know I can only work with guitarists. Steve Holley got me back to playing, because I stopped for a couple years, but I realized pretty quickly I can’t work off a drummer. It’s got to be a guitar player. So Steve took me down to this gig and that’s how I met Andy York, who has been another great foil for me.
Well, as I said, I was eager to talk to you around the time of the rerelease of Diary. I originally read that book in my high school library, so I have a soft spot for it. It was the first of its kind, but also, if you had told me that you were writing about the end of your career, I would’ve believed it. It read like an ending to me. A valedictory, in a way. And yet, you’ve had several careers since.
You’re right, yeah. It wasn’t intentional, though. I was a fan, basically. I was a fan, and I got as far as bass playing, and I thought that was going to be it, you know. And somehow, I wound up in Mott.
It’s the granddaddy of the rock star memoir. Now, everybody has written one, but nobody was doing it back then. And the “diary” thing is a misnomer. I mean, it is that; it is a travel log, to a certain degree, but there’s so many little tales in it. Every chapter feels like an episode of a Netflix series. Talk to me a little about how it came to pass.
I’d just gotten married. So the social aspect of things was out the window. [Laughter.] And I thought, “Well, what am I going to do?” Because there was a lot of time hanging about, in airports, hotel rooms, doing six-week tours with a couple of weeks off in between, like we did. And I just thought, “I’ve got to do something to keep me sane.” And that was it. Plus, I have a lousy memory, so it really was so I would remember. It was my first time coming over to the States. That was a big deal, in those days, to get on a plane. And then when I got back to London, there was a DJ on Radio London who had a book deal but he was behind on his deadline. So, I said, “Well, I’ve got this diary, if you’d want to have a look at it.” So, he had a look at it and, apparently, he edited it, which I didn’t know, and his publisher took it. And that’s how it started. And now it’s with Omnibus [Press], and I’ve just signed for another three years, so it’s still going.
It’s the book that won’t die. I think the version I have is original, because I probably read it in the early ’80s. But it was incredibly hard to find here in the States back then.
That’s how I met Johnny Depp, through the book.
Right, because he did the foreword of the new edition.
Yeah. Ross Halfin, the photographer, said Johnny wanted to meet, and he sent me a photo of Johnny with the book and I said, “Fine.” [Laughter.] But he turned out to be great. And through Johnny, I got to know Jeff Beck.
So like your new album, which we’ll get to in a minute, the book was sort of a happy accident. You didn’t set out intending to write a book. You were just trying to occupy your time while you were on the road.
Yeah. It was a diary. It was literally a diary. And that’s how I still think of it, to be honest with you. It was called Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, but I was going to call it Rock and Roll Sweepstakes. But the publisher said, “That won’t sell. It’s got to say ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,’” which I basically was. Nearly, but not quite. But they put it out like that, and because of the quaintness, I suppose, it still sells. It’s quaint now, if you know what I mean. Like, “Oh, that’s how it was back in the ’70s.”
And it’s such a moment in time, and there’s so many people that you were crossing paths with who are now so significant. I think for anyone who’s even a casual fan of that era—setting aside that it was this whole moment for Mott the Hoople—it’s just so enlightening. I know for me, it gave me a window that felt authentic. It felt real.
Everyone wants to know what went on backstage. When I was a kid, I used to go and see the old vaudeville acts, and I always wondered, “What it’s like backstage? What it’s like in the dressing rooms?” It fascinated me. And that’s what that book is, really. It’s a look behind the scenes. And it’s not quite as glamorous as people think.
Let’s talk about the new album, Defiance, Part 1. First of all, it’s on Sun Records, which, as an old school rock ’n’ roll fan, being a part of that legacy has to be cool. How did that come about, and what does it mean to you, as a first-generation rock fan?
Well, the Rant band played the City Winery in 2019, and after one of the shows, Def Leppard’s manager, Mike Kobayashi, said he wanted to manage me. It all started out from there.
He had a relationship with the new iteration of Sun?
Yeah, I believe through one of his partners. There were a couple of other labels interested, mind you, but you know, you see that label, with “Memphis, Tennessee” and your name on it, and all I could think of was being 18, when Sun Records meant Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, all these amazing people that were on that label. I thought, “I’ve got to be on that label, just for the label alone.
