“All The Young Dudes” is both much more and much less than the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the beautiful rock monster known as Mott the Hoople. More than the tip because their career hinged on it. The single not only revived their sagging spirits (and commercial prospects) at a crucial juncture, but set them on a new course. Pre-Dudes Mott and post-Dudes Mott are not the same beast. And the song has stuck around. They had a number of other considerable hits, but “Dudes” is the only Mott recording that’s remained in the popular consciousness, rarely failing to inspire drunken singalongs, even today. It’s an undeniably effective anthem.

But “Dudes” is less than the tip of the iceberg as well, and not just because David Bowie wrote and produced it. Sure, singer Ian Hunter lent the song his sinister Midlands Dylan sneer, and Mick Ralphs nailed the riff in the way that only he could (at least pre-Bad Company). Otherwise, though, the song gives very little indication of what made Mott so special, and one of the best bands of the 70s. That is, unless you count it as the ultimate expression of the ironies at the heart of the group, in which case it becomes the perfect statement.

Indeed, thematically, the genius of Mott lay in their ability to marry irony to honesty, swagger to vulnerability, sarcasm to earnestness. It was more than the power of a clever juxtaposition, they captured the conflict. They may have dressed like a glam-rock band, but Hunter especially couldn’t have been less interested in fantasy for fantasy’s sake. In fact, few rock stars before or since have documented the vacuousness of show business with more acuity and insight than Ian Hunter. He even wrote a book about it – and he did so while glitzed up beyond recognition. You almost get the sense that he embraced the glam rock thing for a lark, as if the platform boots simply gave him a better vantage point from which to observe the absurdity of whole enterprise. Indeed, most of his greatest songs deal with the hollowness and defeat, even/especially in the midst of success, the sum of which served, ironically, to mythologize rather than deflate the band. In fact, some might say that Hunter first found his voice on the epic “The Journey” off Brain Capers, in which he repeatedly laments “I guess I lost just a little bit on the journey.” He had tapped into the sense of loss and exhaustion that he would mine for the rest of Mott’s career. This dude was all Cross, no Glory. Take “Hymn for the Dudes,” where he sings:

I got an idea
Go tell the superstar
All his hairs are turning grey
Star-spangled fear
As all the people disappear
The limelight fades away
Cos if you think you are a star
For so long they’ll come from near and far
But you’ll forget just who you are (yes you will)

Then there’s 1973′s self-referential masterpiece “Ballad of Mott the Hoople” which kicks off with the confession, “I changed my name in search of fame/ To find the Midas touch/ Oh I wish I’d never wanted then/ What I want now twice as much.” It goes on to detail the emotional cost that each band member paid for their role in the “loser’s game” of rock n roll. Evidently, seeing through the rock star schtick wasn’t enough to stop Hunter and the band from taking the sleaze to its limit. Or maybe they were just resigned to living in the grip of forces beyond their control, both willing participants and helpless captives at the same time. It’s compelling stuff, to say the least, and ample proof that there was room in the hard rock idiom for some serious self-consciousness.

Ian Hunter seemed to have no illusions about what he was doing, about the utter hypocrisy (or beauty) of using a Maltese-cross shaped guitar to decry the hypocrisy of the pop music game. Or delivering sobering songs about aging and death in the most raucous, youthful, technicolor way possible, and laughing all the way to the bank. Hunter was a true subversive, in other words, and like all such subversives, his music contained a strong moral undercurrent – though he would probably be the last to admit it. Much to his credit, though, Hunter was too sly to indulge in preachy moralism (or lose his sense of humor). He always reserved his most biting judgments for himself. Even when he was excoriating the record business on the stunning “Marionette” he refused to plead innocence:

A traitor, deceiver, a groovy disbeliever I thought
A puppet was a thing cheap, taught, no way
Creator, conceiver, romantic love receiver, caught
Who are you? “The nerve”
I wanna get out, I wanna get out I wanna get out

He wanna play chords to the chick on the street
He wanna play words to a world that don’t speak
He wanna play people who play hide n’ seek when they don’t talk
He wanna play a riff to the man with the wires
He wanna play lead but his hand’s getting tired
He just wanna play but don’t know how to say, stop

And who else would write a “love song” that begins with the too-close-to-home admission: “I scream at you for sharing/ And I curse you just for caring/ I hate the clothes you’re wearing, they’re so pretty.” That introduction belongs to “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” about as brilliant a relationship song as exists, a sort of quasi-Freudian version of Peter’s cry in Luke 5:8, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” Hunter despises himself too much to allow someone to love him – and is trying, ironically (again), to come to terms with that fact. Or is he casting himself as the problem to win some sympathy? Or perhaps making a half-hearted attempt to justify his self-centeredness? And what about how he invokes the mother and father and brothers? Is he blaming her family or envious of them? And why is the song so upbeat? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

On their final album, 1974′s exquisite The Hoople, something very interesting happened, something I doubt the band or even Ian was aware of. The penultimate track, “Through The Looking Glass,” found Hunter in defeated mode again. Spiritually hungover, you might even say, from all the excess and attention and cognitive dissonance of the Top of the Pops hamster wheel. But this time the self-criticism turned into outright self-loathing: “I’m feelin’ ugly/ I’m feelin low/ Mornin’ mirror/ You ain’t no rose/ And did I mean it/ or did I lie/ or did I dream it/ Oh Christ, I’m tired… You’re my voyeur/ See every line/… And you’re my diary/ Yeah, the bitter truth/ Unexpurgated/ A mis-spent youth/ Oh mirror, I wish you’d lose your head.” To underscore the desperation, the arrangement then explodes into an overwhelming, dizzying blast of strings, choirs and horns. The song finally closes with the ringing of a funereal church bell – the singer has been put out of his misery. It’s the darkest and most suffocated entry in a catalog full of them. On a well-circulated outtake from the session, you can even hear Hunter yelling hateful obscenities at himself.

Fortunately, that’s not where the album ends. Instead, a piercing guitar riff cuts the silence, a piano pounds, and then: “Baby if you just say you care/ I’d follow you most anywhere/ Roll away the stone, roll away the stone/ And in the darkest night/ I’ll keep you safe and alright/ Roll away the stone, roll away the stone.” The resurrection song to end all resurrection songs! Who cares if it’s all dressed up in sexual innuendo – it wouldn’t be Mott if there weren’t some twist. Three minutes of pure pop exuberance later and we have one of the only true Eastertide classics that pop music has produced. Partly because it follows such an authentic Good Friday and partly because it plain rocks.

As if that weren’t enough, the boys followed up “Roll Away The Stone” with what would be their final single, the grandly autobiographical “Saturday Gigs,” which just so happened to double as an Ascension song par excellence. In one last stroke of poetic irony, the band apparently had no intention of it being their last recording, despite the fact that it ends with an extended Hey Jude-like chorus of “Good-Bye, Good-Bye,” before slowly floating off into the ether. Meaning, it couldn’t have been a more perfect farewell. Which just proves, once and for all, that God ain’t jive – and He loves Mott the Hoople. Rest in peace, indeed: