Music Friday, April 29th Words by: Mark Bowen

A life in rock 'n' roll: Mott The Hoople guitarist Ariel Bender talks six-inch heels and Kanye West royalties

Music Friday, April 29th

A life in rock 'n' roll: Mott The Hoople guitarist Ariel Bender talks six-inch heels and Kanye West royalties

I can hardly believe it as he says he's going to pick up his guitar and put the phone down. Luther Grosvenor, better known by the alias Ariel Bender, is going to play a track just for me.

He hasn’t performed to an audience for eight years and not only is he happy to play me a new composition, the new tune happens to be a tribute to recently departed Mott the Hoople drummer Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin. 

Luther asks what I think of it, and I can only describe it as evocative. It’s a beautiful piece, touching and tender. Sure to bring a tear to the eye when Luther premiers it at the Mott The Hoople Convention, organised by the Mott Road Crew and Hereford Rocks, at the Richmond Club in Hereford on June  11.

"It’s called The Last Two Miles,” Luther reveals.

"On Buff’s funeral leaflet, that everybody gets, on the back it said this is Buffin’s last two miles so I thought that was a good title.

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Mott played a run of shows on Broadway: 'Every day we would be taken there in a big white Cadillac with union jacks on'. Photo supplied by Phil John.

"It’s a little tune I’ve done that I think is quite sentimental. You're not going to dedicate a song like Johnny B Goode to somebody that has just died."

The recent deaths of beloved rock gods has caused Luther to pause for thought and reflect on his career.

“I am nearly 70 now," he said.

"With Prince and Bowie going, it makes you think. The reaper isn't knocking on my door yet and we don’t want him to.

"When I look back 50 years and think we did all those things when we were 20, we were young lads. Recording all these songs at 19 or 20 years of age it is incredible - and we are still going.

"Ian is, what, 77? [He will be in June - ed]. It’s amazing he’s still going."

Luther is what they used to call ‘a character’, much to my relief. Having seen plenty of his exuberant performances from the early 70s during his Mott years on YouTube I would have been disappointed if he'd revealed a smaller-than-life personality.

I shouldn't have worried. Discussions about size form a significant part of our conversation (I deliberately use the word conversation rather than interview).

He asks me how tall I am. And revels in the fact that I’m 5'4.

"You would make the perfect man for Kylie Minogue," he tells me.

I should be so lucky.

Luther enjoys it just as much when I tell him how I injured my shoulder starting a petrol lawn mower. "You want to get an electric one like mine," he said, before warning of the risk of mowing over long unwieldly wires.

The lead guitarist has had an amazing career in music and he knows it. After being a member of psychedelic rock band Spooky Tooth, he joined Stealers Wheel replacing Gerry Rafferty, before getting the call to replace Mick Ralphs in Mott the Hoople. After Mott he formed Widowmaker, then the Ariel Bender Band.

I ask him how he came to join Mott, possibly Herefordshire’s greatest musical gift to the world, and how he acquired the splendid stage name, Ariel Bender.

At times he talks of his alter-ego as another person.

"If I had a pound for every time someone asked me about the name I would be a millionaire,” he says.

"Mott had done a gig in Germany with Lynsey de Paul and I don’t think it was a good gig for them. They came out of the show and I think Mick (Ralphs) was a bit pissed off and started bending these car aerials. Lynsey de Paul said ‘look, Aerial Bender - what a great name for a guitar player.’

"When I finished with Stealers Wheel I was out of work until I got a phone call from Ian (Hunter, lead singer with Mott). He asked me to meet him in a pub in north London. They had a list of guitar players they were looking at (to replace Mick) and they'd decided on me.

"Ian said 'we have got a problem here'. I said 'what problem could we possibly have we’ve just gone through the terms and everything'.

"He said 'you have got a great name', I said 'yeah Luther James Grosvenor is a really great name, I will never change it.'

"Ian said 'if you join us will you change your name to Ariel Bender?'

"I just said ‘call me Ariel’."

Luther replaced Mick, a lead guitarist with a big reputation about to get even bigger with the band Bad Company. Were Mick's shoes big ones to fill?