And it’s cool that this particular project is on Sun Records, because it has all these artists who have a very real connection in their influences to Sun. Mike Campbell, Jeff Beck, Ringo… did they know it was a Sun project, or was it just sort of this lockdown thing that came about because everybody was sitting around?
It was a lockdown thing. It came together because of COVID, yeah. I mean, nobody had anything to do. Originally, I was going to do a Rant album. But when COVID hit and nobody in the band had home studios or anything like that, Andy York figured out how to do some demos in my basement. He came out with a computer and a little keyboard, and we made these demos in my basement. And actually, those turned out to be the tracks. And then, because guys like Mike Campbell and Slash have their own studios, my manager was just sending [the tracks] out there to whoever we thought of, and a lot of those people sent them back. First Slash, then Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and it just carried on from there. I was completely gobsmacked. Because they weren’t all people I knew. I’d met Mike Campbell, but many, many years ago. Taylor Hawkins I’d met, and Todd Rundgren I’d worked with. I knew Johnny Depp, and Johnny knew Jeff Beck, and that’s how it just kept on multiplying. All of a sudden, through Ross Halfin, Billy Bob Thornton sent a track. I didn’t know he had a band! [Laughter.] I thought, you know, “great movie star.”
And you gave him a duet, no less.
One thing I knew, from the ’70s, all these people, they’re sitting around, they’ve got studios. So it was just a matter of sending tracks out there and seeing who responded. I mean, Taylor Hawkins had two studios. And Taylor wanted to do everything! He wanted to do both albums. He wanted to do the lot. In the end, he did about seven, and then COVID lifted a bit, so the Foo Fighters started going out again, playing live.
“Taylor [Hawkins] wanted to do everything! He wanted to do both albums. He wanted to do the lot.”
And none of the songs were songs you had laying about. You wrote these at the beginning of the lockdown, didn’t you? This was all fresh material.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think “Defiance” was the first one. I was playing guitar, I remember, and then I went over on the piano, and I was on a roll. You know how it is. You go for years with nothing and then all of a sudden, the wall opens and stuff’s coming at you. I got lucky. I think I wrote about 21 songs.
Good for you. Good lord.
I mean, what else was I going to do, you know? [Laughter.]
Did you find yourself trying hard not to be affected by the lockdown as a subject? Or did you find that what was going on around you was creeping in?
No, I thought the opposite. I thought, “People are pissed off enough. Why write about that?” What I was deliberately trying to do, in fact, was write the equivalent of the Mott album, a complete record and it’s an up record.
As you mentioned, Taylor Hawkins is on the record. And we talked about Jeff Beck being on the record. Both of those losses were shocking. You were in the middle of wrapping this project up, I imagine, when both of those losses happened. How did that feel and what does that mean to you to have them on this record?
Chills, in both cases. I mean, what are you going to do? I wasn’t that close. There’s nothing much you can say. Jeff was Mick Ronson’s idol, you know. And Taylor, I said to Steve Holley, who played with me for years and played with McCartney, “Taylor’s my favorite drummer.” So, both of them, it’s a very strange feeling. Especially because Taylor was 50 years old.
And did you know Jeff at all from back in the day, or had you just crossed paths a little?
No, I didn’t know him at all. It was Johnny Depp—I’m sorry to keep on name-dropping. Anyway, Ross Halfin said, “Do you want to go out with Johnny and Jeff Beck?” We went out in England and we had a great time hanging about for four hours, and that was the only time I met Jeff. John was working with him and said, “We’ll do a couple if you fancy it.” And it was the last track Jeff ever played on.
Well, what happens now? With the tinnitus and all, will you be able to play? Will you be able to showcase this record or tour?
I really don’t know. It’s difficult. My main concern is finishing Part 2. Because there’s two parts to this record, and I’m still waiting on stuff from various people. The main thing is to do that. But I don’t know. I really don’t know. There’s different ways of doing it. People are doing Q&As now. Maybe I’ll do some acoustic shows. I don’t think I could do a full-scale rock ’n’ roll show. So you’ll just have to wait and see!