The story goes that Mott The Hoople, who by 1971 had released a pair of albums that were overlooked and underwhelming, were about to be dropped by their record company if the label didn’t see some sales results. Most bands would approach their third album with an increased awareness of having to make that leap towards financial independence.
From the sounds of it, Brain Capers doesn’t put too much consideration into giving their record company—or their own bank accounts—a much-needed lift. Instead, it is a middle finger to anyone projecting higher expectations, and they do it with fuck-all rock arrangements and Ian Hunter‘s burgeoning growth as a songwriter.
It should come as no surprise that the record ultimately did nothing to fatten their wallets, but it sure sounds like those that were listening—specifically one David Bowie—used Brain Capers as their own model of excellence. The album remains such an incredible document that once you’ve stumbled on to it, you’ll wonder how you could have overlooked it for so long.
It starts with quite possibly one of the best song titles ever, “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” a number so rollicking that Mott just stokes a rhythmic fire for a half minute before they actually get around to playing the song. “How long before you realize what you missed? / How long ‘fore we get out and may get pissed?” Shame on you, Hunter sneers, for missing the boat the first time around, but rest assured, once you do discover it, you’ll wish you’d gotten on board sooner. And if the band gets dropped, Hunter and company would merely go out and get drunk to celebrate.
“Santa Claus” ends with so much energy that Mott drummer Dale “Buffin” Griffin begins to accidently hit the drumsticks together during the end drum rolls. Such technical mistakes don’t stop him from finishing out his task, letting out a defiant “Whooo!!” at the end.
Producer Guy Stevens pays a large part in this lack of discipline. His bizarre antics were well documented with his work on The Clash‘s London Calling, so it should come as no surprise that his unstable approach was already in full-force nearly a decade before during the Brain Capers sessions. While generally supportive of his aberrant methods, the band pleaded for a few do-overs but were only met with Stevens’ “Right! That’s it! Next one…” The album was completed in five days.
The brevity doesn’t stop the album from containing a pair of certifiable epics, “Second Love” and “The Journey.” The latter originates from a bridge many people used to jump to their death. Hunter uses the tragedy to create one of the most stunning choruses you’ve never heard: “Well I guess he lost a little bit on the journey / For his mind was split by little things that didn’t fit on the way.”
Even during these moments of sensitivity, Mott loses none of the fire. This means that the songs where things are paced quicker, the band destroys. By the end, Mott is so full of piss, vinegar and wine that they’re threatening you with “I swear to you, before we’re through / You’re going to feel our every blow / We’re not bleeding you…we’re feeding you / But you’re all too fucking slow!”
It’s true, and the initial indifference is bewildering after you’ve heard how great this album is. It has all of the makings of a classic, and it’s arranged in such a way that you’ll question why it hasn’t become one of those albums that you’re positively sick of today.
Again, David Bowie took such an active interest in this album that he even submitted the demo of “Suffragette City” for consideration. The band declined, feeling that their own material was of equal caliber to the young man who was just beginning to create an alter ego known as “Ziggy Stardust.” They were right: their material was as good as his, but there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Mott’s catalog other than the generous hit that Bowie bestowed on them later.
Not only will you understand why Bowie gave the band a second chance with “All The Young Dudes” eighteen months later (he had to: the arrangements and phrasing of his early ’70s material is suspiciously similar to Mott’s), you get the idea that much of punk rock’s own bile was created during the five-days it took to create Brain Capers.
And since it’s a vital predecessor to both of those critical pieces of rock history, its shameful that Brain Capers hasn’t reached the mythical proportions that it’s rightfully owed.
Video: Mott The Hoople – “Midnight Lady” (GTK, Australia, 1971)
Video: Mott The Hoople – “The Moon Upstairs” (Paris, 1971)