“When people say I should write a book about my life,” said Morgan Fisher, “I always say, when you’re writing about your life, you’re not actually living.” The life of the brilliant composer, photographer, musician and producer, who played keyboards for the British glam-rock band Mott the Hoople in the mid-’70s, would, indeed, make a fascinating book.
Fisher is presently focused on the band’s first U.S. tour in 45 years. Now called Mott the Hoople ’74, he and his genre-defying colleagues will perform on April 10 at New York’s Beacon Theatre, and are back in the city already, pictured on three huge billboards in Times Square.
Fisher admires Mott frontman Ian Hunter’s recent solo albums, as well as his work with the band. “This is England’s Bob Dylan — why isn’t anyone saying that?” he asked. “This is bringing me the same kind of thrill that I experience when I listen to Bob. The music is introspective, very real, very human.”
Mott the Hoople ’74 will feature the core members of the 1974 lineup, including guitarist Ariel Bender (aka Luther Grosvenor) in addition to Hunter and Fisher. The Beacon show will be the last of eight in the United States.
The three will be joined by five musicians who have played with Hunter as the Rant Band for many years: Hoboken’s James Mastro of the Bongos on guitar, saxophone and mandolin; Steve Holley, who played with Paul McCartney and Wings from 1978 to 1981, on drums and backing vocals; Mark Bosch on guitar; Paul Page on bass; and Dennis DiBrizzi on keyboards and backing vocals.
This talented ensemble, which did some reunion shows in Europe last year, will bring their high-energy rock ‘n’ roll cool to the U.S. to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Mott the Hoople’s U.S. tour, and the music from the band’s 1974 albums, The Hoople and Mott the Hoople Live. The band also will play some hits not featured on these albums. The Wallflowers, led by Jakob Dylan, will open.
The band will follow the U.S. tour with concerts in the U.K. in late April.
In a phone interview from his home in Japan, Fisher enthusiastically shared his experiences touring with Mott the Hoople, beginning in 1973. In addition, he recounted his vibrant and varied musical, photographic and personal journey since the late 1960s, beginning with his thrilling moments when, at age 16 after classes clad in his school uniform, he watched Jimi Hendrix play in local pubs and clubs in London.
“This was my light on the road to Damascus,” he said. “I saw him 10 times in small clubs or pubs in London and those first early gigs were mind-blowing. I never got into drugs because who needs drugs when you can see that?”
He said that David Bowie played London’s Marquee Club in 1966, too, and that this environment provided him with a fertile path to develop his early interest in inventive pop/rock music. Just seven years later, he would welcome Bowie and Mick Jagger when they visited Mott the Hoople at one of the band’s concerts at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.
A LIVE BREAKTHROUGH
After struggling to stay intact as a band for many years, Mott the Hoople received recognition as a confident, passionate and intoxicating concert attraction when they became the first rock group to play on Broadway, at the Uris Theatre (now known as the Gershwin Theatre), in 1974. They recorded a set there that became side one of their extraordinary Live album; the other side was recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973.
The Uris concerts were part of the group’s 1974 tour of theaters and arenas across the country in support of the band’s The Hoople album, which features classics “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Roll Away the Stone.” The thunderous rhythm section, powerful guitars and gender-fluid costumes — along with Hunter’s commanding swagger and the interplay between the musicians — created loyal, zealous fans.
“The piano, shrouded in darkness, started pumping the boogie intro of ‘Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ …the whole stage at the Uris Theatre suddenly lit up, with two overdriven guitars and the primal, galloping rhythm section. It’s a miracle that the back wall of the Uris Theatre didn’t blow straight out onto 52nd Street,” said Chris Semal, a writer and musician who has been a Mott the Hoople fanatic since the 1970s.
Fisher said: “’Mott was a very intense time with a lot of hard work, plus a hell of a lot of sex, drink and rock ’n’ roll, and my first experience of the U.S.A., so it stands out.”
The band is “high quality rock with no aggression — the group doesn’t have the nastiness of some of the metal bands and it’s been fantastic to be part of it. Never really rocked till I joined Mott … Like Hendrix, Mott the Hoople is another example of the total joy of rock — power with no aggression, like a thunderstorm. It’s not aggressive when you hear it. It’s magnificent. It’s not like a snarling dog. It’s like a wind storm. You can’t deny it, it’s natural.”
