It’s 1972, Britain has just joined the European Union, the Watergate scandal has hit the front page, and Mott The Hoople are on the verge of disbanding. Having formed just three years earlier in 1969, the group had achieved little of note. Although they’d garnered a reputation for being an astonishing live act, the group had failed to make much of an impact on the charts. Their two previous albums had been entirely unsuccessful, commercially speaking. What’s more, the band were having issues with their record label, which seemed concerned that the band had no clear trajectory. Mott The Hoople decided that the best thing to do would be to call it quits.
Then David Bowie walked in.
In 1972, Bowie was still a relatively unknown singer. But for Mott The Hoople, he represented an opportunity. The story goes that the band’s bassist, Overend Watts approached Bowie and asked if he had any gigs going, fearing that he’d be out of a job if Hoople did indeed decide to split. Bowie didn’t offer him a job but had seen the band live and was a big fan of their raucous shows: “Don’t do anything, I’ll work something out, you mustn’t break up,” Bowie said.
Staying true to his word, Bowie sat down to write a song that would save the band from oblivion. Of the writing process, Bowie said: “I literally wrote it within an hour or so of hearing their breakup was imminent. They were a fair little band, and I thought, ‘This will be an interesting thing to do, let’s see if I can write them a song and keep them together.” And that’s what he did.
But first, Bowie needed to know if the track was any good. He first played the song to Pete Watts in the home of his manager. Watts recalled that Bowie played him ‘All The Young Dudes’: “On a 12-string acoustic,” he said. “You could tell straight away it was a great song; he’d got the chorus words, but he hadn’t got all the verse words.” But the song quickly developed, and Bowie soon decided to play it to the full band. Vocalist Ian Hunter remembers: “The first thing I knew is I could sing it because I’m not that universal as a singer. And second, there was no doubt about it; it was a great song.”
However, even with a great song, Mott The Hoople still faced a problem: how to record it. Having alienated their label, they needed to find another way of getting into the recording studio. So whilst their manager did everything he could to get Mott The Hoople out of their record deal with Island Records, the band headed over to Olympic Studios in London under cover of darkness for a sneaky midnight recording session.
Bowie and the band were up against it. There wasn’t time to rehearse before recording. Bowie played the song once, and the band played it back to him; that’s as far as it went. Bowie then laid down a guide vocal so that Hunter could follow the melody with a bit more ease. It obviously helped, and the vocal tracks were completed in under two hours. Meanwhile, guitarist Mick Ralphs wasted no time and used the session to come up with the distorted guitar lick which introduces the track.
However, when the band returned to the studio the following night, Bowie seemed to be deep in thought. Hunter remembers how Bowie “felt the song was flagging toward the end,” he said, adding: “That nothing was happening. 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. He was annoying me and I ended up pouring beer over him.” The anecdote inspired Bowie, and he ended up using it as an ad lib towards the end of the track.
Feeling re-energised, Bowie then came up with the bizarre idea of putting the band in the studio toilet. It was here that the claps which feature in the chorus were recorded.
Despite the difficulties the band faced in getting it recorded, ‘All The Young Dudes’ changed everything for Mott The Hoople, just as Bowie had intended. It became a hit, and Bowie even decided that he’d like to produce the rest of Mott The Hoople’s album. Bowie’s talents as a songwriter truly were the miracle Mott The Hoople had been looking for.