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45 Years Ago: The Tangled Web of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and ‘All the Young Dudes’

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When it comes to David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and “All the Young Dudes,” it can get a little bit difficult to separate fact from fiction. It’s not easy to locate the true story amid foggy memories, the business of rock ’n’ roll and the romance of a tall tale, all clad in high-heeled shoes.

The legend goes like this: After years of touring and recording together, the members of the British band Mott the Hoople decide to break up after an awful show in Zürich, Switzerland, in March 1972. They return to England, where bassist Pete Overend Watts wastes no time in trying to land another gig as part of Bowie’s new backing band. When Bowie learns that Mott are packing it in, he writes “All the Young Dudes” on the spot for the band to convince them to stay together. Mott the Hoople comply, score a giant hit with the song and all is right in the glam-rock world.

Now, there’s some truth in there. Mott were constantly struggling to keep it together, watching record after record fail to break through to the mainstream. Bowie indeed wrote “All the Young Dudes.” Mott the Hoople recorded the song, resulting in a No. 3 U.K. and No. 37 U.S. hit single. But some of the other details seem better suited for “The Ballad of Mott the Hoople” than the history books.

“We did split up in 1972, in Switzerland,” singer Ian Hunter recalled in 2008 to Uncut, referencing the Zürich concert. “We were at the bottom of the ladder playing in a converted gas tank and we didn’t see the point anymore.”

Yet this doesn’t quite make sense. According to records, Mott played a March 24 concert in Zürich, followed by a March 25 show in Bern, also in Switzerland, and then went to Germany on the 29th. The band played an April 1 show back in England before embarking on a near-daily run of dates in April and May in the U.K. Members indicated that, even though Mott broke up, they still adhered to their already scheduled dates. Okay, but that still leaves confusion as to why Watts would try to join up with Bowie if he was already contracted to play with Mott. Besides, Bowie already had a bassist (Trevor Bolder) and also had U.K. dates set for April and May.

So, already, something’s off-kilter with this version of events. Could it be a result of Mott’s battles with the band’s then-record label, Island Records? Perhaps owner Chris Blackwell had grown weary of hearing from the frustrated band, which had been on the verge of splitting more than a couple times. “We’d told the owner, Chris Blackwell, that we were going to split up, and he threatened that we’d never work again,” keyboardist Verden Allen told Blender in 2004.

Is it possible that, by stepping in, Bowie didn’t keep Mott the Hoople together so much as gave them an opportunity outside the reach of Island and Blackwell? Regardless of the reason, sometime that spring, Bowie stepped in and offered the band the opportunity to record “Suffragette City,” sending them a demo. “Bowie offered us ‘Suffragette City’ first, which I liked, but I knew it wouldn’t get on radio,” Hunter remembered. “Radio was closed to us, so I knew we needed something special. I thought it would be something like ‘You Really Got Me’ that was more how we were.”

With “Suffragette” rejected, Bowie offered another tune. This time, he played it for Mott the Hoople live, sitting cross-legged while strumming a blue acoustic guitar in his agent’s office. The song was “All the Young Dudes.” The band agreed that it would be a great song to record.

Bowie, always the self-mythologizer, began to start rumors about how he created the song. One story went that he invented it in the moment at the agent’s place. Another tale, which Bowie was still telling in the 21st century, suggested that it had been inspired by Mott’s potential breakup.

“I literally wrote that within an hour or so of reading an article in one of the music rags that their breakup was imminent,” Bowie told Mojo in 2002. “I thought they were a fair little band, and I almost thought, ‘This will be an interesting thing to do, let’s see if I can write this song and keep them together.’ It sounds terribly modest now, but you go through that when you’re young.”

But this version of events somewhat contradicts other stories Bowie had told about “All the Young Dudes”; specifically, instances in which he talked about the song’s connection to the epic he was envisioning for his next record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. “All the Young Dudes” was apparently written about Ziggy and the events that take place in the concept album.

“Ziggy was in a rock ‘n’ roll band, and the kids no longer want rock ‘n’ roll,” Bowie explained to Rolling Stone in 1974. “There’s no electricity to play it. Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this, and there is terrible news. ‘All the Young Dudes’ is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.”

Listen to David Bowie’s Version of ‘All the Young Dudes’

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Either way, Bowie offered the song, along with his producing abilities on the single and the band’s next album. Mott the Hoople accepted. Bowie also got his manager, Tony Defries, to represent the quintet, and helped orchestrate a deal with Columbia Records. The transition between Island and Columbia remains controversial, in terms of who owns the rights to Mott’s 1973 LP, also titled All the Young Dudes, which was the band’s biggest hit to date.

It seems that it could be this business-related reason that the exact date of Bowie’s offer of “All the Young Dudes” appears elusive. Multiple sources list the date as May 26, 1972 – yet that seems late, given that Mott’s terrible Zürich show had happened way back in March and that Bowie reportedly worked on the song in between presenting it on acoustic guitar and lining up a recording session at London’s Olympic Studios. Also, recording for the single (released July 28) and album (released Sept.  8) supposedly began in mid-May. So maybe the sessions for “All the Young Dudes” began on May 26 – or maybe that date was created to preserve a separation between Mott’s Island era and their new tenure at Columbia.

So were Mott the Hoople actually going to break up in 1972 (like they would eventually)? Did Bowie write “Dudes” for the band or for Ziggy Stardust (he’d record his own version too)? Does Island have any rightful claim over Mott’s breakthrough LP (as well as its monster single)? It all remains unclear, which is ironic for a song about carrying the news.

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