Best known for the song “All the Young Dudes,” written by David Bowie and released as a single and the title track of the band’s 1972 album, Mott the Hoople have influenced many artists, including Queen, R.E.M., Morrissey, Def Leppard, The Clash and Mötley Crüe. Fisher’s musical versatility complemented Hunter and co-founders Dale “Buffin” Griffin (drums), Pete Overend Watts (bass) and Mick Ralphs (guitar). The band’s name was inspired by the 1966 Willard Manus novel with that title.
Queen made its U.S. debut as Mott the Hoople’s opening act in 1974 and benefited from absorbing the band’s groundbreaking vibe onstage. Brian May of Queen has attributed his band’s theatrical style of rocking, in part, to Mott the Hoople.
Fisher joined Queen in 1982 as keyboardist for the band’s Hot Space Tour. “In Queen,” he said, “on the day of the show we had to be perfect and the same for every show — just by the book, except for Freddie (Mercury), he was the wild card. It didn’t really suit me —more like a Broadway show than a wild rock band … Queen was actually one of the least creative parts, as I was hired to play exactly what they had already played on the records, and nothing more …There was not much camaraderie to be had, which by that age (32) I needed more than debauchery.”
BACK IN THE STATES
Regarding his upcoming gigs, Fisher said: “I’m focused on the tour, getting my keyboard jacket made properly. Don’t need much rehearsal — it’s about muscle memory, 40 years later. It’s all in there and I just need to reactivate it and see if I can take any new angles, bring in something that wasn’t there before.
“We will have much better sound than we had in those days, partly because of technology but also, we are gonna have eight guys onstage. That’s two more than we ever had. And sax, which we never had onstage. And another guitarist.
“When you make an album, you always have extra guitars, so what’s wrong with having an extra guitarist onstage? We will sound closer to the album than we ever have before.
“We did five days of rehearsal last year (before the reunion shows), and on the last day we did all songs in order of how we were gonna do them on stage. After lunch, I asked Ian if we should do it again and he said the best five words ever. ‘Nah, I like it loose.’ ”
This respect for spontaneity and creative collaboration serves as the basis for “what makes Mott the Hoople what it is.” For more Hunter insights, Fisher suggested reading Hunter’s 1974 book, “Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.”
“It just got reissued by Omnibus and it’s a fine read, one of the best on rock from the inside,” Fisher said.
“The chemistry with Mott was great. It’s the most fun I’ve had in any band ever … it was only two years but it stands out like a shining peak in my career and I don’t mean because of money or fame, but because of fun. It’s about the creativity and camaraderie.” He speaks fondly of and looks forward to seeing Bender, who he calls “the Keith Moon of the band, but less destructive.”
“It was the same last year with the guys from the Rant Band — they have same sense of camaraderie and fun,” he said. “No conflicts! Ian picks good people and he’s had them for 15 years They know him inside and out. He couldn’t pick better.”
“Morgan is a lot of fun,” said Bosch. “He’s spontaneous, yet always musical. There’s a lot of cheeky humor in his approach and this works quite well with Ian’s lyrical and vocal panache. They really click.”
“We were thought of as a people’s band because of the way we treated fans,” said Fisher. “We’d let them invade the stage and come behind the stage into our dressing rooms. We tried to say, ‘We are doing this for you, thank you for coming.’ And the songs were human-oriented songs — not fantasies, but about real feelings.”
Hunter took his fans behind the curtain with many songs, including “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople” which is about the evolution of his band. There will be few dry eyes in the audience if Hunter sings: “Buffin lost his child-like dreams/And Mick lost his guitar/And Verden grew a line or two/And Overend’s just a rock ‘n’ roll star … Oh, but if I had my time again, you all know just what I’d do.”
Hunter allows his fans into his life through his deeply personal songs. In “Irene Wilde,” he recounts the heartbreak of unrequited love when he softly sings: ‘When I was just 16/I stood waiting for a dream at Barker Street bus station every night … Her name was Irene Wilde, she had such beauty for a child and when she started dating boys I nearly died/For I could not barely stand seeing anyone hold her hand … In my mother’s living room, I composed so many tunes/All the same, just a frame for her name/And just to say I’m gonna be somebody someday.”
The words of “Rest in Peace,” which Hunter sang at the Uris Theatre, resonate as we age and develop gratitude: “Oh, if my wheels could take another turn and if my life replaced itself again/I wouldn’t want a single thing to change/Oh, it’s been good, though it’s been strange.”
With the moves and attitude of a rocker and the heart of a soulful poet, Hunter has sustained a successful solo career since 1975, recording songs that cover a wide range of topics, including Native American experience, unequal justice, love, loss of friends, aging and the music industry. His current energy suggests that his best work is not behind him.
Hunter abruptly left the band after the ’74 tour, at the peak of the band’s success. “It was a shock when Ian left,” Fisher said, “and I thought, ‘Why couldn’t we talk about it? It was a fait accompli. At the time, we thought we were gonna be really big. I don’t know the exact reasons and maybe never will. He explained it as being exhausted — too much pressure. I walked away from my band Morgan (in 1973), so I can relate to that.
“I always wonder if we should have sat down and talked about it and taken a deep breath. But English people don’t do that … And I was still kind of the new boy. We just lived the lives of quiet desperation.’
When I asked him if he thought Mott the Hoople was an underrated band, he answered, “The Monks and the Shaggs, those cult bands, were the most underrated. We were about to go big, so I don’t know if we were underrated. I was excited about (guitarist) Mick Ronson joining us. I think we had the Madison Square Garden booked. I was a fan of Bowie and I was fascinated about where it was going to go. We were the guilty pleasure, because not everyone knew about us.”
‘ICING ON THE CAKE’
Fisher’s contributed a beautiful introduction, Bach’s ‘Prelude No. 1 in C Major,’ to “Rest in Peace” from the Live album. It’s “something I might have been playing around with at soundcheck,” he said. “I do stuff off the top of my head … I try something just for fun. I have a habit of doing that. That’s why I like live recordings: Because they capture moments that might never happen again.”
The band, he said, “had an amazing rhythm section and I’d offer icing on the cake. Nobody said no to my ideas or said, ‘That’s too complicated.’ ”
Fisher said that on “Trudi’s Song,” Hunter’s ode to this wife, the music “is mostly grand piano, which I put through a Leslie cabinet to get a swirling underwater sound. I love it! It’s one of the simplest songs the band or I have ever done. It’s a love letter — a valentine. I wanted to get the sound that enveloped you like a warm hug.”
On “Marionette,” you can hear Fisher’s contributions to the many dramatic layers of the song, and it makes me wonder if it inspired Mercury — who watched Hunter sing this song nightly from the side of the stage — to create the similarly operatic epic, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
On “Saturday Gigs,” Fisher brings his evocative addition of classical music to the introduction and synthesizer interlude. He said: “Mott the Hoople usually had great introductions, usually guitar, like the intros to ‘All the Young Dudes’ and ‘Roll Away the Stone.’ A strong guitar intro grabs you by the throat. I came up with a melody — a piano phrase at the opening and in the middle … a Bach variation, taken up to a different key and then back again in the space of eight bars.’
Reminiscing about the band’s career in “Saturday Gigs,” Hunter sang: “In ‘74, on the Broadway tour/We didn’t much like dressing up no more/Don’t wanna be hip — but thanks for a great trip … See you next time, so long for now.”
I asked Fisher if he knew the end of Mott the Hoople was near when he first heard this song. “We thought it was the end of an era,” he said. “We didn’t know it was the end of the band. We made the single with positive feelings. We were about to ascend to a higher level, so we were saying goodbye to a more down-to-earth, folky, people-friendly band … and we were gonna maybe step up to the next rank. We didn’t think it was the end.”
In those days, he said, “I was drunk as a skunk. But that’s why I really appreciate the Live album. It’s the evidence that we actually really did do good work. Now I like a couple glasses of wine, and I will be able to understand what we do on a daily basis … every night we go to eat, and I’m looking forward to people throwing around ideas.”
After Mott the Hoople shows in the ‘70s, he said, “it was party time, and we would rotate rooms. And if it was your night, there was no sleep. Aerosmith, the New York Dolls, Kiss … they came to our parties. English boys in America get on the rampage more than American boys in America. Nothing dangerous, though. Ian was 10 years older than us with two kids. He’d go back to the hotel and read a book or write a song and get up in the morning and have a swim. We were totally hung over, staggering into the coffee shop, and putting ourselves back together for 8 a.m. flights.”
After Hunter, their primary songwriter, left in ’75, the remaining members renamed themselves Mott and, later, British Lions, when they joined up with singer John Fiddler (from Medicine Head). They still had strong rhythm sections in both bands with Buffin and Watts. As Mott, they released two albums: Drive On (1975) and Shouting and Pointing (1976), which featured a song, “Career,” that describes the perils of aging in the music industry.
“I wrote the music instantly after watching the 1959 film titled ‘Career’ — inspiration strikes like lightning sometimes!” said Fisher.
As British Lions they recorded an eponymous album. The band disbanded in the late 1970s.
LIFE BEYOND MOTT
Though Fisher has sipped champagne with rock stars and toured all over the world, his journey led him “back to the garden,” where he has recaptured his artistic roots from childhood. Outside of Mott the Hoople, he enjoys “the direct expressions of musical individuality” that his present work allows.
His current music and images refer back to the first things that interested him as “a very introverted boy growing up in London. The beauty of nature glimpsed through a microscope; little creatures brought home in a jar from … solo walks to the ponds and rivers; the shimmering, Debussy-like arrangements of the crackly old French chanson records” played by his parents.
He writes fondly in his online art bio of “his grandmother’s out-of-tune piano” on which he “tinkled away bemused and fascinated from age six … the sounds of seagulls and waves on the shore at Broadstairs — the world discovered in a grain of sand.”
Fisher was a studious youngster, with an early affinity for piano and photography. Both parents were head teachers of high schools in England, so “naturally I went into rock instead.”
He trained himself by placing his record player on top of his piano and by emulating what he heard. “The technique followed after I found an emotional connection” to the music, Fisher said. “I’ve trained myself to respond, rather than react. Being in a rock band, there’s lots of stimulus to respond to, so you’ve got to be on your toes.”
By the time he was 18, Fisher was playing keyboards in The Love Affair, a British pop rock band that had a No. 1 U.K. hit in 1968, “Everlasting Love.” He played “a cool white Hammond M102 (organ) on gigs” and in the studio played piano, electric piano, harpsichord and Mellotron. In 1972, he formed the progressive rock band Morgan with singer Tim Staffell, the lead singer for the band Smile, which later became Queen.
Years later, after going through the Mott the Hoople experience and much more, he felt the need for a change of lifestyle.
“I had a party in my house that was so wild I walked away from it, checked into the Ritz Hotel, and the next morning decided that India was for me – possibly forever!,” he said. “I had been through a lot from 1968 to ’78, then got into a veggie diet and meditation … new thoughts and aims arising, and I needed new doors. I knocked on a few: India, then Belgium, and then the U.S.
“Not settled yet, I opened a large atlas one day in West Hollywood and looked all over the U.S. map and thought I’d been there, done that. Then the next page was Japan and it was almost flashing, beaming at me saying, ‘Come! Come!’ Within a week I was here (in Japan), starting from zero, and have never looked back.”
When he moved to Tokyo in 1985, he said, “I learned through osmosis … that’s how I learn anything. You immerse yourself in something that could be language or cultural differences. Learn a different world view about life, spirit, energy. I picked up music like I did the language. I see things around me here in their exotic form and they have affected what I do in my ordinary day. The way they write with an easy brush. When I move my camera, it’s almost like I am moving a brush on a piece of Japanese paper. It has a flow to it. I am surrounded by it every day and … it brings out my essence, in a way.”
