Blender - October 2004
The Greatest Songs Ever! All The Young Dudes
David Bowie saved Mott the Hoople from extinction with this glam-rock anthem.
By Johnny Black
The Story of Mott the Hoople's greatest success starts on March 26, 1972, with the band breaking up.
"We had been signed to Island Records since 1969," lead singer Ian Hunter recalls. "And in 1972, we found ourselves playing in a gas tank [station] in Switzerland that had been converted into a club. I decided that if this was rock and roll, they could keep it."
After a massive argument, the band split up and returned to London, where they all planned to go their separate ways. First to strike out on his own was Mott the Hoople bassist Pete Overend Watts. Upon hearing that David Bowie was forming a new backing band, Watts called him to ask for an audition, only to find Bowie horrified by the idea of Mott the Hoople splitting up. As Watts remembers it, Bowie countered with an offer, saying, "Look, I've got a song I've half-written. Let me ring you back in an hour or two. I have to speak to my manager."
Mott keyboardist Verden Allen says he cherishes the memory of their subsequent meeting with Bowie at his management office on London's New Bond Street. "He sat on the floor with an acoustic guitar and played 'All the Young Dudes' for us," Allen recalls. "All he had was one verse and the chorus, but you could tell right away it was a fantastic song."
Although they had made the decision to split, Mott were obliged to complete what they imagined would be their final tour, the Rock & Roll Circus. On the last day of that tour, Allen says, "Bowie sent us a telegram to say the song was finished and he had booked a studio."
The only catch was that the band's relationship with Island Records had reached an all-time low. "We'd told the owner, Chris Blackwell, that we were going to split up, and he threatened that we'd never work again," Allen says.
So while Bowie's manager, Tony DeFries, schemed to get Mott out of their Island deal, the band entered London's Olympic Studios in mid-May for a recording session held in complete secrecy in the dead of night.
There was no time to rehearse or plan anything. Mott's drummer, Dale Griffin, explains, "To record it, [Bowie] played it to us, and we played it back to him." The basic track was laid down in just two hours, but in that first brief session, Mott guitarist Mick Ralphs came up with the vibrant opening lick that would become one of the glam-rock anthem's most distinctive features.
Returning to the studio the following night, Hunter recalls, Bowie seemed depressed. "He felt the song was flagging toward the end - that nothing was happening," Hunter says. "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 all over him." Hunter recreated the incident for them, and introduced it into the song as the improvised rap that begins, "Hey, you down there, you with the glasses."
Hunter's twist pumped the necessary energy into the closing moments of the song - and restored Bowie's faith. But there still was another hoop for the band to jump through. "DeFries got us out of our Island contract and moved us to Columbia Records," Hunter says, "but when their lawyers heard the line 'Stealing clothes from Marks and Sparks,' they freaked."
Marks & Sparks is the popular nickname for the British chain Marks & Spencer, and Columbia's lawyers realized the U.K.'s only national pop station, BBC Radio 1, would refuse to play any song that could be seen as an advertisement. "By then I was in New York," Hunter says, "so I had to fly back to London overnight, re-sing 'Marks and Sparks' as 'unlocked cars' and then fly straight back to America again."
Entering the U.K. singles chart in August 1972, "All the Young Dudes" soared all the way up to number 3, reinvigorating Mott and initiating a string of hits. In America, where the song was released in October 1972, it peaked at a less-impressive number 37, but thanks to such androgyny-themed lyrics as "Now Lucy looks sweet 'cause he dresses like a queen," it was quickly embraced as an anthem of the gay counterculture. "We had problems getting airplay in America because of the gay connotations," Hunter says. "It got played on the coasts, but hardly at all in the South and the Bible Belt."
Even after the song rocketed them to international stardom, Hunter didn't know Bowie had intended to use the song on his futuristic concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Years passed before Bowie revealed that the line "All the young dudes carry the news" refers to a point in the story when, with no electricity left in the world, Ziggy uses songs to spread the news.
" 'All the Young Dudes' is a song about this news," Bowie explained. "It's not a hymn to the youth, as people thought. It is completely the opposite."
However devotees chose to understand it, the song provided inspiration for several generations of rockers. Covered by artists as diverse as the Damned, Travis and Jill Sobule, its celebrity admirers also include Queen's Brian May and Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, who has said he wants the song played at his funeral.
Hunter says one of his proudest moments was when he teamed with Bowie to sing the song at the Freddie Mercury Tribute at Wembley Stadium on April 20, 1992. "When we played it at the Queen tribute," Hunter says, "it was obvious 'All the Young Dudes' had spoken for a rising generation - and it's still a bloody great song."