"When you replace anybody it can go two ways," said Luther. "People can think you are not as good as him or they think you are better than him.

"To be honest it didn't bother me. When you are a fan of whatever band it is very difficult to take the place of the original guy.

"On the ‘74 tour people got to know Ariel Bender more than Mick. I took Mick’s place and the opinion was 50% in my favour and 50% the other way.

"I knew people would prefer Mick but as time went on they started to prefer Ariel Bender."

One of the reasons for Ariel’s popularity was on the on-stage relationship he built with the band’s lead singer Ian Hunter. There’s a YouTube clip where the pair are miming in front of an audience at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago in the summer of 1973. Just after Ariel finishes his solo, Ian gives him a shove as if to say ‘you’re time in the spotlight is over.’ I ask Luther if it was for real or part of the act.

"Ariel Bender was more flamboyant than Mick and during a show Ian and I had a wonderful thing on stage where we would play each other like puppets," said Luther.

"Ian and I had a little thing going. In interviews he'd always say 'Ariel always wants to be centre stage'. It was all part of what we did and there was never anything unpleasant backstage.”

Mott the Hoople 1974

Luther (second left) during his Mott The Hoople days. Morgan Fisher (front) will play a set with Luther at the convention.

Luther is looking forward to playing the Mott Convention but understandably, having not played in public in a while, he's a little anxious too.

"I'm doing a little set with Mick Bolton [former Mott keyboard player]. Mick will do his own set, then I'm coming on to do mine with a guitar player behind me.

"I am using the bass player and drummer from [tribute band] Wott the Hoople. We have only got a couple of hours of rehearsal so some of the endings might be a bit rough but, if it is, it won’t matter. We are just trying to give the audience a little taste of what we are doing today.

"I play every day but doing this gig in Hereford is something to worry about. When you go in front of an audience your nerves kick in a bit.

"I'll come on and play the instrumental I wrote for Buff. And I will say to the audience if I balls up you can all come round to my flat and hear me play it properly."

In recent times Luther found some much-deserved fortune thanks to Jay Z and Kanye West sampling the Spooky Tooth track Sunshine Help Me on their track No Church In The Wild.

“We made a fortune for a 30-second clip - and we are still getting paid for it,” said Luther, gratefully.

 

Such windfalls must have softened one of the near-misses Luther has dealt with - near-misses that would have sunk less resilient characters.

After Brian Jones left the Rolling Stones, Luther was on a shortlist to replace him. Mick Taylor was the man who eventually got the call, but Luther remains grateful he was even considered.

"I have never made a big deal out of it, but I was in the running for the Stones. I was advised by my management, Island Records, not to do it.

"I think there were three or four guitarists they were looking at and I was one of them. It would have been like joining The Beatles – what an honour to be in the running."

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Luther on stage during Mott's heyday. Photo supplied by Phil John.

I ask Luther if he missed the platform heals and kipper collars that were so prevalent in the glam rock era.

"When I came from Spooky Tooth we were a good looking well-dressed band. When I joined Mott it was quite alien to me - the high heels and the shoulder pads.

"But that's what I signed up to do. You can't turn around and say 'I just want to play in my jeans and a t-shirt'.

"I couldn't walk around Sainsbury’s with six-inch heels like we used to. It was uncomfortable.

"But what I will always say to Mott is ‘thank you for giving me the job’. It was fantastic."

He says Mott’s 73/74 tour was the commercial highlight of his career. The band, remarkably for a rock outfit, played on Broadway.

“We were panicking because we thought ‘what will it be like if we turn up and there are two people in the audience?" said Luther.

"But every night was choc-a-bloc. We could not believe it. Every day we would be taken there in a big white Cadillac with union jacks on. Those days will never come back, but we were there and it was real.

"I used to work in a sausage factory in Evesham but my dream came true because I had in it in my heart. I said this is what I want to do and I did it. It only came true because I wanted it to."

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Click here to buy tickets for the convention. Profits from the Mott convention will be donated to the Alzheimer's Society. 

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