Since moving to Japan, he has enjoyed sharing his images and sounds in a variety of venues, including solo live improvisational performances starting in 2003 at the Tokyo club, Superdeluxe, in a series that he called “Morgan’s Organ.” His “Morgan’s Organ at Home” series started in 2013 at his home studio, once a piano school. He also invites artists into his home for a series titled “Morgan’s Salon” to celebrate all forms of artistic expression.
Fisher explained that through “Morgan’s Salon” he tries to capture the spirit of a Paris salon in the 1920s “when music was flourishing and people would go to each other’s house and to their salon to listen.” (For more on this, visit youtube.com/user/morganfisherart/videos.)
He collaborated with Yoko Ono on his 1990 album Echoes of Lennon, a collection of Lennon’s love songs reworked as ambient music. His version of “Love” is stunning: With Ono slowly reading the lyrics and Fisher’s hypnotic sound, Fisher found his musical spark on this song.
“By slowing down the music to its extreme limit, Morgan Fisher has allowed the musical notes to float in a space the size of the universe,” said Ono of the album.
He has produced many other ambient, contemplative songs in his long, rich career. His work engages your heart, and leads you to a better place.
In our interview, he also shared his passion for “light-art” photography, which involves “spontaneous, free movement of the camera and/or light source.” (These light sources include fireworks, sunlight on water and city lights). His work has been influenced by the photograms of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, and by the abstract cinema of Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Oskar Fischinger. His photographs are gorgeous — evocative displays of color and shape, sometimes mysterious. (For more on Fisher’s art, visit morganfisherart.com.)
We discussed his collaboration with more than 50 artists on his 1980 Miniatures album: He invited musicians, poets and other creative types to provide minute-long tracks for the project. He used 51 tracks on that album and 60 on Miniatures 2, released in 2000. Contributors included Robert Fripp, Martin Chambers of The Pretenders, Andy Partridge of XTC, Robert Wyatt, psychologist R.D. Laing and Pete Seeger.
He’s created a classically based album, Inside Satie, one of the first albums he produced in Japan. He welcomed Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry to perform at “Morgan’s Salon.” He’s been a patron of punk, recording the Dead Kennedys EP Witch Trials in his studio and co-producing and playing on the Storm the Gates of Heaven album by Wayne County & the Electric Chairs. His artwork has been featured in art magazines and in international and U.S. art galleries.
He is also a TV, movie and commercial songwriter and creator of special sound effects. “The culture (in Japan) supported the quieter side of my music because people are willing to listen attentively,” he said. “Plus, the high quality of TV ads here encouraged me to write in all sort of styles — like getting paid to learn more about music.” His 2009 his album Non Mon offers a collection of his most well-known TV commercial compositions.
“I think it’s perfectly natural for musicians to have a whole range of feelings to express; it’s just that we are not always given that liberty as much as actors are,” Fisher said. “There are so many ways to express love and emotion, not only lyrically but with the sheer sound of the band … Rock music is different from the more contemplative solo music. I enjoy both, just as, say, Lennon enjoyed both ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Love.’ ”
It seems that Fisher values an emotional connection to all of his varied work. “Even the wildest rockers need hugs and tenderness – perhaps more than anything else,” he said. “Music and art are pretty good ways to share love, aren’t they?”
While he prepares to come to the States, Fisher is busy creating Mott magic in a concert preview show in “Morgan’s Salon,” performing in the rock duo Nanker’s Best, and presenting Elizaveta, a singer and performance artist who, Fisher says, has “extraordinary richness of vocal tone, with fine precision of pitch as she stacks up the harmonies by her skillful use of a looper.”
He is also working on music for a documentary about a Japanese artist who creates “huge works of art by pouring salt on a black floor” and a short film by a French director of minimal cinema. Cherry Red Records has made a new pressing of the Miniatures CD to be sold only at the Mott concerts.
Regarding the upcoming tour, Fisher said that, at first, audiences may notice the differences in the lineup, but “after a few songs, I’m hoping they will say the spirit is still alive.”
He believes that Hunter hasn’t lost his edge, voice, or strength as a songwriter. “Mott the Hoople is a great band and I’m glad to have the opportunity to help make the music come alive again,” he said. “It’s a total treat.”
For more on the band, visit mottthehoople.com/classof74.